4 Principles of Strength Training
One of the first books recommended to me when I became involved in collegiate strength and conditioning was Science and Practice of Strength Training, by Zatsiorsky and Kraemer. Early in the book the authors outline 4 fundamental principles of training. In this article I’ll discuss these principles and how they apply to strength training.
I’ve written briefly before about the process by which organisms adapt and why the concept of overload is essential in forcing adaptation. Overload can refer to intensity (weight on the barbell usually defined in terms related to your 1 repetition max), volume (sets x reps in general, though this gets a little more complicated when factoring in weight) and exercise selection (i.e. choosing a novel movement, or variation, to which the lifter is unadapted). Side note: For a great read on some of these terms and how they relate to program structure, check out Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum’s article here.
The Starting Strength novice progression keeps volume and exercise selection the same and manipulates intensity to achieve overload. The program is set up this way because for the novice lifter (i.e. someone who can apply a stress and recover from it within a 24-48 hour time frame), increasing the weight 2-3 times per week is the quickest and simplest means of gaining strength without having to add unnecessary complexity. Similar to a science experiment, we adjust one variable and keep the others constant. This leads to increases in force production, and by definition, strength.
The Novice program does not last forever. Usually after 3-5 months, with some minor adjustments(depending on age, sex, nutritional intake, recovery, previous training experience), the novice lifter will have progressed to an intermediate stage of training. Eventually, the same stimulus produced less of an effect(i.e. diminishing returns). This is why inducing the same stress over and over again will yield less adaptation over time. Your body will have adapted and therefore, change will be necessary. More weight needs to be added, volume needs to be adjusted, a possible variation of a lift needs to be introduced, and any combination thereof that will cause the body to adapt to the stress(It also goes without saying that proper recovery via sleep and nutrition must be in check).
The concept of accommodation was touched on briefly above when I described the idea of diminishing returns. It’s an important concept and applies to other areas of life. Take, for example, the pizza you want to eat on Friday night. You’re ravenously hungry and that first slice gives you a massive amount of positive feelings because it’s new and you’re hungry. The next slice is slightly less rewarding, but still delicious. However, by the time you consume that last slice the pizza is not nearly as enjoyable as the first piece. This is accommodation, or diminishing returns. The same input over and over again produces less output. We can deduce from this principle that, over time, the rate of adaptation for the strength trainee undergoes a similar curve. Thus, more and more input(time, energy, work, volume) is required to stress the system and produce a significant output(more strength).
This is obvious in our delineation of lifters: novice, intermediate, and advanced. (For a full read on this topic, check out Practical Programming, 3rd Edition). The novice trainee makes rapid gains for the first 3 or so months. Progress inevitably will slow(maybe even plateau), and a change is required to continue getting stronger. This is why the novice phase of training is so rewarding- you literally hit personal records every session in the gym. Compare that to an advanced lifter, who may be operating on a monthly, or even yearly time frame, and their PR’s might be very few and very far between! The main takeaway from this section is that you cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result; likewise, as you get stronger and more adapted to your training, the process of increasing strength will become progressively more difficult. The same process that got you through the first 3 months of training will not work throughout the next 3 years.
The training program should reflect the physical attribute that we’re training. I know this is likely to anger some, but some modalities of training are more effective than others. If we look at primarily bodyweight exercises, the ceiling for progression is low, and while untrained individuals will see some benefit from doing bodyweight exercises(yoga, pilates, etc..), they quickly exhaust the potential to progressively overload the movements. From this perspective, barbell strength training is a far more effective way to get stronger because it adheres to the principles of overload and specificity. The external load is the force of gravity acting on both the lifter and the barbell, and can thus be increased or decreased to match the ability of the trainee. When training for strength, knowing which methods can produce long term results most effectively is key because it represents the most efficient use of your time.
A great framework for conceptualizing the principle of specificity is to consider all exercises on a spectrum ranging from General to Specific. The primary way the exercises differ is relative to the task at hand. For a powerlifter, the squat/bench/deadlift at a 1 repetition max is the sport. Those 3 movements performed at maximal intensity is the most specific training one can do for that sport. For the 100 meter sprinter, sprinting maximally for 100 meters likewise represents the most specific practice for that event. The more you deviate from the task or sport specific requirements, the less transfer one gets from that exercise. This isn’t to suggest that general strength training has no value. I would certainly make the case that general strength training is very useful for runners, soccer players, etc…The key variable to consider is when the person trains that general quality during the year. Training should progress from less specific to more specific as competitions approach, so it certainly stands to reason that general strength training can and should occur in the off season, when the athlete is not peaking and can afford to do less sport specific practice.
So that part is straightforward: if you want to run a marathon, your training should include distance running. If you want to get stronger, your training should center on resistance exercises. This leads to a popular topic: sport specific training. Let’s first consider our definitions. I’ll defer to Coach Rippetoe in differentiating between these two: “the nature of training, the process by which a specific quantifiable physiological adaptation – strength, endurance, aerobic capacity, etc. – is accumulated over time, and the need for practice, by which the physical skills – the ability to execute the movement patterns dependent on accuracy and precision necessary for effective performance – are developed.” Sport specific training has led to some very questionable exercises and methods by coaches interested in making the weight room look like the sport. We train for strength in a general sense: lots of muscle mass working over a full range of motion with lots of weight The adaptation that results is general, and carries over to most athletes competing in most sports. At a certain point in some folks’ training, more specific measures are needed to bring up weakness, work on technique, or taper for competition. In the barbell sports(powerlifting and weightlifting), this might be rotating different rep ranges, changing ranges of motion, changing the speed of the bar(or introducing paused work), etc…
For those competing in non-barbell sports(i.e. Field or court sports like football, soccer, and basketball), training in the weight room does not need to mimic their sport practice. Most athletes are better served developing strength in a general way, for several reasons. The first is safety-strength training has a very low injury rate, and is a very safe/controlled activity compared with most sports. It is very predictable, and can be modified in many ways to progress or regress an individual. The second is performance. For those athletes who are not strong(or have not at least gone through a basic novice progression), spending 2-3 months developing a basic foundation of strength in the off season through squats, presses, and deadlifts has tremendous impact on all of their other physical abilities. This time spent developing general strength need not be without their sport practice, which can serve as a useful way of preserving their skills and even some endurance/speed/power (depending on the nature of the sport and the way it’s practiced).
The main takeaway from this principle is to ensure that your training program reflects the physical goal for which you’re training. If you want to improve strength, the most effective and efficient way is with resistance training (our preferred tool being the barbell). In addition to this, reduce the effects of other stressors by not focusing on too many physical qualities at once. If you want to get strong, don’t also go out running throughout the week to the point that it interferes with your strength. Prioritize your goal, and put the others on the back burner, so to speak. You don’t need to stop entirely, especially if you’re a competitive athlete, but realize that a brief period in the off season spent training for strength will be beneficial in your ultimate development.
Similar to specificity, individualization can be misapplied. So, starting out, for most people, the program is simple and applied across the board. Everyone squats, presses, and deadlifts for basically the same sets and reps, with progressively heavier amounts of weight each session. The individualization is in the coaching, in understanding how different sized people move the barbell differently. A short torso lifter will have a different look to their squat then a long torso lifter. The important point is that we don’t standardize the model to a one size fits all generic set of joint angles. We attempt to move the barbell in as straight of a line as possible over the midfoot balance point. The look of the lift follows suit.
A question I would often get when I worked in collegiate strength and conditioning was if our program was individualized? Parents of recruits wanted to know if our methods were specific to their child, and rightly so. I would explain that our athletes train for strength in basically the same way, using multi-joint movements and being coached based on their individual anthropometry. When injuries arise, as they invariably do in life and sports, we then adjust the program. We also individualize based on training history. As athletes progress through their novice phase, different variables need to be manipulated. We don’t automatically assume, however, that high level athletes(high level in regard to their sport) are advanced strength trainees. It has been my personal experience that most athletes have not gone through a basic phase of training using a linear progression, and, accordingly, most can begin in this manner and see tremendous results.
We also individualize the program when circumstances such as injury, age, and gender require. Some older folks cannot squat on the first day, and thus are progressed using other methods(i.e. Leg presses, box squats, etc…) Women, due to the neuromuscular differences with men, often respond better with lower rep ranges and equated for volume (5 sets of 3 reps as opposed to 3 sets of 5, in general). The value of a coach, especially for those unfamiliar with barbell strength training, is the ability to know when adjustments need to be made, and when the program simply needs to be done as prescribed. Most people don’t require a great deal of program tweaking, contrary to their own belief that their sport is unique and their injuries insurmountable.At a certain point in training (generally the intermediate/advanced stage) more individualization is often employed(though not always required). The important point to remember is that each person does not train on a unique program. We keep the program simple until we need to add complexity.
My hope in writing this article is that you have a lens through which you can evaluate your own workouts. Hopefully you track your training using a log of some kind (hard copy or excel, or whatever works to track your progress). If not, your first step to understanding your training is to track what you do. If you already track your workouts, reflect back and ask yourself some basic questions: Is my training adhering to these 4 basic principles? Is there an overload of some type, whether it be weight, sets, reps, volume, etc…? Have I been trying to run the novice progression for the past year and run out its utility? Am I legitimately training for strength, or are my workouts a hodgepodge of endurance, speed, power, and sport practice with just a little bit of quality weight training thrown in? Lastly, am I performing the movements properly for myself, based on how I’m built? A good coach can help you with this, and if you’re not near a coach I’d highly recommend online programming. For a free resource, you can also check out the Starting strength Coaches Q and A Forum.
Special thanks to Dan Flanick and Jason Eure for their help in writing this article!