How to Kill Plateaus: Specialization Part I

Variety is a huge component of any strength program. You can’t progress long-term unless you are continuously trying to make changes for how much work you’re doing, what type of work you’re doing and how hard you’re doing it. The earliest advice anybody gives when they’re brand new to the gym is that at some point they’re going to have to switch it up. For those who have long-term performance-based goals it’s imperative that you understand what that actually means.

We know the diminished returns eventually sets in, meaning the same type of training stops yielding results. So we have to make changes to avoid that. But we also know that training, if broken into different chunks, can potentiate or improve the training effect from one block into the next. So we can make changes to build off what we did in the block before.

That’s a powerful 1-2 punch in training; giving yourself a break from the same old thing so that your body might start adapting again to a new stimulus while also arranging that stimulus in a way that points to a dedicated contest performance. No matter how different the programs appear (concurrent periodization like Westside, linear periodization like the Juggernaut method,  forever program LPS like 531 or starting strength), virtually all competitive strength programs work by exploiting this in one way or another. 

You just have to know what to look for to see it.

 If you have a primary goal that you’re training for, whether it’s running a marathon, acing a math test or training for a powerlifting meet, the total successful performance can be broken into smaller constituent parts. This is true for everything. 

This is a broad conceptualization of what a full meet prep looks like, with broad skills being trained first and specialized ones coming closer to the test date.

Success in test-taking, for instance,may benefit from focusing on smaller bit, like reading comprehension, attention span, understanding of the subject or your ability to utilize mnemonic tools. Think of these smaller qualities as the base of a successful performance plan.

These individual pieces are what the earliest parts of training are going to be dedicated to. It’s important to remember your goals with this approach: you want to focus on the things that will  set you up for success in later parts of training by eliminating specific weaknesses and increasing overall efficiency.

 Once you’ve established a sufficiently wide base,  your hypothetical ceiling for performance has improved and you can now start chasing that ceiling with more specialized work.. That means that more specific training that deals with the main task as a whole is going to result in more dramatic and substantial Improvement in that goal. 

After months of strength and speed training while drilling individual fight disciplines, an MMA fighter will benefit immensely from the time spent tying it all together in full fights with contest conditions. 

This phase of training I refer to as a peak phase; in it, we minimize everything that doesn’t cause a direct immediate return in the desired outcome. This is where specialization is the highest, where every decision concerns itself with the immediate short-term outcome and nothing else. 

Striking a balance between building a base and chasing a peak is very important because any one phase done by itself without the inclusion of the other is going to limit potential growth. If you don’t practice game conditions, your training will miss the most important pieces of skill development that tie every ‘base’ quality together. But if you only practice game conditions, your physical development will be artificially capped and your performance potential kept low.

 When it comes to balancing your Base and Peak, I want you to think of two different timelines. The first is the long-term time line, which is going to inform how your training has to evolve as you move from being very new to very developed. Consider youth Athletics, where kids are often encouraged to play multiple sports as part of their developmental process. The point is to develop as much of a kinesthetic sense of their body as possible and foster many different qualities that will serve them better when they specialize in one sport later on in life. It also provides a psychological benefit by exposing them to different game scenarios which will make them adaptable but also keep them stimulated and prevent burnout.

This is in stark contrast to what many parents instinctively do, which is to start their kids on a ‘path to success’ by having them do what seasoned pros do. Overspecializing too early is a huge problem and not just because it doesn’t yield the best performance. It can remove any association of enjoyment or passion from the sport (which is kind of necessary for elite performance) and can increase risk of injury, stagnation and setbacks by trying to chase a high peak off an itty, bitty base.

Now think about how young/new eager lifters approach weight lifting. Do they typically take the time to engage in a lot of different activities, developing coordination and symmetry that can one day optimize efficiency in displays of maximal strength? Or do they typically dive in, repeating the programs of their favorite lifters?

Full of varied movement patterns and training thresholds, Sheiko’s novice program aims to develop well roundedness before implementing specialization.

More formal powerlifting training programs (rare as they are) that are tasked with preparing younger lifters to compete at an elite level mirror the need for proper base development. Boris Shieko, a highly successful weightlifting and powerlifting coach who came directly out of the Soviet system, uses a similar ‘youth athletics’ principle. In his novice program, you can see how he prescribes many unilateral, bodyweight and isolation movements instead of jumping into hyperspecialization. (NOTE: this conflicts with a more simplified approach to training novices, such as Starting Strength; they are both valid, have trade offs and work for different reasons; that is a post for a different day). 

The second timeline we have to consider is short term. After the novice stage has passed, intermediate lifters have earned the right to focus on contest specialization and will begin to chunk their training into phases or blocks lasting several weeks at a time. Again, part of this is to ensure enough novelty over the course of training so that diminished returns don’t lead to stagnation while the other is to give direction to the training so that each block sets you up for success in the next. 

When organizing training in the short term, non-specific qualities are placed further out from the contest and the most game-specific ones are drilled closer to. If you are a climber, getting strong and in shape is important to your performance but you would be mistaken to incorporate a max deadlift or run a marathon a week before a big climb. Improvements in those things have a huge recovery cost while failing to give an immediate improvement in game-day performance. That close to any big performance, the only things you should be doing are the ones that give an immediate return.

So for the powerlifter, strongman competitor or average-Joe-lifter trying to get strong, a robust off-season or base phase will include a training that increases capacity, rounds out the physique, adds muscle mass and gives a break from the monotonous beat-down of very heavy efforts. If you’re wondering what the necessity for periodization is, think about how long it’s been since you’ve had a substantial increase in strength and then think about how long it’s been since you’ve taken a break from very heavy weights to focus on rounding out weak areas with very high-volume low  percentage work.  If the answer to both is “a long time”, then there’s your answer.

This is all very generalized discussion and it’s just to give a framework to how we look at training long-term. For those who haven’t taken the time to consider how everything should fit together week-to-week and year-to-year there can be a lot of mystery surrounding what your next big training move should be. This is ultimately why people end up program hopping due to shiny object syndrome or, worse yet, try winging it on their own. 

The next installment is going to talk about some more concrete examples when it comes to programming a base or peak phase. We’re going to lay out the most common examples of periodization, from old classical examples of linear periodization to some of the trendy or high-frequency, undulating or concurrent methods that are popular today.

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