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The Principle of Specificity

Updated: May 27, 2020

Key Takeaways:

  1. The principle of specificity guides powerlifters to use the squat, bench, deadlift and their close variations as the foundations of a program.

  2. Because we test a one repetition max at a meet, lower repetitions (1-6) should be the mainstay of a program.

  3. Performing sub-max singles is a great way to practice lifting heavy weights to the standards established by your chosen powerlifting federation.

  4. Athletes should practice the commands before they compete.

What is Specificity

The principle of specificity states that the type of training you execute will heavily influence the type of gains you get. This means that “...the greatest training effects occur when the same exercise type is used for both testing and training.”[1] In other words, you improve your squat by using the squat in training, not by going on a 10 mile run. So how does specificity influence a training program? Lets review two topics; exercise selection and load/repetition selection.

How Does Specificity Influence a Training Plan

Since powerlifting test the squat, bench, and deadlift (SBD), those lifts should be the staple exercises in a powerlifting program. Exercises with a similar range of motion, similar contraction velocity, and similar joint angles can be used to supplement a training plan. Specificity is a spectrum, and using variations of the competition movements can provide new physical and mental stimuli and help improve efficiencies on the main lifts. When choosing variations, they should resemble the three test movements. Adding a pause, adjusting the grip, adjusting stance are sample ways to include exercises that are close variations to the competition movements and therefore are expected to have carry over.

Lower repetition/heavy load work should also be a staple in most powerlifting programs. Powerlifting meets test 1 rep maxes, so it makes sense for lifters to practice singles before meet day. However those singles should not be max effort. For many lifters, maxing out creates a physical and mental demand that is unsustainable in training. Frequently maxing out can negatively impact the quality and quantity of training. For this reason, our approach for most singles is to lift a weight that you can lift for 3 repetitions. This is a heavy enough weight that allows for practice, but is usually not heavy enough to derail future training sessions.

While singles are most specific and a great way for lifters to practice for a meet, they are a less optimal way to accumulate volume. For example, it is more efficient to do 20 reps by performing 4 sets of 5 rather than 20 sets of 1. Volume is an important factor for both building muscle[2] and improving strength[3]. Therefore incorporating additional repetitions is necessary to be more efficient with our gym time and it has the added benefit of exposing lifters to different stimuli. With specificity in mind, we want to be focused on strength adaptations. Heavier load training produces better strength outcomes than lower load training[4]. The farther away from one rep we go, the lighter the weight on the bar, and the more our training becomes focused on muscular endurance rather than strength. Therefore, the bulk of our programming for the competition movements focuses on 1-6 reps per set. We will use higher reps (8-12) on the variations and assistance exercises, but the closer we are to a meet usually the lower the rep range we use.

How Does Specificity Influence Execution of the Plan

We have discussed specificity and some programming considerations, next let’s discuss some implementation considerations. Some lifters adopt the mentality of train like you test. This mentality represents the principle of specificity and in general we think this is a good mindset. However this can be taken to the extreme with lifters being hypersensitive to things like equipment type. For example, only training on a competition rack, with a competition bar, using competition plates is not practical for most lifters. While it might be nice to have, it isn’t necessary to get PRs.

What we think is necessary is the execution of the lifts under the rules set out by the chosen federation. For example, in training, lifters should squat to legal depth and use a legal pause on the bench. If you aren’t hitting depth in training, it’s unlikely that will change come meet day. Performing sub-max singles provide a great opportunity for lifters to practice lifting heavy weights while meeting the federation’s lifting standards. We also advocate practicing the use of commands as you approach a meet. For new lifters practicing commands 4-8 weeks out can help create a consistent behavior and routine that will show up on meet day. We have even seen veteran lifters jump a bench rack command, so they can benefit too.


In summary, the principle of specificity guides powerlifters to use the squat, bench, deadlift and their close variations as the anchor exercises of a program. Because we test a one repetition max at a meet, training generally should be focused on lower repetitions (1-6), especially as we get closer to a competition. Performing sub-max singles is a great way to practice lifting heavy weights to the standards established by your chosen powerlifting federation. Prior to a meet, lifters should practice the commands on each of the three lifts. Next up is the principle of progressive overload.


[1] Morrissey MC, Harman EA, Johnson MJ. Resistance training modes: specificity and effectiveness. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1995 May;27(5):648-60.

[2] Schoenfield BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Sports Science. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082.

[3] Ralston GW, Kilgore L, Wyatt FB, Baker JS. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. 2017 Dec;47(12):2585-2601.

[4] Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523.

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