How important is specificity for increasing 1RM strength?
When considering the increase in 1 repetition maximum (1RM) strength there are a multitude of variables which can affect the magnitude of adaptation a given individual may exhibit. It would seem that specificity (how specific the training protocol is to the test, in this case: 1×1 at 100% of 1RM) is undoubtedly a large contributor (Schoenfield, Grgic, Ogborn & Krieger, 2017). However the degree of its importance is often debated (Klemp et al., 2016). Specificity is proposed to increase performance via the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle where training in a manner specific to the sport or test will elicit the greatest outcomes (Haff & Tripplett, 2016). Practically however, overly specific training may not necessarily be best practice for 1RM strength (Androulakis-Korakakis, Fisher, Kolokotronis, Gentil & Steele, 2018; Klemp et al., 2016). In this review the level to which specificity contributes towards 1RM increases will be explored. Alongside this, potential downfalls surrounding overly specific training protocols and their possible detriments towards adaptation will also be investigated. It is important to understand however that specificity as a training concept for 1RM strength influences the training variables of intensity (% of 1RM) and volume (sets x reps x load) (Peterson, Rhea & Alvar, 2005). Therefore this review will look to also understand how increases in specificity for 1RM training effect these variables and the potential adverse effects. Additionally, an understanding of when higher specificity training protocols are most important to implement within a training programme will be developed. The relevant literature was derived through a database search of “Sport Discus” the following terms were used within the database search “maximal strength”, “1RM”, “specificity”, “non-specific”, “powerlifting” and “volume”.
Specificity and intensity
Specificity of training modalities is seen as a highly valuable tool when designing training programmes to elicit adaptations specific to that of the training stimulus (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Due to the simplicity of 1RM strength and its testing parameters the principle of training specificity is undoubtedly a large influencer in eliciting positive adaptations in 1RM strength (Schoenfield et al., 2014). This concept is backed up in many recommendations such as in Haff & Triplett (2016) where it is proposed that lower repetition and higher intensity training will elicit more maximal strength adaptations than that of higher repetition and lower intensity training. This concept was verified in a recent meta-analysis by Schoenfield et al. (2017) where the authors concluded that higher intensity, lower repetition training translated towards a greater increase in 1RM strength. However, the meta-analysis also mentioned that lower load, higher rep training also elicited significant strength gains. Additionally, authors disclosed that much of the research analysed was performed on untrained individuals. This may be important to note as a similar adaptation to specific and less specific intensities was observed in trained subjects in Klemp et al. (2016). In this case, in trained individuals no significant differences in maximal strength were observed between high and low repetition protocols when volume was equated. Similarly, in a study of trained powerlifters Androulakis-Korakakis et al. (2018) tested a high intensity, low volume training protocol (1 set x 1 rep at RPE 9-9.5) against a higher volume periodised approach. Much like Klemp et al. (2016) the authors concluded that both approaches produced similar results on 1RM strength. However, interestingly the higher specificity group’s 1RM strength began regressing before the training intervention (10 weeks) concluded. This potential short-term gain from higher specificity training eludes to the idea that potentially training volume may out-weigh that of specific intensities for 1RM strength gains, as suggested in Klemp et al. (2016). Additionally the training age of the individual may be an important consideration when deciding upon the level of specificity within a given resistance programme. Undoubtedly training specificity is an important consideration for increases in 1RM strength however, dependant on the individual, specific training intensities may not necessarily elicit superior adaptation.
Specificity and volume
As previously mentioned, highly specific training protocols may elicit short term progress but without the appropriate volumes necessary for strength maintenance that progress may quickly revert (Androulakis-Korakakis et al., 2018). Therefore, when considering the development of 1RM strength it would seem reasonable to assume that although specificity of training is of high importance (Campos et al., 2002) volume may also be. The influence of volume was shown in a study conducted on recreationally trained individuals where the effects of 1 v 3 sets at an equated intensity (same specificity but differing volumes) on 1RM strength was observed (Rhea, Alvar, Ball & Burkett, 2002). In this case, the higher volume protocol (3 set group) elicited greater 1RM strength gains, yet both groups still made significant strength increases. When considering appropriate timing of both variables, understanding that over-voluminous (Amirthalingam et al., 2017) or over-specific (Androulakis-Korakakis et al., 2018) protocols can both be detrimental towards 1RM strength development is important. Consequently, employing training protocols which meet optimal volume requirements alongside an optimal level of specificity may be a challenge in which practitioners are faced with. Another consideration may be limiting high volumes of specificity on the macro level for avoidance of overuse injuries and burnout/overtraining (Bell, Post, Biese, Bay & Valovich McLeod, 2018; DiFiori et al., 2014). Although the macro-scale level detriments of highly specific training protocols observed in the literature (Bell et al., 2018) may not be specifically observed in athletes training for 1RM strength development, much of the considerations may still apply. Therefore, when considering specific training protocols, the practitioner should understand that high specificity of training may be best in limited volumes and should not compromise volume accumulation.
From the above it would seem that the SAID principle is a potent training tool that has a high level of application for the development of 1RM strength. Yet, as mentioned consideration of training intensity and volume, and training age should be undertaken by the practitioner. It is important however for the practitioner to understand that specificity of training can fall on a large spectrum in which a multitude of training protocols can be established. Additionally, styles of training either end of the specificity spectrum for prolonged periods will likely have adverse training effects. Practitioners may benefit from implementing highly specific training closer to competition or in periods where training time is limited and maintenance of maximal strength is needed. Future research understanding the potential injury risks involved with high specificity of 1RM training and the minimum volume requirements to progressively increase 1RM strength is warranted.
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Androulakis-Korakakis, P., Fisher, J., Kolokotronis, P., Gentil, P., & Steele, J. (2018). Reduced Volume ‘Daily Max’ Training Compared to Higher Volume Periodized Training in Powerlifters Preparing for Competition—A Pilot Study. Sports, 6(3), 86. doi: 10.3390/sports6030086
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