There are numerous training philosophies in the fitness industry. From books and magazines to videos and the Internet, the information can be certainly be overwhelming. Some programs are designed to work best for strength, others are designed for size. Some to get shredded… some for speed… Some for sports, some for fitness. Some for hard gainers…. some for beginners…. You get the point, there’s a ton of training philosophies. Even if you have the time to look into all of them and have a decent amount of knowledge on training science, uncertainty as to which is best can still cripple your efforts. Science, then, must be the driving force. There’s really only one science. But all too often, science is misinterpreted, which leads to confusion, frustration, and sometimes injury.

There are well-documented training principles that are essential in determining the merits of any training system. There are at least seven overlapping principles upon which all systems must rely if optimum effectiveness in training outcomes is to be expected. Most (but not all) of the training systems popular in current muscle magazines adhere only in part to The Seven “Granddaddy” Laws. What determines whether a training system is more or less effective than another lies in how these laws are implemented, how they are used to the best advantage of the trainee and whether or not they are even considered.

 

THE SEVEN “GRANDDADDY” LAWS

1. Principle of Individual Differences

This principle is an acknowledgment that we all have different genetic blueprints. David Q. Thomas, Ph.D. stated, “We all will have similar responses and adaptations to the stimulus of exercise, but the rate and magnitude of these changes will be limited by our differing genetics. Some are fast responders and others are slow responders. Some have the capacity to reach elite status and some do not. If we have everyone perform the same exercise program, they will all not receive the same benefits at the same rate or to the same extent. This is an important principle to teach to people wishing to start an exercise program or to youngsters just coming into sports. There are two reasons: 1) so they can set realistic goals, and 2) so they do not get frustrated when they do not see miraculous changes in their bodies or performance.”

2. Overcompensation Principle

Calluses build up on your hands as an adaptive response to friction. Muscle fibers grow in size and strength in response to training. Lacerated tissue develops scar tissue. All involve Mother Nature’s law of overcompensation for a stress response. In other words, it is nothing more than a survival mechanism built into the genetic code of the species.

“Most (but not all) of the training systems popular in current muscle magazines adhere only in part to The Seven “Granddaddy” Laws. What determines whether a training system is more or less effective than another lies in how these laws are implemented, how they are used to the best advantage of the trainee and whether or not they are even considered. “

3. Overload Principle

Related to the Overcompensation principle is the principle that states that in order to gain in strength, muscle size or endurance from any training, you must exercise against a resistance greater than that “normally” encountered. If you use the same amount of resistance for the same number of repetitions every workout, there will be no continued improvement beyond the point to which your body has already adapted.

There is a built-in problem with this principle. Your body is wonderfully adaptable to stresses imposed during training. As you get stronger and stronger, the stress levels required to force added adaptation rise to such a height that your recuperative powers simply cannot keep up. The solution? It is very simple. At this point you must go to a split system of training. Then, perhaps later, a double or even triple split. The only other solution will be for your training progress to plateau (or worse, you will enter a state of overtraining), as you are not affording your body ample time for recovery — and further adaptation — to occur. This solution begs the question of how to “periodize” your training.

4. SAID Principle

Your muscles and their respective subcellular components will adapt in highly specific ways to the demands (adaptive stress) you impose upon them in your training. This applies as well to various bodily systems and tissues other than your muscles. This is the SAID Principle, the acronym for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.” If your training objectives include becoming more explosive, then you have to train explosively. If you desire greater limit strength (primarily from an increase in the cross section of myofibrils), you must use heavier weights than if you were training, for example, local muscular endurance (capillarization and mitochondrial adaptations). If your objectives include deriving cardiovascular benefits, then you must tax the heart muscle as well as the oxygen-using abilities of the working muscles.

In fact, the SAID principle is so uncompromising in its highly researched tenet of training “specifically”

that problems frequently arise if one possesses more than one training objective at a time. The specific training required for one will frequently detract from the expected gains in the other. For example, training for aerobic strength endurance (aerobic power) will severely limit the level of limit strength one can attain. Similarly, stressing one’s ATP/CP energy system calls for different training methods than does training one’s glycolytic (lactic acid) or aerobic (oxidative) energy systems.

Your specific adaptive responses to exercise can change dramatically over time. This is particularly true as you age. But it is also true if you have successfully improved your body’s recovery abilities. Clearly, this can be accomplished through the use of (illegal and often dangerous) drugs or through the use of certain nutritional supplements. Simply, with improved recovery ability, your body has become a different body, so the adaptation mechanisms have changed.

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5. Use/Disuse Principle

The principle of use/disuse applies to both training and cessation of training. Putting it another way, “use it or lose it.” If you stress your body and its systems enough, it will adapt to meet the stress. For example, in a bodybuilding program, hypertrophy, or increase in size, occurs in the trained muscle. If you stop stressing it (disuse or detraining), it will adapt to meet the lowered stress. In other words, when you stop your bodybuilding training program, atrophy (decrease in size) occurs in the previously trained muscle.

Unfortunately, it takes much less time to become detrained than it does to become trained. The “detraining” effect is known as the “law of reversibility.” Fortunately, some training-related changes in your neuromuscular system remain over long periods (muscle memory), which allow you to regain your strength or size more quickly than starting from scratch. (The presence of muscle memory is at this point a hypothesis based upon voluminous anecdotal evidence.)

6. Specificity Principle

The Specificity Principle states that you must move from general (or foundational) training to specific and highly specialized training as your final objective (whether it be optimum fitness or athletic competition) draws closer.

This principle relates to factors involved in both neuromuscular adaptation as well as technique “functionality.” Neuromuscular changes will occur over time as an adaptation to repeating a specific movement pattern. For example, you will get stronger in squats by doing squats as opposed to leg presses, and you will achieve greater endurance for the marathon by running long distances than you will by cycling long distances.

“Unfortunately, it takes much less time to become detrained than it does to become trained. The “detraining” effect is known as the “law of reversibility.” Fortunately, some training-related changes in your neuromuscular system remain over long periods (muscle memory), which allow you to regain your strength or size more quickly than starting from scratch. (The presence of muscle memory is at this point a hypothesis based upon voluminous anecdotal evidence.)”

7. GAS Principle

GAS is the acronym for General Adaptation Syndrome. The GAS is comprised of three stages according to its originator, Dr. Hans Seyle: 1) the “alarm stage” caused by the application of intense training stress (the overload principle), 2) the “resistance stage,” when our muscles adapt in order to resist stressful weights more efficiently (The Overcompensation, SAID and Use/Disuse Principles), and 3) the “exhaustion stage” where, if we persist in applying stress we will exhaust our reserves and then be forced to stop training.

In gym lingo, the GAS law states that there must be a period of low-intensity training or complete rest following periods of high-intensity training. The reason for this is that the stress you have applied is traumatic, forcing your “injured” muscles to heal and then adapt. The recovery and overcompensation time must be taken so that further stress does not continue the downward spiral caused by repetitive bouts of trauma.

Confusion frequently arises in applying this principle. Some tissues and cellular components may have been stressed very little or not at all, and are therefore in need of little or no rest. In fact, if you do not work these tissues, owing to the “law of reversibility,” some atrophy will occur. For example, when heavy negative training is performed, much rest is needed because this form of training is highly traumatic to muscles. On the other hand, if the same exercise is performed with the same resistance and speed but the eccentric stress is removed, the rest period needed would be far less. The most frequent misuse of this principle is seen among those who insist on training each body part once weekly (for example) just because “it works.” This is generally not advised, as it is far too infrequent and too much rest. Inevitably, either precious time is wasted or detraining results in some systems’ tissues or cellular elements.

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Are There Other Principles?

Dr. Mel Siff and Yuri Verkoshansky discussed many of the important principles of strength training in their book, Supertraining: Special Strength Training for Sporting Excellence (2009). In addition to the ones listed above, they talked about another principle, “The Principle of Central Nervous Control,” which posits that all patterned activity and computerized instructions to the nervous and endocrine systems come from the highest command and integrating center in humans. “Far too many fitness professionals focus on training the muscles as if they are an independent entity,” said Siff in a recent communication.

Patrick Neary, Ph.D., of Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, B.C. Canada would include what he refers to as the “Taper Principle:”

“This principle is one in which the physiological adaptations of training are maintained with a reduction in the training volume (intensity and duration) and frequency. This reduction occurs prior to competition. The overall reduction allows the body adequate rest to perform maximally. There appears to be a fine balance between the amount of rest and the amount of exercise performed. If you rest too much, you lose the physiological adaptations of training; if you exercise too much, you overtrain.

“Swimmers typically have been the biggest proponents of tapering. However, the literature has a number of published studies that include runners (Houmard et al., 1990, 1992, 1994; Shepley et al., 1992; Johns et al., 1992) and cyclists (Neary et al., 1992,1993). This list is not complete by any means but those that come to mind immediately. David Costill (Ball State) has also done a lot of work on taper.”

He concluded by stressing, “It is not detraining, but a separate principle of training. To me, it does not sound too dissimilar from the Specificity and GAS principles, except that it is restricted to the short time span immediately before sports competition.”

Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS, states, “I would also add the Principle of Variability to this list. Even if the training load is specific to the desired outcome and progresses over time, the organism eventually accommodates to the stress. Various studies, as well as in the trenches observations show that varying various aspects of the training load (character, volume, intensity, density, etc.) tend to allow the client to make more progress before accommodation sets in.

“However, it seems to me that this is part of the precepts outlined in the Overload Principle, wherein it is said that one must constantly add greater stress than theretofore accommodated. Certainly, this could mean changing the nature of the stress, not just the amount.”

There are many differing points of view when it comes to training principles. Nelio Alfano Moura, Brazil’s track and field trainer, states that in most reference sources only three training principles are listed: overload, specificity and reversibility. “Everything else,” said he, “seems to be concepts that can be subordinated to them, and no matter how important these concepts are (and they are really very important), we should not call them ‘principles.’”

The principles covered here are supported in research literature, and they have worked well for many in the “trench.” Despite this, you should not be close-minded about rejecting any of them or embracing others for that matter, if sufficient scientific evidence warrants the change.

 

References:

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky.com

Houmard, J. A., Scott, B. K., Justice, C. L., & Chenier, T. C. (1994). The effects of taper on performance in distance runners. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 26(5), 624-631. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8007812

Shepley, J. D. MacDougall, N. Cipriano, J. R. Sutton, M. A. Tarnopolsky, and G. Coates                                              Journal of Applied Physiology 1992 72:2, 706-711                                                                                        https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1992.72.2.706

Johns RA1, Houmard JA, Kobe RW, Hortobágyi T, Bruno NJ, Wells JM, Shinebarger MH.                                            Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 Oct;24(10):1141-6.                                                            https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1435162

Neary JP1, Martin TP, Reid DC, Burnham R, Quinney HA.                                                                                                        Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1992;65(1):30-6.                                            https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1505537

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