Ask any coach or fitness trainer and they’ll tell you there are certain guidelines you should follow to improve your fitness level. Whether you’re trying to improve your endurance or increase muscle size and strength, decades of research have revealed how best to do it. These guidelines are universally recognized and are known as the basic principles of fitness training.
Violating even one of these fitness training principles can make it harder to get where you’re trying to go. Much like a map or blueprint, these are guidelines that will get you there. You’re probably familiar with most of these fitness training principles, but here’s a refresher to make sure you’re on the right track.
Fitness Training Principles: Principle of Specificity
The principle of specificity is simple. It basically says you should plan your training around what you’re trying to achieve. If you want more muscle definition, an hour a day of cardio won’t cut it. Adaptations to training are specific to the goals you’re trying to reach.
For example, to develop power, focus on high-velocity movements. Training at a slow speed, even using heavy resistance, builds strength but won’t optimize for power development. Likewise, using lighter weights and high reps increases muscle endurance but won’t build substantial strength.
The principle of specificity also applies to energy systems and muscle groups. To become a better sprinter, jogging at a leisurely rate won’t get you there. Sprinting taps into anaerobic energy systems while jogging uses primarily aerobic energy pathways. In terms of body parts and muscle groups, doing biceps curls won’t make you better at doing squats or lunges.
Fitness Training Principles: Principle of Progression and Overload
The principle of progression is one too many people get wrong and it keeps them from reaching their goals. It’s easy to make gains in the beginning, but your muscles and cardiovascular system soon adapt to the stress you place on them. Unless you increase the load or stress you place on these systems, you’ll reach a plateau.
For resistance training, progression consists of progressive overload, slowly increasing the demands placed on the muscle groups you’re trying to condition. The classic way is to increase the amount of weight you use, but you can also overload your muscles by increasing training volume for that muscle group, by doing more reps or sets, by increasing the frequency with which you train, or by changing the rest period between sets.
The principle of progression is the foundation upon which bodybuilding is based. If you don’t abide by it, your improvements will be limited.
Fitness Training Principles: Principle of Recovery
Don’t underestimate the importance of the recovery principle. More training isn’t necessarily better. You’ve heard it before – muscles grow during the time between workouts. That’s when muscle cells hungrily suck up amino acids from the protein you eat to form new muscle proteins and that’s how your muscles grow and become stronger. Muscle cells also experience microscopic tears and damage that has to be repaired. Without adequate recovery time, full repair can’t take place.
Recovery applies to any type of athletic training, not just resistance exercise. Whether you’re doing HIIT training or moderate-intensity endurance exercise, you’re tapping into energy systems. No wonder! Your cells need a constant supply of ATP for energy to sustain exercise. To make ATP, cells use glucose, stored glycogen, and fat. During high-intensity exercise, the primary energy source is stored creatine phosphate and glycogen. Unless you give your body enough recovery time to replenish those stores, your future performance will suffer and you won’t optimize your gains.
Fitness Training Principles: Principle of Reversibility
The principle of reversibility might best be expressed as, “Use it or lose it.” If you stop training for a sustained period of time, you’ll gradually lose your gains. In the case of resistance training, your muscles will lose strength and size. If you stop endurance exercise, your aerobic capacity will decline. The rate at which you lose fitness gains depends on how fit you are. If you built up a substantial level of fitness, you’ll lose those gains slower than someone who only trained for a few months before stopping.
In terms of aerobic capacity, you may experience some decline in as little as two weeks of not training. After a few months of sedentary living, you’ll have lost most of your gains. Strength gains usually stick around longer. You probably won’t notice a reduction in strength until at least 3 weeks after stopping training and even then the reduction will be slight. After that, you’ll experience gradual strength loss, but even after 4 or 5 months, you’ll stay retain some of your strength gains over baseline.
Here’s the good news. You can cut back on how much or often you exercise and still retain most of your gains as long as you keep the intensity high. Intensity is more important than duration for preserving fitness gains.
Hopefully, you won’t have to take a sustained break from exercise, but if you do, it’s easier to get back in shape the second time around, especially in terms of strength. During your previous training, your nervous system forged new pathways that are ready to be reactivated through training. That’s the concept of “muscle memory.” Even if you take a long time off, it won’t be like you’re starting completely over. You probably learned to ride a bike a long time ago, and even if you haven’t been on one in decades, it’s relatively easy to begin cycling again. Your mind still retains the “blueprint.”
The Bottom Line
Making fitness gains don’t have to be hard, as long as you understand the fitness training principles behind how to get fit. Now, all you have to do is put in the time and effort and eat a clean, nutritious diet, of course. It isn’t always easy, but when you consider the benefits – it’s worth it.
ACE Fitness. “Training Recovery: The Most Important Component of Your Clients’ Exercise Programs”
Berkeley Wellness. “The Exercise Detraining Effect”
BrianMac.Co.UK. “Training Principles”
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning; National Strength and Conditioning Association.
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