Training Principles: The Science Behind Improving Athletic Performance

TAGS: tapering principle, reverseibility principle, oxygen, nathen williams, detraining, ceiling principle, specificity principle, rest, progressive overload, intensity, frequency,, time, williams, performance, improve, athlete, strength, recovery, Elitefts Info Pages, training

First Published in 2006 -


There are many different schools of thought, each with their own ideas on how to train athletes in order to increase athletic performance. So how does one know which particular program will work for any given athlete? The Training Principles are a group of components that have been scientifically proven to increase performance. They can guide coaches in ensuring that their athletes get the maximum benefits from their training regime.

Overload Principle

The first principle is known as the Overload Principle, which is summed up in the following quote: “For any fitness component to improve, it must be overloaded. To obtain optimal improvement and prevent injury, overload must be individualized and progressive” (Hodge, Sleivert, McKenzie 1996). Most athletes can relate to this principle in an anecdotal fashion. They are aware that if they don’t push themselves a little bit harder in training, they won’t see any performance improvements in their chosen discipline.

The Adaptation Principle is important here because the body adjusts to this training by eliciting a number of responses to meet the requirement of the increased workload it has to do. These adaptations vary according to the type of training performed. For example, endurance training can increase blood volume, oxygen transport in the blood, and capillary density in the trained muscles (Reaburn and Jenkins 1996). Resistance training may lead to adaptations including increases in muscle fibre size, lean body mass, ligament and tendon strength, and enzyme activity of creatine phosphokinase and myokinase (McArdle, Katch, and Katch 2001).

This is why progressive overload is necessary. By continually increasing the amount of overload, the body will continue to adapt, allowing further gains to be made. There are a number of ways to ensure that this overload is achieved. The F.I.T.T. principle summarizes these well (Hodge, Sleivert, McKenzie 1996). There are four key factors which can be manipulated to achieve overload. They are:

  • Frequency: The number of training sessions per week.
  • Intensity: How hard the work is using a physical measurement such as heart rate, a perceived level of exertion, or a measure such as repetition maximums (e.g. 8 RM).
  • Time: Measured in a number of forms depending on the type of exercise being performed. Aerobic work is often taken as the total amount of time per session as well as any applicable distances whereas with weight training volume, the number of sets and repetitions performed is often recorded. The amount of time the individual was exercised is also often measured to ensure that the targeted energy system is being used (e.g. 5–10 second exercise intervals load the short-term phosphagen anaerobic systems, 20–60 second intervals load the lactic acid anaerobic system, and intervals greater than two minutes primarily load the aerobic system).
  • Type: The type of fitness components trained and the exercises performed. This is the basis of specificity.

Specificity Principle

The next principle is the Specificity Principle: “The characteristics of a training load must be specific to the movement, muscles, and energy systems of the sport you are training for” (Hodge, Sleivert, McKenzie 1996). The types of specificity (Cochrane 2005) include:

  • specificity of energy systems
  • specificity of mode of training
  • specificity of muscle groups and movement patterns
  • posture specificity

This principle confers that one should aim to keep all training as sport-specific as possible, regardless of the type of fitness being trained. The only real exception to this is when injury or the potential for injury restricts the athlete from doing specific training. In this case, exercises should be kept as specific as possible while mitigating the risk of injury. Many athletes will relate to this principle when reflecting on their performances and reviewing the type of training and exercises used prior to the event.

Eugene Coleman (2002) sums this up, stating, “know what you need and train to get it. You need to lift weights to get stronger, run to get faster, and run, hit, catch, jump, and throw to become a better athlete. If you are going to spend 80% of your time jogging, you’re going to wind up practicing how to be slow.”




Rest / Recovery Principle

The Rest/Recovery Principle clearly states that adequate rest is needed to maximize improvements in fitness. Consideration should be given to rest not only between daily workouts but also programmed rest/recovery weeks throughout an annual training plan. Rest does not simply mean sleeping in late and avoiding all physical activity, although at times this is an option! Instead, the focus should be on active recovery sessions involving such activities as massage, stretching, sled dragging, low intensity/low volume training sessions, and hydrotherapy. The majority of serious athletes have come across the signs and symptoms of overtraining and should be well aware of the need to monitor for these symptoms as well as plan training sessions to avoid them.

Coleman (2002) comments, “no matter how hard you work, you don’t make gains during workouts. Gains are achieved during periods of recovery. Recovery is one of the most important and most ignored principles of training.” Many trainers will attest to this after watching inexperienced athletes struggle through hours of training six days a week with very little return. These athletes could benefit by learning about the recovery principle and recognizing that more is not always better!


The Tapering Principle

The Tapering Principle is in essence a period of time when training is decreased gradually in a constant fashion to allow for peak performance at the actual event. This taper should be approximately two weeks in length just prior to competition, and by gradually decreasing the volume of training while keeping the intensity at competition level, an increase in performance of up to five percent may be gained (Hodge, Sleivert, McKenzie 1996). This concept is well-known and much used in strength sports. It is reflected in the old weightlifting saying, “There’s no point leaving your best lifts in the gym.”



Individualization and Ceiling Principle

The Individualization and Ceiling Principle is important when considering how to maximize an athlete’s skill enhancement and performance level. The key aspects of this principle are that athletes will benefit more when programs are planned to meet their individual needs and when the individual’s capabilities are taken into consideration. Individuals respond differently to training. Some are “high” responders and some are “low” responders. As such, programs may need adjusting to reflect the athlete’s requirements (Hodge, Sleivert, McKenzie 1996). Many athletes will relate to this having watched training partners gain tremendous performance improvements while only making slow progress themselves. This scenario may indicate that changes need to be made to both of the athletes’ programs.

This principle also considers the length of time an athlete has been training and how close they are to their individual genetic potential. Many athletes may recall the time that they put 20 kilograms on their best bench press in only two months or the year that they slashed their best 100 metre time by 1.2 seconds. These rapid gains in performance generally occur during a relatively early stage of an individual’s training. These gains slowly but surely diminish as time pushes forward. This principle considers that an athlete nearing his or her “ceiling” in one type of fitness may benefit by improving in another area of fitness. An example of this is a team-sport athlete whose speed is nearing its peak. However, with room to improve flexibility, this athlete could increase overall performance on the field as well as reduce the risk of injury. Coleman (2002) discusses developing the total athlete stating, “You cannot get away with just being strong or fast or flexible or skilled. You need the whole package—total fitness.”

Reversibility or Detraining Principle

The next principle is the Reversibility or Detraining Principle. Simply put, this is the “use it or lose it” principle. Most athletes who have had significant time off from training will recognize that their performance decreases if the body is not continually overloaded. This is evident in the gym when training has been neglected for any extended period. Weights that were once easy seem unusually heavy and awkward, and the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness is at an all-time high over the next week. The body has clearly reversed its adaptation of increased strength and decreased recovery times. This principle does have a positive side to it though. Detraining can allow an athlete to physically and psychologically recover from extended periods of training, allowing them to return to training with renewed enthusiasm.

Obviously not all athletes can train at a high level year round. So how can they prevent the detraining effect? This is where the final principle, the Maintenance Principle, comes into the equation. To maintain gains in fitness for periods of up to three months, an athlete may manipulate the F.I.T.T principle described earlier and allow training frequency to decrease by up to two-thirds (Cochrane 2005). This principle is often used effectively by athletes whose sport involves defined seasons that don’t allow the training level achieved in the off-season to continue while competing.

So how do all of these training principles fit together? Any training program should consider all aspects of the training principles in relation to the individual athlete for whom the program is written. A periodization model should be used that divides the training year into phases to train specific types of fitness for the athlete. This plan should address the amount of overload on the athlete (using the F.I.T.T principle) and the amount of rest and recovery that the athlete requires. Both overload and rest should be adjusted to maximize the athlete’s adaptation to the training stimulus. The program should identify where and how tapering will be used to allow the athlete to perform at peak levels during his or her event. Periods of maintenance training and/or detraining may be used where applicable during the year, but their timing must be considered to be of maximum benefit to the athlete. A coach should work very closely with his or her athletes, monitoring and adjusting training as necessary. If an athlete is nearing his or her performance potential “ceiling” in one aspect of fitness, the coach may consider modifying the plan to gain further benefits from increasing other types of fitness.

In summary, the Training Principles are essential for those coaches and athletes who wish to gain the most from their training and avoid the “hit or miss” approach often used by less “principled” trainers.


Coleman AE (2002) 15 Basic Training Principles for All Sports. Coach and Athletic Director, 72(3):57-62.

Cochrane D (2005) Advanced Management of Athletic Fitness and Conditioning: Course Material. New Zealand: Massey University.

Hodge K, Sleivert G, McKenzie A (eds) (1996) Smart Training for Peak Performance–A Complete Sport Training Guide for Athletes. Aukland: Reed, Birkenhead.

McArdle WD, Katch FI, Katch VL (2001) Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance, Fifth edition, Chicago: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Reaburn P and Jenkins D (1996) Training for Speed and Endurance. Australia: Southward Press.

Want to learn more?

Click HERE


Loading Comments... Loading Comments...