Principles of Training
There are five main principles of training that we need to consider when designing an exercise programme. The principles of training should provide the entire basis by which the programme is constructed.
By considering all of the principles we can ensure the exercise programme is safe, effective, realistic and enjoyable. To a very large degree, the success of any training programme will depend on how closely it adheres to the principles of training.
This article outlines each of the five core principles of training, explaining their relevance and application to any programme.
Specificity is perhaps the most important principle of training. When we refer to specificity in a training sense, we mean how specific is the training to the goal or event we are training for? Each athlete or casual exerciser should train specifically to their goal. There is no point in a marathon runner spending hours in the gym performing heavy Olympic lifts. Conversely, there is no point in a Power Lifter developing their VO² max with intense cardiovascular exercise.
The purpose of specific training is to develop the physiological capability to cope with the event in question.
You need to consider…
- Goals (Sporting or physique)
- Nature of event (Strength-based, stamina-based, sprint-based)
- Areas of weakness (Poor stamina, weak body parts, previous injuries)
- Equipment (what equipment do you have access to?)
- Time (how much training time is available)
When all of these are considered, the exercises, the nature of training, length of programme and the training equipment can be finalised.
Specificity can be summarised as training ‘smart’. It is important that you always train hard, but training smart will determine how efficiently and effectively you achieve your training and physique goals.
Overload is the principle by which the trainee progresses in terms of their desired fitness and physical capabilities. In order to make continual improvements, the training has to overload the body, forcing it to make physiological adaptations which allow it to cope with the new stimuli. Consider the example of a marathon runner; It is highly unlikely the athlete was able to complete a marathon from their first ever day as a runner, regardless of their level of talent or capability. They are likely to have developed the stamina, joint strength and V02 max to cope with the demands of the distance by constantly overloading their body during the training for the event.
By adding distance to their running training, over time the body adapts and develops capability. The same applies to weight training – Olympic Lifters have built their strength over years of increasing the weight they lift in training, forcing physiological changes allowing them to cope with the demands of their sport. The classic gym-injury is one of over-exertion on weights, when a person tries to lift a weight they are not capable of and suffers an injury as a result.
Careful overloading is especially important with weight training, as the tendons and ligaments (which act as shock-absorbers for the joints) need time to adapt to increases in load. The adaption of ligaments and tendons takes longer to occur than strength improvement does – that is why the majority injuries that occur as a result of weight training are not actually to the muscles themselves, but to the joint tissues. Always increase weight training with small increments (ideally no higher than 10% per week, less if possible) and allow the tissues to fully adapt.
Remember – although lifting big weights may be good for the ego, it isn’t good for the joints. A serious injury can put your training back months, so be patient with your overloading.
Ideally, progress will be made on a session by session basis. By carefully monitoring performance in sessions, overloading to a suitable level is possible, ensuring the safest and quickest progress in fitness achievable.
The principle of recovery is very important for the well being of the trainee. Sufficient recovery time allows the body to repair completely, which means repair broken tissues and make physiological adaptations, better preparing the body for a similar stimulus in future. A well-designed programme will schedule in enough recovery time to ensure there is no risk of overtraining, which massively increases the danger of illness and injury to the trainee.
The length of recovery time is dependent on the training and the individual, for example a long distance runner would need more recovery time than a high diver. Recovery time varies between individuals, so without experience of training in a particular way with an individual, it is impossible to put a figure on. Generally speaking, anywhere between 2 and 4 days recovery per week are seen as normal. Making sure you are stretching and follow a good recovery strategy will also help.
There are various classic signs associated with over-training, such as
- Muscle and joint pain
- Sudden drop in performance
- Decreased immunity
- Decrease in training capacity / intensity
- Decreased appetite
- Increased incidence of injuries.
As a trainer or trainee it is your duty to ensure you avoid overtraining by looking out for these signs. Taking a notepad with you to your sessions will allow you to record your progress on the spot. If there is a decline in performance for no obvious reason, it could well be you haven’t allowed for sufficient recovery. Sports Scientists will test recovery using HRV (heart rate variability), but this isn’t an option for most.
One simple way of checking recovery state is by comparing resting heart rate (RHR) from one session to the next. Take your heart rate after a couple of days off training to find your RHR, then each day of training take it again. If it is higher than 10 beats per minute over your usual average, there is a good chance you may not have recovered fully. In this situation it is best to listen to your body and make a decision on whether to train or not. If you do decide to go ahead, tailor your workout to your capabilities on the day rather than trying to set new personal bests.
Adaption is the principle that we see if the others are sufficiently executed. Adaption is the changes at physiological level that allow the trainee to cope with the demands of their training and in some cases, events. Adaption can be anything such as increased stamina, strength, flexibility, lung capacity, body fat reduction or even psychology. The success of any training programme will be measured by the adaption seen in the trainee.
Adaption is measured by a whole host of independent variables, be them physiological such as body fat reduction, VO2 max increases, Lung capacity improvements, lactate threshold improvements etc or performance-based, such as increased strength, speed, stamina, flexibility for example.
Adaption provides the trainer or coach vital information on the success of the training programme. By assessing the variables of interest, the training regimen can be altered to improve certain aspects of performance, or even used to avoid overtraining if an athlete is ahead of schedule in a structured plan.
The final principle is that of reversibility; the uncontrollable fact that the benefits of fitness and exercise are soon undone when training ceases. A few weeks without training and the cardiovascular output and muscle strength are soon reduced – a phenomenon known in training circles as deconditioning. In addition, there are significant reductions in the other fitness related biochemical elements within the body. The number of capillaries in trained muscle can reduce by up to 25% within three months of not training.
Reversibility is one of the reasons why athletes and sports people return early for intense pre-season conditioning after a close-season break. Likewise, injured athletes experience deconditioning and have to undergo rehabilitation to get them back to peak-performance levels before they can perform competitively again.
This image was taken from this blog, and it shows quad muscle wastage due to cruciate ligament injury.
Deconditioning can be a particular problem for the bedbound and the elderly, where opportunities for physical activity can be few. They are not strictly limited to athletes and special populations though – if anyone avoids exercise for any great length of time they will suffer the consequences – usually with a large waistband on their trousers and a familiar breathlessness when they walk up the stairs! Joking aside, exercise will reduce many of the negative effects of ageing, not just body composition changes.
The message is simple – if you want to remain fit, then you have to view exercise as a lifelong activity and not a passing phase for a few weeks.
This article has outlined the five main principles of training. You don’t need to be an expert in exercise prescription or programming to design a very basic starting programme, as long as you adhere to these principles as closely as possible.