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Workout principle 1: The progressive overload principle

In order to increase one aspect of physical fitness (strength, muscle mass, stamina, etc.), the muscles must be subjected to more stress than usual. This means that the muscles need to be continually put under increased stress. In order to achieve more strength, heavier weights must be used. In order to achieve more muscle mass, not only do heavier weights need to be used but the number of sets and the number of training units also need to be increased.

Muscle stamina is best improved by shortening the rest between sets or by constantly increasing the number of reps or sets. The progressive overload principle is the core of all physical training and forms a solid basis for successful strength training (super-compensation).


Workout principle 2: The set system principle

In the early years of bodybuilding, most experts believed that wannabe bodybuilders should only complete one set of each exercise per workout. If the whole body is to complete twelve exercises, this would mean twelve sets per training unit.

Joe Weider saw things differently. He was the first to recommend working out using several sets of one exercise (sometimes up to three or four sets per exercise) in order to fully exhaust each muscle group and to stimulate maximum muscle growth.


Workout principle 3: The isolation principle

Several muscles can be trained as a unit or isolated and trained individually. All muscles are involved more or less in every movement – either as stabilizers, agonist, antagonists or synergistic. If a particular muscle is to be built up, it needs to be exercised as separately as possible from the other muscles. This can be done by holding the body in different positions. Dumbbell flyes isolate the chest muscles more effectively than barbell bench presses.


Workout principle 4: The muscle confusion principle

Constant muscle growth can only be achieved if the body is not given chance to really settle into and get used to a particular training program. The muscles should never get too “comfortable”. Muscle growth requires a constant increase in physical stress. The exercises, sets, number of reps and exercise angle should be constantly varied so that the muscles do not get used to and adapt to certain types of stress.


Workout principle 5: The muscle priority principle

The weakest body part should always be trained at the start of each training unit when your energy levels are at their highest. Increasing muscle mass requires a high level of intensity and the training intensity can only be high if the requisite energy is available. If you have weak shoulders for instance, you should do neck presses, standing rows and lateral raises before going on to bench presses for the chest muscles. In this way, you can ensure maximum intensity for your shoulder workout.


Workout principle 6: The pyramiding principle

Muscle fibers grow as a result of contractions against high resistance. As a result of these contractions against high resistance, you also gain strength. Using the maximum weight for an exercise for several sets of eight reps each without a rest is theoretically a very effective way to build up mass and strength. However, it doesn’t work. Training with maximum weights without warming up properly first makes you highly susceptible to injury. No one should begin their training with the maximum weight. The pyramiding principle was developed to help with this. Each exercise begins with approximately 60% of the maximum weight that can be lifted for just one repetition. The number of reps for this relatively light weight is 15. Then more weight is added and the number of reps reduced to ten to twelve. Finally, the weight is increased to about 80% of the maximum weight and you do five to six reps. In this way, heavy weights are lifted after the warm-up phase, without the risk of injury.


Workout principle 7: The split-system principle

After six weeks of training on three days a week, you should increase the intensity of your workout. Splitting your workouts up into exercises for upper and lower body enables you to do more exercises and more sets, as well as increase the degree of difficulty. With the split-system principle, each part of the body can be worked on more intensively, for longer, so that the muscles develop in a more symmetric, stronger and better proportioned way. This means that on Mondays, for example, you complete your upper body training (chest and shoulders), Wednesdays is for lower body training (legs) and Fridays is for upper body again (back and arms).


Workout principle 8: The circulation principle

In order to stimulate muscle growth, blood must be circulated around the muscle being worked on. The circulation principle is the essence of focused training on one part of the body.


Workout principle 9: The super set principle

A widely known WEIDER workout principle. Super sets mean combining antagonistic muscle groups. Antagonistic means muscles that work against each other. Examples of antagonistic muscle groups include: biceps/triceps, back/chest, quadriceps/leg biceps. This principle depends on doing both individual sets, one for each exercise, immediately after each other. Super sets are also effective from a neurological point of view. It has been proven that the biceps regenerate more quickly if a set for the triceps is done right after a set for the biceps. This is because of the way the nervous system transmits signals through the body.


Workout principle 10: The compound sets principle

Compound sets means super sets for the same part of the body (e.g. two different exercises for the biceps to be done one after the other). In this case, the aim is not effective recuperation but the pump effect in the muscle. A compound set for the biceps would be, for example, the combination of barbell curls and dumbbell curls on the incline bench.


Workout principle 11: The holistic principle

It has been scientifically proven that different parts of the muscle cells house proteins and energy systems that react in different ways to physical stresses. The proteins in the muscle fibers become bigger under stress with high resistance. The aerobic system of the cells (mitochondria) responds to endurance training. In order to develop each muscle cell to its full potential, you need to vary the number of reps you do for each exercise. This means sometimes you do a high number of reps and sometimes you do a low number: e.g. in the first set of an exercise, you do 15 reps, in the second, you do ten, in the third, eight and in the last set, you do six reps. This holistic principle is also recommended by Dr Fred Hatfield, albeit in a slightly different form.


Workout principle 12: The cycle principle

Also called periodization training. One section of the training year consists of the bulk-up phase with heavy weights and few reps. This is followed by quality training with low weights, high numbers of reps and short rest periods. In this way, you can avoid injury and ensure continual success by giving yourself a varied routine.


Workout principle 13: The iso-tension principle

This is one of the most frequently misunderstood principles. Iso-tension means controlling the muscles: simply tensing the muscle outside of your workout. Hold the contraction for three to six seconds and then repeat about three times. Champions use this technique by tensing all muscles three times a week. These isometric contractions enable a better degree of neurological control over the muscle and enable athletes to show off the individual muscle groups and divisions between muscles more effectively in competitions.


Workout principle 14: The cheating principle

Cheating at the correct training technique should not relieve the load on the muscle but increase the stress upon it. After all, bodybuilding is all about continually increasing the stress the muscles are under. For this reason, the correct technique should only be altered in order to add an extra one or two extra reps at the end of a set or perhaps support the muscle being worked with another part of the body.

In a set of concentration curls on the cable apparatus, it is not possible to finish the last few reps. If you use the free hand to the degree necessary that you can complete two more reps, this is the correct interpretation of the cheating principle. However, if you lift your buttocks from the bench in bench press exercises in order to be able to manage one or two more reps, this is the incorrect interpretation of the principle. The first example increases the stress on the muscle, while the second scenario relieves it.


Workout principle 15: The tri-sets principle

The tri-sets principle describes the combination of three different exercises for the same part of the body, which are completed one immediately after the other. This technique increases the pump effect. As the muscles being worked are trained from three different angles, this approach primarily aims at shaping the muscle. Tri-sets emphasis the localized stamina and the recuperation factors within the muscle and are therefore ideally suited to improving vascularity. A well-known bodybuilding champion developed “coconut training” for the shoulder muscles: first exercise: bent-over lateral raises, straight after this neck presses and then lateral raises with dumbbells as the last exercise. This workout will broaden even the most stubbornly narrow shoulders!


Workout principle 16: The giant sets principle

A giant set is a series of between four and six different exercises for one muscle group which are completed either immediately one after the other or with only very short rests in between the individual sets.

Using chest training as an example: flat bench presses, 30-second rest; incline bench presses, 30-second rest; dips, 30-second rest, pullovers 30-second rest.

Repeat this process three or four times in order to achieve even, well-balanced muscle development.


Workout principle 17: The pre-exhaustion principle

To put one muscle group under stress to the point of exhaustion using an isolation exercise in excess of the muscle’s primary range of motion and then to immediately train a secondary range of motion with a basic exercise.

Example: Pre-exhaustion of the quadriceps. First of all, complete a set of leg extensions and then do a set of squats.

This means that muscles that work together, such as the extensor muscles of the lower back and the hip flexors, come into play, meaning that the upper thigh muscles can be subjected to even more stress.


Workout principle 18: The rest-pause principle

The rest-pause principle is a technique for building up strength and mass. This technique enables you to lift the maximum weight within a set.

How to do it: Use enough weight to be able to do two or three reps; 30 to 45-second rest; two to three more reps; 45 to 60-second rest; one or two reps. Do one set with seven to ten reps at maximum weight for all reps.


Workout principle 19: The peak contraction principle

This technique aims to get the muscles to hold the muscles in the position of the strongest contraction. For dumbbell curls, for example, the resistance eases off towards the end of the positive movement phase. In order to prevent this and to subject the biceps to resistance even at the point of full contraction, the contraction can be held at the highest point of the movement by turning the wrist outwards. This means that the muscles are constantly under stress, which means better definition for you!


Workout principle 20: The continuous tension principle

Momentum can be the muscle’s worst enemy. If you complete an exercise so quickly that the weight is carried by momentum for the most part of the exercise, the muscle will be relieved of most of the necessary stress. It is better to train slowly and in a more concentrated way so that the muscles are under constant tension. Only in this way can the training be truly effective and the muscle fibers can be properly stimulated.


Workout principle 21: The retro-gravity principle

Using the muscle to struggle against the resistance of a weight in the negative movement phase (lowering the weight) is a very intensive form of training which results in a lot of muscle ache and stimulates maximum muscle growth. Retro-gravity training should therefore be limited to occasional use.

This training method strengthens muscles and connective tissue and builds strength faster. This technique can also be used on weaker parts of the body in order to bring them up to the same level of development as the rest of the body; ideally in the bulk-up phase before the competition season starts.

Example: If you do bench presses with eight reps at 100 kg, a training partner should help you lift 120 kg. You then complete the negative movement downwards yourself. For some exercises, such as barbell curls, a training partner is not necessary. You can complete the upward movement with momentum and then lower the barbells using the slow, correct technique.


Workout principle 22: The intensive reps principle  

Intensive reps are a very intensive training method (as the name implies). Lots of bodybuilders over-train if they use this principle too often. Men who use intensive reps frequently (e.g. Shawn Ray, Eddie Robinson, Aaron Baker, etc.) are people who generally have enormous power and concentration – men who are born with exceptional genes for bodybuilding. And even they use intensive reps relatively infrequently.

Intensive reps stress the muscle fibers well beyond the normal point of exhaustion and stimulate even stronger muscle growth.

Example: For top results with bench presses – do eight reps at 100 kg. After the eighth rep, get a training partner to help you pull just enough on the center of the straight bar that you can manage another two or three additional reps.


Workout principle 23: The double-split principle  

Lots of bodybuilders only train one or two parts of the body in the morning and then go back to the gym in the late afternoon or evening in order to work on one or two further areas. This system is known as the double-split system. The advantage of this system is clear: if only one or two areas are trained per training unit, all the energy you have can be focused on these areas. It is possible to do more sets and lift heavier weights, which naturally brings more muscle growth. However, bodybuilders who also have to work for a living find this principle difficult to maintain.


Workout principle 24: The triple-split principle

There are some bodybuilders who recuperate exceptionally quickly and effectively and who therefore benefit in the same ways mentioned above from three training units per day; they then train a different area of the body in each of these three training units. Albert Beckles, one of the big names in the business, is one such bodybuilder. For the same reasons as the double-split technique, this principle is only really feasible for professionals.


Workout principle 25: The burns training principle

If two or three short partial reps are added to the end of a normal set, even more blood and lactic acid flow into the muscles. This extra lactic acid results in a burning sensation in the muscles. From a physiological point of view, the products of catabolism and the additional blood that flow into the muscles after the partial reps swell the cells and new capillaries are created. This leads to increased mass and better circulation of the muscles. Larry Scott, one of the early champions and the first Mr Olympia, used this technique in almost all his exercises.


Workout principle 26: The quality principle

Quality training signifies the gradual decrease of the rest time between sets while still maintaining or increasing the number of sets. Quality or pre-competition training serves to develop definition and vascularity.


Workout principle 27: The descending sets principle

Lots of bodybuilders know this technique as "stripping". It requires two training partners – one on either side of the barbell – who then take weight off the bar when no more reps can be completed with the weight on the bar. The set is extended by using less and less weight so that a few more reps can be done. This method increases the intensity of each set enormously. The technique should only be used for one or two exercises per training unit.


Workout principle 28: The instinctive principle

In bodybuilding there is only one rule that applies to all: only you can know what is best for your body. Sooner or later, all bodybuilders develop the ability to organize their own training programs in a way that is best for them. Only by doing so is it possible to make best use of the potential nature has given you. Everyone responds differently to different training and nutrition plans. As your experience increases, you will begin to train in the correct way for you by instinct in order to achieve the best progress. Everyone is different and your training regime should take this into account.

The most important rule in bodybuilding is that there are no rules!


Workout principle 29: The partial reps principle

In order to develop more strength and muscle mass, it is possible to train the start, middle or end phase of the movement of basic exercises using partial reps. The best-known example of this is 21s for the biceps.

It’s very simple to do. Simply reduce your usual training weight for ten reps of Scott curls by 15%. Then do seven reps in the upper to middle of the range. The second seven reps are then done from the lowest point of the movement up to the middle of the movement. The final seven are full reps.

This principle will result in a strong burning sensation in the biceps. In order to avoid overtraining, you should only do this type of training once a week at most