4 Principles of Resistance Training and How Some People Get Them Wrong

4 Principles of Resistance Training and How Some People Get Them Wrong

There are lots of ways to approach a resistance training workout. You can use barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands. and even your own body weight. Plus, you can change the training variables – the volume of training, resistance, rest between sets etc. Still, certain underlying principles make up the foundation of resistance training. Unfortunately, some people unknowingly violate these principles and expect to get results. Here are four basic training principles and how some people unintentionally get them wrong.

 Resistance Training: Principle of Progressive Overload

Possibly the most important resistance training principle is that of progressive overload. The principle of progressive overload says what you probably already know: Your muscles won’t continue to grow unless you subject them to more stress than they’re accustomed too. It’s overload that forces your muscles to adapt by becoming stronger and larger. If you’re trying to build strength you primarily overload your muscles by adding more resistance to your lifts. If your goal is to increase muscle endurance, you do it by gradually adding more volume to your sets. To jumpstart muscle growth, you increase resistance AND volume over time since muscles grow in response to both.

Keep in mind that progressive overload needn’t occur in a linear fashion. When you’re first starting out, focus on getting the form right before adding more resistance. If you’re eating right and training regularly, you’ll probably make rapid gains in the first few months, but after that, you’ll have to work harder for those gains. At some point, you’ll want to periodize your workouts so you cycle the stimulus you place on your muscles during different phases to avoid plateaus and overtraining.

 Resistance Training: How Some People Get It Wrong:

If you’ve ever worked out at a gym, you probably noticed people who lifted regularly but never seemed to change. Usually, it’s because they do the same routine using the same resistance day after day and month after month. To see change, you have to increase the challenge over time. If you’re trying to build strength, you shouldn’t be lifting the same weight today that you did three months ago. To monitor your progress, keep a written log so you can look back and see if you’re progressing over time or whether you’re staying stagnant.

 Resistance Training: Principle of Specificity

The principle of specificity is referred to as SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand). The SAID principle simply states that adaptations are specific to the type of training you do. For resistance training, if you train using lighter weights and high reps, you’ll build muscle endurance, but strength gains will be limited.  Likewise, if you use high resistance and low reps, you build strength but gain little endurance. SAID doesn’t just apply to resistance training, it holds for any type of athletic training you do. An athlete doesn’t become an awesome sprinter by running long distances or doing kickboxing workouts. They power up their ability to sprint by sprinting. Similarly, when you train to become better at a particular sport, the exercises you do should mimic movements you do when you play that sport.

 Resistance Training: How Some People Get It Wrong:

Some people train with light weights and high reps and expect to get stronger. It’s not going to happen. With lighter weights, you target mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers, ones optimized for endurance. With heavy resistance, you recruit mostly fast-twitch fibers, ones designed for strength and power. You might make some strength gains, in the beginning, using lighter weight, because of neurological adaptations, but you’ll quickly reach a plateau. Recent research suggests it’s possible to build muscle using lighter weights, especially if you lift to failure, but don’t count on making significant strength gains.

The take-home message? Think about what your objectives are and tailor your training around what you’re trying to achieve. Then make your training adaptation specific.

 Resistance Training: Principle of Reversibility

This is a principle most of us wish didn’t exist. You sweat and train to build up a certain level of strength and muscle size. Then you stop training for a few months and slowly lose those gains.  All of that hard work for nothing? The good news is muscles have “memory.” Once you carve the neurological pathways that made you stronger, you regain strength faster even after taking a long break.

Even building muscle size is easier the second time around. When you resistance train, the number of nuclei within each muscle cell increases. Scientists used to think you lose these nuclei when you stop training. Turns out you don’t (based on animal studies). Since you still have those extra nuclei, regaining muscle size is faster the second time.

How Some People Get It Wrong:

The quickest way to “get it wrong” is to stop training. Regrettably, sometimes life gets in the way or you experience an injury that keeps you from working out. Rather than quitting entirely, try to modify your routine in a way that won’t aggravate the injury or make it worse. If your lower body is injured, work your upper body. Do what you can to stay active. If time is the reason you can’t workout, do short, intense workouts that get the job done quickly. Even if you can’t do anything for a few weeks or months, muscle memory is still on your side.

 Resistance Training: The Principle of Individual Variability

Each of us responds to resistance training in a different way based on age, gender, genetics, training and nutrition. Some people build muscle easily while others have to work hard to see a significant change. In general, women and older people have to train more intensely to build muscle, partially due to differences in hormonal make-up. That doesn’t mean you can’t build muscle or increase your strength. It just might take longer for you than it does someone else.

Don’t let age stop you. Studies show that even people in their ninth decade of life are capable of increasing muscle size and strength. Research shows elderly people need to train at a higher intensity (greater than 85% of one-rep max) and will gain the most benefits by more frequent training, 3 to 4 times a week.

 Resistance Training: How Some People Get It Wrong:

Some people get it wrong by not using a high enough resistance and not consuming enough protein and calories to build lean body mass. Nutrition is part of the equation too. You can’t build lean body mass if you have a calorie deficit. The other part of the equation is being patient. Gains in strength and muscle size take time.

The Bottom Line

Keep these training principles in mind and violate them at your own risk. They’re backed by a number of research studies. The good news is they can work in your favor if you let them.



J Clin Invest. 2008 Apr;118(4):1450-7. doi: 10.1172/JCI34022.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 24;107(34):15111-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0913935107. Epub 2010 Aug 16.

IAAF.org. “Principles of Training”

Experimental Physiology. Volume 91, Issue 2, pages 457-464, March 2006.


Related Articles By Cathe:

3 Approaches to Weight Training and Why You Need All Three

5 Tips for Working with Heavy Weights

Can You Build Strength Lifting Lighter Weights?

4 Reasons You Lose Muscle Size & Strength with Age

Is Resistance Training Better Than High-Impact Aerobics for Bone Health?

Training Loads: the “Sweet Spot” for Muscle Hypertrophy

5 Biggest Myths about Female Strength Training


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

All of Cathe’s Strength & Toning Workout DVDs


Hi, I'm Cathe

I want to help you get in the best shape of your life and stay healthy with my workout videos, DVDs and Free Weekly Newsletter. Here are several ways you can watch and work out to my exercise videos and purchase my fitness products:

Get Your Free Weekly Cathe Friedrich Newsletter

Get free weekly tips on Fitness, Health, Weight Loss and Nutrition delivered directly to your email inbox. Plus get Special Cathe Product Offers and learn about What’s New at Cathe Dot Com.

Enter your email address below to start receiving my free weekly updates. Don’t worry…I guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will not be shared and you can easily unsubscribe whenever you like. Our Privacy Policy