5 Unbreakable Exercise Principles That Determine Your Success

Follow these five training principles from STACK Expert Dalton Oliver to maximize your workout results.

Whether you're a D-I baller or trying hard to make the JV squad, athletes all answer to five unbreakable rules of weightlifting. Consider them the gatekeepers that separate you from those unwilling to pay their dues. These exercise principles form the backbone of advanced programs and the foundation upon which great athletes are built.

1. Progressive Overload

This rule says you must continue to challenge yourself with greater stimuli if you want to improve. The principle may sound simple, but its execution by elite athletics is anything but.

When I was a high school athlete, we were expected to move more weight every week. If you benched 150 pounds last week, your new goal was 160 pounds. Anything less was considered laziness. As we reached higher levels of athleticism, we became more systematic in our approach to this fundamental rule of lifting. This is where high-level program design comes into play. Buy in to these programs, even if it means light-weight workouts one day and extremely hard sessions the next. The best programs are like a collection of puzzle pieces that fit together, not stand-alone routines.

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2. Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID)

You will not always progress at the same rate. As you near your theoretical genetic potential, your gains become increasingly smaller. At this point, you need to channel your efforts with the SAID principle.

For example, a fullback looking to gain size, strength and power receives very little benefit from three variations of Bicep Curls. Instead, he should prioritize hip strength, technique and compound lifts, which support how he moves on the field. Bicep Curls should fall somewhere between Facebook and his favorite TV show when it comes to training priorities. By all means, athletes can work more "aesthetic" movements, but they shouldn't focus on exercises not specific to their given sport.

The SAID principle goes even further as we apply what's called "systematic variation." Randomly selecting exercises because they are new and intriguing is a terrible waste of energy. Although you should use a variety of exercises and strategies to stay engaged, make sure those exercises are still relevant to your goals. Otherwise, you may limit your progress and even regress from the gains you've already made.

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3. Diminishing Returns

As you've probably noticed, there comes a point at which the rate of progress slows, even in the most advanced programs. Don't let this cloud your judgment during your training. Both trainees and trainers sometimes increase too many variables at the same time—such as intensity and volume—to the point where they can't adequately recover between workouts. The simple "go hard or go home" mentality might be the horse that brought you here, but at some point you need to trade up to a more advanced program.

For many, this is a hard pill to swallow. I myself fell victim to overachieving, which hurt my progress more than helped it. Once again, buy in to the program your coach lays forth. When he tells you to go home and rest, do exactly that. Even small increases in performance are difficult to achieve at high levels. Be humble and set aside the "I want it now" mindset. Over the course of a year, adding small improvements to your game is better than going backwards. If you're at an elite level, you already know that grinding endlessly for that slight increase in inches or pounds has become a way of life.

4. Reversibility

This principle represents the detraining effect once an athlete ceases training. We also use it every time we reintegrate an athlete back from vacation or periods of lower activity. For example, when an athlete begins a reconditioning phase (e.g., when returning from a break), we take into consideration the length of the break and how it may have impacted his or her aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

After three days away from training, we see a significant drop in aerobic capacity and an impaired ability to recover between sets or perform endurance work at the same pace. After four to five days, we see negative effects when performing high-volume workouts, probably due to the deconditioning of the aerobic and anaerobic systems, leaving the athlete with lower levels of stored muscle glycogen.

The athlete's skills may come back quickly, but it takes him or her a few workouts to "restock" the energy supply to perform high volume work. Interestingly, one-rep maximums don't seem to dwindle until after maybe 10 to 14 days out. This further demonstrates how athletes' neuromuscular adaptations stay relatively fresh, but the energy needed to support their efforts are more transient in nature, and will decondition if left dormant.

5. Recovery

Few of us talk about recovery, yet it's the key to our progress. All the advanced techniques, hard work and well thought-out training in the world will not matter if we do not optimize our recovery. Hard training without proper recovery can actually reverse our progress.

Sleep, nutrition and relaxation all play roles in recovery. Mental or physical stress can ruin hormone levels, creating more of a catabolic state (i.e., breaking down muscle) than an anabolic state (i.e., building muscle.) Nutrients are needed for tissue repair and growth, and adequate, high-quality sleep balances hormones and "resets" optimal brain function.

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The Sixth Rule: Individuality

Although we all apply these basic principles, the rate and extent to which we respond is highly individualized. Some athletes have higher potential for adaptation than others. Some athletes need less sleep than others. Many athletes respond differently to rep schemes due to fiber typing and genetic predisposition. A great example of this last point: compare a marathoner's response to a sprinter's program.

When we consider these differences, we can set better standards for achievement. One great way to do this is by shifting the focus to tasks instead of outcomes, or measuring the relative progress opposed to absolute progress (i.e., how much you improve over your own previous level, rather than comparing your progress to a group.) Either way, individuality is a key rule of lifting we should never take for granted.

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