Principle of Individual Differences: Everyone is different. Some people can do a few sets of pushups, and grow like a weed. Others have to hammer out pushups till the sweat is rolling off their face to see the same results.
Some of us were made for running. Others will run a few minutes, then get side stitches, knee pain, and shin splints. That’s because of differences in muscle fiber type, hormonal responses, receptorcites, enzymes, genetics, and another big long list of mumbo jumbo. The point is this: not every person is built the same, or is good at the same thing, so a given exercise program and dietary intake will not work for everyone.
However, everyone can still see results and improve their fitness levels, if they train consistently and progressively!
Principle of Overload: Anyone acquainted with bodybuilding will know this principle, though it applies to everyone, not just bodybuilders.
This principle basically states that to get stronger, whatever you’re doing must go beyond what you’re used to doing. To give an example, if you can run a mile in 10 minutes comfortably, the only way you’ll ever get better is to try finishing that mile in 9 minutes instead of 10.
There’s lots of ways to reach overload. Instead of running the same distance in a shorter time, you could run a longer distance in the same time. Or you could add weight or resistance, and try to finish the same distance in the same time. The method of exercise you choose, and the way you challenge overload, will depend on what your goals are. If your goals are to just get in better shape and be healthy, then it wont matter so much which one you choose. Just go with your favorite!
Programs like West Side Barbell have you hitting overload on bench press in different ways. Sometimes you’re lifting as fast as you can, other times as heavy as you can, but it’s usually the same exercise, since increasing your bench is the goal.
Programs like Crossfit have you reaching overload in a general, overall sense, with the target being “work tolerance”, or how much you can move in a given amount of time. Many of their routines use the “40/40/40 – 30/30/30 – 20/20/20 – 10/10/10” rep scheme, with the aim being to hit overload by finishing each workout in less and less time.
Many other strength building programs have a tricky way of increasing max lifts. Instead of pushing harder each workout to lift more weight, you lift more weight overall per week! These tend to be very effective.
Principle of Use / Disuse: Going back to the previous example of running a mile in 10 minutes: as long as you continue running that distance in that amount of time, you’ll maintain that level of fitness, even if you don’t push to improve anything.
However, if you stop doing those runs, you will eventually stop being able to do them. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. This is why it’s important to remain consistent with exercise.
The good news is that results don’t disappear over night. Unless you’re training for the NBA playoffs, skipping a workout here or there is fine. Just don’t let skipping-a-workout turn into never-going-back-to-working-out.
Principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID): this one’s a mouthful, so it is sometimes referred to as the Law of SAID (pronounced just like the word, “said”). This is also a rather technical principle, and quite a lot of research has been published on it. What it all boils down to is this: the exercise you do is the exercise you’ll get better at.
A marathon runner may increase her cardiovascular fitness by riding a stationary bike. However, since she’s planning to actually run a marathon, she’d prepare herself better by running on a treadmill than by riding a bike. And since the race will happen outside, she’ll do even better to run outside rather than inside on a treadmill. And since she’ll be running one specific course, she’ll do best of all running that particular course, rather than just run anywhere. The more closely her training matches her event, the better off she’ll be, because her body adapts specifically to the stimulus it receives.
Again, if your goal is to just get in better shape than you were before, then just pick your favorite mode of exercise, and remember to push a little further or a little harder each time if you want to keep getting better.
Principle of Specifity: Simply put, this principle states that anyone new to fitness or exercise needs to start off light, with a general, over-all approach, then gradually get more and more specific if there’s a particular goal in mind.
Lets say you’ve never exercised before, but your goal is to one day be a gymnast. If we have you go out on the floor and start training like a gold medal gymnast immediately, the results… will not be pretty. Almost certainly you’re going to get injured, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to walk again for several weeks on account of the soreness.
So what we’ll do is start you off with basic leg swings, arm swings, and stretches.
As your strength and mobility improve, we’ll give you hops, jumps, and rolls to practice with.
As your agility improves, we’ll give you basic body weight exercises, and possibly some weight bearing movements to prepare your joints and muscles for serious work. At this point, we’ll also begin leaving the leg and arm swings (beginner stuff) behind.
As your overall strength improves, now we’ll do jumps, jump-twists, jump-kicks, and begin working on specific forms of training.
Finally, we’ll be training specifically for gymnastics, leaving all the general-fitness stuff behind.
Principle of Variability: If you train with the exact same routine, eat the exact same foods, and live the exact same way, over and over for months at a time, you’ll get into something called a “rut”. A rut is basically an overall state of dissatisfaction and boredom. If you have fitness goals in mind, you may have hit a “plateau” – this means you have stopped seeing results from your training. It’s the fitness form of a “rut”.
A smart program plans to change things up a bit. Those familiar with fitness parlance may have heard of “muscle confusion”: the idea that suddenly doing a completely different set of exercises (or the same exercises with different reps, sets, speeds, or some other changes) will keep the fitness gains coming. This is true, so long as the other principles are not violated in the attempt to change things up.
Variability also applies to your diet. Eating only a few cans of tuna and spinach a day is a fantastic way to drop pound after pound of fat. But after a few weeks, if you stick to this diet unwaveringly, you’re going to develop an intense hatred of both tuna and spinach. You can change things up and still keep the same basic nutritional profile. Try lean chicken breasts and broccoli. When that gets old, try salmon and cauliflower. When that gets old, find something else that provides lean protein along with enough vitamins and minerals. Just don’t resort to a steady diet of cheeseburgers and fries. Change things up, but stay on track!
Principle of Nutritional Sufficiency: Above all, the body requires nutrition. See the post titled Nutrition Basics for more information.
A nutritional deficiency in even one of these can lead to very serious health problems, and make fitness gains virtually impossible.
One of the most common complaints in anyone who’s been training at the gym for any length of time is a lack of results. Almost always, without fail, a number of nutritional deficiencies can be found in that person’s diet. The most common fix applied – especially if fat loss is the goal – is the use of a diet pill or some other diet supplement. Diet pills are fine, but increase the body’s metabolism, meaning an even greater nutritional intake is required. Or said another way, diet pills can make any existing nutritional deficiencies even worse. The person ultimately becomes less healthy, and will risk gaining back any weight that was lost.
The good news is, that most vegetables have most – if not all – of the vitamins and minerals listed. Broccoli and spinach, for example, have the entire spectrum of vitamins, from A to Zinc. If your diet consists of a sandwich in the morning, a slice of pizza for lunch, and a plate of Whatever for dinner, you’ll need to fix your diet before you can fix your fitness.
Diet always comes before fitness, never the other way around.
Principle of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS): This principle is most relevant to those wishing to approach an elite level of training. It may also apply to “weekend warriors”, but to a much lesser extent.
This principle states that the body, as a whole, tends to exhaust over time; fatigue and exhaustion accumulate as fitness builds.
To illustrate, lets consider a typical bodybuilder’s routine.
On Monday, you train your legs.
On Wednesday, you train your chest and shoulders.
On Friday, you train your back, biceps, and abs.
However… you’re training your kidneys, heart, and lungs on Monday, Wednesday, AND Friday! Every day is Central Nervous System day.
The good news is that these “background” systems are built for enduring stress in this manner. The heart is made from a special kind of muscle tissue, which isn’t at all like the muscle in your biceps. A heart muscle can work consistently, day and night, for up to 80 or 90 years at a time (unless you really abuse it) without needing to stop. Your biceps can’t do that.
The bad news is that these systems do get fatigued with repeated bouts of intense training, and it’s this sort of accumulated fatigue that will bring a halt to any results you were seeing. When this happens, it’s time to take a break from the gym for a while: maybe a week or two. During this break period, the body recovers overall, as a whole. All the background systems are restored, and all the muscles recover completely. When this happens, you have “Generally Adapted” – and because it happens across the body in a variety of ways, it’s a “Syndrome” (hence, General Adaptation Syndrome). When you come back to the gym after a break, you’ll notice that you’re much stronger and far more capable than you were when you left!
Another word for this is “Supercompensation” (not to be confused with “overcompensation”). GAS refers to the entire process, while supercompensation refers to the recovery and becoming stronger.
And those are some basic principles to keep in mind! Whether you’re just getting started, or have been training for a while, these will work as a compass to help you stay pointed in the right direction.