Starting a new lifting program can be a daunting task, and hitting a plateau after a year or two of working out can be frustrating. If you’re facing either of these situations, make sure that you are considering each of these principles that guarantee your success in the weight room.
Progressive Overload – If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.
This is arguably the most important (and most often overlooked) principle of exercise. Your body will only respond to demands that challenge its systems. In order to cause a desired change, you have to put your body through something it isn’t accustomed to. This stimulus or challenge or stress is known as overload. If your body can already handle bicep curls with 15 pounds for 10 reps, then it has no reason to change if you work out with 15 pounds for 10 reps. If you can already comfortably run at 5 mph on a treadmill for 30 minutes, then your body has no reason to change if you keep running at 5 mph for 30 minutes.
Additionally, it is not enough to just find one weight/speed/rep range to overload the systems and expect continued changes. Once the body changes or improves, that same stimulus or load that initially overloaded your body has now become manageable. In order to see continued improvements, you must progressively overload, or continue to increase the difficulty or intensity of the exercise.
Specificity – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands
This is one of the most obvious principles on the list, but it is not always considered whenplanning a routine. In the most basic sense, this principle states that squats won’t make your upper body stronger; or running sprints won’t give you bigger arms. You have to train the movement pattern or muscle group that you are trying to improve. Also, you have to train in a specific way (with regard to sets, reps, and weight) to get your desired results – strength, lean mass, lower body fat, etc. Another way to say this is that you will experience Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (the SAID principle).
In general, if you are looking to get stronger, you should lift heavy weights (that only allow for 6 or fewer reps). If you are looking to get bigger or add lean muscle mass, you should focus on exhausting the muscle (10-12 reps per set, more total volume). If you are looking to build muscular endurance or lean out/burn fat, you should focus on more reps with incomplete recovery. If you want to run faster, you should run short, intense sprints. If you want to compete in a 5K, you need to run a few miles at a time.
Recovery – You don’t make actual gains in the gym. You make gains at home.
You’re technically not getting any better during your workout. In fact, you are leaving the gym weaker than when you started. It’s when you’re sitting at home on your couch that your body starts to grow and repair and improve. You need time to heal and adapt before another stimulus is added, or before you overload the same muscle group or movement pattern. Too many consecutive bouts can lead to diminishing returns. This is the basic idea behind General Adaptation Syndrome – where the body first experiences an alarm stage (when the stress is first experienced), followed by the resistance or adaptation stage (when resistance or adaptation to the stress is created), and finally the body experiences the exhaustion stage (if the stress is not removed and systems do not have a chance to recover, the systems wear out). Obviously you want to stop before you reach exhaustion. Immediately after a bout your body is weaker, systems are broken down, and you have generally thrown things out of whack. But after a few days of recovery (give or take a couple days depending on the workout) it will grow stronger than it was before. Your goal is to repeat the exercise during this period of supercompensation. Just make sure you don’t wait so long that your body has a chance to revert back to its original strength or size levels.
Reversibility – If you don’t use it, you lose it.
While the body does need time to recover and do it’s thing, too much time without training will lead to a loss of gains. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Unfortunately you cannot work out hard for 12 weeks, experience lots of progress, and then expect your improvements to stick without further training. Your body will tend to try to get back to its “set point” where it’s easier to maintain less muscle mass or more body fat. If you aren’t experiencing heavy loads or the need to breathe heavy on a consistent basis, your body doesn’t want to put resources into those systems.
Variability – Change things up, but only when it makes sense.
At some point, the workout plan you are following will cease to give you results, or at least not the results you want. Load, frequency, exercise selection, etc. should be varied at regular intervals to maximize gains and avoid plateaus. This doesn’t mean that every day needs to be different. In fact, you should be able to follow the same exact plan for 6-8 weeks and continue to see results (as long as you follow progressive overload) without ever changing your exercise selection or set/rep scheme. To maximize your results and to reach your overall goal, it is likely that you will need to incorporate a few different types of training. When you plan out these different types of training, or training for different goals (strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance), it is known as periodization.
A simple periodization scheme might call for 8 weeks of training focused on strength, followed by 8 weeks of hypertrophy, followed by 8 weeks of muscular endurance training. Putting your goals in this order would allow you to first get stronger, so that you can lifter heavier weights to induce hypertrophy (increase the size of muscles), and finally focus on burning fat so that your muscles look better. It wouldn’t be uncommon to work on getting stronger during the fall, then work to put on muscle mass in the winter, and focus on leaning out during the spring.
Individuality – You are genetically unique.
What works well for you may not work as well for your friends. What works well for the person you want to look like may not work as well for you. You have to remain realistic, but also be optimistic, about your results and progress. Some people are genetically gifted. Some people have to work very hard to see any results. And some people are genetically gifted and work very hard to reach their goals. Those people with the combination of gifts and work ethic are the folks who are emulated. Typically, to become a high level athlete, world-class powerlifter, or legitimate fitness model, one will have the combination of excellent genetics and relentless work ethic. Unfortunately, we can only control half of that equation. However, that is not to say that you are either gifted or you’re not. We all have different strengths and gifts, and chances are you already know what your’s are. Most people tend to fall in love with the sport they are built for, or love to work the body part that is their best asset.
Just because you don’t reach the level you see on TV or in magazines, or you just can’t reach them as easily as you wanted, it doesn’t mean you should be discouraged or give up. You can only compare yourself to you. Pushing hard to reach your goals and consistently putting yourself through intense workouts is more than most people can say for themselves. If you can fall in love with the process and focus on consistency and discipline, you will almost certainly be pleased with the results. Try methods that others use, but take note of how it affects you. There is no cookie-cutter program that works for everyone, but discovering your individual process is part of the fun.