5 “First Principles” Of Effective Workouts

by tffitness on July 27, 2016

7-Truths-About-Strength-TrainingA lot of my blog posts here at Target Focus Fitness basically come down to me thinking out loud about how I might improve the results of my own training. As I get older, progress is harder and harder to come by, so I’m pretty much always thinking and rethinking my approach in an effort to make sure I’m focusing on the things that really matter. After all, it’s very easy to get distracted and sidetracked through to exposure to various ideas and viewpoints in the fitness media.

This post is no exception — over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “first principles” of resistance training — a term I first because aware of after listing to several interviews with ultra-entrepreneur Elon Musk. Now by first principles, I’m not specifically referring to the well-established principles of training, but rather, developing the underlying thought processes and behaviors that support and reinforce these principles. In other words, how to we get ourselves to focus on the things that really matter — and what are those things?

ONE: Progressive Tension Overload Is Job One

This is perhaps obvious, but what’s not always so obvious is that all gym behaviors and supportive recovery strategies must ultimately be directed toward this singular goal.

We can argue all day long about what type of periodization is optimal, what the mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy are, or how much protein we should eat, but at the end of the day, what needs to happen is more weight on the bar.

I was re-reminded of this after listening to an interview with Lyle McDonald who stated (and I paraphrase) “At the end of the day, if you show me someone who’s benching 225 today and 225 a year from now, I’ll show you someone who hasn’t grown any muscle.” And needless to say, someone who hasn’t gotten any stronger, either.

In another recent interview, noted physique coach Eric Helms suggested that “Today, while the scientific community still has some debate around the roles of muscle damage and metabolic fatigue in muscle growth, it is largely accepted that the primary driver of muscle growth is progressive tension overload. The remaining debates are typically around how important the roles of damage and fatigue are, not whether they are the primary drivers of hypertrophy.”

If you haven’t managed to add weight to the bar (or analogous measures of progress, such as adding reps and/or sets with a given weight), you’ve either reached your ultimate potential, or you’re doing something wrong.

If you think the latter is the case, you’ll need to step back and assess your situation and look for clues. Are you training too much? Too little? (Just take your best guess). Is your recovery adequate (especially in terms of sleep and caloric intake)? Or, are you constantly sidelined by nagging injuries?

As a bit of a side note: If you often rely on partner assistance/forced reps, constantly do different exercises every week, don’t use consistent range of motion on your exercises, and/or don’t keep a journal, your training is sub-optimal.

Bottom line: if you’re not getting stronger, ya gotta fix that.

TWO: Consistency Is King

tjg9980You can’t ensure progressive tension overload unless you train consistently. While “consistency” can appear to mean different things for different lifters, whether you train 3, 4 or 6 days a week, consistency means you don’t miss workouts. You might be forced into a light workout from time to time, or you might find yourself unable to give it 100% occasionally, but successful athletes always show up. And as I’ve discovered, even if you’re not feeling it, when you show up, good things tend to happen.

By the way, a lot of people constantly harp on the importance of intensity, but this is putting the cart before the horse — first determine your ideal weekly frequency (I spoke about this idea a bit HERE), and then determine how hard you’re able to work within the framework of this frequency.

THREE: Use “Good” Exercises

An effective exercise creates fatigue in the target muscle(s) without creating pain in the associated joint(s). There are a few obvious examples that probably come to mind for you when I say this:

• You’re doing squats because you read that they’re “the king of all exercises,” but because you’re not built well for squats, all they do is make your back sore.

• Inspired by all the hardcore Crossfit athletes who’re doing Olympic lifts, muscle ups, and kipping pullups, you’re hurting a lot more than you’re growing these days. Maybe you’re not built for, or have the skills for these movements? (Incidentally, don’t be so quick to assume that Crossfit builds jacked physiques — it might be closer to the truth that great bodies can withstand, and therefore benefit from, Crossfit).

• You desperately wanna see your abs, but you’re using mostly static exercises like planks and other “core stability” drills.

There are lots of examples of this mistake of course, but as a final note before moving on, many — if not most — of the best-built and strongest athletes of all time got that way by listening to their bodies. If something hurts, they substitute it with something that doesn’t hurt. If a popular exercise can’t be felt in the target muscle, they find an alternative.

And finally, remember the first principle about progressive tension overload? And how you can’t be progressive if you’re not consistent, which is the second principle? You can’t be consistent if you’re hurt and can’t train. These 5 principles are all very inter-dependent.

FOUR: Assume That Your Work Ethic Sucks, Because It probably Does

n-FITNESS-628x314This is so obvious that it almost escaped my attention when compiling this short list. It’s relatively easy to ensure progressive tension overload at the beginning of your training career when you’re still miles away from your ultimate potential. But with each passing month and year, it becomes harder and harder to add weight to the bar. And from there, the news gets even worse: at some point, it’ll become impossible. It’s sad but true — the longer you train, the harder you’ll need to work for ever diminishing gains. But as depressing as this realization is, the alternative is even worse. Sometimes reality bites kids.

I hate to admit this, but it’s far more common to see people getting great results by working very hard and consistently on a dumb program than it is to see people making great progress applying half-hearted efforts to a much smarter program. Ideally, you should train as hard and smart as possible, but if I had to pick one over the other, I’ll go with hard every time. MMA strength and conditioning programs are prime examples of this. Many of MMA’s top stars do the dumbest imaginable things in the weight room, but they still make progress, because they’re consistent, and they work their asses off.

I’ll finish this point with a thought for you to ponder: As a rule, we assume that we work harder than we actually do. After all, it’s unsettling to admit our flaws. Are you the exception to that rule? Am I? Probably not. Start working harder — you’ll be amazed how far that will take you.

FIVE: Everything Matters, But Not To The Same Degree

This is an important distinction that eludes most of us. While it’s true that success in any endeavor is the result of many different factors, some factors matter more — and often much more — than others.

• The type of periodization scheme you use doesn’t matter as much as whether or not you’re ensuring progressive tension overload over time.

• For fat-loss purposes, the purity of the foods you eat doesn’t matter as much as eating the optimal number of calories.

• Worrying about whether barbell or Smith machine squats are better doesn’t matter much if you only train legs once a week.

• Consuming a fast-acting protein shake as fast as possible after your workout doesn’t matter much if you didn’t train very hard in the first place.

Look — we all have limited resources. It’s often very difficult to focus on everything that needs our attention. When time, energy, and attention are in short supply, the solution is to “triage” the situation by devoting your efforts primarily to those things that matter most. This is known as Paretto’s Principle — in most things, 20% of your outcomes led to 80% of your results.

Which things matter most when it comes to training? See items 1-4 above. And don’t just take my word on it — always continue your education, and be on the lookout for common themes expressed by respected experts. And if you don’t have “go to” experts, start finding them — having recognized authorities to rely on really helps to save time when it comes to researching the various questions you’ll inevitably have about training, nutrition, and related topics.

OK that’s it for this week’s post — if you agree, disagree, or have comments/questions about my 5 points above, post a comment and make your voice heard!

This Week’s Training

Training Volume: 114,135 Pounds (Last Week: 106,218 Pounds)


• Deadlift 365×6

• Bench Press 200×8

• Trap Bar Deadlift 375×8

Well so far, the 6-day-a-week routing is going quite well overall — my only issue at the moment is that I’ve had a cranky left shoulder that’s become gradually worse over the past handful of weeks (I guess I didn’t mention it because it seems like when you acknowledge a problem, it becomes “real” if you can relate to that). Right now, it actually hurts during everyday activities like taking a shower, getting dressed, and so on.

So I’ve decided to buckle down and absolutely avoid anything that causes any pain whatsoever until this cools down. Along with that, I’ll also be bumping up a few choice rehab drills with bands, and I’ll have some extra time and energy while this heals, so I’m planning to take advantage of that by doing a bit of mobility work as well.

So that’s about it for now, thanks as always for following along, and I’ll be back with you next week…

Monday, July 18, 2016

Bodyweight: 196.6 Pounds

Volume: 27,125 Pounds

Goblet Squat

Set 1: 10 lb × 10

Set 2: 40 lb × 10

Set 3: 50 lb × 10

High Bar Squat

Set 1: 45 lb × 8

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Set 3: 135 lb × 8

Set 4: 185 lb × 8

Set 5: 225 lb × 8

Set 6: 245 lb × 6

Set 7: 260 lb × 6

Set 8: 225 lb × 7


Set 1: 135 lb × 6

Set 2: 185 lb × 6

Set 3: 225 lb × 6

Set 4: 275 lb × 6

Set 5: 315 lb × 6

Set 6: 365 lb × 6 (Video Below)

Standing Calf Raise

Set 1: 220 lb × 8

Set 2: 220 lb × 8

Set 3: 220 lb × 8

Set 4: 220 lb × 8

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bodyweight: 197 Pounds

Volume: 11,130 Pounds

Bench Press

Set 1: 45 lb × 10

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Set 3: 135 lb × 8

Set 4: 185 lb × 8

Set 5: 195 lb × 8

Set 6: 200 lb × 8

Set 7: 185 lb × 8

Chin Up

Set 1: 8 reps

Set 2: 8 reps

Set 3: 6 reps

Set 4: 8 reps

Set 5: 7 reps

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

Set 1: 60 lb × 8

Set 2: 70 lb × 8

Set 3: 70 lb × 8

Set 4: 70 lb × 8

Set 5: 70 lb × 8

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bodyweight: 197.4

Volume: 9720 Pounds

Hammer Curl

Set 1: 50 lb × 8

Tricep Pushdowns

Set 1: 140 lb × 8

Set 2: 150 lb × 8

Set 3: 150 lb × 8

Set 4: 150 lb × 8

Seated Calf Raise

Set 1: 100 lb × 8

Set 2: 100 lb × 8

Set 3: 100 lb × 8

Set 4: 100 lb × 8

EZ Bar Curl

Set 1: 45 lb × 8

Set 2: 65 lb × 8

Set 3: 65 lb × 8

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bodyweight: 199 Pounds

Volume: 40,840 Pounds

Trap Bar Deadlift

Set 1: 135 lb × 8

Set 2: 185 lb × 8

Set 3: 225 lb × 8

Set 4: 275 lb × 8

Set 5: 315 lb × 8

Set 6: 365 lb × 8 (Video Below)

Set 7: 375 lb × 8

Set 8: 345 lb × 8

Set 9: 325 lb × 8

Leg Press

Set 1: 90 lb × 8

Set 2: 180 lb × 8

Set 3: 270 lb × 8

Set 4: 360 lb × 8

Set 5: 360 lb × 8

Set 6: 360 lb × 8

Set 7: 360 lb × 8

Seated Leg Curl

Set 1: 145 lb × 8

Set 2: 145 lb × 8

Set 3: 145 lb × 8

Set 4: 145 lb × 8

Friday, July 22, 2016

Bodyweight: 198 Pounds

Volume: 10,520 Pounds

Bench Press (Dumbbell)

Set 1: 100 lb × 8

Set 2: 100 lb × 8

Dual Cable Low Cable Curl

Set 1: 100 lb × 8

Set 2: 100 lb × 8

Set 3: 100 lb × 8

Set 4: 100 lb × 8

Workout Notes: Left shoulder really bothering me, so I discontinued these as well as medium grip benches.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bodyweight: 198 Pounds

Volume: 14,800 Pounds

Hack Squat

Set 1: 90 lb × 8

Set 2: 140 lb × 8

Set 3: 180 lb × 8

Set 4: 180 lb × 8

Set 5: 180 lb × 8

Standing Calf Raise

Set 1: 220 lb × 8

Set 2: 220 lb × 8

Set 3: 220 lb × 8

45° Back Extension

Set 1: BW (+140 lb) × 8

Set 2: BW (+140 lb) × 8

Set 3: BW (+140 lb) × 8

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