The three principles of strength training

The world of strength training and program design can be a complicated and sometimes daunting task. Luckily, there are a few basic principles to follow that will ensure you are getting the most effective routine in the safest manner possible.  

There are 3 basic principles to follow:

Overload Principle

The overload principle states that in order for a muscle or body part to grow and adapt, you must make it work harder than it is accustomed to. Essentially, you must continue to make your exercise program harder in order to create more change. For example, if you are doing a bicep curl, and only ever use 15 lbs., your body will only adapt to be able to lift 15lbs. There must be an overload of the muscle, doing more than it is used to in order to elicit change. This principle can be applied to cardio training as well, if you want to improve, you must do something you are not used to. Whether that means going faster, going uphill, incorporating intervals; these will all help to overload your body and force it to change and adapt.

Progressive Overload Principle

This is very similar to the overload principle, but is aimed at keeping you safe and injury free. The progressive overload principle states that exercises should build in intensity based on experience in an exercise routine. A beginner weight lifter should not be doing the same exercises as an expert and vice versa. This is especially important for beginners to an exercise routine to keep in mind in order to remain injury free. There is no need to rush into harder exercises; build you base strength and endurance first, then the harder exercises can follow. This is also important for more advanced lifters. If they are doing exercises that are too easy, change and progress will not come. If the exercise selection does not match the experience and capabilities of the lifter, there will not be any overload and muscles will not adapt.

The Principle of Specificity

This principle seems like it should be common sense, but it is not always followed in the weight room. The principle of specificity states that in order to make progress, your exercise selection needs to be specific to your goals. For example, if someone wants to improve their pushups, they need to do more pushups or exercises that work the chest and shoulders. Performing leg press and squats will not improve your pushups. Another example, if someone wants to run faster, the main focus of their exercise routine should be leg strength and speed training. The exercise selection of your training program is going to dictate where your developments and progress happen. So if you are not seeing the results you want, in the areas you want them, take a look at your exercises.

When creating and tailoring an exercise and strength training routine, it is important to keep these principles in mind. This will ensure you reap the most benefits in the shortest amount of time, in the safest way possible.


Patrick Scott, MS, CSCS


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