Training specificity & why goals matter


I get a lot of emails that sound like this:

“I need to get my 2-mile run time down”

“I’m having a hard time getting faster, without losing all of my strength”

” I’m planning on going to [selection/boot camp/OCS] and need to get better at everything!”

And I love getting these emails because all of these people have one thing in common, a specific goal.

When you have a concrete goal you can tailor your training to meet that specific goal.

This is called training specificity and can be the difference between your training helping you achieve that goal or just getting in the way.

Training Specificity (SAID)

Training specificity, or the SAID principle basically states that the human body will adapt specifically to the demands placed upon it, or Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.

This includes things like:

  • Metabolic specificity (i.e. A sprinter doesn’t need to run 10-miles in training)
  • Biomechanical specificity (i.e. Want a big squat? Squatting is always gonna be better than doing a million leg extensions)
  • Psychological specificity (i.e. mental effort and intent)
  • Testing specificity (i.e. Your PFT, which sucks as a real fitness test in my opinion but it’s what we are stuck with!)

Metabolic specificity refers to the training adaptations gain from working the different energy systems during your workout. For example, short, high-intensity sprints with long rest period (e.g. :30s on, :120s off) tax primarily the anaerobic system and should improve your anaerobic metabolism (Ability to go hard, for short periods of time). Conversely, longer bouts of submaximal exercise (e.g. 30min run at easy to moderate effort) will tax your aerobic energy systems the most, leading to you being able to perform better at lower-intensity, longer duration efforts.

As a military athlete, I’m a firm believer that you need to be good at taxing both of these systems equally… But I’m also only interested in creating the maximal adaptation with the minimal investment of time/energy. Which is where our high-intensity interval training comes into play.

Researchers have shown (and I’ve beaten the topic to death), that high-intensity work bouts combined with brief rest intervals can maximally tax both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems simultaneously.

So, when it comes to aerobic/endurance training here at Strategic Athlete, you’re gonna see a whole lot of high-intensity intervals and only a few longer duration, lower intensity runs/rucks.

Biomechanical Specificity refers to how the body adapts to various strength and/or resistance training. While you can spend 12-weeks working a traditional body-building lower body split (Leg extensions, hamstring curls, calves, etc) you are not going to improve your back squat ability as much as if you spent that same amount of time back squatting.

This is also true for the exercises range of motion. If you need to pick up a wounded buddy from the ground, clean him up into a buddy carry position, stand upright, and run to safety but have never done a full range of motion deadlift, clean, or back squat, you’re gonna have a hard time.

Additionally, this also applies to your ability to move fast. Dynamic effort strength training, ploymetrics, and other speed training is important if you want to move fast and powerfully in real life.

Psychological specificity is talking about directed mental effort and intent during your training. Researchers have found that a conscious effort to exert maximal force during a lift has been shown to significantly influence your strength and power gains. So, during that next rep, especially when it is getting hard, you need to focus on consciously creating as much force and power as possible.

When it comes to intent, understanding what is required of you before you start that rep can make a big difference. Researchers have shown that the recruitment and firing of muscles during your lift can be directly influenced in part by what you anticipate prior to the movement. So if you know that you should be exploding off the ground on that box jump prior to stepping off the box, chances are, you’ll be more successful.

Testing specificity is funny for our purpose because I’m guessing that if you’re still around this website reading my stuff you’re in the group that raised their hands and told me: “Traditional military PT is garbage, is focused on the PFT, and the PFT is a bullshit measure of real combat fitness”. But ultimately, this means that you are likely to do better on the “test” if you’ve practiced in training.

A good take away from this is that test specificity also relates to your condition under the testing parameters. Or, more simply, if your test is performed in a particular order, with specific rest between events (All PFTs are, right?) then training your body under similar circumstances could be helpful.

Now that the boring sciency stuff is out of the way…

I’m guessing you’ve all experienced training specificity at some point in your life already if you know it or not…

That first formation run at boot camp probably sucked, but the last one felt easy and was no big deal.

Over the XX number of weeks you spent getting thrashed, running everywhere you went, and generally getting beat down you somehow ended up with a better PFT score at the end of your basic training then you started with.

If you’re an old guy like me (I’m only 32…) then you probably know that sitting at a desk bent over a computer (writing blog posts) will probably lead to some hip and t-spine mobility issues.

This is because the human body is pretty amazing and will adapt to the stresses you put on it. Even if those stress are negative (i.e. How many beers can you drink now compared to right after you came home from your last deployment?).

So if you spend your whole life sitting in a chair, you’re probably gonna end up with mobility issues as your body adapts to you poor positioning.

Do 100 push-ups per day and I bet you get really good at push-ups.

Same thing with pull-ups.

When I was training for my very first USMC PFT (Before heading off to OCS) I was lucky if I could crank out 10 dead hang pull-ups.

So what did I do?

Bought a $20 doorway mounted pull up bar and screwed that sucker into the door frame of my apartment bedroom.

Then I did as many good pull-ups as possible every time I passed through that doorway.

Guess what?

I left for OCS with 18 dead hang pull-ups.

Later on, I used this same method to raise that number to 26

This is a very basic example of training specificity.

So if you want to get better at sit-ups, to get those 100 points on your test, start cranking out sit-ups every day…

If you want to run faster, then start running faster!

This is a pretty simple concept, not easy to accomplish, but simple.

Unfortunately, way too many strength & conditioning coaches out there take this idea way too far.

They live or die on ‘specificity of training’ (especially with traditional athletics and sports) and end up leaving their athletes with big holes in their game.

For example, I’m sure you’ve all known someone who could max out the Physical Fitness Test, but when you put them under 80# of kit and asked them to perform real tasks, they crumbled.

So while having a specific concrete goal can be great to help you achieve one very specific end state (i.e. perfect PFT scores) it comes with its disadvantages too if you neglect all of the other aspects of fitness to achieve that goal.

Which is something I see far too many people do.

Should you get specific?

Now here is a question that I can only answer with another question:

What are you ultimately training for?

I ask this because there is a time and a place to hyper-focus your training to reach a specific desired end state.

If your only goal in life is to max out your PFT then you can spend all of your time doing things that look like push-ups, sit-ups, and 2-mile runs. In that order, with the exact rest periods the regulations states.

That would be very specific training.

However, doing so will lead to you being pretty useless in real life, which may be fine if that goal is important enough to you.

Are you training for a selection?

I’ve had the opportunity to train a whole bunch of cats for various selections…

From GORUCK selection (kinda counts right?) to SFAS, green team, orange, pink, purple and all the other secret squirrel selections out there.

The common thread of all these training programs I’ve developed for them?

It was hyper-focused on making them successful at their selection… And nothing more.

So ultimately, after they spent months training with me, they were ready to take on the various known selection events and a whole bunch of the unknown ones but it didn’t make them better at Olympic lifting, walking on the hands, or crushing all of their 1 rep maxes.

Because those things just don’t matter much during that specific event.

(I’d also be willing to bet that 99.9% of those who passed selection are now training in a way that looks NOTHING like how they trained to pass that selection.)

So as you can see, training specificity can be incredibly important at certain times in your career depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

And this is why goals matter.

Especially if the timeline is limited.

Which is another important factor to consider when picking a training program or designing your own.

If you’re short on time (<30 days) and have a big event coming up then you should probably get hyper focused on your weaknesses as they relate to the event.

If your event is a few months down the road (30-90-days) then you can look for (or design) a much more well-rounded training program that emphasizes event specific tasks while also working on your weaknesses.

However, if you have more time (90+ days) then you have an opportunity to really prepare for the event, make your weaknesses your strengths, and also prep for any unknowns that may pop up.

But what if I’m not training for anything specific?

Now this is a great question because specificity can still play a big role in designing a training program that fits your needs.

Unfortunately, for you, this is the topic of next weeks post and you’re gonna have to wait until next Monday for that answer!


Gamble, P. (2006). Implications and Applications of Training Specificity for Coaches and Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(3), 54.

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