How to Kill Plateaus: Specialization Part II

We scratched the surface on specialization last time, breaking down the difference between developmental and specialized phases of training. It’s an important concept to get down if you want to actually have a handle on your training but, unfortunately, is misunderstood by many competitive hopefuls. 

Specialization means high development in one skill. You can’t specialize in everything so there’s an implication of priority; i.e. you specialize in one thing at the expense of others.

Example time. 

The World’s Strongest Man contest started in the 1970s as a television exhibition on ABC. The appeal of it was to take  a group of the strongest men in the world from a variety of different backgrounds: bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, track and field, football, wrestling and so on) and expose them to a variety of tests to see who actually was the strongest. It’s an interesting premise that hinged on the athletes not knowing what was coming next. This was ‘every-day strength’. 

As recently as 2012, the heaviest atlas stone at World’s Strongest Man was 405. That’s in contrast to the world record stone (630lbs) set by Tom Stoltman in 2020.

However, the sport of strong man has since evolved to something far from what the original creators intended. Today, strongman athletes are not coming out cold in trying to wing it with unfamiliar events using whatever physical qualities they happened to develop by doing something else entirely. To be competitive in today’s field you have to be practiced and peaked with the same deliberate precision of any powerlifter or weightlifter (lest you give up the margins to another competitor who was). That means you have to be specialized.

Every seasoned vet has blown a contest at some point because their peak went a slightly different way: small deviations in recovery can impact speed on a farmers walk run or rep capacity in a circus dumbbell press and there isn’t room for those mistakes anymore. In today’s events, where Nationals will have as many as 80 people in one weight class, such a mis-step can be the difference up 15 placings or more and ultimately knock you out of contention for the podium. 

We can also see the rise of specialization in the competitive numbers that have grown over the years. Bill Kazmaier, whose powerlifting numbers would hold up even today as being among the best around, had the log record at 375 lb for decades. Now, that log pressing ability is held by some of the more competitive amateur 105kg competitors (who have a fraction of Kaz’s raw pressing ability)  with virtually all heavyweight Pros pressing well over 400 lb and the world record sitting at just over 500.

Part of the increase in these numbers is certainly from having a bigger talent pool. A greater depth of competitors ensures that we will get performances from more freaks who live on the tail end of the bell curve. But remember that log presses, stone loads,  yoke walks and other movements used to be very obscure and hard to train for. As recently as 2006, when I started, it was impossible to find a ‘strongman gym’ even in very populated cities. Finding equipment? Hope you know a good welder and have an open field or warehouse to store it in.

A more familiar example might be powerlifting. We all know that general strength training builds muscle and gets you stronger. Anyone who spent any amount time doing workouts they pulled out of ‘Muscle and Fitness’ will attest to steady improvements in performance, even if that wasn’t their main goal. But those who decided to train specifically for strength will inevitably remove or limit pieces from their training they don’t see as strength-specific. It’s very common to see new lifters today jump on that train immediately, skipping basic developmental work and going straight to high frequency, low rep work around the big 3 (which is what they think is the default for powerlifting-specific training).

This presents a problem as navigating these hyper-specific approaches requires a depth of experience that newbies just don’t have. Nature takes its course and the result is the backsliding that comes from trying to put a very high peak off of a very narrow base. The answer, as you might have guessed, is to back away from over-specialized ‘peak phase’ type work and go to more Base building. This would involve dropping the weights, including more variety and training in a lower percentag and higher repetition threshold. 

When you do that, you benefit from a novel stimulus that leads to immediate adaptation (i.e. muscle growth) along with a break from the neurological beatdown of heavier weights. You get the opportunity to potentiate the next phase, using the skills you built in the base phase to reach greater levels of specialization in the next. Stress to recovery, broad to narrow, ebb and flow… you get the point.

As I said before, any training program that’s ever succeeded has done so by solving the problem of balancing stress and recovery in the short-term and balancing general (base) and specialized (peak) development in the long term. No matter what training program we look at or how exotic or dissimilar they seem from each other, they all have this feature in common..

 Let’s start out with the most simple programs: linear progressions or forever programs. These are programs that start with a baseline of sets, reps and exercises that don’t change for the duration of the program. They are fixed and the only thing that is changed is that a small amount  of weight is added indefinitely. You can chart the increase in stress over time as a straight line, thus linear progression. It’s as simple and idiot-proof as it gets and, for the right population, is every bit as effective as it is monotonous.

When you start a linear progression you’re starting with a weight that is relatively easy, let’s say, for a few sets of five reps. When the weight is light, you are able to practice and establish perfect technique. As time goes on, the weight steadily gets heavier and eacj workout begin to get more difficult. Towards the end of a linear progression, the sets get extremely hard and you doubt your ability to add 5 more lbs next time.

Instead of growing muscle from the amount of work that you weren’t used to at the beginning,  your nervous system’s efficiency and ability to recruit more motor units is being stressed. Now, fatigue is accumulating faster as the difficulty of each workout is higher and your ability to recover is slightly slower. As similar as each workout is, start to finish with only the weight and difficulty changing, we can still very much see a more base type phase early on and more specialized, peak qualities getting trained as a program gets more difficult. When the lifter tops out and has to reset the program, they then revisit lower percentages and work to build themselves back up again.

This works very well for a novice lifters but as you develop, your pacing of stress and recovery have to change and more varied loading is needed.. Changes in stress now have to be a little bit more frequent and abrupt, as opposed to slow and gradual. Lifters that are more advanced cannot train in a very hard threshold for very long before burning out or requiring some variation or extra recovery and that requires a more deliberate approach, such as linear periodization.

Classical (linear) periodization involves getting heavier over time but dropping reps to accommodate the increase and weight. So while the weight still might increase workout to workout in even increments, they tend to increase faster (say, 5% jumps instead of 5lbs). Instead of volume staying the same, the amount of reps you’re doing drops in line with the weight increases. Now, more advanced lifters experience the recovery they need in order to handle the heaviest weight in later parts of the program. The fact that the Reps drop also makes the program more directed towards contest performance. Linear periodization templates inevitably finish with a heavy single in the main lift, whereas a 5 based linear progression will only get you as heavy as your best 5 before resetting. In that way, periodization schemes are more competitively specialized while 5s based progressions are more concerned with general size and strength development.

The early parts of a linear periodization program is often called the volume or the hypertrophy phase or, in block periodization, sometimes referred to as accumulation. This is where base qualities are optimized. The greater number of sets and reps allows greater mass gain and can help with skill acquisition before the heaviest phase. It’s also the part that lifters hate and often skip (volume work is hard and doesn’t provide immediate gratification).

This would be the phase where you also include more variety, as in bodybuilding isolation movements to build a symmetrical and efficient physique, as well as disadvantaged variations of the main lifts. Movements like front squats, Romanian deadlifts and close-grip benching are all fantastic for reinforcing weak areas and adding mass in the context of the main competitive movements. They don’t tend to be so good, however, for optimizing the amount of weight that can be moved in the main lift so they don’t tend to get programmed as close to a meet. 

Once the lifter has moved out of the volume phase and has inched towards the more contest specific intensity/strength/realization phase, neurological adaptations take the front seat and that generally benefist the most from movements that involve more overload. Now we’re talking about things like board presses and rack pulls or movements that involve some pause or tempo work around a specific sticking point. There’s the pattern: base phases are more broad and varied while peak phases are more narrow, specific and specialized.

Block periodization isn’t so fundamentally different than linear. The transition from phase to phase doesn’t happen so smoothly, it’s more punctuated. Each block may spend more time around a specific percentage before radically jumping into the next heavier phase and primary lifts are often changed in order to achieve some specific adaptation. But the skeleton of the program is still the same as the others; start more varied with more total work and save the heavier, more specialized programming for the very end.

Some of the progams out there are defined by how specific they try to prepare lifters for powerlifting and the differences between them points out nicely how relative these principles are. Westside revolves around the idea that heavy singles are the most specific thing you can do for strength and they organize all of their training decisions around it.  If you look at a Sheiko program, they prioritize frequency with the same movements, which requires a sub-maximal approach opposite of Westside’s. 

Sheiko programs stay very low rep/low effort and there isn’t a ton of variation in the number of reps being performed. So what does a base phase look like if your entire training program from start to finish is low rep and  relies heavily on the many total reps with similar movements? How can you get a sufficient stimulus with low percentages if you’re still keeping the Reps low? The answer is by doing a lot of sets and doing them very frequently throughout the week. Anybody who has tried their hand at this program can tell you that it is deceivingly difficult because each working set contributes to the total fatigue of the workout and the week. In this way, Sheiko gets to preserve specialization that is needed for the highest level performers but also has dedicated base phases that builds a wide foundation before exposing the lifters to more specialized work. Even though Sheiko programs are much more specialized than many others, they still wave the degree of specialization over the entire prep. These phases are all relative; it ultimately comes down to what the lifter is used to. What looks like a base phase for one brand of lifter might feel very much like a peak phase to another. It greatly depends on the amount of specialization that they’re used to in their training and when transitioning from one type of sport to another. It’s important to consider that before taking on an entirely new program.

Even concurrent  and daily undulating periodization type programming involves these elements. Concurrent training just aims to do it all at once. So a typical Westside split will include maximal (Peak) type work while following it up with movement variations accessory and isolation work done across a variety of thresholds to round out weaknesses and maintain muscle mass. The base and peak elements are still there. 

So, when training gets stale and you start getting the itch to jump ship into something different, think carefully about the curve of specialization and where your most recent training would fall on it. Has much of your training been low specialization, with most of the work being accessory or isolation based? Try looking into something that puts more emphasis on practice with the main lifts. Have you been only drilling the big 3 for a while and testing new maxes every workout? Try de-specializing for a while with lighter weights and different exercises. This ebb and flow of specialization is crucial for long term success.. 

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