The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Exercise Programs
In today’s post I hope to focus in on what makes up a highly effective exercise program. There are so many different forms of exercise out there that it can be difficult to determine which is the best. Today I argue that it really doesn’t matter what form or method of exercise you use, as long as you adhere to 7 universal principles or habits of effective exercise programs.
In my last post I discussed the importance of not hating your exercise routine, and discovering ways to find intrinsic satisfaction and motivation in your exercise. In that post I concluded that there isn’t one exercise program that’s best for everyone. Rather, the best exercise program is the one that you will consistently perform.
However, while it’s true that there isn’t one “best” kind of exercise, that certainly doesn’t mean that all exercise programs are created equal.
Some may argue that there is one ideal form of exercise, whether that happens to be weight lifting, yoga, P90X, CrossFit, or whatever it is they favor. Others would claim that you can do anything you want as long as you do something.
Now I’d have to agree that something is better than nothing when it comes to exercise, but there’s a difference between just doing something, and engaging in an optimally designed exercise program.
The truth of the matter is that the ideal exercise program falls in the middle of the two extremes of “There’s only one ideal program” and “Doing anything is better than doing nothing.”
But how do you get the ideal exercise program?
I would argue that the ideal program is based on universal principles of exercise, not just one philosophy or method. In fact, the best programs usually include aspects from many kinds of exercise, because they are principle centered and not technique centered.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “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.”
There are many trainers out there who use methods rather than principles in an effort to deliver results with their exercise programs. They learn as many different exercises and techniques as possible and try to use those methods to build exercise programs.
On the other hand, the trainers who understand the underlying principles of exercise and program design can utilize any method they choose, as long as that method adheres to the principles.
For example, the best trainers may draw from methods and techniques used in powerlifting, yoga, Pilates, rehabilitation, endurance training, functional fitness, and many other disciplines of exercise to design an exercise program. To them, the important thing is not the methods used, but the principles necessary to achieve the desired results of the program.
So, the best exercise program is not yoga, CrossFit, or that home exercise video from Denise Austin. The best exercise program is the one based on principles, and designed with the unique goals and needs of the individual performing it in mind.
In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the late Dr. Steven Covey discusses 7 universal principles or habits that are employed by highly effective people and organizations. He offers 3 habits of personal or private victory, 3 habits of interpersonal or public victory, and 1 habit of renewal or regeneration.
Covey’s view on personal effectiveness is that it does not come from the techniques and methods taught in many self-help and self-improvement books. Rather, both personal and interpersonal effectiveness results from adhering to 7 universal principles that govern both mindset and behavior.
In the same way, effectiveness in an exercise program does not come through flashy techniques and methods, but rather it comes through universal principles of exercise that make it effective.
With that in mind, I’d like to take some time to explore what I believe are the 7 universal principles of any highly effective exercise program.
The 7 Principles
#1 – Individualization
The first principle of a highly effective exercise program is individualization. Consequently, this is also a hallmark of any highly effective trainer. To make an exercise program effective for the individual engaging in it, the program must be tailored to that individual’s needs, goals, and preferences.
Unfortunately, in today’s fitness industry, where many are trying to make as much money as possible while putting in as little work as possible, truly individualized programs are few and far between. If you simply look at how many people are coming out with exercise DVD’s, online training programs, and group fitness classes, you’ll see what I mean. It’s nearly impossible to individualize a program in these circumstances.
While it may be a profitable business model to create one exercise program and get as many people as possible to purchase it, it’s not a highly effective training model.
A highly effective exercise program must involve an individualized assessment, individualized exercise prescription, and individualized progression. If you simply take the same cookie-cutter approach to each person, you’ll quickly find out that no two individuals are the same. Each person has unique needs and preferences, and each person’s body responds to exercise differently.
That’s why individualization is the first principle of a highly effective exercise program.
#2 – Specificity
To go along with the first principle, the second says that a highly effective exercise program must be designed based on the principle of specificity. In the world of exercise this is known as the “SAID Principle,” which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.
While that may sound fancy, it simply means that your body will adapt to the specific demands placed upon it. Because of this, the demands placed on the body in an exercise program ought to resemble the kind of adaptation we want to take place.
For example, say you’re a marathon runner. The training you do in the gym should reflect the kind of adaptation necessary to help you become a better marathon runner. This means that your training program should target the specific joints and muscles that are most important to a runner, as well as the energy systems that a runner uses most. A marathon runner should not be training in the same way that a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or sprinter would train.
In addition to this, because the program is individualized (Principle #1) we know your individual strengths and weaknesses from assessing your movement. So, the training program we use can target those weaknesses to cause the specific adaptation we want.
This goes hand in hand with the principle of Individualization, because without an individualized program, it’s impossible to have specificity. But once you set up an individualized program that applies the SAID principle, you’ve laid the foundation for a highly effective exercise program.
#3 – Progressive Overload
The third principle is that of Progressive Overload. This one is fairly self-explanatory, but still it gets missed in a lot of exercise programs. For a program to be effective, you must progressively increase the challenge of the program to cause adaptation. The body won’t adapt to a stimulus it’s already used to, but if you give it something it’s not used to it will adapt to meet that challenge.
One of the best ways to do this is to progressively increase the resistance used or the weight lifted during an exercise. This basic tenet of weightlifting is so foundational to an exercise program because it’s so effective. If you can lift 50lbs., increasing the challenge to 55lbs. will cause your body to adapt to that novel stimulus and get stronger.
Unfortunately, many people don’t adhere to this principle – or at least don’t adhere to it very well – because they simply don’t record their workouts. One of the easiest, but most effective ways to track your progress and ensure you’re adhering to the principle of Progressive Overload, is to write down everything you do in the gym. Doing this allows you to track exactly how much weight you lifted last time, and it gives you a goal for increasing that weight next time.
While progressing the weight you lift during your program is one of the best ways to cause Progressive Overload, it’s not the only way. Another means of progressing is to add volume in the form of more sets or reps of a given exercise. Another is to add a more challenging exercise progression than what was performed before.
The bottom line is that you must progressively overload the body to cause it to adapt and get stronger, and if your adaptation is the specific one desired (Principle #2), you’re on the right track.
#4 – Variety
Going right along with the principle of Progressive Overload is principle #4: Variety. By this, I don’t necessarily mean variety in the sense of the buzzword “muscle confusion.” Muscle confusion is the idea that your muscles need a variety of stimuli to continue adapting, so you need to “confuse” them by throwing new exercises at them without doing the same exercise two workouts in a row.
While I don’t really care for the term “muscle confusion,” the principle holds true. You do need a certain amount of variety in your training program to continue challenging your body.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to constantly switch up the exercises you’re doing. Sometimes it’s appropriate to change the exercise to provide a novel stimulus, but often you can get plenty of variety in your program without totally overhauling the exercises.
Just like in the principle of Progressive Overload, you can add variety simply by changing the amount of sets and reps performed during an exercise, increasing the resistance, or providing a progression of that same exercise.
While it is imperative to have a certain amount of variety, it’s also important not to fall in love with variety for variety’s sake. Sometimes, the most boring programs are the most effective, as long as you’re continuing to progress the challenge. But once progress has stalled, it’s time to provide something new for the body to adapt to.
#5 – Functional, Multi-Joint Exercises
The fifth principle of a highly effective exercise program is that you must use Functional, Multi-Joint Exercises. While it’s become popular to perform exercises that isolate individual muscles, thanks in large part to the bodybuilding craze, this doesn’t result in a highly effective program.
Isolated muscle and joint strengthening exercises have their place, depending on the needs and goals of the individual, but they are very limited in their overall effectiveness. If you are a bodybuilder, or if you are rehabbing a specific injury, isolated muscle strengthening probably should be a part of your program. Otherwise, it should be the cherry on top of the program, and not the foundation.
So, rather than performing workouts focused on biceps, triceps, deltoids, quads, and other individual muscles, you should be performing workouts focused on functional, multi-joint exercises. Squats and deadlifts fit the bill, quad extensions do not. Why? Because these multi-joint exercises train your body to get strong and function in a real-life manner as it was designed to do.
When’s the last time you tried to shovel snow by isolating your biceps or deltoids, and only using them to do the work? Never? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The body doesn’t work by using one muscle or muscle group to do movement; the body works by coordinating many muscles and joints to stabilize and move the body simultaneously. So, if you only train your body to use individual muscles in the gym, it will be totally unprepared for the demands of life outside of the gym.
For this reason, it only makes sense to train your body in the same way that it works in real life. Not to mention that you get a much higher metabolic and endocrine response when you utilize as many muscles as possible to do an exercise. That means that you’ll make much faster progress, and stimulate greater internal health from your workouts in addition to achieving faster muscle strength and growth.
My exercise programs generally begin with the most functional exercises which utilize the most muscles and offer the biggest challenge, such as the squat, bench press, or deadlift. Only after these exercises are done would I move on to more isolated muscle strengthening, if that fits the needs and goals of the individual.
So, make functional, multi-joint exercises the foundation of your programs, and you’ll be on your way to success!
#6 – Consistency
For principle number 6 I don’t need to provide too much of an explanation. The simple fact of the matter is, if you’re not consistent you won’t make progress and you won’t see results. This principle is so key to success in an exercise program because without consistency even the best exercise program will have minimal to no effect.
What do I mean by consistency? First, you must show up to perform your program on a regular basis. That means that at least 2-4 days/week you’re performing your program, and ideally not going more than 48-72 hours between workouts. If you can’t do this, then you simply can’t progress.
Consistency also means that you put in the same amount of effort each time you show up to do your workout. You may not always feel 100%, nobody will ever feel great all the time. There may even be some days that you must modify the workout to compensate for fatigue and stress. But despite this, you must be committed to showing up and putting in as much effort as possible.
Finally, consistency means that you stick with your exercise program long enough to see results without giving up and trying something different after only a month or two. To see if a program is effective for you or not, you ought to at least put in twelve weeks of consistent effort before jumping ship and trying a new program.
So, consistency works to tie all the other principles together and enables you to see the results from the exercise program. Many times, people complain that they’re not making progress, but when you look at how many times they showed up to do the program over the past month, it only shows 4 or 5 workouts. It goes without saying that this is probably the main reason they’re not seeing progress.
# 7 – Rest and Recovery
The final principle that goes into a highly effective exercise program is rest and recovery. Like consistency, rest and recovery is an important aspect of a training program which often gets overlooked.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but you don’t make progress while you’re in the gym doing your workout, that’s when you provide the stress that breaks your body down and causes adaptation. The progress happens in the hours and days following a training session when you recover and super-compensate to allow your body to handle higher amounts of stress.
This recovery period is essential if you want to make progress without getting fatigued, injured, or burnt-out. Those who don’t put an emphasis on quality recovery between exercise sessions, really aren’t giving themselves the best opportunity to make progress and stay healthy.
What should rest and recovery entail? Well, taking a day off between workouts is a good start, but for the best recovery you should focus on five main things:
Therapeutic Modalities (ice, heat, electrical stimulation, massage, etc.)
Active Recovery (low-intensity cardio, stretching, foam rolling, and other activities promoting blood flow)
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into too much detail on recovery, but if you’re interested you can check out my article, Optimal Recovery for Optimal Performance.
Suffice it to say, however, that taking the time to focus on these important aspects of recovery will give you the final piece in a highly effective exercise program.
If you don’t put an emphasis on quality sleep, quality nutrition, and adequate hydration, you’re not giving your body the means for successful recovery and adaptation.
Additionally, therapeutic modalities, like the ones mentioned above, can help give your body that extra help in recovering from stress, particularly if you’re trying to overcome an injury. These methods can also be effective if you’re going through a very high stress physical period and you need to increase your recovery ability to stay healthy and perform at a high level.
Finally, a great tool for recovery is “active recovery.” This entails low level exercise to promote blood flow and healing. Rather than just sitting around to recover and becoming stiff, try going for a walk or light bike ride. Another great strategy is to go through a foam rolling circuit and some mobility drills for 10-20 minutes on off days from your normal exercise routine.
Once you begin focusing on your recovery, you’ll see accelerated results from your exercise program because you’re increasing your ability to efficiently adapt to stress. This will also allow you to stay healthy even during periods of high stress. So, instead of totally losing your focus on recovery during stressful periods, that should be the time where recovery becomes the top priority!
Wrapping it Up
I’ve hit on many different aspects of exercise programs today, but hopefully now you have a better idea of what makes up a highly effective program. It doesn’t matter what methods or techniques are used as much as it matters what principles you follow.
If you focus on these 7 principles or habits in both the design and execution of your program, you’re bound to see results because principles work for everyone. Methods and techniques may only work for some, but principles are universal. That’s why the most effective exercise programs rely on the 7 principles outlined above.
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