Weight Lifting, Weight Training, Bench Press & Bodybuilding
September 25, 2022

The Principles of Progress In The Gym
By Charles Staley

The Principles of Progress In The Gym

We all have problems to overcome. I'd even go so far as to say that the most successful athletes are those who most effectively manage their bad workouts -- not those who simply have great intensity and consistency when things are going well.

With that in mind, there is a set of principles that govern success in the gym, or during any attempt to acquire a new skill. Almost everyone reading this already knows what these principles are, but the more pertinent question is- do you comply with them when you're under the bar? In other words, is your training always specific and progressive? Does it respect your unique individual peculiarities, such as age, genetics, leverages, and orthopedic history?

It's one thing to cognitively understand the principles of specificity, progressive overload, and individuality, but it's quite another thing to successfully apply them to your training, especially when you're in a slump.

Let's consider a problem that we all face from time to time -- you're not getting stronger. Despite your hard work 4 times a week in a well-equipped gym, and despite the confidence you have in your program, your numbers just aren't moving. And it's not like you don't know what you're doing; let's assume that as well. So what gives?

During times like these you've got to go back to the bedrock principles. You need to look at your program through "beginner's eyes," as if you're looking at someone else's workouts with a critical, unbiased eye. It's only then that clues begin to emerge.

(Incidentally, how many times have you heard trainers say something like "Man, my programs work great for all my clients but they never work for me!"? THAT'S a clue that you need a more objective analysis of what you're doing. If you don't think you can rely on yourself to do this, find someone else. )

The Principles of Progress In The Gym

Since a lot of you reading this are lifters, let's tackle the issue of specificity for a moment. If you're a powerlifter, you're required to perform 3 heavy attempts each on the squat, bench, and deadlift. If you're a weightlifter, ditto for the snatch and clean & jerk. And if you're involved with highland games and/or throwing, a similar requirement holds true. The common denominator here is that you're performing 3 or more single attempts.

This being the case, the principle of specificity demands that most of your training consistent of heavy singles- particularly when you're close to a competition, but I'd argue that heavy singles should dominate the overwhelming majority of all your training.

Now that's easy enough to understand, so let's now turn to the flip-side of this question, which is "What circumstances (if any) warrant the inclusion of relatively non-specific work?" Because let's face it -- all of you do perform non-specific work, right? So the question is, "Why?" Some legitimate answers might include:

  • To develop supportive capacities/motor-qualities that are difficult to develop using completely-specific training.

  • To encourage recovery/regeneration from periods of very heavy work.

  • To provide a psychological break from monotonous heavy training.

  • To address weaknesses (muscles/ranges of motion/etc) that cannot be easily improved using specific training alone.

  • Lighter weights make me faster/more explosive

  • Eccentric training will help to "injury-proof" me

  • I need to back off to let my injuries heal and/or do some rehab work.

Some more questionable reasons might include:

  • To "confuse" your muscles into new levels of growth

  • Because the grass looks greener over there (I.e., boredom)

  • Because the Bulgarian periodization system you just discovered demands it.

  • Because that's what your training partner/coach says you should do.

  • Because what you were doing before didn't seem to work, so you decide to try something new.

  • You read a new article/book from a famous coach and it makes so much sense, you've just gotta try it.

Now be honest -- just looking at these two lists, which category do you tend to fall under? And regardless of which category best describes you, are you becoming more clear about why you shouldn't be coaching yourself?

The Link Between Specificity And Individuality

The Principles of Progress In The Gym I hope it may have dawned on you that your individuality is at least the co-author of specificity. After all, your individual characteristics dictate, often in large part, what methods you should be using. For example, if you're short, you have a lesser chance of sustaining lifting-related knee problems, as compared to your taller peers. This impacts your training protocol- if you're tall, you may need to pay more attention to patellar tracking, hamstring length, and IT-band health. If you're shorter, these decisions will be closer to the bottom of your list.

As another example, if you're overly reliant on the stretch-shortening cycle, your training should reflect this through the inclusion of a pause immediately prior to the concentric phase of the lift.

No matter how many examples I choose to cite, it always comes back the the same inescapable truth:

"Exploiting Your Opponent's Weakness Starts With Identifying Your Own."

The Link Between Specificity And Weak-Links

If you believe that a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link, you'll be compelled to prioritize the identification and correction of weaknesses in your training. As we saw earlier, this cannot always be achieved in a highly-specific training context.

As a weightlifter, you need enough pulling strength to accelerate the bar high enough to rack in on your shoulders (in the case of a clean) and also enough squatting strength to stand back up after you catch the bar in a squat position. Whichever component is weakest will determine how much weight you can clean. If you can pull 275 high enough to rack it, only to become crushed in the squat because you lack enough squatting strength to stand up with it, no amount of heavy cleans will correct this imbalance. Instead, you'll need to focus on front squats until your squatting strength matches your pulling strength.

If you're an MMA competitor with poor hand-striking skills, no amount of competition-specific fighting will ever improve your weak-link, because under intense pressure, you'll of course revert to your strengths in order to "survive." Instead, you'll need to spend time in drills that require you to solve problems with your hands. Such drills are less than 100% specific, yet they are necessary to overcome your weaknesses.

When To Be Specific; When To Be General

The training of boxers provides a useful analogy for those hoping to better understand the continuum between specificity and generality:

Hard, competition-intensity sparring for several 3-minute rounds, using regulation gear is the most specific form of training a boxer can perform. Add in some canned applause on the PA system and put a little money on the line, and it becomes even more specific.

The Principles of Progress In The Gym

Now, if you didn't have a firm grasp on the foundational principles of training, you'd rightly assume that this would be the most productive type of training a boxer could do. Following that, you'd also assume that he should simply spend all of his time doing hard sparring. But you'd be wrong of course, and here's why:

  • Typically, the most specific training is also the most intense, and that certainly holds true for boxers. You can only do so much hard sparring before you break down and/or burn out. How much hard sparring would it take before reaching this breaking point? I'd guess if you did 9 hard rounds per day- at truly competition-level intensity- you'd be toast in 5-6 days max. That means you'd be dead meat from 36 minutes of training per day (9 minutes of which is actually spent resting) in less than a week. Clearly, as athletes, we all reach a point where we no longer have adequate resources (time, energy, orthopedic integrity, etc) to perform highly-specific training, but where we do still have adequate resources to perform less intense training (cardio, stretching, skill work, etc).

  • More often than not, highly-specific training environments are less than optimal for the development of skill-deficits. Think of it this way: if you wanted to learn a second language- say, Italian- imagine how difficult it would be if you found yourself suddenly immersed in an Italian population of people who had absolutely no English skills. I'd be willing to bet that you might not ever acquire significant skills in the Italian language. A more successful approach would be to enter a less-specific learning environment, where you could first learn individual words, common phrases, and then gradually work your way into complete sentences under the guidance of a competent teacher who can provide constant feedback.

  • Less-specific training is by definition contrastive, and as such, serves the valuable function as a form of active recovery. This is especially useful during the week(s) leading up to an important competition (also called the "taper phase"). A peak is, by definition, surrounded by two valleys. High-intensity, is by definition, a transitory state.

Understood By All, Mastered By Few

The principles of progress are like an abbreviated musical scale consisting of only 3 notes- you know what the notes are, you know what they sound like, you've figured out how to make a few chords, but you're likely unaware of the almost limitless ways they can be applied in order to create a successful outcome. The best musicians work from the same notes that the worst ones do- it's just that they find ways to synthesize them into amazing new compositions that inspire their les-skilled peers. Start thinking of training principles in this way, and you'll be well on your way to strength-training mastery.

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