Principles of Training -The keys to a successful training program

Exercise is a subject riddled with misinformation and opinion. Every day there seems to be new information that contradicts itself. It's no wonder so many Americans are confused.

When confronted with a controversial subject such as exercise  I prefer to boil things down to their fundamental truths. Whats left when you take away all the sales language and alternative motives are a few basic principles that all sides can agree on.

When we apply this to hitting the gym, we are left with the 5 basic principles that every promising training program should share -  Specificity, Individuality, exercise selection, progressive overload, and recovery. 

Specificity

Ask Yourself  “What is my goal?  What do I want to achieve?”

Most goals fall into one or more of these categories

  1. Hypertrophy (gaining muscle)

  2. Fat loss

  3. Strength

  4. Mobility

  5. Quality of Life/Health

  6. Performance Goal

Training must be specific to a goal to achieve that goal.

Someone training for a marathon will train differently from someone training for a bodybuilding contest. Like the marathoner and bodybuilder, your exercise program should reflect your goals. Focus on one goal at a time and tailor your workouts to the result you want. 

Factors that should be tailored to your goals include:

  • Repetition range - Are you doing 3-5 reps or 8-12? One will be focused on maximum strength while the other will stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth)

  • Number of sets - How much volume will you be doing?

  • Intensity or amount of weight lifted - lifting heavy or lifting light? -High-intensity training  vs steady state

  • Exercise selection - cardio vs resistance, upper vs lower, push vs pull, multi-joint vs isolation exercises

  • Tempo - the speed of an exercise - fast or slow? Explosive or grind?

  • Frequency - How many times a week?

  • Nutrition - Calorie surplus or deficit, high carb or low carb?

Individualization

A program needs to be customized to the individual. Many programs on the internet are cookie cutter programs - they are programs that are not specific to your needs and limitations. These general programs assume you are a healthy injury free individual who can learn exercises just by watching a video.  It’s rare to find such a unicorn of a person.

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A program should be adjusted to fit your needs. Differences in training experience, injuries, mobility and personal preference should all be taken into consideration for a training plan.  

For example, I trained two women over 50 to lose 35 and 40lbs respectively without ever doing "high intensity" fat loss exercises like you see on TV. Instead, I adapted the workouts to their limitations which allowed them to train consistently without getting hurt.  You to should make sure any program is adjusted to your own limitations and lifestyle.

Exercise Selection

A good recipe uses the best ingredients available.  If your training program is a recipe then exercises are the ingredients. A good program uses appropriate exercises for the individual. An appropriate exercise is challenging but doable (with proper form) and helps accomplishes the person's goal. I have witnessed a person herniate their spinal disk performing a kettlebell swing. This was not because the exercise is dangerous, but rather because it was too advanced for the person performing it. Don’t be herniated Harry who performs an exercise just because he saw it on the internet.

Next, all exercises aren't created equal.  choosing the best exercises will yield the best results. For suggestions on how to chose the best exercises read :  

How To Choose The Best Exercises

Progressive Overload

During his studies, endocrinologist Han Selye observed that the organisms he worked with responded in a predictable manner when he applied stressors. As long as the stress wasn’t too much,  the organism adapted.  It is the same way our body adapts to exercise -It’s  why running a mile today may be torture today, but leisure after a couple weeks of training.

When we exercise, we put a stress on the body. The stress disrupts the balance of the body and it responds by sounding the alarm. This alarm signals various biological processes to restore balance. Once the ‘emergency’ is taken care of,  the body better prepares itself for next time. For example, after lifting weights the body may reinforce itself with more muscle -this is how fitness models build their physique.

During progressive overload, we purposefully stress the body with exercise, allow it to recover and adapt, then stress it again with a stress that was more than the previous time.

Photo Credit to  advancestrength.com

Photo Credit to advancestrength.com

The 4 of the easiest ways to progress a workout body:  

  1. Intensity (Load) - The easiest way to see progress in the gym is to lift a heavier weight. When exercises become easy it's time to switch your weight and pick up a heavier one.

  2. Volume - This is how many sets or repetitions you do. For example: Let’s say you could do 10 push ups one week, 12 the next week and 14 the after that. Well, guess what! You have just increased your volume and applied progressive overload.

  3. Rest - Rest periods make a difference. When you decrease a rest period, you make an exercise harder. Try performing the same workout with shorter rest periods.

  4. Exercise Choice - A proper program will use exercises that are at the skill level of the performer.  But, exercises can be changed as someone gets stronger. For example, a push-up performed on an incline and lowering the incline as you get stronger.

A good program should get harder as you get stronger. I suggest keeping a log to help keep track of the progress you are making. As you progress a program, avoid changing too many variables at one time such as increasing both weight and volume at the same time. Doing so makes it difficult to keep track of which changes are working for you and maybe too much stress for your body to recover from at one time. Beware too much stress and too little rest if the body doesn’t recover it doesn’t adapt. The worst case scenario is your body will break down with injury or overtraining syndrome. Be patient and purposeful.  

How to Progress a Workout

Recovery

Workouts don’t make you sexy and strong. Those desired results only occur after the body has recovered and adapted to the stress from the workout. The decisions you make outside the gym are just as important as the work done in the gym - We adapt only when we recover.

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Here are a few ways to ensure that you recover

  • Proper nutrition

    • Proper nutrition ensures the body will have the building blocks it needs to repair itself. Building blocks include:

      • Calories (for energy)

      • Macronutrients - proteins, carbs, and fats in proper ratios to one another

      • Micronutrients- Vitamins and minerals

      • Hydration - Water

  • Sleep

    • Sleep is when our body undergoes its most extensive remodeling. Getting a quality night's sleep is essential if you want to optimize your results. For most people, this will entail between 7-9 hours a night.

  • Managing Stress

    • Excessive stress throughout your day puts your body in a state that is not conducive to recovering. Hormone changes such as chronically high cortisol levels in those who are frequently stressed signal the body to break down muscle. Avoid stressful environments. If you can’t, have positive coping mechanisms to deal with the stressful situation.

Conclusion

A good program should:

  1. Specifically, address the goals you want to achieve.

  2. Be individually tailored to your needs, fitness level and movement ability.

  3. Progress over time

  4. Use exercises that match your needs, goals and fitness level.  

  5. Address recovery. Nutrition, sleep and coping with stress all help aid in the recovery process

There is no perfect program. But what distinguishes a successful program from a failing program is one that is safe, adheres to the 5 principles I have listed above and that you can stick to it.