When it comes to strength training, there are many methods and ways that a person can go about making progress. Many will debate different programs and methodologies and focus on the details of strength training. While the specifics of how a person particularly choses to strength train can vary, there are a few principles that should always be present no matter what you are doing in the strength training world.
A principle is defined as “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a behavior.” In our case, the behavior is strength training and, in the following sections, I will give you the foundation on which all your strength training should be built on.
There are four principles that we will look into: specificity, progressive overload, form, and multiple planes of motion. This list by no means includes every principle or every topic one should know for strength training, but it does hit on the most important ones. In fact, if you were to only look into the first two (specificity and progressive overload) and really understand them, you’d be way better off than most.
This idea of specificity is really a simple one and makes a lot of sense once you understand what it is. The principle of specificity simply states that adaptations are specific to the nature of the applied stimulus. Basically, that means that your body will only adapt to what you put it through.
To put it in a way that everyone will understand, imagine that it’s a Friday night and you really want some pizza. Instead of looking for a pizza restaurant to call, though, you Google search “local restaurants,” call the first number that comes up, and ask them to send you whatever is on the menu. A man comes to the door with a beet and kale salad. You’re outraged, because you wanted pizza! Truthfully, though, you didn’t do anything specific to that desire you had; you didn’t ask for pizza. As a result, you got something you didn’t really want.
The same thing is the case with strength training. If you want to be a better soccer player, then you have to do exercises that are specific to that goal. It would make very little sense for you to follow a powerlifting routine, hoping to get better at soccer. On the other hand, if you are trying to increase your squat, bench, and deadlift total, it makes perfect sense for you to follow a powerlifting routine, since the program would be very specific to your goals. Basically, if you want pizza, you have to pick up the phone, call the pizza place, and ask for pizza!
The reason why this is such an important principle is because the body adapts only to what you do, not to what you want it to adapt to in your mind. Adaptations are very specific, so your strength training must be as well.
Figure out what it is you actually want to accomplish with strength training and then use methods that are as specific to your goals as possible.
The next very important principle is progressive overload. This principle is paramount to any type of long-term success with strength training. Progressive overload is a principle that refers to the idea of increasing resistance over time. As simple as that is, it is something that many fail to focus on when they strength train.
Imagine you were in college and you were working toward a degree. You were going to campus every day, attending all your classes, but for some reason, when the semester was up, you never moved on to the next level of coursework. You just kept taking the same classes, over and over. Could you really expect to ever get your degree doing that? Of course not! That would be absurd.
For some reason, people will go into the gym, and use the same load for the same amount of repetitions and expect some sort of change to occur in their body from month to month. This is equally absurd.
Your body adapts and gets used to a certain load, which requires that you increase that load or in some way change the stimulus in order to make it more difficult on your body, causing new adaptations.
A few easy ways to apply this principle are to increase the load (weight) of your exercises over time, increase the repetitions of your exercises over time with the same load, or increase the amount of sets you do with the same load and same repetitions.
Also, to appropriately apply this principle, you MUST keep track of your workouts, the loads you are using, and the sets and reps you are doing with those loads. Not doing so will make it impossible for you to properly overload from week to week.
If there’s anything you retain from this section, just remember that without progressive overload, there will be no progress.
This is the section that I know many of you, especially those starting out, will likely overlook and not take seriously enough. Talking about form isn’t a ton of fun, but it is so absolutely crucial and necessary. If you are not mentally prepared to take the time to make sure your form is correct, you need to stay away from the weight room all together.
In order to perform any strength movement in a safe and efficient manner, proper form must be studied and applied. If you neglect to pay attention to your form, you will begin to ingrain bad movement patterns into your neurological pathways associated with that movement. On top of that, you will strengthen and grow your muscles in a way that supports those improper movements. In other words, training with bad form strengthens bad form. Gross improper form will lead to injury and injury can keep you out the gym for weeks, if not months. Nobody wants that. So, make sure you are paying attention to your form and being honest with yourself about your form.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to record yourself doing your exercises from different angles and analyzing the footage. This will allow you to see where you need to make adjustments. Another way to make sure your form is on point is to hire a qualified fitness professional that will be able to analyze your form and give you proper feedback on it. This isn’t a free option like the first one, but is well worth the money in my opinion.
One of the most important things to note here is that your form should come first, before you even think of adding weight. If you cannot do a bodyweight squat properly, for example, you should not be loading up a barbell and doing heavy back squats. Again, loading bad movements will only strengthen these bad movements. Master your bodyweight, then move on to loading up the weight.
Multiple Planes of Motion
There are three cardinal planes of motion: the frontal plane, the transverse plane, and the sagittal plane. We are designed to move along these planes by moving side-to-side, rotating, and moving front-to-back, respectively. Most strength exercises focus on that sagittal plane (front-to -back). Think squats, lunges, bench press, bicep curl, etc. While there is nothing wrong with these movements, doing only movements in the sagittal plane can lead to muscular imbalances and injures down the road.
Because of this, every strength-training program should have exercises in multiple planes of motion. This is not debatable.
If you are ever in doubt as to what to add in order to work multiple planes of motion, add in a rotational exercise (transverse plane). This is because by doing an exercise with rotation, you automatically cover the other two planes of motion. Don’t think so? Walk forward while walking to the right at the same time. Eventually you’ll end up right back where you started, creating a complete circle. That’s rotation.
These types of exercises don’t need to be the focus of your strength-training program, but they should be included to make sure there is proper muscle balance and that the body is being used the way it was designed to be used.
To wrap things up, whenever you are strength training, keep in mind that your training should be specific to the goals you wish to achieve, always overload your muscles progressively in some way, pay attention to your form, and always utilize multiple planes of motion in your workouts. If you keep these four principles in mind, you will make great progress and keep yourself safe and balanced along the way.