The Training Principles That Matter (and the Stuff That Doesn’t)

There are fundamental principles that training programs must follow if they are going to be effective. I don’t want you to waste years of your life, as I did, before finding out what really works. This article covers those principles and explains the reasons behind the training recommendations made on this site.

In short, we will focus on a training style with a bias towards progressive strength gains in the main compound movements. I believe this is the fastest way to get stronger, bigger, and change your physique.

If you are new to training, this will be the best training year of your life as your potential for growth is the greatest. Do not waste this opportunity, and do not suffer fools that try to steer you off the path toward ineffective routines.

If you have been training a while and haven’t seen the progress you thought you would, a renewed focus on the basics will probably benefit you greatly. It’s not too late to start now, but it would be silly to continue doing what you are doing and expect a different result.


Training Principles

1. Prioritize That Which Is Most Important

Though it sounds so simple and obvious, people screw this up all the time.

When you train, many different factors influence each other and cause the resultant adaptations of the body. The experiences of trainees in gyms around the world for the last century, when combined with research over the last few decades has enabled us to establish a fairly clear order of importance as to what will and won’t give you the most from your training efforts.

When you see seemingly conflicting advice – which exercises to do, how heavy to go, how many sets to perform, whether to train to failure, lifting explosively or slowly to ‘feel the burn’ etc. – you need to decide how important these factors are, and how they will affect the other aspects of your training. By looking at these things through the lens of a pyramid of importance and overall picture, you’ll save yourself unnecessary confusion.

 

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2. Use Correct Exercise Form

If you use shitty form, you will eventually get injured. Only by becoming a skilled lifter will you truly be able lift impressive weights, and skilled lifters truly treat exercises as skills to master.

Form is something that you will work on for months and even years. So don’t get an ego about it, stay humble, have the mindset of practice, and you can’t help but get stronger and grow.

Ring Chinups

3. Rep Ranges & Exercise Selection

You will see in the sample routines covered on this site that there are a low number of exercises included. When you use the big compound movements you hit multiple muscle groups at once, which is why it’s possible to create an effective routine out of so few exercises.

You’ll also see that the primary set-rep pattern used is 5×5 – meaning five sets of five reps. This is not because 5×5 is a magic set-rep pattern (there isn’t one) it’s just a convenient way to initially set up our training to allow us to focus on progressive overload in our key exercises.

It is touted that higher rep ranges (8-12) are better for hypertrophy, and lower rep ranges (1-5) are better for strength. While this is true at the extremes, it misses the bigger picture entirely.

By far the most important thing is that we have an objective base from which to judge the efficacy of our training. – Are we stronger, or not?

If we were to artificially compare a 3×8-10 routine with a 5×5 routine using the same exercises, given that total training volume is roughly equal, they are going to produce very similar results in terms of hypertrophy with the latter giving more strength adaptations.

If executed well of course.

But that’s the problem – when people go with higher-rep routines they usually come along with a greater variety of exercise selection. Which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, if it weren’t for the fact that people tend to lose sight of the principle of progressive overload when they are given many isolation exercises instead of a few compound movements that hit all the same muscle groups anyway.

For this reason, I am in favor of the 5×5 style for the compound movements for novice trainees as it provides a very easy and tangible way of measuring progress, as well as a simple base from which to start adding training volume when it becomes necessary. You might consider the guides on this site then to have a strength focus, which is a fair comment, but a very positive thing whether you wish to be jacked or strong as you’ll achieve both.

4. Don’t Worry About Training For Size vs. Strength, Do What You Enjoy

“Gaining size (muscle mass) versus gaining strength is really a false dichotomy for most people; they’re two sides to the same coin.

Now, if you’re brand new to lifting, you’ll probably gain strength (weight on the bar) much faster than you gain muscle mass initially. That’s a simple matter of your nervous system learning the movement and figuring out how to effectively use the muscle you currently have (plus a little extra you build) to move the load.

Once you’ve learned a movement, though, there’s only one way to keep those strength numbers ticking up: Those muscles have to grow.

On the other hand, if you’re training primarily to gain mass, those muscle gains will be slow in coming unless you apply progressive overload (increasing training volume, intensity, or both). And, by doing so, you’ll get stronger. Then, with that increased strength, you can load the muscles even heavier, create more tension, and grow bigger yet.

To get stronger (unless you’re a complete beginner), you need to get bigger, and to get bigger you need to get stronger. Training for one without the other doesn’t really make sense for most people.

In some fringe cases, it may be possible and necessary. For instance, if you’re an elite powerlifter weighing very close to the top of your weight class, then you may need to train in a manner to eek the last possible neural improvements out of the movements without gaining muscle mass that would push you into the next weight class. If you’re a bodybuilder with a long injury history and not much more room for growth in the first place, then avoiding the heavier training that drives strength gains in favor of lighter, more voluminous training may be prudent.

For everyone else, get stronger to get bigger and get bigger to get stronger.” – Greg Nuckols.

Source: 5 Things People Need To Stop Overthinking

 

 

5. Adequate Recovery Is As Important As The Training Itself

Training provides the stimulus and stress telling your body to adapt. Recovery allows the adaptations to take place. Thus, in order to make the most of your training efforts:

  1. Eat well.
  2. Sleep well.
  3. Do your best to minimize stress in your life.

Don’t neglect any of these areas or it will hold you back.

6. Learn How To Program Your Own Training

The most important thing for the novice trainee is that you get on a good strength training program then stick to it. There’s not really any point in you arguing the minor differences between good, tried and proven strength routines. Nor do you really have a base from which to judge them independently. Just start something.

Read this next: Which Training Program Is For Me? →

The most important thing for the intermediate and advanced trainee becomes not what program you follow (for you must have followed a good one or you wouldn’t be intermediate or advanced), but how you tweak it so that you keep advancing with your training. This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle and where people get stuck. I’d recommend you read this. The small investment will pay huge dividends.

*******

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more detailed bio here.)

526 Comments

  1. Hi Andy , I am considering taking up mma training 3 times per week , max , and wanted to continue strength training . How many strength training sessions would you recommend per week without hindering recovery . And is it better to train both same day , for example Monday , Wednesday , Friday . And can intermittent fasting still be used ( fasted training ) . Thank you for any suggestions .

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Chris,
      Sure, this is a good move. You can’t reasonably expect to add in three days of MMA and still recover the same from your strength workouts. An adjustment will be needed.

      The number of sessions we do is largely just a function how much training volume we need and how we split that across the week for best recovery. So, think of the adjustment you need to make in terms of training volume (measured in the number of working sets).

      Start by reducing your training volume by ~1/3 from what you are currently doing. Do this by reducing the number of sets performed and/or the exercises performed. MMA is full body, so balance this across all body parts.

      Add in ~500 kcal per MMA session on those days, mainly (or entirely) from carbs. (If you prefer simplicity, add in 200 kcal each day.)

      Track your progress as usual (my progress tracking guide here), paying particular attention to your sleep quality numbers, fatigue, and workout performance.

      You then need to adjust your training volume upwards or downwards based on the interplay of these levels. How?

      You can expect to feel sore as hell for the first week, gradually getting less over the subsequent weeks. You can expect your training to suffer a little, despite the volume reduction, in these first weeks. After a month, you’ll be used to the soreness and you should be back to baseline. Don’t expect to progress with your strength training (unless you’re a noob, but if you are, don’t try to be superman, choose one thing at a time).

      It’s this point, one month in, you can assess fairly.

      1. Based on how your weight changes compared with your target, adjust calorie intake upwards or downwards as needed.
      2. If sleep starts to suck or you feel highly fatigued, reduce training volume (or drop an MMA session).
      3. If you’re doing fine, keep things the same for another month and see how your strength training comes along. If at that point you’re progressing well, keep things the same. If you feel recovered but aren’t progressing, nudge the training volume back up a little.

      Objectively assessing is key to optimal performance and results. Most won’t bother, don’t be ‘most’.

      1. Chris Sanders says:

        Thanks Andy , appreciate all your advice .

  2. BOb says:

    Hey!

    I bench 175/ 5 reps

    Squat — 225/5

    Deadlift — 245/5

    Does these seem like intermediete level to you? (Or wording in another way have you ever seen an intermediate with these stats?)

    I know it depends on individual basis but people said there is no way you are an intermediate with these numbers and said that I should be aiming around 225 bench for like 5 reps, squat 315/5, dead lift 405/5 , (give or take a few pounds) to be considered an intermediate.

    I say this because my linear gains stopped and I want to know if it is due to me still using beginner level programming or more due to my Diet/Sleep etc.

    And I will only switch my program if I really know I am an intermediate.

    Thanks!!!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It’s impossible for me to tell. You are an individual.

      There are two primary purposes of trying to classifying training experience:

      1. Setting realistic muscle gain targets.
      2. Choosing a training program.

      Practically, I’d argue that the best way of determining your training status is whether you can still progress your lifts linearly session to session, while sleeping right, eating a calorie surplus, and training hard. More on progression here.

  3. Alexander says:

    Hey Andy, i have a question, if i run 5/3/1, and i want to do 6 effective sets (rir 0-3) of chest, on bench press 531 day , only counts the last set as effective?, ‘cause first and 2nd are >3RIR, do you recommend me compensate that with 2 more set of chest? Thanks for all man

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I’m happy to answer questions if you use the training programs on my site, but I don’t know anything about the 5/3/1 routine.

  4. Tyler Read says:

    Thanks Andy for making this post. Sometimes you need to take a step back to prioritize what is the most important. Sometimes you can get fixated on the stuff that is really not that important and because of this you might not be progressing like you should. Keep up the great work!

  5. Mike says:

    Hi Andy,

    I noticed that sometimes you mention a “singular” rep range, such as 3×5, and sometimes you say 3×8-12. How does one interpret the instruction to do 3×8-12? Do I start with the lower end (8) and at some future point increase the reps until I reach 12? Or do I just pick a number and stick to it?

    To confuse matters more, in the Muscle & Strength pyramid, page 56, it says: “On Monday we have 3×8-12 for the rows. You might think […] this is only 30 reps…”. In this case he just chose 10 to calculate the total reps…

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for the question.

      For the ‘Big 3 Routine’ and the split routine, I have written just the singular rep target (3×5 for example). This means to just do three sets of exactly five reps. I have done this because they are raw novice routines and I don’t want people to get confused with any other instructions other than to gradually progress the load.

      For the rest of the training programs on the site (some of which you find in our MSP books) you’ll find a rep range. Start at the lower end of the range and then work up to the upper end of the range before progressing with weight. This is a slightly more advanced form of progression to be used when you can no longer increase the weights session to session.

      If you can increase the weights session to session and you see 3×8-12, then just do 3×10 for the time being. (This is where the 30 average rep number comes from.)

      You’ll see full instructions in the book’s progression chapter, or here if you prefer. Let me know if you have any questions.

  6. Dillon says:

    Hello Andy, fantastic info, thank you.
    I have a quick question I hope you could give some advice on. It is a little off-topic so no issue if you cannot advise.
    I am a triathlete who wants to incorporate strength training into my program. I find that performing strength training on alternate days to my swim, bike and runs is exhausting and leaves no rest days so I am thinking of performing a split routine on the same days as the swim, bike and runs to allow the muscle groups most affected for each discipline to be targeted in one day and allowed to recover. Could you advise if it would be more beneficial to perform the strength work before or after a session, I.e. a swim, bike or run. I plan to do something similar to this:
    Long swim day: deadlifts, standing press, chin ups, bench press.
    Long Run/bike day: squats, lunges, calf raises.
    The other day or two would be dedicated to swim-cycle, cycle-run brick sessions.
    I aim to complete the strength sessions using 3sets of RPT and keep all exercises in the 3-6 rep range.

    Perhaps, I am completely off track but any help would be appreciated.
    Thank you.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Dillon, not really my field, but unless you’re elite, as long as you separate them (don’t do them back to back), you should be fine.

      If I had to nitpick:
      • Endurance first, strength training second will be a little better for endurance.
      • Strength training first, endurance second, a little better for strength.

  7. mike says:

    Hi Andy, I just wanted to let you know that the links for the “How To” articles aren’t working any longer. The owner has change the site to “strongerbyscience” therefore the new links look like this one: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/how-to-squat/

    You can delete my comment once you’ve read it, since it’s just meant as info for you.

    Cheers and thanks for your amazing work.
    Best regards Mike

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Fixed. Thanks, Mike. I have let Greg know also and I am sure he will be grateful.

  8. Joel says:

    Andy,

    Absolutely the best damn website on the internet. Over the past two or three weeks I’ve read most everything that I can find on your site, and am continually impressed by your thoroughness and clarity. Two questions, if you’ve got the time:

    I’m a part time CrossFit coach, and have clients that ask me about nutrition on a semi-regular basis… Any reason your principles wouldn’t work with CrossFit clients? I haven’t seen many CF comments on the pages here, and I’m just starting to apply them myself. I’d love to point them your direction.

    My second question is specifically about IF – I’ve read and understand (and have bookmarked) the nutritional hierarchy of importance, and I’ve got pyramid items 1-3 (cals, macros, micros) pretty dialed in, to within 5-10 grams of macros each day, from whole food sources including meats, fruit, veg, grains, but I am NOT currently practicing IF, as it would be disruptive to my family (breakfast is quality family time with two young kids and a third on its way in less than a month). Is it possible to get shredded without IF, or is getting that shredded one of those things that I’ll need to give up in order to put my family in front of my abs?

    Thanks for your incredible work and your time.

    Joel

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Joel, thanks for the questions.

      1. I want to be in control of the programming.
      2. Yes, absolutely possible.

      PS: Sorry for the delay in replying. I had been unable to do so while the website went through a big update over August.

  9. Frank says:

    Hi Andy,

    Firstly, I love your site and all the information available. There are so many awesome results on here. My question is about the specific requirements of strength training.

    I play soccer and train 4 nights a week specifically for soccer. Each morning I use bodyweight exercises (majority being chin/pull ups, inverted rows and push ups), a 20kg dumbbell set and various resistance bands to do some basic resistance work.

    My goal isn’t to gain muscle, rather maintain what I have and achieve a leaner physique as I still have some fat on me, especially in those stubburn areas.

    Would your type of nutritional program work with the soccer and resistance training I’ve mentioned above? Or would it be essential for me to join a gym in order to do strength training you typically prescribe?

    Any help would be appreciated mate, thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Frank,

      Consider the nutrition and training independently. See my complete nutrition set up guide for that.

      Now, as to whether the body weight work will be enough to sustain your training adaptations while you diet? Well, yes, they probably will as that is what has taken you to where you are currently. However, to progress from here you need to provide progressive overload which is a lot more difficult to do effectively with bodyweight work.

  10. […] Kyoko’s weight training routine was 15 minutes twice a week. Less than ideal, but better than nothing. I got her doing 3 sets of kettlebell swings followed by push-ups and that was it. She didn’t even have a kettlebell so I gave her one of by dumbbells to use which she had to put in a suitcase with wheels and take on the subway because it was too heavy to carry home. Needless to say, her results would have been much better if she had been able to do the barbell training I recommend. […]

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