Strength Building – Beyond Specificity

Think Outside the Box

Throughout this blog’s history as well as my boxing page, I have preached the importance of specificity. For instance, I’ve said that if you wish to become a better boxer, you need to spend more time boxing. Clearly, this concept extends beyond the ring and is relevant to any sport. Regardless of your event, there is no substitute for specificity and experience. If you wish to progress beyond the norm, you’ll need ample time practicing and competing.

In many ways, the same logic applies to strength training. If wish to improve at a particular exercise, you’ll need to perform it. For example, if you want to improve your barbell squat, you’d better spend some time under the bar. Once again, the significance of specificity must not be overlooked.

With that said, recognizing the importance of specificity doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to repeatedly practicing the same exercise or activity. It is inevitable that you will eventually need to expand your repertoire. During such times, I view my coaching role as that of a problem solver. My job is to identify weak links in the chain and then devise solutions to overcome them.

Become a Problem Solver

In my last entry, I discussed the importance of creativity. There’s more to being creative than finding new or different ways to exercise however. Creativity is also important when seeking solutions to lingering problems. As a coach, you’ll only go so far if you limit yourself to traditional thinking. I’m a firm believer that the best coaches spend the bulk of their time thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, many others fail to recognize the importance of creativity and problem solving. Instead, they view hard work or more work as the answer to everything. It isn’t always that simple. As much as I encourage working hard, it is imperative that such work is allocated appropriately. Simply doing more of an exercise to fix a problem within that exercise is rarely the answer. There’s often better ways to address specific problems.

A Pull-up Based Example

To explore the significance of a problem solving approach, I’ll use pull-up performance as an example.

One of the most frequent questions that I receive looks something like this:

“How can I improve my pull-up numbers?”

The common response to this question would be to spend more time working from the bar. In many ways, that answer wouldn’t be wrong. A large part of pull-up strength originates from the pull-up bar. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you’ll only get so good at an exercise if you aren’t performing it.

Once again though, if there is a weak link within an exercise, it’s useful to attack that bottleneck directly. For instance, a weak link that often limits pull-up performance is hand strength. Stronger hands (particularly support grip) almost always translate into better performance from the bar.

I. Support Grip

A few years ago, I worked with a client who had above average upper body strength with the exception of his hands and grip. This individual had never taken the time to develop his lower arms. As a result, he struggled from the pull-up bar unless he was using straps. That was never a problem until he began the application process to become a police officer. He wouldn’t be able to use straps when performing pull-ups at the academy.

Consequently, he came to me looking to improve his pull-up strength as fast as possible. I immediately recognized that he had plenty of upper body strength, but below average hand and grip strength. Thus, the solution to his problem wasn’t to just perform more pull-ups. The approach that I took was to attack the bottleneck directly. We needed to improve his support grip strength.

One of the primary exercises that we added was a heavy farmer’s walk. We also added bar hangs to each pull-up session. These simple additions were included a few days per week. In less than a month, his pull-up numbers had risen considerably.

Farmer's Walk Strength

II. Band Resistance

Another pull-up weakness that I’ve seen in many athletes becomes visible as they approach the bar. In other words, the athlete is strong at the bottom but noticeably weaker at the top. I first noticed this problem in myself many years ago while progressing with weighted reps. I was always strong at the bottom, but would get stuck a few inches from the bar.

Performing more sets or reps (with or without weight) never seemed to improve this weakness. That’s when I began brainstorming and eventually came up with band resisted reps (more info here). By attaching a resistance band to my waist, I was able to focus on my weak point directly.

In the years since, I’ve had numerous athletes benefit from this variation. I’ve observed considerable improvements with both bodyweight and weighted reps.

Band Resisted Pull-ups

III. Get Strong

Another solution that I’ve had success with in many athletes is to simply develop more all-around strength. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from someone who is trying to improve their pull-up numbers without doing anything but pull-ups.

When you limit yourself to a single exercise, there’s only so much volume that you can accumulate with that exercise. Spreading out your workload to other movements will allow you to increase overall volume and intensity throughout each session.

I’ve actually had several athletes improve their pull-up numbers by taking a temporary break from the pull-up bar. Instead, we developed strength in other movements while giving the body time to recover from the excessive volume that was performed before.

Stronger bodies tend to be better at everything. Don’t put all of your eggs into a single basket.

T-bar rope rows

IV. Lose Weight

Considering that pull-ups are the example for this entry, one of the easiest ways to improve at the exercise has nothing to do with exercise. If you are carrying some extra weight and lose 5 to 10 pounds, you can expect immediate improvements from the pull-up bar. A lighter body is useful for almost any bodyweight movement.

Once again, there’s more to improving at an exercise than simply performing the exercise. It’s imperative that you consider all options when devising your strategy for improvement.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, the examples from this entry are just a few of countless options. My goal isn’t for you to follow the advice above, but rather to get you looking for bottlenecks that might be limiting your own performance (or that of your athletes). Specificity will always be important, but it’s often equally important that you look beyond it.

There’s more to coaching than instructing athletes to practice an exercise or sport. Good coaches also seek out alternative ways for their athletes to improve. In doing so, not only will you prevent boredom and overuse from excessively performing the same movement, but you’ll also develop more all-around strength and ability.

That’s what I call a win-win scenario.

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“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” – Henry J. Kaiser

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2 comments:

  1. Greatly enjoyed this entry! Too many strength coaches simply advise doing more volume if they are trying to improve a specific exercise. But, there’s more to it than that. “I’ve actually had several athletes improve their pull-up numbers by taking a temporary break from the pull-up bar….not only will you prevent boredom and overuse from excessively performing the same movement, but you’ll also develop more all-around strength and ability”.

    I notice this all the time. If i take a break from something, I often return to the previous activity with increased zest and my performance increases. It’s the “one step back to go two forward” idea.

  2. Hi Ross,

    This blog post is great! I have always struggled with pull-ups especially but some of the things you have said here really help!

    All the best,

    Harry

    P.S. Please keep up the good content!

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