General Training Principals
Updated: Jul 17
The internet is full of helpful information that can be extremely helpful when starting to exercise. Do you want a new program? Google one. Don’t know what an exercise is? Probably somewhere on Youtube. But who’s checking to see if this information is correct? That leaves the filtering process to you, which can be a little intimidating. In writing this article, my goal is to break down some fundamental training principles that will guide you through the sea of information to help you safely, quickly and effectively reach your goals.
1. Train Hard and Rest Even Harder
The concept of rest isn’t at the forefront of most people's minds when they start training. It’s all about doing as much exercise as possible as they believe this will fast track them to success. If I want to move all my groceries from the car to the kitchen, you better believe I’m going to do it all in one go, but unfortunately, our bodies don’t work like this.
An analogy to explain this crucial concept is to look at a balloon. When we fill a balloon with air, it expands relative to the amount we exhale. The same with exercise, damage caused is comparable to the amount of stress applied - aka the training we’ve done. After we’ve exhaled, we then have to fill our lungs up again (assuming you’re not holding the end of the balloon closed), allowing time for the balloon to deflate as it returns to its original size. Our bodies do something similar as the damaged tissues repair themselves in between bouts of stress. But what happens if, between every breath, you didn’t let the balloon entirely deflate? The balloon would continue to grow larger and larger until eventually. POP! The same happens for us. If an inadequate amount of time is allowed to recover between sessions, the accumulated fatigue will rear its ugly head as something called ‘overtraining’.
Overtraining is an athlete’s worst nightmare meaning it should be yours too. It significantly hinders performance, leads to plateaus or even detraining (reduction in physical performance) and dramatically increases the chance of injury. As personal trainers, we see far too many people killing themselves in the gym for a few weeks, and then they are never to be seen again. Figure 1 shows something referred to as a super-compensation curve. Super-compensation is a concept that suggests following an adequate training stimulus. An increase will follow a decline in physical performance if recovery is sufficient. If recovery is inadequate and a second training stimulus is applied too early, the shortened rest will impair physical performance. However, if the recovery period is excessive between bouts of stress, physical performance will plateau and decrease if these rest periods are too long. I want to clarify the importance of having a workout schedule that considers both training and recovery to maximise results while also avoiding overtraining before we move on. Overtraining is not an accident. You have to push yourself extremely hard while practising abysmal recovery habits. As long as you follow the tips in the next section, you’ll never have to worry about overtraining.
2. Know When the Balance is Just Right
To put it simply, listening to your body is by far the easiest (and cheapest) way of ascertaining your recovery status. If you’re training or playing sports and start to feel nauseous or dizzy, you may be pushing yourself too hard (or not eating and drinking enough). Muscle soreness is expected when you start exercising. Still, if it becomes chronic, it could be an indicator that you’re either training too hard, or more than likely, not recovering appropriately. Other obvious signs that are not as commonly known to be associated with overtraining include:
Chronic muscle pain
Loss of Grip strength
Adverse psychological effects, e.g. depression, anger, irritability etc.
On the flip side, if you’re leaving the gym with a skip in your step and a dry t-shirt, you probably could have gone a bit harder. Undertraining doesn’t have the same apparent signs as overtraining, but if you’re finding that you’re not progressing as fast as you want (or not at all) and that what you're doing is easy, it’s safe to assume you’re probably undertraining. I typically scan my body first thing in the morning as I get out of bed and during the warm-up of my workout. Do I feel weaker than I did yesterday? Am I stiff? Am I energised, or do I need a coffee to get going? It can be a bit tricky at first, but once you learn to listen to your body, the training process becomes much more accessible and so much more fun.
3. Leave No Muscle Untrained (or something like that)
Try to make as many different movement patterns as you can, such as vertical push-pull, horizontal push-pull, hip hinge pattern (bilateral-unilateral), squat pattern (bilateral-unilateral) and of course, exercises for the core musculature involving spinal flexion, extension and rotation. If you can tick off an activity for all of these movements over the week, you’re in a pretty good position to be hitting every muscle your body has to offer. Trainer Josh Avison touches on this topic specifically and provides some examples here:
Getting Bigger, Faster & Stronger For Longer
Now I’m about to tell you something that you may not like to hear, and that’s about the law of diminishing returns. What do I mean? I mean, the fitter you become, the harder it is to see gains. The stronger you become, the harder it is to get stronger, and the more muscle you build, the harder it is to develop more muscle. We are not characters in a movie that do a training montage and somehow come back twice as strong in a matter of weeks (unfortunately). But that’s not to say there aren’t ways around it.
Let's go back to stimulus + rest of a minute. When you’re new to exercising, it doesn’t take much stimulation to see a result, and you can get away with significantly more rest—called “your honeymoon period”. It is a lovely time when your training age is very young, and your body responds rapidly to stimuli. I’ve had some clients quite literally double their strength in six months by training four days a week, which is crazy to someone like me who’s training six days a week and progressing at about 1/10th of this every year. To put this into perspective, some world champion level weightlifters are adding as little as 1kg to their lifts each year. THAT’S LESS THAN A 1% INCREASE for training 2.5 hours, 11 times a week. You can see in the graph below that as training age increases, so does strength, BUT what you’ll notice is the older your training age, the slower you progress until eventually, you hit your maximum physical potential.
How does knowing this help you? Greg Doucette, a Canadian IFBB pro-bodybuilder, author, YouTuber and world record holder, puts it very simply, “Train harder than last time”. Simply by increasing the weight, reps, sets, altering the speed of the lift, the type of exercise, the list can go on. You provide a new stimulus for your body to adapt to, which will help avoid hitting a plateau, allowing you to progress for longer and have more speed than if the stimulation remained unchanged. However, keep in mind that, as mentioned before, we can only get stronger, fitter, faster for so long before it starts to slow down, plateau, and eventually stop.
For this reason, don’t expect to be making the same jumps in training as you did when you started. You may find you need to train at the same weight or rep scheme for a few weeks before it becomes comfortable to move on. The most important thing here is to stick to your training and trust the process. Plateaus are not forever.
Common Program Variables
Increasing weight is probably the most obvious (and most common) way to change the training stimulus. If we want to get stronger, then the amount of resistance applied needs to increase. If resistance does not increase as our strength increases, our strength will plateau; we haven’t given our body any reason to get stronger. Unless, of course, you’re just trying to do as many reps as possible.
Increasing repetitions at a given weight is another fantastic way to overload the muscle, although it results in a different adaptation known as muscular endurance. Typically a program focusing on muscular endurance will encourage staying at the same weight while increasing the number of reps or volume over the training cycle. Suppose a program that you find online does not include changes in either repetition (volume) or resistance (intensity). In that case, you should probably leave it alone as you will likely outgrow it quickly and wonder why you’re not getting the results you want.
Lift speed or tempo is another way you can change the stimulus. The tempo of a lift refers to the time spent during the concentric phase of the movement (muscle shortening), the isometric phase of the movement (static muscle) and the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening). While some trainers still program tempo, it is also important to realise that it has recently fallen out of favour in recent years. Research has shown that changing repetition duration does not benefit muscle hypertrophy (Schoenfeld et al., 2015). It is still a great tool to break up the monotony of a program, but if a program is centred around tempo, it is probably best to leave it.
Exercise selection is also another critical factor, although, in some instances, it is overused. Exercises are selected based on specificity and fun. If you want to get stronger, bigger quadriceps, you will choose a squat over a deadlift because it is more specific to achieving your desired outcome. However, there are times when specificity can be put on the back foot. That’s when fun comes in. We often don’t think about fun when it comes to exercise, but it is imperative to consider because if it isn’t fun, chances are you’re going to quit eventually. Whenever I see a client for the first time, I will always try and gauge if there is anything they enjoy doing that involves moving. Because if I can find something they enjoy doing and add that to the program, they are far more likely to stick to it.
Now let’s talk about what I like to call ‘over saturation’. Oversaturation is when a program will have several different sessions that target the same muscle group. If you’re a bodybuilder and have a muscle lagging, ruining your symmetry, then using a wide variety of exercises that hit the body from all angles might be beneficial. I use that term deliberately, be beneficial. For most of us, however, this is simply unnecessary. If your goal is to put on muscle, stick to your compound exercises and avoid overcomplicating everything. If you want to spice it up with bicep curls and tricep extensions, by all means, go for it but know that it probably won’t do much in terms of adding muscle to your frame when compared to the compounds you’ve just performed.
This whole fitness thing can be tricky, and the overabundance of information can lead to forgetting a lot of the excellent information. Remember the three points: are you giving your body enough time to rest? Are you training all of your muscles, even the ones you can’t see? Are you regularly changing the stimulus to prevent plateaus? If you are, you’re on the fastest road to success that you can make for yourself.
Author: Jonathan Willey