Foundations of Every Effective Exercise Program: Part 1

updating imageThere are numerous reasons to exercise and more different workout types than I can count, but regardless of your goals and your preferred method of working out, there are two things that must be incorporated into your program if you want it to be effective. These two foundations are not specific exercises or even types of workouts, but rather general scientific theories.

Many people don’t consider scientific theories to be flashy or interesting, but they are important for increasing our knowledge and understanding. These two theories in particular are very helpful for understanding exercise program design and explaining why some workout programs work, some fail, and some result in improvements, but not necessarily the ones we hoped to achieve.

The field of health and fitness is continually evolving and many things we believed 10 – 20 years ago are now thought to be outdated or inaccurate, but these 2 theories show no signs of being replaced anytime soon. The longevity of the first theory, the General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS, is particularly impressive, because it has been around for over 70 years.

The General Adaptation Syndrome was not originally designed with exercise in mind and it is really a model for the body’s reaction to stress. You may be surprised by this, but exercise is actually considered a form of stress, which is why GAS can be applied to workout routines. This theory does such a good job explaining the body’s reaction to training that it is still frequently used, possibly because it succinctly and accurately sums up the basic progression of every exercise program.

The General Adaptation Syndrome has 3 separate parts, each corresponding to a different stage in your body’s stress response. The 3 stages are alarm, resistance, and exhaustion and I will discuss each stage as it relates specifically to exercise and program design. By examining this theory, you will learn some basics of program design and develop an understanding of why some exercise routines lead to long-term success, while others are doomed to fail.

Stage 1: Alarm – This phase, which can also be called the shock stage, occurs at the beginning of an exercise program or after a significant change in training. This is what happens when your body is exposed to a new stimulus, such as exercise. Exercise is initially alarming to your body and does cause a shock to your system, but some amount of unfamiliar stimulus or shock is necessary for improvement to occur.

During this time, you will likely have increased levels of stiffness and soreness and you may experience short-term decreases in physical performance. The amount of the negative response is determined by your body’s natural ability to handle stress, as well as the intensity of the stimulus. In other words, the more you push your body out of its comfort zone, the more negative effects you will experience. Eventually your body will begin to recover and you will get to the second phase.

Stage 2: Resistance – The second phase represents the time when your body adapts to the training stimulus that was previously a shock to your system. In order to get past the alarm stage, your body must make physiological changes or improvements until the stimulus is no longer considered a shock to your system. Building up a resistance to a previously alarming stimulus is really the foundation of any type of improvement, regardless of the goal of your exercise program.

Without adapting and overcoming a new stimulus, you can maintain your current fitness level, but you will not actually improve without applying some shock to your system. During the resistance stage, your body not only recovers from the negative effects in the alarm stage, but you will typically have a rebound effect where your performance actually improves for a brief period of time. This is known as supercompensation, because your body improves by a larger amount than is needed to overcome the previous stimulus.

Supercompensation the true goal of any workout designed to improve your body and long-term progress depends on maximizing your supercompensation response. This can be tricky, because supercompensation is temporary and if you wait too long between workouts (new stimuli), your improvements will disappear and return to their previous levels. On the other hand, if your next workout is too soon or the stimulus is too much, then your body will go into the next stage of stress response: exhaustion.

Stage 3: Exhaustion – This is the final phase of stress response and unlike the other two, this one you want to avoid whenever possible. The exhaustion phase, which may also be referred to as the Maladaptation phase, occurs when the stress level is too much for your body to handle. In terms of exercise, it means your workouts are too hard for your body to recover from.

Transition from the resistance stage to the exhaustion stage can happen for a number of reasons, but some of the most common are: staleness or a lack of variety in your workouts, excessive amounts of exercise, workouts that are too challenging, poor nutrition, and too much overall stress in your life. Typically it is a combination of factors that leads to exhaustion, but the end result is a lack of further progress and eventually a decrease in performance and/or loss of previous gains.

If you are performing your typically challenging workouts and start feeling burnt out or stop experiencing positive results, then you are likely in the exhaustion phase. At this point, your main priority should be to change your program and get out of the exhaustion stage as quickly as possible. Nothing good comes from experiencing the exhaustion stress response and further increases in stress will just result in further deterioration of your body.

From the General Adaptation Syndrome, we can see that trying to push through exhaustion stress is not a good idea. Pushing your body more will just lead to overtraining, which may take weeks or months to fully recover from. When severe overtraining occurs, you have to drastically reduce your exercise or stop training altogether, until your body has a chance to recover.

The GAS theory also shows the importance of having the right amount of exercise stimulus. You need enough of a training stimulus to reach the alarm stage and trigger the resistance stage, but not so much that you go into the exhaustion stage. On the other hand, if your workouts do not cause an exercise stimulus high enough to reach the alarm stage, then your body will not have a reaction or enter the resistance stage and you will not experience positive changes.

The General Adaptation Syndrome obviously does not explain specific aspects of program design, but it does provide the basic foundation for any successful workout routine. You can approach exercising from many different ways, but if the intensity of your program doesn’t result in your body fluctuating between the alarm stage and the resistance stage, then your program will be ineffective.

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About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

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