The Principle of Specificity

The SAID Principle

There is something to be said about the SAID principle, which stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands.  Essentially, the principle states that the type of demand placed on the body dictates the type of adaptation that will occur (Haff & Triplett, 2016).  For example, if you are a runner and consistently placing a cardiovascular demand on the body, the body will respond by improving its cardiovascular fitness, whereas if you are an Olympic weight lifter, the body will adapt by improving its muscular strength and power, but not its cardiovascular systems.

Imagine training all summer long for the start of the fall hockey season.  You have been in the weight room lifting weights and performing anaerobic intervals such as running stairs and bike sprints.  You feel in great shape and ready to the hit the ice; however, after your first ice session, you wake up the following day feeling incredibly stiff and sore.  That is a prime example of the SAID principle.  The body has adapted to the weight lifting program, and to the sprinting, and biking routine, as well, but it is still not accustomed to the specific biomechanics, movement patterns, and force application that skating and hockey demands.

I always inform my clients and athletes alike: to be in “good shape” for something, you need to do that specific activity.  Yes, there is a time and place for cross-training; however, if you want to be fit for ice hockey, you need to be skating and playing on the ice, or, if you want to be a strong runner, you need to be out there running (not biking and swimming).

With that being said, sometimes people mistakenly think that all aspects of their training must mimic that of the sporting skill.  A hockey player, cross-country skier, or runner will still benefit from a resistance training program, but the “more similar the training activity is to the actual sport movement, the greater the likelihood that there will be a positive transfer to that sport” (Haff & Triplett, p.444).

Program Design

A resistance training program can be an effective means of preventing muscle imbalances; building muscular endurance, strength, and power; and developing the secondary characteristics often important for successful sport performance, such as agility, balance, and coordination.  The resistance training program needs to follow the specificity principle; therefore, the overall programming needs to be designed based on the demands of the sport and the individual athlete’s goals and needs.

An Example of Applying the SAID Principle

For instance, the training program of a road runner versus a cross-country runner would be different because of the difference in terrain.  Running on trails where there are tree roots, rocks, and unpredictable footing requires greater agility and lateral manoeuverability; consequently, incorporating ankle proprioception (i.e. the ability of your body to sense where it is in space due to feedback from your joint angles and the tension/length of your muscles) and agility drills, especially ones that require lateral or multi-directional movements, would be more pertinent for the cross-country runner.  With that being said, other components of the program would be very similar, such as working on core strength, linking lower-to-upper body coordination, and lower body strength and power.

Consider Transferability of Exercise Selection to Sport

In addition to the overall training program needing to be specific, at times the exercise selection within a training program can also be geared to best prepare the client or athlete for his or her sporting performance.  For example, the vertical jump of a basketball player is an important skill to possess.  The primary muscles involved in a vertical jump involve the hip and knee extensors (i.e. glutes and quadriceps).  In a weight training program, the conditioning coach could prescribe the leg press or back squat to target those muscle groups.  But, for greater transferability, the back squat would make more sense.  The body would be in a vertical position (rather than seated) and the muscles and joints would be trained through the same range of motion and firing sequence as those required to execute a vertical jump.  However, a squat does not require the same high degree of power and force development that a vertical jump requires; therefore, including exercises such as the snatch and power clean would be beneficial in matching the required speed of movement and force application of a vertical jump.

Cardiovascular Training is Specific, too!

The SAID principle must also be considered when training the cardiovascular system.  For example, a long-distance (e.g. 10 km or greater) runner would have a very different training regimen compared to an anaerobic-dominant hockey player, who basically sprints for 30-45 seconds and then recovers for 2-4 minutes.  The long-distance runner would incorporate long-slow (aerobic; i.e. ‘with oxygen’) distance running into their training schedule (but would not necessarily exclude anaerobic, higher-intensity sessions) whereas a hockey player would need to incorporate much more high-intensity anaerobic (i.e. ‘without oxygen’) sprinting sessions that more closely replicates the physiological demands of a typical hockey game.  For that reason, the hockey athlete may be prescribed 6 sets of 30-45 second bike sprints with a 2-to-3-minute rest between reps as this is a very similar cardiovascular demand they would experience during one period of a game.

Take Home Message

Overall, the SAID principle is important when designing a resistance or cardiovascular training program.  Participation in the sport or activity itself provides the greatest opportunity for improved performance; however, properly applying the principle of specificity to cross-training will definitely increase the likelihood of a positive transfer for improved performance in the desired sport or activity.


Haff, G., and Triplett, T. (2016).  Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Fourth Edition.  Champaign: Human Kinetics.   

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