This article covers basic training principles.
These principles are applied in any effective training program where the trainee seeks more than general health benefits. Generally these principles are applied in formal training programs but can be adapted to a more intuitive style of training once you’ve become pretty adept at exercise and attuned to your body (this takes years so don’t think you’re a pro after a couple months lifting and reading on bodybuilding.com). This article serves as a good point of reference for other Ubuntu Fitness articles and hopefully helps educate readers on basic training principles. A lot of this information was acquired from The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning textbook (1) and several Exercise Physiology courses I have taken over the years, in addition to a lot of self-education reading text books, articles, and browsing online.
Basic training principles:
- Progressive overload
- Diminishing return
Progressive overload means that in order for any change to occur a stimulus has to provide an overload to the “system”. (1)* Many studies show exercise regimens progressive in nature outperform non-progressive regimens (2,3,4 ) In terms of lifting weights this might mean just learning a movement at first. Movements such as the squat and deadlift are somewhat complicated and may take at least a few sessions to learn. Even advanced lifters still tinker with their technique years after initially learning the movement. After learning the movement, lifters should load weight to illicit any change to the body whether it be to achieve fat loss, muscle hypertrophy, or strength gains.
A progressive overload example: a beginner weightlifter practicing squats, then using a dumbbell or kettlebell out in front of their body (goblet squat; see below) to improve stability and gradually load the movement with more weight. The next week they may try squatting with the barbell, adding a little weight to the bar. Each passing week they continue to increase the weight they’re squatting with, perform more repetitions per set, or perform more sets per workout. Other ways to bolster the stimulus include squatting deeper cutting time off rest periods, or any combination of the above. Progressive overloading is what enables a lifter to progress from lifting something in the area of 135 lbs for 3 sets of 10 to lifting 225 lbs for 3 sets of 10 several months later.
Specificity refers to the “specific adaptation to imposed demand” principle (SAID).(1,5) What this means is that any given stressor evokes a specific adaptation. In regards to exercise a common example is sprint training vs. endurance training. If you want to be fast you mostly run short distance sprints and work on improving power via heavy strength training and plyometric training. If you want to gain endurance you might train for 5Ks, 10K, eventually half marathon races, and maybe even a full marathon if you're really ambitious.
Periodization refers to breaking down one’s training into specific blocks (“meso cycles”) that emphasize different features. (6) These training blocks can be further broken down into micro blocks (“micro cycles”). A typical example of periodization is known as linear periodization - a classic model in training athletes. A 16 week offseason for athletes or fitness enthusiasts might be broken down into 4 blocks as follows:
Many studies have found that a later model called “undulating” or “non-linear” produces superior training results in athletes or trainees. (7,8,9) This model takes into account that athletes or trainees may not be ready on a day to day basis for the demands of a pre written linear program. Another possibility is that adding some variability into the block may improve adaptation versus the traditional linear model. Anecdotally, one important consideration is the athlete/trainee may simply get bored with sticking to same training block week after week. I have always thought that the variability in the model prevents “staleness” and thus encourage trainees to push themselves a little harder.
In the general exercising population – people just training to be strong, fit, and look good - a lot of intuitive periodization already occurs. A lot of guys will “bulk up” in the winter due to extra holiday eating and less non exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT (basically not going outside for leisure activities, less likely to walk places, etc.). The added food intake, and subsequent weight gain supports heavier training. Then when spring comes these folks “cut” to look better for the summer by making a conscientious effort to reduce calories, along with other complimentary strategies including performing higher volume training sessions with lighter weight or alternatively by trying to use heavy weight to maintain strength but reducing training volume and/or frequency (my personal choice). In addition adding a little more conditioning work or high intensity interval training (HIIT; see here), performing core exercises after normal lifting sessions, and adding some NEAT to your day (taking the stairs, cycling to the grocery store, frequent water breaks while working on the computer, etc) may help with cutting. These are just examples but using planned or periodized training can be applied to all types of fitness goals!
To summarize, yoyo-ing from one style of training to another every couple weeks will certainly ensure you don’t reach any one noteworthy goal, other than general health & fitness which can be achieved by just about any form of strenuous exercise. So, if you don’t want to make any certain gains, do that. However, periodized training is superior to training on a whim but adding some variation based on how you feel on any given day is fine and likely superior. If lack of sleep or the stress of work or school has you feeling down, back off on the weight or drop a set from each exercise, cut a couple exercises out, etc. If you show up to the gym feeling like the Hulk then add some quality work by adding a set to each exercise or using a little heavier weight than planned, keep your form extra tight, etc.
Diminishing return refers to the fact that after a certain point, added exercise intensity, volume, etc no longer provide any added benefit to the trainee. Personally I look at diminishing return from an acute and chronic stand point. In regards to acute diminishing return, there is plenty of research to suggest that multiple sets are better than single large set for traditional exercises (10,11) that we normally perform multiple sets of (such as bench press and squat) but after a point (likely about 3 sets) there is no added benefit.** Diminishing returns also applies to the concept of trainability (chronic diminishing return).This essentially means that the longer you have trained, the harder it is to elicit training adaptation, and your athletic ability ceiling is largely determined by your genes (12,13). For example a newbie can make significant gains on a subpar program or with modest training loads. Two or three years later the same individual will have to pay much greater attention to detail in regards to training and manipulate their diet to greater extremes to see meaningful improvements
Detraining is pretty simple actually. If you don’t use it, you lose it! Some exercise adaptations start to diminish in short order such as insulin sensitivity. (14,15)*** Other adaptations are longer lasting. For example if you take a vacation and spend a week away from the gym it is unlikely that your deadlift will suffer. For gym goers that go hard day in and day out, a week off (preferably a “back off” week vs a week completely off) can be beneficial in terms of giving your body a break from the wear and tear and a nice psychological reprieve.(16) Mike Lipowski wrote a nice article on planned detraining (here) and I actually cross-referenced one of his sources in this article, if you’re interested in reading more on the topic.
*Progressive overload and several other of the training principles have been talked about for close to a hundred years now. One of the forefathers of the overload principle was Arthur Steinhaus who received much of his training in the Chicago area (see here). A classic review on the topic was written on the topic way back in 1958 by Frances A. Hellebrandt MD (also from Chicago ;)).(17) Hellebrandt was a female pioneer in Ex Phys and Physical Therapy in a period where advances were needed to rehabilitate soldiers returning from WWII.
**Multiple sets being superior to a single set is pretty well accepted in the scientific literature, however it’s still somewhat contentious in the fitness world. Guys like Arthur Jones, Dorian Yates, Mike Mentzer, and more recently Tim Ferriss popularized a style of training known as High-Intensity Training whereby you only perform one work set of any given exercises but you go to absolute failure and focus on time under tension.
*** This statement is not meant to be a fear mongering proclamation. Taking some time off will not make you diabetic, and some measures of insulin/glucose handling such as insulin responsiveness to a given dose of insulin are maintained for up to three weeks of detraining in animal models. (18)