“I exercise all the time but I’m getting nowhere!”
This is something said frequently by people lamenting the fact that they workout, but don’t seem to achieve the fitness goals they’ve set for themselves. While making gains from exercise isn’t rocket science, it is a science.
Whether you’re trying to build muscle, get stronger, train for a marathon, or just shed some weight, there are four basic, scientifically validated principles of exercise training you can understand and follow to ensure you’re constantly making progress with your workouts.
Let’s go through each of these principles one-by-one:
- Overload / Progressive Overload
Overload refers to exercising in a way that places greater-than-normal stress on the body. We’re not talking about the psychological, ‘pull out your hair’ kind of stress. We’re talking about physical stress, which tells your body you’ve worked hard and it needs to make changes (get bigger, stronger, fitter, slimmer, etc.) in order to be able to continue working hard in future.
The overload principle is simple: If you force your body to work harder than it normally does, it will make changes over time to become better at doing those things. In short, you will make progress.
Right now you might be saying, “But I do make my body work!” That’s great. But if you’re working hard and still getting nowhere, then it may be because you’re not progressively overloading your body. Progressive overload is about continuously increasing the extent to which you’re making your body work hard. Without continuously challenging the body to do more, plateaus are inevitable.
Sometimes, however, it’s not that you aren’t working hard, it’s that you’re choosing the wrong type of exercise.
The principle of specificity dictates that the gains you get from exercise are heavily dependent on the specific type of exercise you do. That is, your body will adapt to the workouts you make it do; there is generally little or no cross-over from one type of exercise to another. Specificity explains why elite runners are usually not elite cyclists and vice-versa, and why top-level swimmers often fatigue quickly when running (and vice-versa). It even explains why sprinters tend not to be very good long-distance runners (again, and vice-versa).
Long- and short-distance running, cycling, swimming, playing soccer, olympic weightlifting, doing judo, and just about every other sport and physical pursuit places very specific demands on the body. And the body adapts very specifically to those demands. There is minimal cross-over, if any. Being good at one does not make you good at the others.
Not understanding the principle of specificity (or willfully ignoring it) is another common reason people perceive their workouts to be having no effect. They’re measuring progress the wrong way. If you want to get stronger so that you can lift and carry heavy objects, then there’s no point in building strength using a home gym (an all-in-one cable weights machine). You must practice lifting and carrying heavy objects. In this regard, you’re much better off training using free weights, and doing exercises like deadlifts, squats and farmer’s walks.
- Individual Differences
In some instances you may be getting nowhere with your workouts because the exercises you’re doing are not right for you.
This principle is very simple: Individuals respond differently to different kinds of exercise training. Just because someone you know lost a lot of weight or got much bigger and stronger from doing a particular kind of workout, that doesn’t mean it will work the same for you. Multiple genetic factors interact to determine how effective a program of exercise will be for any one person, and ultimately you need to find what works best for you.
This means that sometimes you just need to do a bit of trial-and-error. If you’re getting nowhere with your workouts, but you’re certain that you’re effectively overloading your body and doing the specific kind of exercise that you want to make progress with, then you may simply need to try out a few different methods of training.
Some people respond better to shorter, more frequent workouts. Others, do better working out for longer periods, but less frequently. Some people build muscle more effectively when they lift heavier weights with fewer repetitions. Others need lighter weights but more repetitions to stimulate muscle growth. Try out different things methods of training and see how your body responds.
Another thing to keep in mind with regards to individual differences is how working out affects experienced vs inexperienced exercisers. When you first start working out, it’s very common to make significant and rapid progress. As you get more experienced, however, progress slows, and you’ll often have to work much harder in order to keep making progress. This is normal and unavoidable.
The principle of detraining can also be described as use it or lose it! It’s another straightforward principle of exercise training: You must continue to workout if you want to continue to make progress. Stopping regular exercise, even for relatively short periods of time, can result in losing the gains you’ve made and make it appear as if all of your hard work has gotten you nowhere.
Sport and exercise research has shown this principle works differently for different kinds of exercise. For example, an historic study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that gains made from endurance exercises like running and cycling can start to be lost in as little as two weeks if you stop working out. Another well known study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has shown that improvements in muscular size, strength and functioning may completely disappear within eight weeks if you stop training.
If you’re working out and believe you’re getting nowhere, 99% of the time it will be because you’re violating one of the four core principles of exercise training. Make sure that you’re consistently:
- Making your body work hard (Overload / Progressive Overload)
- Doing the specific kinds of exercises that will result in progress for you (Specificity)
- Working out in the way that your body responds best to (Individual Differences)
- Exercising regularly and consistently (Detraining)
Do these things and your workouts will always be pushing forward.