3 Basic Principles Of Exercise [You Need To Know To Get Results]

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If you want to get the best results, then you need to understand these 3 exercise principles.

After reading this post, you are going to learn why you need to incorporate the principles of

  • progressive overload,
  • specificity, and
  • recovery / adaptation

into your workout routine.

Without them you will be wasting your precious time in the gym.

So if you are ready to learn the 3 principles of exercise physiology, let’s get started.

 

Disclaimer:

Although we are doctors and personal trainers, we are not your doctors. The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not substitute the advice from your healthcare professional. All kinds of exercise and dietary activities are potentially dangerous, and those who do not seek counsel from the appropriate health care authority assume the liability of any injury which may occur. Please read our full Disclaimer for more information. Also, this post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them.

Okay, let’s get started.

Why Are Principles of Exercise Important For You To Learn?

Exercise is both an art and a science.

This means two things:

  • 1) there are things that will work for you, but not someone else, (the art), and
  • 2) there are things that will work universally for everyone (the science)

Over the years, exercise science has demonstrated that there are certain principles of exercise you should do to maximize the results you get from training. (Brad Schoenfeld has been one of the biggest pioneers leading the research).

The beauty is, there is concrete proof that they work.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing your own exercise program.

How Many Principles Of Exercise Are There?

There are numerous principles of exercise that are important to maximize your health and fitness. 

I often hear questions like 

  • What are the 4 principles of exercise, or 
  • What are the 6 or 7 principles of exercise, or
  • What are the 5 components of fitness

All of these questions miss the point. You shouldn’t try to boil down everything into a specific number of steps. There are so many factors you can optimize that the list would be too long.

Instead, this post will condense everything you need to know into just three principles.

Let’s go over them now.

PRINCIPLE #1: PROGRESSION & OVERLOAD

THE PRINCIPLE OF PROGRESSION

The number 1 principle of training is progression.

Let me explain:

In order to improve your fitness, you must provide your body with an exercise stimulus that it has not been exposed to before.

If you have never exercised, then any kind of workout will be a stimulus you haven’t been exposed to before. This is good, as your body will have to adapt.

The more you do it, the better your body will be at handling that stimulus again in the future.

However, if you were to then present your body with that same stimulus again and again, the adaptations will begin to diminish over time.

It’s like expecting to get smarter by reading the same 7th-grade textbook over and over.

In order to continue to make adaptations, the stimulus must gradually PROGRESS over time.  If the stimulus does not change, your body will not change.

This is a critical concept.

Every training session must have some type of measurable change that makes it different than the one before it.

The changes could be very small; in fact, they should be small. Slow incremental changes in your exercise regime are what will allow continuous progressive adaptations over your lifetime.

How do you make progress?

With overload.

principles-of-training

 

THE OVERLOAD PRINCIPLE

Similarly, the exercise stimulus must provide an element of overload.

You cannot expect to lift 2 lbs weights and get stronger. The exercise must be challenging. The stronger you get, the more you should do.

Don’t get carried away though.

When in doubt, always start light, and overload slowly. You will quickly determine how well your body adapts to the stimulus.

Heres a quick example:

  • Let’s say you could lift 100 lbs for 10 reps, and you’re pretty sure you would fail if you tried to get the 11th rep. 100 lbs would then be your 10 rep max.

It wouldn’t be a good idea to start Day 1 at 100 lbs for 10 reps and expect to continuously lift more and more weight for the same amount of repetitions.

Instead, you might start at 85 lbs for multiple sets of 8 reps at first. Over the next several weeks you should add weight and/or reps gradually, ultimately surpassing your 100 lb benchmark.

That’s just one example of progressive overload.

I go over 10 different ways you can use it in The Progressive Overload Principle [10 Easy Ways To Use It In Your Program].

Starting Strength, which is one of the best exercise programs for novices does a great job of implementing this first principle.

My only gripe with the program is that the workouts can start to get long (>1 hour).


TAKE HOME POINTS

  • In order to make successful progress towards your fitness goals, you must continue to provide your body with a new progressive stimulus.
  • Each training session should have a small, yet measurable change from the prior session
  • The exercise stimulus must be challenging but should allow for continuous overload with time.

 

PRINCIPLE #2: TRAINING AND SPECIFICITY

THE TRAINING PRINCIPLE

The next principle of exercise physiology that we will discuss is the concept of training versus working out.

This is a critical difference that you must understand.

Many people go to the gym and just ‘work out’- aimlessly performing a random assortment of exercises in an unscheduled manner.

Don’t do this!

If you want to make your goals a reality, you cannot just ‘wing it.’ You need to have a well thought out plan that will get you closer to your pre-defined goal.

You must train!

Training is a dedicated effort, designed to accomplish a well-defined goal.

Therefore, it is important to specifically identify what your goals are. As with any other goal in life, fitness goals should:

  • Be as specific as possible,
  • Be given a deadline,
  • Be realistic
  • and most importantly, be distinguished from a target.

workout-template-optin-form

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There is a huge difference between a goal and a target.

“I want to lose 50 lbs” is not a goal, it is a target.

Why?

Because you actually don’t have much control over whether or not you lose 50 lbs.

But you do have absolute control over the goal you set to get there.

So what would be the proper goal?

A proper goal would be, “I will go to the gym four times a week for 6 months while cutting down alcohol consumption to 1 drink/week…. [in an effort to try and lose 50 lbs].

Do you notice the difference? 

You actually have full control over your goal. You may or may not lose 50 lbs, but making a goal that you can adhere to will increase your chances of actually achieving your target.

The other advantage is that you will always accomplish your goal using this strategy.

Once you know what your goals are, then you can set a dedicated training plan to achieve those goals.

Which leads me to the second part of this principle – specificity.

principle of specificity

 

 THE PRINCIPLE OF SPECIFICITY

The third principle of training is specificity.

This principle states that in order to get good at something, you have to specifically practice that specific task.

If you want to get good at cardio – you need to do more cardio workouts.

You aren’t going to expect to build muscle and get strong by training for a marathon. You need to do engage in strength training that will challenge you physically.

With that said…

Some exercises are way better than others.

Anyone who has a basic understanding of human movement and exercise physiology would agree that you should spend the majority of your time performing functional exercises.  

What are functional exercises?

Functional exercises are ones that mimic real-world movements. Just think about the activities that we perform on a daily basis:

  1. we sit,
  2. we stand,
  3. we bend down,
  4. we lift items from the floor,
  5. we lift items over our heads,
  6. we reach for items,
  7. we carry items, sometimes unevenly etc.

These are the movement patterns that we need to train and strengthen-not performing endless sets of bicep curls.

Believe it or not, there exists an exercise that incorporates and strengthens all of these functional movement patterns and more.

total-body-exercise

 

Bicep curls and tricep kickbacks are not functional. I don’t know about you, but I do not remember the last time that I needed to curl my biceps throughout the day.

By performing functional exercises, you are fostering natural movement patterns that help ingrain useful body positions in the real world.

At least 80% of your time should be devoted to this type of exercise training.

A Quick Word On Compound Vs Isolation Exercises

Lastly, functional exercises are usually compound exercises.

A compound exercise trains and strengthens multiple muscle groups at once.

As a result, you get a bigger bang for your buck. You can train your total body with only a handful of exercises.

If you are a busy individual, I recommend that compound exercises make up the majority of your training to save time and energy.

The opposite is an isolation exercise. These movements train a single body part and very rarely resemble anything in the real world.

If you go to any gym, you will see that almost everyone is exclusively performing isolation exercises such as dumbbell lateral raises and tricep kickbacks. A lack of understanding of basic exercise principles is usually the cause.

While isolation exercises do have their time and place, they will not cause any significant adaptations from your body and should only make up about ~20% of your training.

TAKE HOME POINTS

  • When it comes to exercise and fitness, it is important to specifically identify what your goals are.
  • Know the difference between a goal and a target. One you have complete control over, the other you don’t.
  • If your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, dedicate the majority of your time performing functional exercises.
  • When in doubt, choose a compound exercise rather than an isolation exercise to train more muscle groups in less time.

4 Full Body Workouts To Build Muscle & Burn Fat (In Just 30 Minutes A Day!)

Download this valuable FREE PDF that goes over the best exercises to do to + the top 10 mistakes you need to avoid in order to get the best science-based results!
SEND ME THE  WORKOUTS NOW

4 Full Body Workouts To Build Muscle & Burn Fat (In Just 30 Minutes A Day!)

Download this valuable FREE PDF that goes over the best exercises to do to + the top 10 mistakes you need to avoid in order to get the best science-based results!
SEND ME THE  WORKOUTS NOW


PRINCIPLE #3: RECOVERY & ADAPTATION

THE PRINCIPLE OF RECOVERY

Last but not least, the third principle is recovery and adaptation.

While this is not a ‘sexy’ topic – optimizing your recovery is just about the most important thing you can do for your body after an exercise stimulus.

Here’s why:

Exercise is naturally a catabolic process. This means that your body has to break down and use up a lot of resources while it is exercising.

In order to repair itself, the body must then undergo anabolism. Without anabolism, there is no adaptation, and there is no progress.

The first step in optimizing anabolism is adequate nutrient intake, namely protein, and water. It should go without saying that you must consume an adequate amount of protein throughout the day to reap the benefit of exercise.

The best high-quality protein sources are:

  1. Pasture-raised chicken
  2. Grass-Fed Beef
  3. Wild-Caught Fish
  4. Free Range Eggs
  5. Green Split Peas
  6. Lentils
  7. Edamame
  8. Hemp Seeds
  9. Tofu
  10. Protein Powders

You must consume AT LEAST 0.5 g of protein per lb of bodyweight per day.

In addition, you should aim to consume half your body weight in ounces of water to ensure that your body is adequately hydrated. Not fruit juices, not soda, not coffee, water!

The second most important piece of optimizing recovery is sleep. Sleep is only the third most important human function after eating and pooping. Too bad so many people don’t treat it as such.

Best of all, sleep is free.

You must make an effort to get at least 7 hours of sleep every single night. Any less than that and you can kiss your fitness gains out the window.

To get a full detailed breakdown of how to recover from exercise, check out How To Boost Your Post Exercise Recovery [& Relieve Your Sore Muscles].

TAKE HOME POINTS

  • Adaptation cannot occur unless you properly recover from the exercise stimulus
  • Consume high-quality protein and water every single day
  • Sleep at least 7 hours a night to let your body go into anabolism

 Other Related Questions

What Is The FITT Principle?

The FITT principle is an acronym that stands for

  • Frequency,
  • Intensity,
  • Time, and
  • Type

It is designed to help you understand what things you should focus on when designing your workout program.

In other words, its another way of re-stating the 3 principles laid out above.

Frequency is how often you exercise: Which encompasses the principles of training and specificity (you need to expose your muscles to a stimulus over time)

Intensity is how hard you exercise: Which encompasses the principles of progression and overload, as well as recovery and adaptation (you need to expose your muscles to an adequately challenging stimulus, but not excessively)

Time is how long you exercise for: Which encompasses the principles of recovery and adaptation (you should exercise for at least 30-90 minutes, but not so much that you can’t recover from it)

Type is the actual workout you do: Which encompasses the principles of training and specificity (what do you actually want to get better at?)

Do These Principles Apply To A Home Exercise Program?

Yes, you can use all of these principles of fitness and apply them to your own home exercise program.

If you want to get started with home workouts, check out Calisthenics For Beginners: [How To Get Started].

A Tested Workout Program

Now that you understand the 3 most important principles in fitness, it is time to implement them into your own training.

That is why we have created a comprehensive strength program that does all of this for you. We show you what exercises to do, how often, and how many reps and sets you should aim to accomplish.

That’s not all. It is designed to only take 35 minutes out of your day.

Check out our Program here.

Final Words On The Principles Of Fitness

In a nutshell

  • Exercise works best when you progressively modify the stimulus dose in a manner that will get you closer to your goals.
  • It is ideal to have a training plan to tackle your goals, and your exercise selection should include high yield functional exercises that mimic real-world movement patterns.

  • Make sure to give your body the building blocks it needs to restore and adapt to the exercise you impose on it.

Now I want to hear from you.

Did you know these principles already?

Which one can you improve?

Comment below and let us know.

Next, you should read:

Get Started With Four Free Tried and Tested Beginner Workouts That Only Take 30 Minutes A Day!

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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