An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

In the study of exercise science, several universally accepted scientific exercise training principles should ideally be followed to get the most from exercise programs and improve physical fitness and sports performance.

These rules are general fundamental principles of exercise science and apply to all athletes, from beginners to elite competitors. Of course, you don't need to follow every one of them all the time. Many people want to get in better shape, improve sports performance, get better at a particular fitness discipline, or avoid stalling and back-slides. In that case, these fundamental rules are the hidden force behind the ability to change your fitness level, according to exercise science.

To design an optimal exercise program, workout, or training schedule, a coach or athlete should adhere to the six fundamental principles of exercise science. Below is more on each of the six principles.

The principle of individual differences simply means that, because we all are unique individuals, we will all have a slightly different response to an exercise program. This is another way of saying that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to exercise. Well-designed exercise programs should be based on our individual differences and responses to exercise.

Some of these differences have to do with body size and shape, genetics, past experience, chronic conditions, injuries, and even gender. For example, women generally need more recovery time than men, and older athletes generally need more recovery time than younger athletes.

With this in mind, you may or may not want to follow an "off the shelf" exercise program or class and may find it helpful to work with a coach or personal trainer to develop a customized exercise program. Some things to consider when creating your own exercise program include the next batch of exercise science principles.

The exercise science principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptation to take place. What this means is that in order to improve our fitness, strength, or endurance, we need to increase the workload accordingly.

In order for a muscle (including the heart) to increase strength, it must be gradually stressed by working against a load greater than it is accustomed to.

To increase endurance, muscles must work for a longer period of time than they are accustomed to or at a higher intensity level. This could mean lifting more weight or doing ​high-intensity interval training workouts.

The principle of progression implies that there is an optimal level of overload that should be achieved and an optimal time frame for this overload to occur. A gradual and systematic increase in the workload over a period of time will result in improvements in fitness without risk of injury.

If overload occurs too slowly, improvement is unlikely, but overload that is increased too rapidly may result in injury or muscle damage. For example, the weekend athlete who exercises vigorously only on weekends violates the principle of progression and most likely will not see noticeable fitness gains.

The Principle of Progression also stresses the need for proper rest and recovery. Continual stress on the body and constant overload will result in exhaustion and injury. You should not train hard all the time, as you'll risk overtraining and decreasing fitness.

Adaptation refers to the body's ability to adjust to increased or decreased physical demands. It is also one way we learn to coordinate muscle movement and develop sports-specific skills, such as batting, swimming freestyle, or shooting free throws.

Repeatedly practicing a skill or activity makes it second-nature and easier to perform.

Adaptation explains why beginning exercisers are often sore after starting a new routine, but after doing the same exercise for weeks and months, they have minor, if any, muscle soreness. Additionally, it makes an athlete very efficient and allows him to expend less energy doing the same movements. This reinforces the need to vary a workout routine to see continued improvement.

The Principle of Use/Disuse implies that when it comes to fitness, you do actually  "use it or lose it."  This simply means that your muscles hypertrophy with use and atrophy with disuse. This also explains why we decondition or lose fitness​ when we stop exercising.

We've all heard the phrase, "practice makes perfect." Well, this is the principle of specificity in action. This principle states that exercising a specific body part or component primarily develops that part. The principle of specificity implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.

A runner should train by running, a swimmer by swimming, and a cyclist by cycling. While it's helpful to have a good base of fitness and do general conditioning routines, if you want to be better at your sport, you need to train specifically for that sport.

These six basics are the cornerstones of all other effective training methods and cover all major aspects of a solid foundation of athletic training. Designing a program that adheres to all of these guidelines can be challenging, so it's not a surprise that many athletes turn to a coach or trainer for help.

  • A customised exercise program developed by an AUSactive registered professional is a great way to stay fit and will bring you a wide range of physical and mental benefits.
  • Before starting with an exercise program, if you haven’t exercised for a while, use the adult pre-exercise screening tool and consult your doctor for a check-up if required.
  • Consider your fitness goals. Are you starting a fitness program to help you lose weight or for some other reason?
  • Start slowly, build up gradually and monitor your progress.

Exercise programs are popular. There are gyms and other fitness providers with many different types of classes, exercise routines and equipment, catering to a wide range of people.

If you are unfamiliar with what is involved, starting an exercise program can be challenging. Talk to an AUSactive registered professiona l to find out about the many options available.

Health benefits of exercise programs

An exercise program that is tailored specifically to your needs is a great way to stay physically and mentally fit. It also provides additional benefits such as:

  • improved condition of the heart and lungs
  • increased muscular strength, endurance and motor fitness
  • increased aerobic fitness
  • improved muscle tone and strength
  • weight management
  • better coordination, agility and flexibility
  • improved balance and spatial awareness
  • increased energy levels
  • improved immunity
  • increased physical confidence
  • reduced risk of chronic disease (such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease)
  • improved sleep
  • improved brain function and health
  • improved general and psychological wellbeing
  • greater self-confidence and self-esteem
  • improved social life.

Before starting your exercise program

Before you get started, if you are new to exercise or are coming back from a long period of inactivity, it will help if you:

Assessing your fitness level for an exercise program

You probably have some idea of how fit you are. However, assessing and recording baseline (starting) fitness scores can give you benchmarks (points of comparison) against which to measure your progress. It’s valuable to assess your progress on a regular basis, for example each month. Remembering progression with some goals may be achieved in shorter or longer periods of time.

Before you start your new exercise program, record:

  • your pulse rate (heart rate) before and after a walk
  • how long you take to walk a certain distance
  • how many bench push-ups or squats you can do in 30 seconds
  • your waist circumference (measured midway between the top of your hip bone and bottom of your ribs).
  • your body mass index (BMI). This is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres, squared. If you would like this accurately assessed, visit your local registered allied health or exercise professional .

(Note: Some medications affect your heart rate. If you are taking any medications that do so, consult a health professional and consider another way of measuring your exertion levels, such as the Borg scale.)
The adult pre-exercise screening tool contains exercise intensity guidelines, including exertion and other descriptive measures.

Consult an exercise or health professional to help you interpret this information or to do a fitness assessment for you, and work out what sort of program is best for you.

Designing your fitness program

Consulting an exercise professional when designing your fitness program can help you reduce injury and customise your program to your needs, especially if you are new to exercise or you haven’t done any physical activity for a while. Points to keep in mind when designing your program include:

  • Consider your goals. Are you starting a fitness program to lose weight or for some other reason?
  • Think about your likes and dislikes. Choose activities you will enjoy.
  • Plan a logical progression of activity. If you’re just beginning to exercise, start cautiously and progress slowly.
  • Build activity into your daily routine. Schedule time to exercise as you would any other appointment.
  • Think variety. By varying your activities (cross-training), you can avoid exercise boredom.
  • Allow time for recovery after exercising and make sure you have an adequate healthy diet.
  • Put it on paper. A written plan can encourage you to stay on track.

Assemble your exercise clothing and equipment

Be sure to pick shoes designed for the activity you have in mind, as well as for your foot type. If you’re planning to buy gym equipment, choose something that’s practical, enjoyable and easy to use.

Getting started on your exercise program

When you are ready to start getting active:

  • Start with low intensity activities such as walking with a friend or family member.
  • Over time, build up to the amount of physical activity recommended by Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines :
    • Be active on most (preferably all) days every week.
    • Accumulate 2½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours of vigorous physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
    • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least two days each week.
  • If you are unsure about any of the above, seek help from an exercise professional. Recognised industry associations such as AUSactive hold a directory of AUSactive registered professionals , where you can search for an exercise professional based on their:
  • level of experience working in the industry
  • delivery, knowledge and skills
  • location.

Remember to:

  • Start slowly and build up gradually.
  • Break activities up if you have to.
  • Be creative – include other activities such as walking, cycling, swimming or dancing in your routine.
  • Listen to your body – don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Be flexible – if you’re not feeling good, give yourself permission to take a day or two off.

For more information, visit our fact sheet Physical activity – how to get started.

Monitoring progress on your exercise program

Assess your progress six weeks after you start your program (by measuring the same parameters as you did to record your baseline fitness) and then every eight to 12 weeks. You may need to adjust the time, intensity and type of exercise you do to continue improving. On the other hand, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you’re exercising just the right amount to meet your fitness goals.

If you start to lose motivation, set new goals or try a new activity. Exercising with a friend or taking a class at a local fitness centre may help.

Where to get help

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

An exercise program, if designed well, will be perfect for everyone.

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