Principles of Training

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Harrington Emerson

This famous quote highlights something important about how we need to approach training, regardless of the context in which we are working.

A principle is a ‘fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.’ They rarely change, even though the method of application may vary enormously. This is why cliched sayings such as there are ‘many roads to Rome’ are used to justify the use of different training methods, even when they go against conventional wisdom.

Principles are our guiding light, foundational beliefs and tools to navigate complexity. In the training world, we typically use these principles to determine the best course of action for writing a programme or working with an athlete towards an outcome. In this article I will be briefly explaining the classical training principles which have stood the test of time.

Specificity (SAID)

Something which is specific is ‘clearly defined or identified’ and is relevant to the individual or sport we are working with, as well as the adaptation we may be seeking to achieve.

This is also known as ‘Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID)’, which means that our body has highly specific adaptations that it will undergo in response to a given stimulus. If we want to develop a particular physical quality, we must provide the relevant stimulus to achieve this, otherwise our body will not respond or adapt how we would like it to.

Verkhoshanky’s ‘dynamic correspondence’ provides a useful framework for determining the specificity of a given training stimulus. His criteria include: magnitude and direction of force, regime of muscular work, dynamics of the effort and the rate and time of maximum force production.

To put this into layman’s terms, if we want to improve a specific quality our training must closely resemble the mechanical characteristics of the task. For example, if we are a shot putter then spending time completing low force activities is probably not going to best prepare ourselves for the high forces experienced during the event.

One caveat to this principle is that training does also need to be specific to the age and training experience of the athlete. A youth athlete requires far more ‘general’ (non-specific) training to build a base of foundational movement quality to enable specific work to be layered on top at a later date.

Progressive Overload

Our bodies are amazing machines that can adapt to a huge range of training stimuli. If these stimuli are not continually increased though, our bodies will begin to ‘accommodate’ this and it won’t continue to improve us. For example, if we started out lifting 60kg in a back squat and never increased this load or training volume over time, our bodies will not continue to adapt and become stronger.

We can overload our system in several ways: time, frequency, density, intensity and volume.

  • Time relates to completed longer training sessions, for example a marathon runner completing longer training sessions over the course of a season.

  • Frequency is how often a stimulus is provided to the body, which could be increasing from 2 sessions per week to 4 sessions.

  • Density is the amount of work we complete for a given training period. This could mean increasing the total volume in a 45 minute training session from 200 to 300 reps.

  • Intensity is the load that our bodies experience, relative to our maximal capabilities. This could mean moving from 50% of our maximum to 70% of our maximum over time (in the case of a beginner, for example). This could relate to weight training load or running speed.

  • Volume is the total amount of work that we complete in a programme. This usually has an inverse relationship with intensity, as we cannot keep increasing both over time. For example, we may complete a higher volume weight training programme at lower relative intensity to focus on morphological changes in the musculature early in the season, moving towards faster more explosive lifting at lower volumes when we want to be at our physical ‘peak’ around competition time.

Continually looking to increase these variables where appropriate will ensure that we don’t become too comfortable with a training programme, which limits our development. This is why logging training through an app like Train Heroic is so valuable, as it allows us to track and monitor progression and keep you improving.


A programme must be as individualised as possible, to ensure that training is safe and appropriate. Rule number one in coaching is ‘do no harm’, and this should be at the forefront of our minds as strength and conditioning practitioners. Everything we ask of an athlete must be easily explained based on assessments, and an understanding of the individual’s unique characteristics.

We can individualise a programme based on a number of factors, which may include:

·       Age (both biological and chronological which I explain in my article Strength and Conditioning for Youth Hockey Players)

·       Training experience

·       Goals

·       Sport

·       Injury history

·       Personality type

·       Physical capabilities (based on assessments)

From a motivational perspective, an athlete knowing that their programme is highly individualised to them is massively impactful. This is why I place such a high value on it in my Online Coaching.


Finally, without variety programmes can become stagnant and an individual’s motivation may begin to drop. Human’s enjoy variety, but this must be balanced with the need for consistency in order to keep making progress. The variety comes in understanding that underlying principles must remain, whilst methods can fluctuate at the right times in order to keep an athlete moving forwards.

Variability also ensures that overload is continually applied, and that we progressing the overall programme. This can come in the form of exercise selection, sets and rep schemes, training methods, load selection and many, many other ways. The ‘art’ of coaching is to know why, when and how to add variety in order to maximise engagement and training results for the individual.

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