When it comes to figuring out what to do in the gym, the good news is that there are a lot of things that will give you success getting from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be). However, regardless of what type of program you follow, coach you hire, or classes you take, there are three basic scientific principles that need to be included to elicit positive changes in your fitness: Specificity, Progression, and Variation.
Get specific. When hitting the weight room, make sure you have a clear definition of your goals. Once your goals are defined, your mode of exercise should line up with those goals. Too many people stick with exercises they are good at or that are within their comfort zone rather than select exercises that target the areas that need more attention.
The science behind this principle is that only the specific muscles that are trained will adapt and become stronger in response. While we cannot choose which areas of the body to target for fat loss, we can target areas of the body to gain muscle and strength.
It’s really as simple as it sounds. When it comes to exercise selection, if you want to become better at squats, you need to squat more often. If your goal is to get better at pull-ups, your program should include more upper body exercises, specifically row movements that simulate a pull-up motion.
If your goal is endurance-focused, stick to higher repetitions, ranging from 12 to 20 reps. If your goal is strength focused, increase the weight you are lifting and keep repetitions lower, ranging from 3 to 10 reps. If you want to become a better runner, you have to run.
Build in Progressions
Progression or “progressive overload” is the gradual increase of stress applied to the body over time. In this case, the stress we are referring to is exercise. One of the things the human body does best is adapt. Regardless of what you do, if you don’t continue increasing the stress load over time, you body will adapt to handle the workload and results will become stagnate. This is the bodies way of becoming more efficient and decreasing the amount of energy needed to perform routine tasks. This could be the single most important factor for either making strength gains or staying the same.
If you have ever had the feeling during a workout where you think to yourself, “Wow, I could not have done that two months ago,” congratulations! You have experienced the benefits of progressive overload.
This principle is very easily demonstrated in a marathon training plan, as the principle does apply to both strength and endurance training. A beginning runner would not start with a 10-mile run on Day 1 of training. They would more likely begin with a 2- or 3-mile run. However, mileage would climb every week so that in a few months that 10-mile run would become manageable for the body.
That slow and steady build up applies the same way to strength training—the gradual increase in work done over time. The mistake many people make when it comes to strength training is consistently reaching for the same set of dumbbells and NOT providing a progressive overload to your body.
There are many different ways to apply progression to your strength training program. Here are some simple ways to do slightly more work over time:
Increase the weight/pounds used. Start with small increments. For example, add 2.5lb – 5lb of weight to a barbell each week while maintaining rep ranges.
Increase repetitions while maintaining the same weight. Start with 8 repetitions and increase 2 reps each week while keeping the weight the same.
Increase the number of sets of your exercises. Start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions and next week move up to 4 sets of 10 repetitions under the same conditions. This progression increases the overall volume of your workout.
Increase the frequency of training days. If you are currently lifting weights 1x per week, increase to 2x per week. This is another example of increasing the overall volume of your workouts.
Increase the complexity of the exercise. In some instances, adding resistance bands or using a more unstable surface can make classic exercises more complex.
A Little Variation (but not too much!)
Variation is a tricky one because it needs to be used wisely.
The good side of variation → If you have ever tried a new exercise class and could not get out of bed the next day due to soreness, you have experienced the impact variation can have on your muscles! When we introduce our body to new activities or exercises, we work the muscle in ways they are not used to. This new “stress” on the muscle can lead to positive strength improvements. Mentally, adding variety to your routine also prevents you from feeling bored in the gym, which is important for sticking with it!
Downside of too much variety → Variation does not mean we need to switch every exercise every visit to the gym. The opposite is true. In order to apply progressive overload, we must work with the same exercise over a period of time so that we can continue to overload/get better at that movement each week. Many successful strength coaches will use anywhere from four to twelve weeks as the period of time before a new routine or set of exercises are introduced. The problem with some group classes is that the programming might become too random and varied each week that we do not have the ability to master an exercise and get better at it. It just always feels hard with no way to really measure improvement.
So how do we add variety? Well, there are lots of ways. Adding a little variety to your routine does not mean we need to come up with entirely new exercises. We can simply apply minor variations to common exercises. Here are some suggestions for adding variety:
Changing hand position. Something as simple as changing the width of your hands on a pushup will change which muscles are activated, creating a very different experience. This also applies to changing the type of attachment on a machine (wide-grip handle vs. close-grip handle).
Changing the speed at which you move the weight. Slow down the tempo by counting to 5 seconds on the down and the up of the exercise. You can also speed up reps to train explosiveness.
Even if your exercise library is minimal, these principles could be applied to the most basic exercises. Here are a few reminders. Start with whatever weight you can do with perfect form and then apply these principles from there. While it is beneficial to exercise with friends, keep in mind your training experience may be different and honor your current fitness level. If you do not already, start tracking your workouts and start comparing them from week to week. Honestly evaluate if your exercise selection aligns with your goals and if you are pushing yourself with small incremental effort each week.