5 Programming Principles

Below are what I have found to be the five most important concepts to exercise programming. They are our launch pad. These principles are:

  1. Wolff’s Law.
  2. Specificity.
  3. Overload.
  4. Progression.
  5. Measurements.

Wolff’s Law

One of the most important concepts for you to know and understand is Wolff’s Law. Wolff’s Law states that those things subject to a force will respond by growing stronger. That simply means that when we add external weight to a movement it loads the bone more than body weight alone and the bone responds by getting stronger. The same is true for jumping – loads the bones.

However, there are obvious boundaries to the physical realities behind Wolff’s Law. We cannot simply subject the bones to forces and expect a positive outcome. We need to be specific and thoughtful in our actions.


The key to effective program design starts with specificity. The specificity principle states that the muscles worked during an exercise will respond according to the specific training demands. In the field, specificity simply means setting goals first and then choosing exercises that align with those goals. As easy as it sounds it is your most daunting challenge.


For workouts to be effective muscles must be overloaded. Muscles must be subjected to mechanical stress beyond the activities of daily living. They must be subjected to forces that cause them to respond physiologically. The most common ways to overload muscles are to increase the weight a muscle must lift or increase the speed of an exercise like turn walking into jogging and then into sprinting.

A critical distinction we need to cover up front is overload versus overtraining. Overload is thoughtful and reasonable demands to stress a system without breaking it. On the other hand, overtraining is simply overdoing it, breaking the system down to the point where something positive like exercise is now an attack on the system.


In order for Wolff’s Law to stand the test of time, you have to progress workouts. The work must get more difficult over time. The suggested programming guidelines for progression are 5 – 10 % increases in weight and/or cardiovascular intensity and/or duration per week. So a strength training example would look like this:

Week 1: 5-pound lateral raise.

By Week 4: 7.5-pound lateral raise.

I estimated based on what you are most likely to have available in the gym (5 and 7.5 weights). The key here is gradual and steady progression. Do not get caught up in the details.


Measurements are as important to programming as design and implementation. However, they do not have to be complex and require advanced technologies and software. In the elite athletics training program, you will see I used my finger over the carotid artery to measure heart rate, in a world class training facility nonetheless. A scale is fine to measure weight. Skin calipers are acceptable to measure body composition. One rep max or sub-max measurements are fine for strength measurements. Standard endurance measurements like max push-ups are fine too. The key is to decide on your program’s goals first and then choose measurements that align with those goals before you get started. And be consistent – use the same measurements, equipment, and tester (person) every step along the way. This minimizes error.