4 Strength Training Principles You Need to Know

Confused about how ‘heavy’ you should be lifting?

Wondering why the strength training program you’re following is no longer producing results?

Not sure which exercises to include in your program? Or what order to place them in?

You’re not alone.

While the internet has made information easier to access, when it comes to fitness and healthy living, more info isn’t necessarily better 🙂

The good news is, answers to the above questions (as well as to most of the questions readers ask me daily) are all based on an understanding of four fundamental principles of strength training:

Below I describe each principle and explain how to make it work for you and your fitness goals.

Principle #1: Muscular Overload

In order to develop muscular strength, one must apply a force greater than that which the muscle is accustomed to

In other words, the weights you lift need to be heavier than your handbag.

Overloading the muscle leads to several physiological adaptations that allow it to grow in size and increase in strength.

Regardless of whether you’re lifting for power (4-6 reps), hypertrophy (8-12 reps) or endurance (15-20) reps, if the weight isn’t heavy enough to nearly fatigue the muscle by the end of the set, it’s not heavy enough to achieve your goals.

While lifting ‘light’ is a good strategy for beginners (whose initial focus should always be on proper execution of the movement) or those rehabbing an injury (and are looking to avoid prolonging it), progressing to an appropriately heavy weight after a week or two is the only way to get stronger.

This principle also explains why ‘body weight’ exercises alone might not lead to muscular gains (or at least continue to lead to muscular gains after your muscles get used to performing the movement without additional resistance; see point #4 below).

Principle #2: Specificity of Training

In order to produce a training effect, exercises should be relevant and appropriate to the goals for which the individual is training

More simply put, you need to match your exercise choice to the desired outcome.

Looking to build stronger legs? Squats, lunges and dead lifts will help; bicep curls, shoulder presses and lat pull downs won’t.

Toe push-ups a goal? Include them in most of your workouts and supplement the chest, shoulders and upper back with incline presses, chest flys and seated rows.

The specificity principle also applies to increasing strength for improving a specific sports skill (e.g., soccer kick, tennis serve, canoeing stroke). In addition to strengthening the relevant muscle groups (e.g., soccer players need to squat and lunge, tennis players should develop their upper backs and shoulders), ‘motor skill’ specificity is also enhanced by practicing the movement patterns specific to the sport.

Note that the specificity principle does not, alas, apply to fat loss. That is, you can’t reduce belly fat by simply performing abdominal crunches (that requires exercising your willpower and strengthening your meal planning skills…).

Principle #3: Exercise Order

In order to ensure proper overload of larger muscle groups, exercise them before smaller muscle groups

A comprehensive strength training program needs to include exercises for all your major muscle groups. But not all muscles have the same capacity for strength and growth.

Smaller muscles tend to fatigue sooner and more easily than larger muscles.

In addition, many large muscle exercises require the assistance of smaller muscles for stabilization and support. Fatigue the small muscle first and you’ll limit its ability to act as an accessory to the larger muscle exercises, thereby limiting your ability to overload the larger muscle group.

Barbell bench press

For example, the bench (or chest) press is often chosen as an exercise to develop the large muscles of the chest. But the smaller triceps muscles are needed to help with extension of the elbow. Perform tricep dips or skull-crushers before your bench press and your pre-fatigued triceps will limit your ability to fully overload the chest.

Principle #4: Progressive Overload

In order to continue getting stronger, you must gradually increase the exercise demand on your body

If you’ve ever lifted weights before, you’ll have noticed that, what was once a challenging weight for an exercise becomes easier over time. That’s because the muscles have physiologically adapted to the load by becoming stronger and better able to endure time under tension.

In order to keep them growing and getting stronger it’s necessary to periodically and gradually increase the load.

This doesn’t mean that you need to choose a heavier weight each and every time you perform your workout (that’s a recipe for injury and over-training). By keeping track of how much weight you lift during a workout, and how many reps and sets of an exercise you’re able to perform with that weight, you’ll know when it’s time to increase the load.

The advice that I give my clients? When you’re able to perform all of your prescribed repetitions of an exercise and feel as if you could knock out an additional 3 or 4 without sacrificing form, it’s time to try a slightly heavier weight. Try the next size up dumbbell or move the pin on the cable and pulley stack one plate down; if that’s too light, increase again until you find an appropriate weight for the exercise.

In general, you can expect to be able to increase weights on an exercise every 3rd or 4th workout. But some muscles are slower to adapt than others and may require more ‘experience’ with an exercise before they’re ready to progress.

Still not sure what you need to be doing?
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  1. I really enjoyed this, Tamara. Love the breakdown of the principles and what outcome to expect from each one.You have a very well-informed and clear approach.

  2. “We only get stronger at the things we practice”. Good reminder. Also, I never really understood why it was important to exercise the large muscles first. And thanks for this warning: “This doesn’t mean that you need to choose a heavier weight each and every time you perform your workout (that’s a recipe for injury and over-training).” I’ll be sure to share this on facebook. Thanks.

  3. Great post Tamara,

    This is an awesome read which covers the basics very well. If you are at the beginning stages of strength training, this is what you should be learning.

    This article is filled with textbook information that every quality strength coach/personal trainer learns at the beginning of his or her career. Every person who wants to lift weights and get stronger would benefit from learning this information!

    As each person becomes better at applying these principles they can move onto more advanced theories and techniques.

    I wanted to share a post that incorporates 3 of these techniques for individuals who are ready for the next level after going through your articles. It is written by an female olympic athlete/strength coach with years of experience =)

    You can check it out here at http://myelementfitness.com/how-to-build-strength-3-ways-to-get-stronger/

  4. Hi Tamara, I am always getting confused about my fitness goals. Your fundamental principles will help me to guide better now. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hello,

    Really great principles you have posted here. I’m lifting for a few years already, but my wife has just recently started. I will make sure to show her your blog so she has somebody experienced to follow and learn from. Especially that you have a lof of valuable information here!
    Brian recently posted…Should You Wear Ankle Weights All Day (FAQs)?My Profile


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