Last Updated: 22 December, 2016

“Except at a military boot camp, it is very difficult to force anyone to train.” (Plowman & Smith, 2011, p.15).


The aim of physical training (aka fitness training) is to expose the body safely to stimuli that cause physiological and structural adaptations to take place.

Positive benefits include an increased capacity to work for longer periods before the onset of fatigue and a rapid return to normal once activity has ceased.

However, there is still much to be understood by sport scientists regarding training and, although new training techniques appear frequently, there are several fundamental, and well established, guidelines which should form the basis for the development of any training programme (Plowman & Smith, 2011).

You and the Principles of Physical Training

Ultimately, the only person who can force you to train is yourself.

So, once you have got over the psychological barrier of wanting to place stress on your body you will need to consider how you are going to introduce that stress.

  1. All training, at its core, is about the manipulation of stress upon the body.
  2. You apply a stress to the body, in the form of hard training, and then recover, which allows the body to adapt and get stronger.
  3. To improve consistently, you need to continually increase the amount of stress as the body adapts and returns to homeostasis.

However, just ‘jumping straight into a training regime’ is likely to cause some injury to your body, either acutely (within the training session) or chronically (up to four weeks later).

To aid in your fitness training, there are some principles of physical training which you may wish to consider.

Principles of Physical Training

The principles of physical training are:

Principle 01: Specificity

This principle, also known as the SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principle, simply means that how you train will directly affect your exercise response.  The more closely the training programme matches the following factors, the greater its chance for success:

  1. Training programmes vary by sport, by event and even by position within the same sport.
  2. The physiological system being stressed: the cardiovascular-respiratory, the metabolic or the neuromuscular-skeletal system.
  3. The major energy system involved.
  4. The motor fitness attributes (i.e. agility, balance, flexibility, strength, power, and muscular endurance) that need to be developed.

Principle 02: Overload

This is a demand placed on the body greater than it is accustomed to.  In order to determine the overload, one must first evaluate the individual’s critical physiological variables (specificity) and then consider the following three factors:

  1. Frequency: the number of training sessions either daily or weekly;
  2. Intensity: the level of work, energy expenditure or physiological response in relation to the maximum; and
  3. Duration: the amount of time spent training per session or per day.  Training volume is the quantity or amount of overload (frequency times duration), whereas training intensity represents the quality of overload.

Principle 03: Adaptation (Rest and Recovery)

This is the change in physiological function that occurs in response to training.  Adaptation occurs during periods of rest, when the body recovers from the acute homeostatic disruptions and/or residual fatigue and, as a result, may compensate to above-baseline levels of physiological functioning.  This is sometimes called super-compensation (Freeman, 1996; Bompa, 1999).  It is important that exercisers receive sufficient rest between training sessions, after periods of increased training overload, and both before and after competitions.  Adaptation allows the individual to either do more work or do the same work with a smaller disruption of baseline values.  Keeping records and retesting individuals are generally necessary to determine the degree of adaptation (for example through fitness assessments).

Principle 04: Progression

This is the change in overload in response to adaptation.  Sport scientists suggest progression occurs best in a series of incremental steps (called step-loading), in which every third or fourth change is actually a slight decrease in training load (Freeman, 1996; Bompa, 1999).  This step-down allows for recovery, which leads to adaptation. Each step should be small, controlled, and flexible.  A continuous unbroken increase in training load should be avoided.

Principle 05: Plateau, Retrogression and Reversibility

Progress is rarely linear, predictable or consistent:

  1. When an individual’s adaptation or performance levels off, a plateau has been reached.  However, this should be interpreted relative to the training regimen.  Causes of plateau include:
    1. Too much time spent doing the same type of workout using the same equipment in the same environment.
    2. Either too little or too much competition.
  2. Plateaus are a normal consequence of a maintenance overload and may also occur normally, even during a well-designed, well-implemented step-loading progression.
  3. When an individual’s adaptation or performance levels decrease, then retrogression has occurred.  Retrogression may signal overreaching or overtraining.
  4. Reversibility is the reversal of achieved physiological adaptations that occurs after training stops (detraining).

Principle 06: Maintenance/Regularity

This is about sustaining an achieved adaptation with the most efficient use of time and effort.  The individual will have reached an acceptable level of physical fitness or training and the amount of time and effort required to maintain this adaptation will depend on the physiological systems involved.  For example, more time and effort are needed to maintain adaptations in the cardiovascular system than in the neuromuscular system and, generally, intensity is the key to maintenance (i.e. as long as exercise intensity is maintained, frequency and duration of exercise may decrease without losing positive adaptations).

  • It is important to maintain an exercise regimen that is consistent, with exercise taking place at regular intervals.
  • Physical training ideally should take place between three and five times each week.
  • In addition, it is important to ensure you get adequate sleep (Principle 13) and eat properly (Principle 12) in order to operate at peak capacity during your physical training.

Principle 07: Individualisation

Individuals require personalised exercise prescriptions based on their fitness levels and goals, and individuals will adapt differently to the same training programme.  The same training overload may improve physiological performance in one individual, maintain physiological and performance levels in the second individual, and result in maladaptation and performance decreases in the third.  Such differences often result from lifestyle factors, particularly nutritional and sleep habits, stress levels, and substance use (such as tobacco or alcohol).  Age, sex, genetics, disease, and the training modality also all affect individual exercise prescriptions and adaptations.

Principle 08: Warm-Up/Cool-Down

A warm-up prepares the body for activity by elevating the body temperature, in contrast to a cool-down which allows for a gradual return to normal body temperature.  The best type of warm-up is specific to the activity that will follow and should be individualised to avoid fatigue.

Principle 09: Variety/Tedium

  • Vary your exercise routines and activities.
  • It is easy to become bored with physical training if you perform the same routine every time, so it is important to mix things up by breaking up your training routine and include different activities.
  • Not only will this prevent boredom, but it also can increase your motivation and help you achieve better results.

Principle 10: Balance

  • Ensure you are exercising all areas of the body equally to achieve a balanced level of fitness.
  • When coordinating a physical training programme, it is important to ensure you are exercising all areas of the body equally to achieve a balanced level of fitness.
  • For example, you should balance routines for the upper body and lower body, and balance endurance running with sprints in order to run as far and as fast as possible.

Principle 11: Moderation

  • You should also consider the principle of moderation.
  • Think Goldilocks: not too little exercise and not too much, but just the right amount.
  • It is important to have rest periods which allow the body to adapt. Too much training (overtraining) can lead to injury.

Principle 12: Nutrition

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.

Principle 13: Sleep

  • Ensure you get adequate and good quality sleep.

FITT & SPORT Principles

There are two commonly accepted methods of using these principles, the first is the FITT Principle and the second is the SPORT Principle:

  • FITT Principle:
    • Frequency: How often do you train?
    • Intensity: How hard do you train?
    • Time: How long do you train for?
    • Type: What methods of training do you use? (and why?).
  • SPORT Principle:
    • Specificity;
    • Progression;
    • Overload;
    • Reversibility; and
    • Tedium.

Pragmatic Principles of Physical Training

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere.
  2. Getting off the couch/sofa and completing one exercise is progress (not brilliant, but still it’s a start!).
  3. Slow progress is still progress.
  4. On average, it takes about 12 weeks after beginning to exercise to see measurable changes in your body.
  5. No matter how poor your current level of fitness, you can start an exercise routine and become fitter and healthier at any time.
  6. Don’t underestimate the power of walking: Walking at a fast pace burns almost as many calories as jogging for the same distance.
  7. Although walking can develop muscular endurance, in general it won’t develop muscular strength.
  8. Getting out of bed does not count as one sit-up.
  9. Willpower, like a muscle, can be trained.
  10. Supercompensation is good, when used sparingly.
  11. One hour of exercise at the end of the day does not compensate for the previous eight hours sat on your arse. Walk about during the day or even fidget while sitting (it can use up to 300 calories).
  12. Fitness is a lifestyle, not an event.
  13. Exercising once per week/or just a few periods each month is generally known as chronic undertraining, and can lead to injury.
  14. Exercising just once a week is a waist of time, see point 13 (yes, waist is deliberate).
  15. When looking at fitness benefits, instant gratification doesn’t work. Fitness takes time and you must continue to work at it.
  16. Just about any training programme will work to improve your fitness to some extent (depending on your starting point and what you are trying to achieve). A press-up training programme (in itself) is unlikely to help you run a better marathon.
  17. If you follow a training programme in which there is an increased load placed on the body, the body will adapt to the higher load, and you will be become stronger, faster and fitter.
  18. However, a programme tailored specifically for you and your needs may/can maximise and accelerate the benefits to your health and fitness.
  19. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet; it will catch up with you (metaphorically speaking).
  20. Sleep is an important tool in the recovery process, ensure your get adequate rest otherwise lack of sleep or poor quality sleep will start to undo your hard work.
  21. Muscle is about three times more efficient at burning calories than fat, even when at rest.
  22. You should always breathe correctly when exercising. It has been suggested that underwater swimming is the only time you should hold your breath during physical activity.
  23. Exercise is more effective at increasing your energy levels than caffeine.
  24. The 10% Rule: as a general rule of thumb, you can increase your training load by (on average) 10% per week (not 10% per session).

Psychological Aspect

Another important element (linking to Principle 09) beyond the physiological training principles is motivation, and I am sure most if not all readers will have experienced the ‘body is able but the heart is not in it’ scenario.

Therefore, any training programme should also have elements of fun and interspersing normal training sessions with games, variations and special events can help make sessions as enjoyable as possible.


Plowman, S.A. & Smith, D.L. (2011) Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance. 3rd ed. London: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Freeman, W.H. (1996) Peak When It Counts: Periodization for American Track & Field. 3rd ed. Mountain View, CA: Tafnews Press.

Bompa, T.O. (1999) Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


2 thoughts on “The Principles of Physical Training

  1. I like the way you covered and listed these principles; however, it is a bit disheartening to not see Training principles from the man who wrote them book on these any more. Joe Weider’s principles are still valid and we all use them whether or not we know it.

    For instance, the rapid contraction and slow extension of the muscles in the training tempo is Weider’s principle #27.


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