Last Updated: 21 March, 2017

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

This article is organised as follows:

  • Part 01: Background.
  • Part 02: The Principles of Physical Training.
  • Part 03: Other ‘Models’ of the Principles.
  • Part 04: Pragmatic Principles of Physical Training.
  • Part 05: Miscellaneous.

Part One: Background


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

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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.

Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

“56% of Australian adults are either inactive or have low levels of physical activity – that is more than 9.5 million adults!” (ABS, 2013).

Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Adults aged 18-64 years suggest that individuals should be physically active and limit their sedentary behaviour every day, and that is essential for health and wellbeing (Department of Health, 2014). The guidelines are for all adults aged 18-64 years, irrespective of cultural background, gender or ability.

  • Physical Activity Guidelines:
    • Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If an individual currently undertakes no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
    • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
    • Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
    • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
    • You may choose to do a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activities. 10 minutes of vigorous intensity activity is equal to 20 minutes of moderate intensity activity.
  • Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines:
    • Minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting.
    • Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

Part Two: Principles of Physical Training

The principles of physical training are:

  • Principle 01: Specificity.
  • Principle 02: Overload.
  • Principle 03: Adaptation (Rest and Recovery).
  • Principle 04: Progression.
  • Principle 05: Plateau, Regression and Reversibility.
  • Principle 06: Maintenance/Regularity.
  • Principle 07: Individualisation.
  • Principle 08: Warm-up/Cool-down.
  • Principle 09: Variety/Tedium.
  • Principle 10: Balance.
  • Principle 11: Moderation.
  • Principle 12: Nutrition.
  • Principle 13: Sleep.
  • Principle 14: Psychology.

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 (Appendix A below) 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 (Appendix A below).
  4. Reversibility is the reversal of achieved physiological adaptations that occurs after training stops (detraining) (Appendix A below).

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 (Appendix A below) 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.
  • Keep hydrated (usually water).
  • The Australian Nutritional Guidelines (2013) can be found in the Useful Links below.

Principle 13: Sleep

  • Sleep Hygiene: Ensure you get adequate and good quality sleep.
  • Further information on sleep can be found in the Useful Links below.

Principle 14: Psychological Aspect

Another important element (linking to Principle 09) beyond the physiological training principles is motivation, and I am sure most (if not all) people 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.

Part Three: Other ‘Models’ of the Principles

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

These models are not holistic in nature, relating only to the physical aspects of training, omitting the nutritional and sleep elements.

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.

Part Four: Pragmatic Principles of Physical Training

There are a variety of pragmatic principles of physical training which should be read in conjunction with the above principles:

  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 (Appendix A) 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.
    1. Applying physical activity recommendations to time-poor individuals can be challenging.
    2. Pooled analysis of population-based surveys included 63,591 adult respondents. All-cause mortality risk was approximately 30% lower in active vs inactive adults, including “weekend warrior” respondents who performed the recommended amount of 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity from 1 or 2 sessions per week, insufficiently active respondents who performed less than the recommended amount from 1 or 2 sessions per week, and regularly active respondents who performed the recommended amount from 3 or more sessions per week. (O’Donovan et al., 2017).
  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).

Part Five: Miscellaneous

Useful Links


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2013) Australian Health Survey: Physical Activity, 2011-2012. ABS Cat. No. 4364.0.55.004. ABS: Canberra.

Armstrong, L.E. & van Heest, J.L. (2002) The Unknown Mechanism of the Overtraining Syndrome: Clues from Depression and Psychoneuroimmunology. Sports Medicine. 32(3), pp.185-209.

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

Department of Health (2014) Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 21 March, 2017].

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

Fry, A.C. & Kraemer, W.J. (1997) Resistance Exercise Overtraining and Overreaching: Neuroendocrine Responses. Sports Medicine. 23, pp.106-129.

Kreider, R.B., Fry, A.C. & O’Toole, M.L. (1998) Overtraining in Sport: terms, definitions, and prevalence. In R.B. Kreider, A.C. Fry, & M.L. O’Toole (eds.). Overtraining in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp.vii–ix.

Kuipers, H. (1998) Training and Overtraining: An Introduction. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 30(7), pp.1137-1139.

O’Donovan, G., Lee, I-M., Hamer, M. & Stamatakis, E. (2017) Association of “Weekend Warrior” and Other Leisure Time Physical Activity Patterns With Risks for All-Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine. 177(3), pp.335-342. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.8014.

Plowman, S.A. & Smith, D.L. (2011) Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance. 3rd ed. London: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
Fry, R.W., Morton, A.R. & Keast, D (1991) Overtraining in Athletes: An Update. Sports Medicine. 12(1), pp.32-65.

Rowbottom, D.G., Keast, D. & Morton, A.R. (1998) Monitoring and Preventing of Overreaching and Overtraining in Endurance Athletes. In R.B. Kreider, A.C. Fry, & M.L. O’Toole (eds.). Overtraining in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp.47-66.

WHO (World Health Organisation) (2017) What is Moderate-intensity and Vigorous-intensity Physical Activity? Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 20 March, 2017].


Appendix A


A1 Periodisation

A training programme should be implemented in a pattern that is most beneficial for adaptations and this is called the training cycle or periodisation (Plowman & Smith, 2011). Periodisation is a plan for training based on a manipulation of the fitness components and the training principles. The objective is to peak the athlete’s performance for the competitive season or some part of it. An individual training for health-related physical fitness can also use periodisation to build in cycles of harder or easier training in order to prevent boredom or to emphasise one fitness component or another.

A2 Training Adaptations

Training brings about physical and physiological changes typically labelled adaptations and training adaptations represent physical and physiological adjustments that promote optimal functioning (Plowman & Smith, 2011). Also, whereas exercise responses use resting values as the baseline, training adaptations are evaluated against the same condition prior to training. Training adaptations are evaluated by comparing variables of interest (e.g. heart rate) before and after the training programme during the same condition (at rest, during sub-maximal exercise or at maximal exercise). Compared with the untrained state, training may cause no change, an increase or a decrease in the measured variable.

A3 Detraining

As noted in the plateau, retrogression and reversibility training principle (Principle 05), training adaptations are reversible and this is termed detraining (Plowman & Smith, 2011).

  • Detraining is the partial or complete loss of training-induced adaptations as a result of a training reduction or cessation.
  • Detraining may occur due to a lack of compliance with an exercise training programme, injury, illness, or a planned periodisation transition phase.
  • Physiological variations do not reverse at the same rate, just as they do not adapt at the same rate and the magnitude of the reversal depends on:
    • The training status of the individual when the training is decreased or ceased;
    • The degree of reduction in the training (minimal to complete);
    • Which element of training overload is impacted most (frequency, intensity or duration); and
    • How long the training is reduced or suspended.
  • Currently, sports scientists know less about detraining than training and it is often difficult to distinguish among changes resulting from illness, normal aging, and detraining (Plowman & Smith, 2011).

A4 Overtraining

The results of exercise training can be positive or negative depending on how the stressors are applied. Fry et al. (1991), Kuipers (1998) and Rowbottom et al. (1998) suggest that training is related to fitness goals and athletic performance on a continuum that is best described as an inverted U (Figure 1).

At one end of the continuum are individuals who are undertrained and whose fitness level and performance abilities are determined by genetics, disease, and non-exercise lifestyle choices. Individuals whose training programmes lack sufficient volume, intensity, or progression for either improvement or maintenance of fitness or performance are also undertrained. The goal of optimal training is the attainment of peak fitness and/or performance.

However, if the training overload is too much or improperly applied, then maladaptation may occur. The first step toward maladaptation may be overreaching, a short-term decrease in performance capacity that is easily recovered from and generally lasts from a few days to two weeks. Overreaching may result from planned shock micro-cycles, as described in the periodisation section, or result inadvertently from too much stress and too little planned recovery (Fry et al., 1991; Fry & Kraemer, 1997; Kuipers, 1998).

If overreaching is planned and subsequent recovery is sufficient, positive adaptation and improved performance, sometimes called supercompensation, result. If, however, overreaching is left unchecked or the individual or fitness professional interprets the decrease in performance as an indication that more work must be done, overreaching may develop into overtraining. Overtraining, correctly termed the overtraining syndrome, is a state of chronic decrease in performance and the ability to train, where recovery may take several weeks, months, or even years (Fry et al., 1991; Fry & Kraemer, 1997; Kreider et al., 1998; Armstrong & van Heest, 2002).

Understanding stress enhances our understanding of exercise, training, physical fitness and recovery. As emphasised previously, both acute exercise and chronic training are stressors. Thus, from this viewpoint, physical fitness may be defined as achieved adaptation to the stress imposed by muscular exercise. It results as an adaptation from a correctly applied training programme, is usually exhibited in response to an acute exercise task and implies avoidance of the overtraining syndrome.

A5 Physical Activity

  • Any activity that gets your body moving, makes your breathing become quicker and your heart beat faster.
  • You can be physically active in many different ways, at any time of day.

A6 Sedentary Behaviour

  • Sitting or lying down (except for when you are sleeping).
  • It is common to spend large amounts of time being sedentary when at work, when travelling or during leisure time.

A7 Metabolic Equivalents

  • Metabolic Equivalents (METs) are commonly used to express the intensity of physical activities (WHO, 2017).
  • MET is the ratio of a person’s working metabolic rate relative to their resting metabolic rate.
  • One MET is defined as the energy cost of sitting quietly and is equivalent to a caloric consumption of 1kcal/kg/hour.
  • It is estimated that compared with sitting quietly, a person’s caloric consumption is three to six times higher when being moderately active (3-6 METs) and more than six times higher when being vigorously active (>6 METs).

A8 Intensity of Physical Activity

  • Intensity refers to the rate at which the activity is being performed or the magnitude of the effort required to perform an activity or exercise (WHO, 2017).
  • It can be thought of ‘How hard a person works to do the activity’.
  • The intensity of different forms of physical activity varies between people.
  • The intensity of physical activity depends on an individual’s previous exercise experience and their relative level of fitness.
  • Consequently, examples are given as a guide only and will vary between individuals.
  • Relative versus absolute intensity:
    • Relative Intensity: The level of effort required by an individual to do an activity. When using relative intensity, individuals pay attention to how physical activity affects their heart rate and breathing. The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. In general, if you’re doing moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you’re doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
    • Absolute Intensity: The amount of energy used by the body per minute of activity.

A9 Moderate Intensity Activities

  • Requires a moderate amount of effort and noticeably accelerates the heart rate (you are still able to talk while doing them) (WHO, 2017).
  • Examples of moderate-intensity physical activity/exercise includes: brisk walking (3-4 mph); dancing; gardening; housework and domestic chores; traditional hunting and gathering; active involvement in games and sports with children/walking domestic animals; general building tasks (e.g. roofing, thatching and painting); cycling (<10 mph); and carrying/moving moderate loads (<20 kg).

A10 Vigorous Intensity Activities

  • Requires a large amount of effort and causes rapid breathing (aka ‘huff and puff’, unlikely to talk while doing them) and a substantial increase in heart rate (WHO, 2017).
  • Examples of vigorous-intensity physical activity/exercise includes: running; race walking (>4 mph); walking/climbing briskly up a hull; cycling (>10 mph); aerobics; fast swimming; competitive sports and games (e.g. traditional games, football, volleyball, hockey and basketball); heavy shovelling or digging ditches; and carrying/moving heavy loads (>20 kg).

4 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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