8 February 2019
DIARY OF SKINNY KID: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRAINING PRINCIPLES
Chapter 1 Studying, Steroids & Specificity When I first started lifting/being crushed by weights, I was in my mid-teens and I would spend hours upon hours in the gym training as hard as I possibly could. I thought that the only way to achieve muscle growth was the complete and utter destruction of my muscle…
Studying, Steroids & Specificity
When I first started lifting/being crushed by weights, I was in my mid-teens and I would spend hours upon hours in the gym training as hard as I possibly could.
I thought that the only way to achieve muscle growth was the complete and utter destruction of my muscle tissue, and I would not leave until I could no longer lift even the smallest weight possible for the muscle group I was “training”.
I’d do ridiculous shit like work-out until I couldn’t even curl the 2kg dumbbells with anything even close to resembling decent form.
Because I mostly learned through observation at the time, I trained that way because that’s what most of the other average gym-punters did.
I thought it wasn’t acceptable to leave the gym until I was reduced to some kind of fish-out-of-water, humping the air technique to lift even the tiniest weights. Only then, had I truly worked hard, challenged the muscle and it was ok for me to leave. I would never leave early or with “anything left in the tank”.
Well… Unless mum rang to yell at me because it was a school night and I hadn’t done my English homework yet.
Mum never quite understood that in my vanity-obsessed teenage mind, the allure of big pec’s and biceps always-beat reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” hands down.
Looking back, I don’t regret the way I trained. Sure, it wasn’t optimal and I certainty spun my wheels. However, it was my slow-rate of progress that inevitably motivated me to gain a deeper understanding of topics such as; applied sport science, muscle physiology and nutritional biochemistry. This in turn led me down the path to becoming a coach.
From this struggle, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to help others avoid the same mistakes that I made, so that exercise could be as efficient as possible for them. It pained me to invest so much time and physical effort for minimal return, and I was sure as all hell that I would help others avoid feeling the same way.
Now, in an attempt to help you improve your own training, let’s examine some of the aspects that I was doing both correct and also incorrectly as a young lifter, in my truly noble quest for bigger muscles. I’ll also use this as an opportunity to help introduce you to the training principles, if you are not aware of them currently.
Comprehending that not all factors of a training program are created equal and that there are foundational structures that all well-designed programs contain was pivotal to me improving the results I saw from training. I stopped always looking for the next best, shiny new program that would hopefully skyrocket my gains and instead I started to look at all programs for both the good and the bad aspects they all had. I eventually learned that it is certain training principles that determine whether a program is well designed and whether or not it useful for me (at that particular time).
So what was I doing right in order to grow muscle?
Not a whole lot to be honest.
The most important thing I did at the time, was have the hormonal profile of a teenage boy, due to me being, you guessed it, a teenage boy. Essentially, I would have grown from doing anything, or even nothing.
I potentially even hampered my long-term growth to a degree due to poor application of the other training principles, but I will cover that in the future chapters of this series.
Today whoever, I only want to focus on the first training principle: Specificity.
For the most part, I did a decent job of not completely f***ing up this principle in my younger years… I’ll give Past-Me a tick on this one.
What this means is, the training I was doing was specific (enough) to my goals and therefore created the desired adaptations within the system that I was trying to improve (i.e. stimulated hypertrophy in muscle tissue).
Within sport science, specificity is king. It is the major principle that successful training must follow.
You can design a program that successfully accounts for all the other training principles, but if it is specific to improving power-production in the upper-body (such as for shot put performance), but your goal is to become a better cross-country skier, then how useful is that training program for improving performance in your desired endeavour?
Somewhere in the range of negligible to sweet-f*** all.
Therefore, I want you think of specificity as the following: The immediate transfer efficiency of training to both current and future desired outcomes.
Take note of the word “future” in that definition.
All too often I will see trainee’s who think far too short-term with their training. Most bros think that planning their training means that they know they’re doing chest today, back tomorrow and shoulders the next day… They only have training planned out on a weekly basis. For most recreational lifters, planning on a monthly basis is rare and yearly is almost unheard of.
Admittedly, they are “recreational lifters” by definition, and therefore don’t require the most elaborate and intricate long-term planning. But if you have hefty goals, then you require intelligent planning, it’s as simple as that.
Don’t be limited by your plan. Your plan is there to help you achieve the most that you can.
To further expand on most-people’s short-sighted planning and my take on specificity, let’s use the example of an average gym-bro trying to improve their bench-press strength.
This is hardly a stretch of the imagination and you can even imagine they have tribal tattoos if it helps…
Tribal-tatt-bro will so often take the approach of; Load up the bar and try and bench as heavy as possible, working up in weight until they simply can’t lift anymore.
This is surely the most specific training that they could do to achieve their goal, so why wouldn’t it work? Practise makes perfect, gotta lift heavy to get strong… Specificity, bro!
Well, not necessarily.
Specificity is on a spectrum. It ranges from broad to narrow and has elements of instantaneous as well as delayed transfer to results.
For our gym-bro who is looking to improve his bench press 1Rep Max, the best thing for him to do is likely to broaden his scope of specificity and then structure training in a logically sequential and increasingly specific manner so that he can achieve his goal.
So what does this mean?
First, he may need to spend some time doing high-volume, hypertrophy training for the major muscle groups used in the bench-press (pecs, triceps, delts), using a variety of accessory exercises. Wide-grip bench presses, skull-crushers and high-incline dumbbell presses are suitable examples.
Now typically, after hearing the proposed benefits of high training volumes and then undertaking a mesocycle (training block) or two of this style of training, many bros unintelligibly will then go and test their 1RM and find they’ve actually “gotten weaker”. Thus concluding that high-volume training doesn’t work, and they go back to banging their head up against a wall with sloppy ass reps of 1-3 per set using, lets be honest, an unimpressive weight anyway…
But hey, why train to be strong, when you could train to feel strong!
To these gym-bros: No shit it didn’t work… yet, but it will!
This style of training is broad in its specificity, and its transfer to immediate strength goals is low, but to future goals very high.
High volume training is the number-one thing you can do for gaining muscle. Well, second… The first is Vitamin S, but I digress. But still, why do we care about muscle when we’re trying to gain strength? Because; increases in individual muscle fibre size and cross-sectional area of the entire muscle enhance its force-production capabilities.
Essentially, your muscles now have more of the shit that helps them contract.
This is major key for long-term strength development. But, it also needs to be understood that it’s a delayed gratification process. Not only do we need more of the shit that contracts, but we also need to teach it to contract hard!
Once you understand this, the delayed-gratification and sequential nature of gaining strength becomes a whole lot easier to tolerate in my opinion.
In order to really try drill thus point home, I’m going to use an analogy:
Testing your 1RM immediately after doing high-volume training is like taking an exam immediately after staying up all night studying and trying to learn.
DUMB FOOTY DAVO!
You’re all tired and fatigued and not at all practised at what you’re trying to do!
Sure, you’ll get a mark… But if want the best results (strength gains or grade on the exam), you need to take a more logical, structured approach.
First up; yes, you do need to study. Reading textbooks and learning the information is integral, but that doesn’t mean you’re straight away going to get a higher mark on the exam. Especially if you’re fatigued from doing it right beforehand. Reading and learning is probably the most pivotal part of getting a good mark, but it is also the most exhaustive.
The same can be said for high-volume training and getting stronger.
Staying up all night, studying and learning, can only be of maximal benefit after you sleep and drop cognitive-fatigue levels. Then, when you are sufficiently recovered, you transition into more specific preparation for your exam. You start taking practise tests and you get better at expressing the information that you have learned previously.
Again, the same can be said for training.
After your high volume phase, you deload to drop fatigue and then you develop the skill of expressing more force in the movements you want to be stronger in, with your now bigger muscles.
After you studied, you had learned more information and therefore could attempt to answer more questions. But this is not all of the equation. You also need to be practised at answering the same types of questions, in the same types of conditions, that your exam will take place in to fully reap the rewards of studying. If your exam is essay or extended-response based, but you only practised using multiple choice or short answer questions, whilst always listening to music while studying, you’re certainly not going to do as well as you could have.
With training, if you’ve successfully grown bigger pecs, triceps and shoulders using accessory movements, but you haven’t practised the skill of bench pressing, especially with heavy loads, then you won’t maximise the outcome when you strength test. You have more to give, but you also have to be good at giving it.
Study & learn >RECOVER> Practise-tests under similar conditions >RECOVER> Exam = Good Grade
Grow muscle with higher volumes >RECOVER> Strength phase using movements you want to improve >RECOVER> 1RM Test = Strength Gains
I hope this has helped you grasp an appreciation for the principle of specificity and how it’s over-application can be just as detrimental as its under-application.
Under-application of Specificity – Using cycling as a way to grow your legs.
Over-application of Specificity – Trying to get better at pull-ups, so only doing pull-ups until you get better.
So now that we know all this, let’s look back and assess how well I did within the realm of specificity as a young whippersnapper.
‘Coz remember, we started all of this talking about me… It’s ALWAYS about me!
As I said earlier, I’d give myself a passing mark on this.
Firstly, specificity has a few applications when muscle-growth is the goal. So that must be kept in mind.
SPECIFICITY PART 1
The first, which is almost superfluous for me to say, but I will anyway, is: You must be doing resistance training of some kind.
I don’t care if you’re lifting actual weights in a gym or just doing push-ups and chin-ups in your backyard (I’ve been there), but you must be providing some kind of additional mechanical-tension stimulus, one that transcends the levels achieved by activities of daily living, to your muscles, in order for them to grow. I did this: tick!
SPECIFICITY PART 2
The second component of specificity is again, almost a no-brainer, but you must be training the muscles that you want to get bigger… I did this almost 100% correctly.
I pretty much only trained my upper-body, mostly my chest and arms, barely ever my back and never my legs. Which aligned near perfectly with my desire for pretty much only a bigger chest and arms.
In my mind, the only reason I wasn’t killing it with the ladies, was because I didn’t quite yet have those inner-chest details that the pro-bodybuilders had.
“Soon” I kept telling myself…
I was wrong.
Now, I say this ones almost a no brainer, but let me remind you of the myth that “leg-training grows your arms 10%” or “squats grow your entire body”.
Sorry to say, but these statements are false and are derived from enhanced-bodybuilding dogma, with little-to-no truth for those of us who are “natty”.
When using Bulgarian supplements, supraphysiological levels of circulating, anabolic hormones create a systemic growth response. This means that growth occurs in all the muscles of the body (as well as vital organs, depending on the substance used), regardless of whether that muscle has been trained or not. For us naturals, growth is a localised process, meaning that if we want bigger arms, we need to train them!
Hence why barely anyone has big calves…. It’s not all genetics people, so shut your face and do some damn calf-raises if you want bigger calves!
For us natty’s, our hormone levels are only high enough to allow growth to occur with training, not high enough to promote growth without training.
SPECIFICITY PART 3
The third component of specificity for physique development is: constructing training that prioritises high volumes of work. Studies have shown very convincingly, that higher-volume training programs produce more muscle growth than lower-volume training programs (pertinent to the individual) and the correlation between muscle growth and training volume (provided its above a minimum intensity threshold) is almost irrefutable.
So if you’re tearing your hair out trying to work out about what is more optimal, a Push-Pull-Legs, Upper-Lower, a “Bro split” or any combination of them all… Stop. Just make sure you’re putting in a high amount of work across the week.
For the most part, your training split is of minor importance.
Yes, the way you structure training periodically throughout the week does matter, but as long as you’re focusing on training in the way that directs you towards the adaptations that you are trying to achieve, then the particular way you go about this is relatively insignificant in comparison.
Hence the quote:
“Many roads lead to Rome…”
While true, I still want to get to Rome as fast and as safely as possible, so some roads sure as hell are better than others! Just because something works, doesn’t mean something else can’t work better, or worse.
For now, I hope I’ve at least helped get you onto a road specific enough that it leads to Rome.
Over the coming weeks though I will strive to help you refine your navigational skills and teach you how to make the journey to Rome (Gainsville) as efficiently as possible…
Until next time!