The 3 Principles of Training: Overload, Specificity & Progression

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  • 0:00 Principles of Training
  • 0:42 Overload
  • 1:22 Progression
  • 2:21 Specificity
  • 3:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Donna Ricketts

Donna Ricketts is a health educator with 15 years of professional experience designing health and wellness programs for adults and children.

Expert Contributor
Joseph Shinn

Joe has a PhD in Economics from Temple University and has been teaching college-level courses for 10 years.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the three principles of training and how to apply them to any fitness program. You'll also gain a clear understanding of why incorporating these principles into your exercise routine is necessary to improve fitness.

Principles of Training

A cyclist named John comes to you, a personal trainer, with two fitness goals: to improve his leg strength and to become a better climber on the hills when he is out on the road. He says he has been doing the same workout - circuit training with light weights and high repetitions ('reps') - but his legs aren't getting stronger and his climbing hasn't improved.

The best fitness training programs are built on three principles: overload, progression, and specificity. By using these principles, you can design an exercise program that improves performance, skill, ability, and physical fitness. Let's take a deeper look at each principle as you create a better training program for John.


You tell John that if he wants to develop strength in his legs, he must focus on the principle of overload, which means that he must work his body, in particular his legs, with a greater workload than normal.

John's body is used to his workout of light weights and high reps. If he wants to develop strength in his legs, he must increase his weights and workload to an intensity that enables him to only be able to complete three sets of eight reps. Exercises such as leg presses, leg curls, and squats are examples of exercises that can be used with overload to improve John's leg strength.


As John's fitness level improves and his workouts become easier, he will need to make more adjustments to his leg routine. The principle of progression says that he must progressively or gradually increase the workload for improvement to continue. Now that John's legs have adapted to his new workout, he must use the overload principle once again to progress to a new level of fitness. He might add more weight, increase the number of reps, lengthen the amount of time he does the workout, or try more difficult exercises.

Both progression and overload can be achieved by using the FITT approach to guide your changes.

  • Frequency - how often you train (once or twice per week)
  • Intensity - how hard you train (workload, high or low intensity)
  • Time - how long you train (20 min or an hour)
  • Type - the kind of training you do (circuit training or cardio)

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Additional Activities

Additional Questions

For each of the examples below, determine if training via overload, specificity, and/or progression is being used (HINT: Your answer may include more than one of the principles). In giving your answer, be sure to explain why you believe that type(s) of training is(are) being applied.

  1. You want to improve your upper body strength through push-ups. Your goal is to be able to do 100 straight push-ups, but you can't achieve this goal yet. In order to accomplish this goal, you decide to start with 15 push-ups today and increase the number you want by one (and only one) each day for the next 85 days.
  2. As part of your physical therapy after breaking your right leg, you do strength training on only your right leg to build the muscle back up to the level that your left leg is currently at.
  3. You decide that you want to run a marathon, so you start a marathon training program. You are not currently able to run 26.2 miles (the length of a marathon) yet, so you slowly start to build up the number of miles you can run each week.
  4. You want to learn wrestling, so you join a wrestling team.
  5. As you get stronger, you continue to increase the weight that you attempt to lift.

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