The Principle of Specificity for Setting Clear Fitness Objective

The principle of specificity is the biggest mindset breaker. Once you understand the principle of specificity then you will understand why I believe that pretty much we all have the same goals (I mean, the recreational fitness enthusiasts). Would it not be great if the whole fitness industry realises that we all have the same goals and it really focuses on delivering those goals to the average trainee. Wouldn’t it be great if the fitness industry simplify things for us so we get the right perspective about our own health. I think, we will be much be better off if we are steared into the right direction right from the start, the minute we walk in the gym and ask about membership or personal training prices.

But what do we really specifically want to achieve?

Some people will say that they “just need to tone up” or “lose some weight” or “trim their bums and tums” or get in shape” or “drop a size or two for an upcoming wedding”… But what they really want?! How can we make their goals more specific?
The term “tone up” is the most deceiving term in the fitness industry . In more specific terms it simply means one of the three things below

  1. Reducing the total body fat percentage so the muscles underneath become more visible which gives us the more lean and toned up look.
  2. Increasing one the total muscle mass so if you keep your total body fat percentage the same but you gain couple of kg muscle friends would notice that you have been exercising.
  3. The most common scenario- when the trainee is working towards achieving both objectives above at the same time.

Once one reduces their total body fat percentage he or she will be able to see the muscle definition coming through. The results come faster when the same individual builds muscle at the same time.

Strength is always the byproduct working towards the objectives above for the novice trainee. For the more advanced trainees specific strength cycles will be required in order one to gain muscle mass and drop body fat but this for someone who has been training seriously for at least 4-6 months.

Let’s recap, what does one need if he or she wants to “tone up” in more specific terms.

  1. Less total body fat percentage or…
  2. More total muscle mass or…
  3. The two above together
    For the novice trainee strength gains will be a byproduct from the training regimen but for the intermediate and more advanced trainee specific strength cycles will be required in order one to keep moving forward. So we can add one more specific objective to the three above
  4. Maximal Strength

Ok, let’s look at the other profile fitness enthusiasts- “I want to trim my tummy” or “I need more core strength”. Again, from my 11 years experience in the fitness industry people with similar statements have adopted somehow and somewhere a false belief system. And this is what they believe- in order one to get visible abdominal muscles (six pack) or to spot reduce the waist circumferences one need to exercise on regular basis “the core muscles”. Many times when I put them on spot with simple question like “ what do you need the core strength for?”

I only get very vaike answers like “because is good for the posture” or simply “it’s good to have a strong core” . But when I start peeling the layers I always get down to the bottom of one common emotional desire- Visible abs (six pack) or narrower waist circumferences. This is a fantastic goal in my opinion as research clearly shows that lower abdomen fat distribution does not only makes one more aesthetically good looking but it also reduces significantly the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Unfortunately for one to get there he or she needs to change a belief system. Once that happens he or she would realise that they need a different strategy in order to achieve visible abs or reduction in the waist circumferences .

Here is what needs to happen- males need to get down to sub 10% total body fat percentage and females need to get down to 12-14% total body fat percentage. Until this goal is achieved, no matter how many sit ups or planks one does a week, he or she will be very disappointed from the results.

The truth is simple- you may be working your abs but until the layer of adipose tissue (aka fat) covering the abdominal muscles disappears no six pack will be coming through.

Ok, let’s recap, what does one need if he or she wants to trim the tummy or simply reduce waist circumferences put in more specific terms.
Less total body fat percentage

Ok. If you are following me so far you should be asking the question. Ok, coach Ivor, where does the muscle build and maximal strength stand in this scenario if you claim that “we all have the same goals”?

Well, from personal and other successful coaches’ experiences (which can also be backed up with scientific research) we have come to the conclusion that the fastest way for novice trainee to drop body fat is by trying to increase his or her total muscle mass whilst including some high intensity interval training (HIIT) and of course adopting healthy lifestyle (food, sleeping, managing stress).

Ok. I can hear some of you already screaming in my ears “I don’t want to be a bodybuilder” or “I don’t want to have big muscles”. HA! If you are one of those people 10 years ago I would have got really enthusiastic and passionately start explaining to you why this should not be a concern at all but now I would simply smile and say something like this “Ok, Mr or Mrs Jones, don’t worry about it! Once you are happy with your muscle size we will just cut back on training a little!

Come on! In my 11 years of experience I did not have one person complaining that they have put on too much muscle. Once people start getting the results, they want more of it and this motivates them more so they want more. And despite how hard they have been training no one had ever woken up with a freakish body building look.

And why is that?!

Because to achieve the freakish bodybuilding look you will have to,one- take artificial anabolic steroids and second- literally live in the gym. Neither one of these two circumstances is virtually possible on its own. You will need the drugs to recover and you will have to train with high volumes to get that freaky look which means you will need to have the time to do that. Professional bodybuilders have sponsorships which allow them to focus only on training and recovery.

This is not virtually impossible for the average working trainee or to a full time mums and dads. Here is a question that always has been intriguing me. Why is it that when I have a clients that have signed up for a long distance event like marathon or triathlon and need my help to get them ready, none of them expects me to get them within 3 months in the same shape as Chrissie Wellington (4 times Ironman world champion) or Mark Allen (6 times ironman world champion) because that would be unrealistic and insane but when I suggest resistance training for my fat loss clients a lot of them get the fear of becoming something like Jay Cutler (professional bodybuilder)?! Beat me but I don’t know where or how this belief has formed in nowadays society but now I am at this stage of life that I am not trying to find explanations for everything that surrounds us but to accept the things the way they are. Some people will understand some won’t!

So don’t worry, muscle is very hard to build and it is very essential for fat loss! Plus when you are on restricted carb intake for fat loss your chances to build muscle efficiently are reduced to minimum.

I can hear some of the fitness gurus screaming “It is not possible to build muscle whilst you are dropping body fat!”. Whilst this could be a valid statement for the intermediate and more advanced trainee it is a absolute nonsense for the novice trainee. And since this is a post concerning mostly the average population I will make a strong statement that reducing body fat and building muscle is 100% possible and it is the most efficient and effective strategy to achieve quick but permanent results. This has been practiced and achieved not only by myself but also by all Poliquin certified coaches around the world, the famous UP gyms are doing it as we speak and of course it has been practiced for more than 4 decades by one of the more influential and iconic strength coaches in the world- Charles Poliquin himself. And now the science is catching up and finally discovering that actually this phenomenon is possible. Check the link below for further info on the subject.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releas…/2016/…/160127132741.htm

Here is why building muscle is good for fat loss.

  • Holding more muscle will increase your basal metabolic rate at rest- in simple words you will burn more calories at rest (watching TV, work at the desk, reading a book or even sleeping)
  • Holding more muscle will have a positive impact on your testosterone production which will make you more insulin sensitive which will drive more nutrients in the muscle cell rather than in the fat cells which will result in fat loss.
  • Holding more muscle will increase your potential to get stronger therefore performing any high intensity work either interval training or a crossfit style workout will result in more exertion therefore higher energy output therefore higher lactic acid build per workout therefore a better fat loss effect
  • Hypertrophy (muscle building) style resistance training will have positive impact on insulin sensitivity which directly will help with the regulation of blood sugar which will directly help with fat loss.
  • Holding more muscle will make you look aesthetically more attractive once you have reduced your body fat percentage. It will make you look like this:
    https://www.google.co.uk/imgres…
  • Not holding muscle with very low body fat percentage will make you look like this:
    https://www.google.co.uk/imgres…


There are also other health related benefits of holding more muscle that have no direct connection to fat loss but I think they are worth mentioning.

  1. Reducing the risk of osteoporosis
  2. Reducing the risk of injury in later years of one’s life
  3. Scientist have now found a direct relation between muscle mass and alzheimer disease. The more muscle one hold the less of a chance of developing an Alzheimer disease.
    http://search.proquest.com/…/073fb0951541b083de53c4cff51…/1…
  4. More mobility and independence until later age.

Now let’s get back to trimming tummies and chiseling the six pack or simply reducing the waist circumference. If you agree so fat with me then you and I agree that to reduce the size of your waist and get six pack out you need to reduce total body fat down to sub 10% for male and 12-14% for female. Then to achieve this , the easiest strategy for novice is to use resistance training and strive to build as much muscle as possible.

To gain muscle though one will need to increase maximal strength. So what do we have as objectives?

  1. To reduce body fat
  2. To increase total muscle mass
  3. The best strategy for novice trainee is to aim for the both objectives at the same time
  4. And in order to build muscle one need to increase strength

Same all, same all!

Ok. Now let’s look at the next scenario- Clinically Obese, Pre- Diabetic and Diabetic population (type 2 diabetes). Before I continue by speaking freely about obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetic population and simply the overweight individuals I would like to remind the reader that I myself was once obese and I have all my compassion and understanding about the physiological and psychological difficulties associated with those conditions. But since the name of the blog is True Performance I need to point out that the condition of obesity is self inflicted process and not an event.

Many times is inflicted by bad parenting and carried over to one’s adulthood. This might sounds harsh but what I am trying to say is that once the process has developed into a condition now our fellow overweight /clinically obese friend or family member needs professional help. The problem is that fat loss is a very profitable business and I have my reasons to believe that our government does not want us to be healthy and looking good so as a result there is pile of misinformation going downstream to media from our official authorities and consequently passed on to the general population.

I might be wrong about my beliefs and I am openminded of the contrary but one thing I know for a fact- whatever worked for me and for my clients to get them in shape is totally different from the mainstream media, government and NHS guidelines. There is one more thing that I also know for sure- Government, NHS and Mainstream media are run by very intelligent people with very high IQ’s. Well, why am I finding discrepancy of my methods (and the methods of many successful fitness professionals) and the methods popularised by those highly intellectual authorities?! Either I am crazy or there is something purposefully wrong with the system but this is a discussion for another time. What I am trying to say is that by allowing me ,you the reader, to talk freely about the ever rising obesity problem in our society I might be able to help someone to get out of the misery that I personally was trapped in.

Right, back on the subject.

Everybody would agree that those individuals need specifically to lose weight. But the truth is that they hold in some cases more that 30% total body fat. It will be more correct to say that the objective is not weight loss but fat loss. Since the obese person carry high amounts of adipose tissue (body fat) once the fat loss occurs at a much faster rate than building muscle muscle mass then the result will be total weight loss which is fine. The problem when we only focus on the weight reduction as a method of progression is when the overweight or clinically obese person start losing muscle mass and body fat at the same time. This will also result in total body weight reduction but at a very high cost- slowing one’s basal metabolic rate. NHS and government authorities have come up with a very general way of assessing and tracking general population’s healthy body weight called BMI which stands for Body Mass Index. I am sure a lot of you are aware of it but whilst the BMI is good way to assess the general population ( not the fitness bunnies) it is very inferior way to track progress.

For most adults, an ideal BMI is in the 18.5-24.9 range.
If your BMI is 25 or more, you weigh more than what is ideal for your height:

  • 25-29.9 is overweight
  • 30-39.9 is obese
  • 40 or more is very obese
  • If your BMI is less than 18.5, you weigh less than what is ideal for your height.

To work out your BMI:

  • divide your weight in kilograms (kg) by your height in metres (m)
  • then divide the answer by your height again to get your BMI
    For example:
  • If you weigh 70kg and you’re 1.75m tall, divide 70 by 1.75. The answer is 40.
  • Then divide 40 by 1.75. The answer is 22.9. This is your BMI.

Well, whilst this is a valid generic way of assessing healthy weight try to imagine the following scenario. John Smith has been training with weights for couple of years seriously and weighs 83kg and his height is 1.70 but his body fat is 10%.His BMI is 28.7. With 10% body fat you can actually see John’s pancreas making insulin and you can grate cheese on his abs and he is in great physical condition but according to the NHS chart he is almost considered to be obese.

The truth of the matter is that when an overweight or obese person walks through the door in GP’s office or in assessment room in the gym everybody in that room knows that this person is overweight. The GP knows it, the trainer knows it and the person himself or herself knows it, there is no need for numbers to be revealed. The question is what happens next!

What would be the best strategy though for the overweight and clinically obese person?

It will be absolutely the same as the strategy for the person who wants to just “tone up” or chisel the six pack or tone up bums and tums. To reduce body fat and build up muscle but this time the reduction of body fat needs to be a lot. The only difference is in the language used by those different groups of people. The “tone up” group will use terms like “toning up”, “trimming down” “shaping up”, “six pack”, core strength (providing that deep down in their hearts they really want to reduce waist circumferences or gain visible abs). This group of individuals is holding total body fat around the mark of 15-23%. So to achieve what really will make them happy they will need to go down to a lower total body fat percentage and possibly build some muscle or at least maintain the muscle mass they already have.

Ok, now the overweight and clinically obese individuals will be holding total body fat above 25%, in extreme cases it can be up to 50%. This group of individuals is normally using different and more specific terminology, they will use simply the term “weight loss” or “I need to lose some weight”. Whilst this is a great specific and measurable goal, it would be more appropriate to correct those individuals and demand from them and ourselves to use the term “fat loss”. Now, one might say that “if the obese people start losing body fat that automatically means that they will also start dropping total body weight”.

Whilst this is true from experience I have observed that complete beginner overweight and obese population once they embark on a serious weight training regime they put on muscle very easily for the first 4-6 weeks on the program especially if they didn’t have enough time during those first 4-6 weeks to change some of their eating habits. As a consequence their body weight may not change much but total body fat % will be down which is what they need and want. It is very important that at this point we encourage them to be patient and explain what is happening to them as this could throw them off the rails easily.

Why weight training and muscle build for overweight, clinically obese, prediabetic and diabetic people?

Before I give you my reasons based on scientific research and clinical experience of other big names in the industry like Charles Poliquin , Dr Bryan Welsh, Jonny Bowden, please allow me to get a bit more scientific and explain in short the condition “overweight, obesity, prediabetes and diabetes “. I know this condition is self inflicted and it is the result of a very slow process but once it has fully manifested I would treat it as a condition because we are dealing with a physiology that is damaged and impaired.

What this group of individuals will have in common are the following physiological faults:

  1. Slow thyroid- aka slow metabolism
  2. Intestinal permeability thus high cortisol (stress) and poor sleep and many other problems
  3. Leptin resistance- leptin is the hormone of satiety but it is not working on effectively enough on the receptor sites in the brain so one feels always hungry. This itself is not helpful with sticking to a dietary regimen
  4. Low testosterone for men and very high testosterone for females- no motivation and poor recovery
  5. Low curetonian, dopamine and acetylcholine- no energy, poor focus, anxiety and mood swings.
  6. And at last but not least the biggest problem is INSULIN RESISTANCE

In short, Insulin is a hormone hormone that transport macro nutrients to the muscle cells. It is manufactured by the pancreas and its production is regulated mainly by our carbohydrate/ sugar intake. Too much blood sugar in the blood stream is toxic to the the body and organs. Consistently elevated blood sugar causes chronic elevation of insulin which may work for while but it gets to the point that the receptor sites of the muscle cells are not responding to the insulin anymore and body ends up with elevated high insulin and high blood sugar. At the point the body has got no choice but to store the glucose somewhere else as we have mentioned that high blood glucose is toxic to the brain and internal organs.

So through very complicated process the glucose is converted into triglycerides and stored in the fat cell. Well the problem doesn’t stop there though. The more resistant the receptor sites of the muscle cell become to the insulin the more the pancreas is producing in high amounts insulin in response to the high blood glucose but at some point the pancreas gives up and it can not keep up with the demands of the body. At that point we end up with high blood sugar and low insulin and this, my friends , is what the medical authorities call Diabetes type 2 and what do you think the recommended treatment is?!

That’s right- MORE INSULIN! Well, where I can understand that at this point insulin must be given but you would also agree that other treatments should be prescribed along with the insulin treatment- SPECIFIC EXERCISE REGIMEN AND STRICT DIET! Unfortunately authorities are failing to make those vital life style changes for their diabetic patients which is very sad. What’s worst, they mislead all sufferers with ambiguous recommendations about diet and exercise regimen where instructions should be very strict and imposed with authority.

Well, having made all those points about physiological disadvantages of pre-diabetic overweight and obese population finally I would like to make my point about bringing specificity of training objectives. What are the clear objectives for this group of individuals? Everyone would agree that fat loss is number one which is absolutely true but how about muscle build and resistance training. Hell, YES! Resistance training and muscle build has a positive direct and indirect impact on all points I have listed above. I have listed below a few links from PubMed with studies explaining in detail why resistance training and muscle build should be an essential part of clinically obese population.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25296864
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19305230
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2243122

So what are the objectives?

  1. Reduce body fat
  2. ncrease muscle mass
  3. The best strategy for novice trainee is to aim for the both objectives at the same time
  4. And in order to build muscle one need to increase strength.

Also when you deal with overweight people strength gain is very good indication of building muscle as merely if one is losing strength and weight at the same time it is most likely that the trainee is losing muscle tissue and he or she is overtraining. It happens really but if the strength is moving upwards becomes a good motivational tool as well as way of monitoring overtraining.
As you can see the objectives are the same again.

What about professional and recreational athletes?

This is a bit more complicated topic and the rule of specificity can change dramatically when it comes to professional athletes but for the recreational and the fat professional athlete the priority objectives are still the same. I have trained numerous recreational and professional athletes and just by dropping their body fat percentage and increasing their strength they become better athletes

Over the years we have seen many recreational and some professional athletes not giving enough attention to their body composition particularly to the total body fat percentage they carry. It is not rocket science to understand that carrying even 5 pounds rack sack on your frame will impair performance. The irony though is that a lot of the recreational athletes sign up to events or join sport clubs thinking that participating and getting started with some sort of training for an upcoming event will ultimately help them lose the extra pounds. Ha!

This is nothing but further from the truth. This theory is even more absurd when recreational enthusiasts sign up for long distance events (marathons, half marathons, triathlons, etc.) as science and clinical experience clearly show that long distance endurance training (and events) raises a hormone called cortisol (aka stress hormone) which directly relate to belly fat distribution. The last thing we need in this stressful living environment is more stress.

Well, let me give you another good reason why the recreational and professional athlete should take the body fat reduction very seriously. When above the norms (male 10% and female 12%-14%) your body is most likely to be under some inflammation and inflammation causes injuries and brain fog. As an athlete you will need to be able to recover from high intensity training and running your body on inflammatory state is a recipe for a disaster .

Almost all sports (almost all team sports and all contact sports) will require a sharp brain function. The ability to take the right decision within a split second is almost every time main factor for winning or losing. Since the brain function, fat loss and inflammation are positively related, it is very important that the diet plan needs to be geared towards supplying all nutrients needed to enhance one his or her physiology. Dropping total body fat and building muscle is a good indication of enhanced physiology.

For effective planning to achieve specific peak performance coaches use a system called periodisation in strength training. In short this is a fancy name for specific periods/ cycles put together in a fashion that will lead an athlete to his peak performance either at particular event or start of season. Each cycle is dedicated to developing one or more physical qualities per cycle until everything is molded into one peak performance at the end of the last cycle. Coaches have different names for each cycle of the training year but all you need to know is that the first cycle is called preparatory phase. Depending on the time available to get ready for the upcoming event or season the length of the preparatory phase could be anything between a week to 3 months. The more time the athlete has got to spend on this preparatory phase the more his potential increases to reach a higher peak at his last cycle before competition.

Well, why am I telling you all this? Before I answer let me ask you one more question? What do you think an athlete should be focusing on for his very first preparatory phase?

The first thing is injuries. This is the best time for athletes to start treating injuries and making sure that they are working on their weaknesses. Although this is a slightly different objective from the general public goals, it is imperative good nutrition is applied so healing process starts kicking in. Again as mentioned earlier anti inflammatory diet will be paramount. Well, what will be happening to an athlete on anti-inflammatory diet?

If athlete have gained during the season any body fat (believe it or not this happens all the time as the pressure is enormous during season which puts athletes under a lot of stress) anti inflammatory diet will take care of any extra pounds they might have put on during season. Recreational athletes most often carry too much body fat so this will be a primary objective for them. Some athletes may not gain too much body fat during season or after an event but a lot of them lose muscle mass which is a big problem for longevity and peak performance.

Charles Poliquin is one of the coaches that has popularised the term functional hypertrophy which means building muscle that contributes to performance.

What else would athletes need to focus on for the first phase of their training yearly plan? Maximal strength? Hell , yeah! So to wrap it up- what does a recreational athlete and off season professional athlete need to have as objectives in their preparatory phases.

  1. Reduce Body Fat- achieving anti inflammatory physiology, rehub and brain function or
  2. Building Functional Muscle that will help with performance and
  3. Maximal Strength

It is really funny because we are down to the same objectives as the previous groups of fitness enthusiasts!

The fitness industry is evolving constantly and more and more gimmicks, classes and gym concepts are coming out on the market and the aim is always to engage the population into a some sort of physical activity as we all know that exercise is good. Whilst this is a great cause, like any industry on the global market, it needs to be profitable in order to exist and keep moving forward. And I believe that we all have to agree on that and like any industry in the world it needs to sell in order to make profit and that is all fine but here is the problem- the industry will only tell its customers what they want to hear in order to make a sale.

Very few gyms will promise results because for that to happen they will have to tell their customers truths that customers don’t want to hear. For example- you are overweight, you need to cut down dramatically on your social drink, you can’t be having Ben & Jerry 2-3 times a week whilst you are watching Britain’s got talent depriving yourself of valuable sleep time, you need to be doing more weight training and so on and on. And in my humble opinion we can not only be blaming the industry for its behaviour it just tells us what we want to hear. As Jim Rohn says in his books and seminars “If you want things to change for you, you will have to change”.

The industry will start changing only if we change, only if we start demanding results then gyms will start offering it to us.

Only once we start demanding specific results only then gyms will stop competing who has got the best equipment and the new trends of zumba or kettlebell classes or viper or power plates or the latest technology that will calculate the calories you’ve burned, the TRX and the shiny and luxury changing rooms… No! If the truth is revealed right from the start and if we understand specifically what we want to achieve as nation and all those intelligent people running our fitness brands know that we are educated and informed enough, then we will be offered results but for this to happen you and I have responsibility to understand and demand specific results from training not just fun!

And at last but not least I will need to say couple of words for the other possible objectives that might not be a priority for you the trainee but will be evidently priority of the coach or the trainer. Bare with me for a sec and you will get me.

As human beings we all have weak and strong body parts, tight muscles and mechanical problems. This issues are accumulated throughout our life from childhood to adulthood due to our sedentary lifestyle, repetitive pattern movements in sports or work places or injuries in the past, etc. The list can go on and on but my point is that we all have this problems and sometimes we are aware of them and sometimes we are not.

If your goals are to improve your posture or/and to rehab an injury then I would put those goals in the column of the “Primary goals” but if your goals are to look good and feel good and you are not aware of any mechanical issues then balancing out the body and improving posture becomes a secondary goal. As I already mentioned we all have those issues and as coaches and trainers we need to make sure that we reduce the risk of injuries to a minimum and making sure that our clients improve flexibility and mechanical imbalances as the program evolves .

I call these objectives “Secondary”, not because they are not important but I prefer the focus to be on the primary objectives (fat loss, muscle build and strength) as the primary objectives will require commitment from both sides, the trainee and me the coach. The trainee needs to commit to changing a life style and eating habits and the coach will have to guide the trainee with sound practical but scientifically proven strategies. On the other hand for the secondary objectives the coach or the personal trainer has got full control over the strategies and implementation of those strategies as almost everything is normally happening in the gym during training sessions.

The problem is that the industry is using the fact that almost every person in this planet has got those issues and try to highlight those issues to clients and customers with the intention to make the objectives of correcting posture, improving core strength and any mechanical issues as the client’s primary objectives when the initial motives are usually looking more attractive naked and in our clothing which gives us confidence, self esteem and a whole other range of emotional and physical benefits.

Phew, that was a long preach about Specificity. Stay tuned for the next post when we will talk about the principle of Measurable Goals.

The Truth Matters!

Live Your True Potential!

Coach Ivor