On the Principle of Specificity

There are many reasons people get involved with sports: improving physical health, relieving stress, building and strengthening social bonds.

And there are just as many reasons to get better at sports, too.

The brain generally does not appreciate stagnancy; anyone will grow bored of sitting on their thumbs too long. Failing to improve at a hobby or passion can often feel like this. Some folks simply quit when they plateau. Others train outside their sport to improve, often with mixed results.

Hitting a plateau? That’s a bummer. Working toward a goal and not achieving it? That’s a bummer, too. But these outcomes occur without a structured, principled approach to sports training.

The good news is it’s fun and motivating to continually improve your skills and abilities, both inside and outside sports—and the even better news is that we know precisely how to achieve such a result.

The principled approach is today within everyone’s reach, thanks to decades of research from top minds in sports around the world. According to them, there are a few key principles—anywhere from four to eight, depending on who you ask—that, when combined in application, produce the most effective results possible.

In this column, we tackle Specificity.

You Can Do What You Train

Specificity, as a sports training principle, is probably what you expect. To improve at something, we must train for it specifically.

Certain sports, such as basketball, require an ability to jump high. In the gym, that might mean an athlete performing jump squats and box jumps in order to boost his vertical. Hockey, on the other hand, demands a lot of lateral movement to skate fast, while soccer players require foot speed and agility to handle the pace of the game and the ball itself.

Each sport places different demands on the body.

A road cyclist isn’t going to need powerful arms to excel on their bike, but a strong aerobic capacity is necessary for success. Meanwhile, a track sprinter has little use for such endurance—sprinting legend Usain Bolt famously claimed to have never ran more than a mile in his life. This helps you know where to start in the gym.


Beyond specifying the muscles we train, we need to specify which systems we train. Power is different from strength, which is different from cardio. Recall that the human body struggles to optimize all systems at once. Therefore it is ideal to spend more time on the system our sport of choice relies on most.

It is also important to train particular ranges of motions, as well as skills, that are sport-specific. Tennis players should pay particular attention to the health and mobility of their shoulder joint, for example, and runners must ensure robust knee and ankle joints to avoid overuse injuries. A goaltender should train her hand-eye coordination; a boxer his footwork; a swimmer her breathing.

Finally, understand there will be plenty of overlap across sports (great news for those of you with a passion for more than one). Some things, such as active and mobile hips, are near-universal in importance, from golf to every martial art you could ever think to mix. And timeless compound exercises such as the Squat and Deadlift benefit every athlete under the sun.

So, no, you don’t need to make every single set and rep tailored to your sport. But ask yourself: what are those bicep curls in the squat rack for, specifically?

A version of this content was originally published in The Progress.