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Totally Effective Training Principles

I'm addressing this article to the men and women who exercise for the primary purpose of changing their body shape, be it improving body tone or building muscle mass. If your main reason for training is fitness, endurance, strength, or sporting ability, then this article is probably not for you.

In fact the paragraph above highlights one of the main stumbling blocks we face when we take up exercise. We either start our training with no clear goal, or we fail to select the right type of training to meet that goal.

If we are fortunate enough to choose the right style of training, we face our next hurdle. When progress slows down, or stops, we decide to make changes. For most of us, the changes we make are completely wrong. We change the factors which don't contribute to us achieving our goal.

Finally, we reach the point that we feel we need to completely change our workout routine, maybe even switch exercise style or quit training altogether. Essentially we're bored, disappointed or simply de-motivated. Unfortunately at this point the changes we make are almost certainly inappropriate and often set our progress back or even regressing.

Adapt or Die

We are creatures that are designed to adapt to survive. Its the basic principle of all living things, they adapt to their surroundings in order to survive. Exercise exploits this trait.

Each time we train we place our body under a stress our body immediately goes on the defensive and begins to adapt so that next time we do the same exercise the stress level will be less. Eventually we adapt sufficiently that the stress level is so low that it no longer triggers the defensive mechanism.

Now if we have chosen the right style of training, the adaptation will be a small increase in muscle tissue and a little loss of fat tissue. This is why recognising your goal, and then being able to select the right style of training for that goal is critical.

If we took a large over fat person who set a goal of having a lean athletic build, and that person took up jogging he wouldn't achieve his goal. The adaptive response is to make our body more efficient at jogging so it creates less stress. This would result in creating more energy efficient fuel burning mitochondria, and reducing overall body mass including fat, bone and muscle tissue. In essence the adaptation is to change our large over fat person into a small over fat person who is better equipped to jog.

Similarly a person who trains to explosively lift the heaviest weight possible for one rep becomes better at doing this. The specific adaptation is to improve the mechanism that contracts the muscle fibres so that more fibres can be recruited to lift the weight.

Well then what's the stimulus required to build muscle?

Each time you lift a weight a certain number of muscle fibres are recruited and a percentage become temporarily exhausted. With each successive rep more fibres become exhausted until there are insufficient fibres available to move the weight. The adaptive response in this case is to create a larger volume of muscle fibres to recruit such that we can complete the set with less stress on our body.

Progressive Overload

At some point our body adapts to a level whereby the exercise no longer places a stress on the body. At this point the stimulus is ineffective and progress grinds to a halt. Its at this point that sooner or later all of us make the next big mistake.

Clearly the right response is to increase the weight lifted by the minimum amount that places our body back under a stress it needs to adapt to. Increasing the weight too much places a level of stress on the body we cant adapt to and we get 'shut down', a spiralling cycle whereby the body protects itself from excessive stress.

However, as I say, we will all sooner or later make a fundamental mistake, and it'll be one or other of these:

  • Increase the amount of work we do. Add more exercises or more sets. The adaptive response here is to increase muscle endurance. Only when this stress is reduced can we again start to increase muscle fibre volume. In other words we have compromised our goal by inadvertently creating a different type of stress.
  • We swap exercises, or exercise style. Inevitably this means that our body has to adapt to a new range of motion, a new technique. Again this interferers with our primary goal as before our body can develop new muscle it must first adapt to a new exercise.

So the message here is not to change the exercises, not to increase work volume, but simply to increase the resistance by the minimum amount required to trigger the desired stress in order to continuously progress at every workout towards your goal.

Eliminating Other Factors

Ensuring progressive overload is more than just increasing the weight. Its about keeping as many other factors static as possible so that the only thing that changes is the amount of weight moved through the exercise set. Here are the key factors that can vary: in regular multi exercise, multi set workouts:

  • Number of exercises for the body part
  • Time between each exercise
  • Number of sets of each exercise
  • Time between each set
  • Rep count for each set
  • Time spend for each phase of the rep

This is a lot of factors to keep constant, and only by keeping them constant can you be assured that you are increasing the load on the muscle. If you're not sure you increased the load, there is no guarantee that it was a productive workout.

By reducing the sets and exercises to just one, the factors you need to control reduce to just two:

  • Rep count for each set
  • Time spend for each phase of the rep

This is far more achievable for us to control, and therefore becomes possible to ensure each workout is massively effective.

Exercise Selection

This is a clear cut one. We already know the answer, its just a bit painful to accept. We need to pick exercises that stimulate most muscle tissue in the primary and supporting muscle of the body part we're training.

As an example, if we pick a squat for the legs (you knew it was this and not leg extension didn't you!) then you know that the primary driving muscles will be the quads in the front of the legs, with secondary activity in the hamstrings, glutes, calves, lower back, abdominal etc.

The first adaptation our body makes is to 'learn' how to move, it creates what is commonly called a 'grove' but is simply a sequence of muscle contractions between the primary and secondary muscles that synergistically allow the primary muscle to exert maximum force.

The next adaptation is the desired change in muscle tissue in primary and secondary muscles to allow you to move the weight.

As you can see, each time we change exercises, the first adaptation is to learn how to move. This can take from one to many workouts, and during this time our principle adaptation is not to developing muscle tissue. Consequently, change exercises as infrequently as possible.

Arnold Schwarzenegger best makes the point. When asked if he changed his biceps routine frequently he replied "Yes, I changed it 7 years ago and I think in another 7 years I'll look at changing it again!"

Your workout should be based around these movements:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Chins

All other movements are secondary, and need not be included without good reason as they risk you being less able to monitor that the muscle has been worked harder at each workout.

Training Volume and Recovery

It should be clear that to guarantee adaptation to measurable muscle overload I am advocating low volume workouts, which include methods such as HIT and Static Contraction. This does not mean that higher volume, multi-set workouts don't work, clearly, empirical evidence shows that they do, however it does have these issues:

  • Each time we increase volume, the primary adaptation is to accommodate the extra workout volume. Only once this is completed can your body make its primary adaptation muscle growth.
  • High volume workouts require far more control of variable factors to ensure the muscle is overloaded at each workout. This requires detailed records, a personal trainer, good feel for instinctive training, or just plain dumb good luck.
  • Higher volume workouts take more time.

A study of studies conducted in the USA concluded that performing 3 sets showed no greater gains than performing 1 set, so you have to ask do you want to take on these issues for no visible benefits in terms of muscle growth.

How often should a muscle be trained, or to put it another way, how quickly do we fully recover from a workout?

It would seem that there are many factors in answering this, and some of them are hard to monitor. But basically a muscle that is trained within its capacity will recover more rapidly than a muscle which is overloaded..

Ever noticed the guy in the corner who trains his whole body 3 times a week, same workout at each visit, right down to the same weights.He takes his training seriously, seems to work hard, yet 2 years later he hasn't changed a bit.

Because there is no overload, recovery is complete within 1-2 days and he can repeat his workout a couple of days later.

A muscle which is moderately overloaded would seem to have mostly recovered after around 5 days, but further adaptation may take place for several days thereafter.

The common approach, to ensure near maximum recovery and adaptation, is to train muscle groups around every 7 days.

Other factors that affect recovery time include; dietary habits, sleep, general physical activity level, other stresses in our lives, and nutritional intake immediately after a workout.

The Effective Training Lifestyle

For some training is the biggest focus of their lives, and they spend hours in a gym, hours planning what to eat, they live and breathe the gym lifestyle. For the rest of us, we have families, a house to pay for and maintain, a job, children and a whole string of responsibilities and other goals and objectives.

So if this describes you as well as it does me, then this approach will allow you to get maximum results with a minimum of time by leading you to a path of truly effective workouts.

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