Weight Lifting Principles

By Alan Frost, updated December, 2013

woman doing powercleanThere are a set of core principles that determine the effectiveness of a weight training routine for your specific needs and goals. ISSA calls them the "Granddaddy Laws" (Hatfield, 2004), but in the end they are tried and tested concepts that govern (or should govern) how effective routines are designed:

  • The principle of individual differences: This simply states that we are all different. Therefore, how we respond to a certain kind of training and what our ultimate potential is will vary. These differences stem from our genetics as well as from chronic conditions, injuries, gender, and age. Realistic personal goals are therefore key to a successful program.
  • The overload principle: Greater than normal stress is required for training adaptation. In other words, the same stress level leads to a plateau, so in order to progress, you need harder stress levels that force adaptation. In time, this will lead to a situation where your training requirements are so high that your body cannot recover unless you use training cycles (i.e. alternating between periods of lower and higher intensity).
  • The "specific Adaptation to imposed demands" (or SAID) principle: In short, in order to achieve a goal you have to train accordingly. Power requires training with speed, strength requires very heavy weights, etc.
  • The use/disuse principle: This very simply translates to use it or lose it. If you stop training you will lose the size, strength, speed, endurance, etc. that you have training for.
  • The specificity principle: Your training must move from the general to the very specific as you progress. This means that to improve at a specific skill, you must eventually focus on that skill specifically. In other words, runners should train by running, weightlifters should lift weights, etc. It goes so far as to imply that if you squat you will eventually primarily get better in the squat and not as much in very related exercises that use similar muscles, like the leg press. This is because of the influence of neuromuscular changes resulting from specific movement patterns, as well as due to technique (Hatfield, 2004).
  • The general adaptation syndrome (GAS): This principle states that periods of high intensity must be followed by low intensity or rest. High intensity training is very stressful on the body as it essentially injures the muscles to force adaptation. Prolonged high intensity training will deny the body of the ability to repair and it will lead to overtraining. The tricky part with this principle is understanding how to apply it, since high intensity training on one muscle group does not mean that other groups are in need of rest.

When you assess a program, compare it to these foundational principles. You will soon see that many programs are indeed deficient, either by advocating a "one size fits all" approach, ignoring the need to cycle high and low intensity periods, not focusing on specific training needs, etc.

This is not to say that you should necessarily build everything from scratch, but rather that you should assess each routine in light of your specific condition, experiment and see what works best for you, and remember all the factors that may lead to a lack of improvement - or worse, injury or over-training.


Hatfield FC (2004), Fitness The Complete Guide edition 8.6.6, International Sports Science Association’s Certified Fitness Trainer Program

Quinn, Elizabeth, Exercise Science - The Science Behind Your Workout. Retrieved on December 2013

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