30 Jan Our Three Key Training Principles
[Edit as of 7th November 2019: As you’ll note in the featured image above, I’ve added one more principle to the mix – ruthless consistency!]
Training for maximum muscle mass is simple.
The problem is, the barrier of entry to post on social media or on a blog is so low (i.e. non-existent), that there’s an increasing need to try and be different in order to stand out.
This means all the fancy new techniques, exercises and protocols that look cool in a video, very rarely pan out in the real world within the constructs of a well-designed program.
As with many things in life, your training program should be based around some core principles.
Each time you try a new exercise, a new split, or a new set/rep/tempo scheme, you should always ask yourself why.
Does this align with your fundamental principles of training?
Or am I just trying something different out of boredom?
If you can adopt this mind-set when filtering through all the information out there, you’ll quickly be able to develop a strong BS detector and maintain focus on what matters.
Over the years, I’ve tried just about every training protocol. I’ve spent hours and hours scouring through websites and books, driving myself into paralysis by analysis over how I should program, what I should include, and what’s the most optimal.
This has completely stopped now. Instead, I’m able to decide whether or not something is worth trying or knowing almost immediately.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I root my training in three core principles:
- Progressive overload
- Perfect form
- Finding your ‘big three’
Any time I steer away from any of these principles, my progress stops, and I more often than not get injured.
This is because they’re all linked, and can’t exist without each other.
Let me elaborate a little further…
Principle 1 – Progressive Overload
Let’s say I’m training chest. My exercises of choice here are floor presses and dips. These are my ‘indicators’, and the exercises I place all my focus on to develop my chest.
They feel great on my body, and I can feel the chest working through each portion of the rep.
But let’s say I never apply progressive overload or make any strength gains.
Instead, I use different shock tactics, focus only on the squeeze and never provide any routine for strength to develop on top of.
It won’t matter how dialled in my execution is, how much I’m squeezing or how ‘right’ the exercise is for me, if I’m not getting stronger, I won’t be building any muscle at all.
There’ll be no progressive tension on the muscle, and the muscle will have no reason to develop new tissue to accommodate the stress applied.
I was guilty of this for a period of time. I bought into the squeezing theory, and thought if I just lifted slow with perfect form using the right exercises, muscle mass would just pile on.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that if you’re lifting the same weights as you were a year ago, or even 3 months ago, then you’ll remain the same.
Granted, for extremely advanced individuals this won’t apply, but for the majority of you, there’s no way around it.
And my logbooks never failed to prove this. Times where strength gains were on the back burner fell at the same time when my physique made no progress.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to see your lifts progress drastically every week. That’s a recipe to quick stagnation and burnout. What you want to do is to coax strength gains, and be able to look over your journal every month and see some progression.
If there’s no progression, you’re likely going wrong somewhere. It may be your training set up, your cardio protocol, or your nutrition. This is why keeping a logbook is so critical, as it allows you to objectively audit what you’re doing in and out of the gym.
Knowing the basis of your program should be progressive overload will allow you to decide whether or not something is worth trying or continuing.
Principle 2 – Perfect Form
One person’s opinion on what constitutes perfect form will be different from another. But after a few years, you’ll begin to develop an eye for what’s right, and what’s just flat out dangerous.
If you’re unsure, our extensive exercise library will help provide you with examples of what we deem to be perfect form.
Progressive overload is an exciting training concept. You see the weight go up and it makes you feel good. But it always comes with a caveat – it needs to be with perfect form.
What this will do is ground you, keep your ego in check, and instead force you to really be diligent with your training approach, nutrition and recovery.
If you apply progressive overload with no standard of form to ‘test’ it with, you’ll quickly run into injury.
I often look back to some of my old training footage from years ago during my powerlifting days and still cringe at what I thought to be good form.
It’s no wonder I accumulated so many injuries. In fact, when I watch the video of the session where my back finally had its ‘last straw’, I’m not surprised at the outcome.
This taught me the importance of perfect form, and why it’s always better to progress slowly and safely.
My progressions now are much slower, and I’m more inclined to ‘milk’ a weight for what’s it worth before adding any additional load.
An additional benefit is that by adopting the right form, you’ll also know any strength progressions you do make will be directly on the muscles targeted. It won’t be the secondary muscles or joints.
Remember, the tortoise always beats the hare!
Principle 3 – Finding Your Big Three
Perhaps this is a little bit of a misnomer, as what I mean by this is separating yourself from the traditional paradigm of squats, bench presses and deadlifts being the cornerstone of any program.
Instead, you need to find the exercises that fit your own body type, and that suit your mechanics.
For example, about two and a half years ago I stopped all back squatting, and about 12 months ago, all free squatting. Now my quad training is all done on machines like the V squat, leg press and hack squat.
This came after years of banging my head against a brick wall with squats, and forcing myself into doing them with the belief that it’s the only way to grow your legs.
Once I forced myself out of this line of thinking, looked outside the box and actually paid attention to what my body was telling me (no quad stimulation, only hip work!), I decided to try something new. And this is when my legs started to finally grow.
The same thing happened with bench presses, where I eventually found the floor press, and haven’t looked back since.
Finding your ‘big three’, or ‘key indicators’ as I like to call them, is paramount to your success in building muscle.
If you fail to pay attention to this, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and effort applying progressive overload with very little results to show for it, and a growing injury list.
Here are some general examples of putting this into practice…
If you’ve got long legs and a short torso, you may be better off front or safety bar squatting instead of back squatting. Or potentially even opting for Smith machine squats, leg presses and hack squats as your weapons of choice, a la Dorian Yates.
If you’ve got short legs and a long torso, nothing will build your legs better than back squats.
If you’ve got long arms, direct arm work will be more important for you than those with short arms, as the latter can often get much of their arm growth from compound lifts alone.
If you’ve got long arms, exercises like floor presses may be better for you than bench presses.
My own personal ‘indicator’ lifts are as follows:
Upper body ‘push’: floor presses, dips, dumbbell shoulder presses
Upper body ‘pull’: bent over rows, chest supported rows, wide pull-ups
Quad dominant: hack squats, V squats, leg presses
Posterior chain: Romanian deadlifts, lying leg curls, walking lunges (long strides)
I know if I’m driving these lifts up with progressive overload and perfect form, along with a consistent calorie surplus, I will be gaining muscle mass.
The Forgotten Principle – Your Buy In
You might now be wondering how to effectively put these principles into a training program.
However, we must first consider an often forgotten element to programming: your emotional ‘buy in’.
Have a look at your training program and ask yourself:
Are you excited by your routine?
Does it motivate you to train hard?
If not, everything else is irrelevant.
Effort will always trump the perfectly designed training program.
In fact, you’ll be more likely to bind the previous three key principles together if you are emotionally invested into the program.
A great program requires two things:
Adherence and progression.
If you haven’t got the first piece of the puzzle – adherence, it’ll be impossible to gain benefits from the second – progression.
Which is why the program you train on needs to fit your personality.
While this warrants an article in itself (which I’ve done so here), briefly speaking, I’ve found these guidelines to work well:
- Extroverts respond well to more exercise variety, higher volumes and intensities, and more of a ‘mix it up’ type approach (although this has to be done carefully, and isn’t to be taken out of context).
- Introverts (like myself) on the other hand typically respond well to lower volumes, more frequency, while using a logbook to guide their training.
Of course this is all on a spectrum, and there will be exceptions, but as a general of thumb, it seems to work quite well.
The RNT Formula
All the concepts I’ve discussed today are reliant on one another.
You can’t have progressive overload without perfect form.
There’s no use in ‘indicator lifts’ if you’re not focused on progressing them.
And if you don’t enjoy any of it, none of the above will matter.
In an ideal world, you want to train on a program that you enjoy that encompasses the three key principles of effective strength training.
If you can find this mix, then you’ll be on the path to achieving excellent results.
Just like all of our clients have here on our famous RNT transformations wall, here.