The 3 Most Important Strength-training Principles

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These are the training and nutrition concepts that I can’t shake. No matter what I learn next or how the science of the fitness industry evolves, I don’t expect these points to change or lose importance. Cover these bases and you’ll hit your goals.

Hit calorie and macro numbers

The path to successful fat loss or muscle gain doesn’t include gimmicks or extremism. It’s not about taking certain supplements or eating a lot—or none—of one kind of food or nutrient.

It’s much, much simpler.

You only need to follow a balanced, digestion-friendly diet on a regular basis. The best diet for a muscular physique happens to be one to which just about everyone can stick, and it’s very close to what most bodybuilders and other strength athletes have been doing forever.

Eat a high amount of protein, an even greater amount of carbs, and low-to-moderate fat. I explain this further in my book, The Truth About Strength Training, but protein supports muscle, carbs provide the energy for workouts, and fat promotes the hormones that allow for muscle and leanness.

To make certain you hit your numbers, you need to keep track of them by measuring or at least estimating the portions you eat.

The truth is: A healthy, balanced diet is the most sustainable approach for gaining muscle and losing fat. Figure out the calories, protein, carbs, and fat you need to eat each day, hit those numbers, and you can’t fail.

Starting with an assistance lift

After a mobility warmup and stretching, there’s one more precaution you should take before loading up a heavy barbell.

Do one of your assistance lifts. That’s right—before the main lift.

Strength purists like to argue that the squat, bench press, or deadlift must come first in your workout so you can be at your absolute freshest and strongest. The problem is that even if you are sweating and stretched before you touch the bar, you’re still not quite ready to load a bunch of weight—especially if you’ve been lifting a while and are strong, or are an older lifter with an injury history or just some cranky joints.

Doing a glute-ham raise or legs curl before squatting, or a dumbbell or even machine press before benching, pumps blood into the muscles you’re about to train and lubricates the joints. You’ll find that you’re able to get into the deep ranges of motion on your main lifts more easily and feel more comfortable in them.

“But won’t doing an exercise before the main lift weaken me? I’ll be forced to lift lighter, right?”

Maybe. But if three or four sets of a hamstring exercises wipes you out for squats, you’ve got bigger problems than getting your squat up. You’re weak, and it’s good that we found your weakness (and have already begun to correct it) now.

Honestly, you probably won’t find that your main lift suffers after doing an assistance lift first. And if you do, you’ll adapt, and your main lift will be up again in a few weeks. What you certainly will notice is that you feel better squatting, pulling, and pressing, and you’ll be less likely to get injured doing so.

The truth is: Doing an assistance exercise before a main lift completes your warm up and sets the stage for safer barbell lifting. The exercise you open with shouldn’t necessarily be an isolation exercise but merely a less stressful one—a dumbbell, bodyweight, or machine movement that calls for moderate loads and serves mainly to get a pump going. It should be uncomplicated to perform, easy on the joints, and help you feel the target muscles working.

Routinely setting PRs

If you know anything about weight training at all, you know about the law of progressive overload. For a muscle to become bigger and stronger, you have to force it to do things it hasn’t done before, again and again.

You can lift more weight for the same number of reps, or you can do more reps with the same weight. You can cut your rest periods down between sets, or you can add sets. You can also add exercises or add workouts. More important than what exactly you do, however, is that you set a PR—personal record—on a fairly regular basis.

At least once a month, make sure you do something in a workout that you’ve never done before.

The progressive overload in The Truth About Strength Training workouts is already mapped out for you—we’re adding weight every week as the reps decline, backing off, and then adding weight again in a pattern that lets you peak in 12 weeks. For all the remaining exercises, the method of progression is in your hands.

For most of the exercises, a rep range is provided. You can handle sets of 8–12 a few different ways. For instance, you could perform 8 reps in Week 1, and then try to add a rep or two every week until you can do 12 reps. Or you could do 12 reps and add weight, working your way down to 8. You could also add weight some weeks and add reps another, or just hit one number in that range consistently.

There isn’t really a wrong way to do it, provided you’re getting the prescribed amount of work done. But your training will be more productive and more fun when you think of your sets as opportunities to set PRs. Never go into a workout just planning to coast and not caring how much you lift or how it gets lifted. That just makes for lackluster workouts.

Aim to improve SOMETHING. If the last workout was heavy, and you don’t think you can go any heavier, try to squeeze out another rep. If you’ve been doing an exercise with just bodyweight and can now complete the highest number of reps in the range, add an external load (such as with pullups or glute-ham raises).

The truth is: Keep track of PRs with a training journal. Not only will it keep you informed of what you’ve done in the past so you know where you stand, it will motivate you to keep working harder. As your training goes forward, you can look back on years of journals that store all your PRs. You’ll see how far you’ve come and be able to identify trends in your training—times when it was really going well, and what might have accounted for that which you can replicate in the future.

For more fitness principles, and a 12-week workout and diet plan by Men’s Fitness training director Sean Hyson, go to

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