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Strength Training 101

METHODS are many, PRINCIPLES are few. Methods change, but principles hardly do.

It’s pretty easy to get buried in all of the strength training information available on the interwebs. How do you sort through the noise to actually know what will cause your body to adapt and improve? By understanding the basic principles of physiology, that’s how!

The building blocks strength training works aren’t sexy, but understanding them is vital for long term progress. Education is the best motivation; if you know the HOW and the WHY behind WHAT you’re doing, you’re far more likely to do it!

This article covers three main concepts that describe the affect of training on the body: General Adaptation Syndrome, Progressive Overload, and the SAID Principle. We then dive into Acute Program Variables, Periodization, and Repetitions in Reserve as key concepts for program design and application.

What is General Adaptation Syndrome?

“All living organisms can respond to stress, and the basic pattern is always the same, irrespective of the agent used to produce the stress” – Selye 1950

Hans Selye was a famous endocrinologist who studied the adrenal gland and the role of stress hormones in the body. Through his work, he unknowingly created the theoretical basis for all periodized strength training programs! Selye’s research showed that all systems in the body respond to any type of stress in the same non-specific pattern of three general stages: Alarm Reaction, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Let’s explain each stage:

Alarm – the initial response to any new stimulus. Homeostasis is upset, and resistance to the stressor is diminished. A good example is the first time you ever did a tough exercise like DB Walking Lunges, you were probably super sore! The body was “shocked” by that training stress and you entered the alarm phase, but after a few weeks of performing lunges you don’t get nearly as sore and are able to add more weight. That’s because your body adapted (also known as the Law of Accomodation), and entered…

2. Resistance – the body adapts, modifies system behavior, and improves performance under stress. You’ve gone from 3 sets of 6 with 20lbs to 4 sets of 8 with 40lbs. Awesome! The resistance phase is what we would like to see from any good strength program, improving the resiliency and performance of the body. But with excessive training stress and/or poor recovery over a long period of time, eventually we would enter…

Exhaustion – the stressor has continued long enough to override positive adaptation, the body can’t cope with the applied stress, and injury or worse can occur. Keep in mind that overtraining takes MONTHS or YEARS of excessive stress, but we can have negative maladaptation far earlier than that. More training stress is not always better!

The goal of good training is to utilize progressive overload and specificity of the acute program variables to elicit periods of alarm, followed by adaptation and improved resistance, with enough variation and recovery to avoid the Exhaustion stage. It isn’t about how much you can do, it’s finding the IDEAL training stress for positive adaptation

What is Progressive Overload?

“If a training program is to continue producing higher levels of performance, the intensity of the training must become progressively greater” – Baechle & Earle

Perhaps the single most important training concept is the theory of Progressive Overload, which is defined as the gradual increase in stress upon the body during exercise in order to elicit adaptation and improvement. If you want to get bigger, faster, stronger, etc., you must continually make your body work harder than it has before. Our bodies are geared towards survival and maintaining homeostasis; if you want your body to grow or improve you have to force it!

Sound like common sense? IT IS!! But the vast majority of gym goers don’t apply progressive overload, wasting their time with junk volume that isn’t enough of a stimulus to cause adaptation, and then wonder why they aren’t making progress

Many people think of overload only in terms of adding a ton of weight to their 1 repetition max (1RM). But progressive overload doesn’t have to be a huge step, it only has to be a NOVEL stimulus! A new 3x10RM, adding 2.5 lbs, or one extra rep, is still overload! (it is NOT muscle confusion, but I’ll cover that in a separate post soon)

Ask yourself this simple question: am I constantly trying to push my body to work harder through frequency, volume, and/or load? If you answered no then it’s time to switch things up! Training doesn’t have to be complicated, but to punch your ticket to Gainzville it MUST be progressive!

What is the SAID Principle?

Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand

“The type of demand placed on the body dictates the type of adaptation that will occur…therefore the goal of training should dictate the design of the resistance training program”

If Progressive Overload is the most important training principle, then SAID is a close second! This will sound simple, because it is, but common sense is not so common 😊

The way our bodies adapt or respond to stimuli is highly specific. A term that gets thrown around a lot on social media is “muscle confusion”, and it’s total BS! Muscle (or any other system in your body) is never confused! It responds exactly to the exact stress placed upon it. This is why biceps curls won’t give you a world record squat; your training program must be specific to your goals to actually achieve them

That doesn’t mean we don’t need to vary our training stimulus, we do, but it isn’t some willy nilly “keep the body guessing” process, it is a SPECIFIC and PROGRESSIVE pattern of avoiding accommodation and pushing overload. If you want to get better at squats, squat more often! If you are consistently noticing a weakness, address it with exercises specific to that body part!

Ask yourself this question: does my training program address my stated goals, with exercises and progressions that are specific to those goals? If the answer is no it’s time to switch things up (and if you don’t have goals, go get some!) Training does not have to be complicated, but it DOES need to be progressive, and specific

There you go folks, that’s it! Our body ALWAYS responds to external stressors in the same predictable manner, so we KNOW that if we apply the basic of principles of training, our body will RESPOND and ADAPT. Training only has to be PROGRESSIVE, SPECIFIC, AND FUN! (or at least not super shitty, because if you hate what you’re doing then you won’t do it)

Acute Program Variables

Acute Program Variables was a term coined by Dr. Bill Kraemer. Often shortened to “APV”, they explain just about everything you need to know about an acute (single) strength training session. Let’s break them down:

1. Choice of exercise – If you want to improve your squat then you have to select squatting exercises! The specific variation then comes down to individual goals and what feels good for your body

2. Order of exercise – you should almost always order your exercises from most fatiguing to least fatiguing. This follows the pattern of power/speed -> strength -> muscle endurance/accessory. Do your heavy squats before you do biceps curls in the squat rack, amiright?

3. Volume – sets x reps, or the total amount of work performed in the training session. A huge factor in strength gains is simply a volume effect (as long as it isn’t “junk” volume with weight that’s much too light, which brings me to the next variable…)

4. Intensity/load – how much weight are you moving? Volume and load are so highly related that it is almost impossible to talk about them separately. Many coaches love to say that “all volume is not created equal”. What’s more fatiguing, 50 bodyweight frog pumps or 2 hip thrust reps at 90% of your 1 rep max? One of the most important aspects of training is the fact that there is an inverse relationship between volume and load. You can always use more weight to do a set of 3 reps than a set of 12 reps

5. Rest periods – While a decent rule of thumb is to rest for 2-3 minutes in between sets, recent research suggests that auto-regulating rest periods is more effective for both strength and hypertrophy than strict timed rest periods (and no, surfing Instagram in between sets does not count as auto-regulating). Max strength work will require more rest (I will regularly rest 5-6 minutes in between heavy deadlift sets), and accessory work can often be done with less than 90 seconds rest. Work hard and then rest until you feel recovered for your next set!

Periodization

“The deliberate manipulation and systemic planning of Acute Program Variables in an effort to maximize performance”

Time for more confusing fitness jargon! Periodization means you have a plan behind your training, and that you are deliberately selecting training variables to SPECIFICALLY apply PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD in an effort to improve performance and achieve your goals

From here most articles on periodization would dive into some really complex graphs depicting total volume, load, technical sport demands, and terms like preparation versus peaking phase. Just like everything else I like to keep it simple, and I think it’s silly to argue about whether conjugate, linear, or undulating periodization models are superior. Just like every diet you’ve ever heard of, every periodization model works! YOU ARE EITHER PERIODIZING OR YOU’RE NOT, PERIOD.

Peer-reviewed evidence can give us a great starting point, but what “the research says” will never supercede what a coach sees or an athlete feels. A periodization plan that looks awesome on paper and is carried out in a lab at a top university can never accommodate for the variables and stressors of daily life, nor can they account for or modify based on individual dose-response, and so real-life programs will and should look a little different from what you see in the Methods section of a Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research training study. If you understand the basics, you can then figure out what exercises, sets, reps, etc. will work best for YOU and YOUR goals

To highlight one example, the simplest model of periodization is referred to as Linear Periodization. Over time, load increases and volume decreases in preparation for a Max strength test. If my goal was to improve my 1RM back squat, I could do something like this:

Week 1 3×4 @ 85% 1RM
Week 2 3×3 @ 90% 1RM
Week 3 2×2 @ 95% 1RM
Week 4 2×1 @ 97.5% 1RM
Week 5 max 1RM test

Repetitions in Reserve – How close are you to failure?


The single most common question I hear from my clients is “how much weight should I be using?” This can be tough to figure out but is extremely important for successful training, and is probably the single biggest missing factor in most people’s training

Classic strength templates often program based off a percentage of your one repetition max (%1RM). If you compete in powerlifting that’s great, but the vast majority of gym goers have no idea what their 1RM is for a certain exercise and have no reason to find out. Plus, max force production can fluctuate by over 30% on a day to day basis!

So what’s an easy rule of thumb that we can use across a variety of exercises and rep ranges to figure out what’s heavy enough? At Electrum Performance we utilize Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), which means how many reps short of failure you are at the end of your set. For example, if you perform a set of 8 reps and you COULD have done 10 reps if training to total failure, you would have an RIR of 2. A good rule of thumb is that an RIR of 0-3ish is hard enough to be considered a working set. An RIR greater than 4 is either a warm up set or you need to add weight!

The exact physiological reasons why we use 0-3 RIR are complex and a little outside the scope of this article. However, we know that for a muscle to grow larger and stronger it needs to be maximally activated. The last 5 or so reps of a set are where total activation/recruitment of all muscle fibers occurs (either through the high levels of mechanical loading from heavy weights or the high levels of fatigue from light weights for high reps), and are often referred to as STIMULATING or HYPERTROPHIC reps. The more stimulating reps we can perform, the better (think about it, in a set of 20, reps 17 and 18 will have a far greater effect on your body than reps 2 and 3), and using 0-3 RIR helps ensure there are a few hypertrophic reps in each set while hedging our bets and reducing the risk of injury from training to total failure

Start asking yourself at the end of every set, “how many more reps could I have done?” It’s a great way to quantify effort level, maximize your time, and continue to make progress!


Take a look at your training. Are you making deliberate choices with what you’re doing in the weight room? Are you applying these basic concepts? If not, remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Have a plan with everything you do! 

Alex Bryce MSE, CSCS*D
Alex Bryce MSE, CSCS*D

Alex Bryce is the Co-Founder and Head Strength Coach at Electrum Performance

Follow us on Instagram @electrum_performance

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