Guidelines and principles of weight training

Principles of weight training
Before diving into training, it’s very important to understand the guidelines and principles of weight training. They will give you a strong foundation from which to start, as well as help you to start on the right track, get the most out of your training, and reduce your risk of injury.

Don’t start without an effective training program

Before you join a gym and start hitting the weights, it is very important that you have a well-structured training program that incorporates all of the important principles and guidelines presented on this page. Effective training programs are provided and explained in detail in the Training Programs module.

The formula for success

The general formula for success in weight training is very straightforward:

  1. Train
  2. Eat
  3. Rest
  4. Repeat

As long as you follow an effective training program, consume the right amounts of the right nutrients, get adequate rest to allow your body to recover (which should be incorporated into the training program), and keep repeating this sequence, you should see positive results.

Progressive overload

The weight training exercises that you perform will place stress on your muscles, which will force them to adapt. Depending on the type of training that you do, the adaptation can be an increase in muscular size, strength, endurance, or power. To ensure continual adaptation and progress, you have to gradually increase the amount of stress that you place on your muscles. Depending on your goal (size, strength, endurance, or power), the increase in stress can be:

  • an increase in resistance (the amount of weight that you lift)
  • an increase in the number of exercises, sets, or reps that you perform
  • a decrease in the amount of time that you rest between sets.

The gradual increase in stress designed to stimulate continual muscle development is known as progressive overload. One of the primary principles of weight training, progressive overload is an essential element of your training program. The training programs on this website implement progressive overload safely and effectively.

Safety always comes first

Weight training can be dangerous. Not only can you drop weights on your feet and trip over rogue dumbbells but you can also damage joints, tear ligaments, and impinge nerves if you don’t exercise properly or if you fail to follow important guidelines or principles of weight training. Even worse, if you are not careful, you can hurt someone else. With that in mind, always remember that your main priority when working out is not to develop your muscles but rather to stay safe and injury-free. See the lesson Safety always comes first.

Always warm up before, and cool down after, a workout

An important element of practicing safety is making sure that you always warm up before you work out. Warming up reduces your likelihood of sustaining an injury by preparing your mind and body for exercise. The correct procedure of warming up is presented in the lesson How to warm up.

Cooling down after a workout, which simply involves gently stretching the muscles you have trained, is also important for safety. The stretches, which are covered in the lesson How to cool down, help to keep your muscles, tendons, and ligaments strong, thus decreasing your risk of damaging them in the future. The post-workout stretch also helps to prevent a reduction in the range of motion of your joints, which may occur if you consistently exercise using a partial range of motion.

Practice proper form and technique

As mentioned in the introduction, the basic unit of an exercise is called a repetition (or rep for short). Each exercise that you perform has an ideal method of rep execution. Performing the exercise using the ideal method of execution ensures that the proper muscle groups are activated, the full range of motion is achieved, and the proper movement pattern is strengthened—all of which ensure maximum results. Sticking to the ideal method of execution also minimizes the risk of injury and prevents a reduction in your joints’ ranges of motion. Therefore, always be strict when it comes to form and technique. Do not be one of those individuals who is more concerned with achieving a certain number of reps; instead, be more concerned with achieving optimal form and technique. The proper form of each exercise included in the training programs is covered in the Exercise Guide.

Tips for proper form and technique

  • Before trying a new exercise, study its details closely.
  • Practice execution of the exercise using light weights.
  • Perform every rep using the full range of motion without locking out your joints, which will help to prevent joint damage.
  • Maintain full control of the weight at all times. Do not swing the weight because momentum will take over, your target muscle(s) will cease to be the focus, and you will endanger your joints.
  • Visualize the contraction and relaxation of your target muscle. This will reinforce the mind–body connection, giving you more control of your body and the way it moves.
  • Watch experienced gym-goers, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

Perform reps at the right tempo

An important element of practicing proper form is performing reps at the right tempo or speed. Unless training to develop power, do reps relatively slowly and deliberately. Muscle-fiber stimulation, and therefore growth, is closely correlated with the amount of time a muscle is put under tension. Fast, intense reps do increase strength and power, but they do not lead to as much gains in muscle mass and endurance as do slower, more deliberate reps. The ideal rep tempo is different depending on whether you are training for strength, size, endurance, or power, and should be reflected in your training program. The different tempos are discussed in the lesson How many sets and reps should you do?.

Maintain equal focus on concentric and eccentric rep phases

Generally speaking, reps are divided into two phases:

  1. Concentric/Positive (for example, when, during a dumbbell curl, you raise the dumbbell to your chest)
  2. Eccentric/Negative (when you lower the dumbbell back to the starting position)

One complete rep goes through the joint’s full range of motion.

Many beginners focus only on the concentric phase of the movement because that’s when they strain against the weight of the dumbbell. However, it’s now well known that the eccentric phase actually has more muscle-splitting potential than the concentric phase, which means that the part when you lower the dumbbell is actually more important for building muscle than the part when you lift it! Therefore, to get the best results, focus on both phases of your reps.

Don’t forget to breathe!

Breathing is something you will almost certainly have to work on. Get into the habit of breathing properly from the outset so that you will not have to try to fix improper breathing habits in the future. The general rule is to inhale during the eccentric phase of the rep, and exhale during the concentric phase. For example, if doing the barbell bench press, inhale as you lower the bar and exhale as you press it back up. Try not to hold your breath.

Sometimes, such as when deadlifting or squatting a very heavy weight, you can’t help but to hold your breath. It can even help you with the lift by supporting your core with internal pressure. In these instances, you can hold your breath, but try not to hold it for too long.

The recommended breathing technique is provided for each exercise in the Exercise Guide.

Flush your muscles

Unless you are a beginner who is following a circuit training program, perform all exercises for one muscle group before moving on to the exercises of the next muscle group. In other words, focus your attention on one muscle group at a time. This allows you to “flush” each muscle group—that is, boost the blood flow to that area of the body, giving the area a good “pump”, and ensuring that it gets adequate oxygen and nutrients.

Flushing is one of the classic principles of weight training and bodybuilding. The standard use of the flushing principle is to perform three or four exercises each for large muscle groups, and two or three exercises for small muscle groups. This should be reflected in your training program.

Exercise large muscle groups before small ones

Unless you are following a pre-exhaustion protocol (covered in the lesson Advanced methods of training), perform exercises that target your large muscle groups first. This principle will be prewritten into any decent training program. The reason is that small muscle groups tend to assist large ones, and if you tire the small ones first, they will not be able to offer proper assistance to the large muscle groups. As a result, you will limit your ability to overload your large muscle groups. For example, your triceps assist your chest when you perform the bench press. If you train your triceps before you train your chest, you will not be able to do much lifting with your chest.

Large muscle groups include:

  • Quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius)
  • Glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus)
  • Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus)
  • Back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, teres major, rhomboids, infraspinatus, and teres minor)
  • Chest (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor)
  • Shoulders (anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid)

Small muscle groups include:

  • Abs (rectus abdominis, internal oblique, and external oblique)
  • Calves (soleus and gastrocnemius)
  • Triceps brachii
  • Biceps brachii
  • Forearms (brachioradialis, wrist flexors, and wrist extensors)

Prioritize weak areas of a muscle group

Different exercises can target different areas of a muscle group. For example, both the barbell bench press and the reverse-grip barbell bench press target your (chest) pectoralis major, but the bench press mainly targets your lower (sternal) pectoralis major while the reverse-grip bench press mainly targets your upper (clavicular) pectoralis major. If your upper chest is lagging, start with the reverse-grip bench press before moving on to the bench press.

Follow a balanced training program

When choosing a training program, it’s very important to pick one that balances movement patterns in accordance with recommended muscle strength ratios. Otherwise, in the long run, you could develop strength imbalances between opposing muscle groups, which could lead to bad posture, joint instability, muscle tightness, pain, and injury. For example, most men train their internal shoulder rotators (pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, teres major, and subscapularis) much more than they train their external shoulder rotators (posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, and teres minor). As a result, the tightness of their internal shoulder rotators can in time pull their shoulders forward, giving them a “caveman” posture! Even worse, the rotator cuffs of their shoulders, which keep their shoulder joints stable, can become compromised, leading to joint instability, impingement, and pain. The strategy that I used to balance the training programs on this website is explained in the Training programs overview.

Do not neglect your legs

Bodybuilder with disproportionately small legs
Figure 1. Bodybuilder with disproportionately small legs.

Many individuals interested in building muscle focus on their upper body much more than on their lower body. Some even completely forego training their legs! This is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. If you do not give your legs equal attention:

  1. your proportions will be off. You’ll have big upper-body muscles and either small or no lower-body muscles, which will make you look weird (Figure 1)!
  2. your weak legs will limit the abilities or your upper body. Your legs act as your base, and without a strong base, you will not be able to do much with your upper body
  3. you’ll experience slower and limited overall muscle gains. The reason is that your legs house your largest muscle groups, and when you exercise large muscle groups, your body releases more anabolic hormones, which promote body-wide muscle development. This means that if you want big arms, you must train your legs!

Cultivate a strong core

The word “core” refers to all of the muscles in your torso, especially your abs, obliques, spinal erectors, and various other deep muscles that attach to your spine and pelvis. Having a strong core is very important because your core muscles work together to stabilize your body during lifts and movements, as well as to transfer energy from one side of your body to the other, or from your lower body to your upper body. Your core is also where you generate most of your power. As such, it can be considered your body’s power base.

By training your core, you can increase strength and stability throughout your body, build power, promote more efficient movements, and improve balance and coordination—all of which can improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. Therefore, ensure that your training program incorporates effective core training.

Note that isolating your abs with the crunch does not count as effective core training! Proper core training involves performing major compound and functional exercises that simultaneously engage multiple core muscles, such as the squat, deadlift, clean and jerk, lunge, weighted push-up, pull-up, plank, wheel rollout, bicycle crunch, hanging leg and hip raise, Russian twist, cable woodchop, and lying side hip raise. The training programs on this website incorporate effective core training.

Strengthen all primal movement patterns

Your body is designed to move in certain key ways, known as primal movement patterns. They are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge (forward, sideways, and backward)
  3. Bend at the hips
  4. Twist (and resist twisting)
  5. Pull (horizontal and vertical)
  6. Push (horizontal and vertical)
  7. Gait (walk, run, and jump)

You use these movements every day of your life. For example, you squat as you sit down, you lunge over puddles, you bend at the hips to get out of bed or to pick something up, and you twist whenever you throw a ball. The seven primal movement patterns are used in different combinations in everyday activities, and are especially important for athleticism and sporting performance. It’s therefore very important to perform exercises that strengthen these movement patterns. In so doing, you will develop functional strength—the kind of strength that not only improves your overall fitness and athleticism but is also useful in everyday life.

Unfortunately, many training programs focus solely on training muscles, not movement patterns. You are asked to perform certain exercises for each muscle group. Often, the exercises are isolation exercises, which strengthen movement patterns that are of no use outside of the gym. For example, the dumbbell fly movement pattern is only useful if you want to give people tight hugs! The good news is that the training programs on this website incorporate effective compound and functional exercises that work to strengthen all of your body’s primal movement patterns, thus improving your overall fitness and athleticism, and helping you to get the most out of your time at the gym.

Incorporate unilateral training

An important element of developing functional strength is to perform unilateral exercises (that is, exercises that allow you to train one side of your body at a time). Most daily activities are unilateral, so it makes sense to include exercises that strengthen unilateral movement patterns. All dumbbell exercises and many cable and machine exercises can be performed unilaterally, so you should alternate, sometimes doing them bilaterally and other times performing them unilaterally. This will also add variation to your program, which will keep you engaged.

Unilateral exercises have other benefits:

  • Since they put you off balance, they force the recruitment of more stabilizer muscles, especially in your core.
  • They can be used to fix issues with symmetry and contralateral muscle strength (that is, differences in strength between the right and left sides of your body) .

To ensure the strengthening of unilateral movement patterns, unilateral exercises have been included in the training programs on this website. When performing a unilateral exercise, always start with your weak side, and never do more reps with your strong side. This will allow your weak side to catch up.

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