The Weider Principles - A Complete Analysis
Few people have had the impact on the world of fitness, and more specifically the sport of bodybuilding, than Joe Weider. Born November 29, 1919, in Montreal, Canada, Weider was one of four children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants.
Despite rather humble beginnings, Weider would go onto become the godfather of fitness. He was responsible for publishing some of the most well-known muscle magazines (including Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Men's Fitness and Shape) and producing fitness equipment that many a newbie lifter used to start their life of lifting.
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Old Joe even dabbled with own line of supplements. But, perhaps his most well-known contribution to the sport of bodybuilding was instituting the Mr. (and Ms.) Olympia contest. During his time, Joe had the top bodybuilders under contracts guiding them to their genetic potentials through the application of his principles of lifting.
Today, we dive deep into the commandments of bodybuilding -- The Weider Principles. For quite a long time, these principles served as the guidelines for bodybuilders seeking to achieve their maximum potential. While these principles have been regarded as “bro science”, it turns out that old Joe knew his stuff.
The Weider Principles
The Weider Principles consist of a vast array of training philosophies, protocols, and methods assembled by Joe Weider from his time spent around the world’s best bodybuilders. While rather expansive, the Weider Principles can be grouped into one of the following categories:
- How to organize a workout
- How to structure training cycles
- How to perform an exercise
By utilizing these principles, you too can create your own perfect workout program. Now, let’s get to the Weider principles!
Workout principle #1: Progressive Overload
Of all of Joe Weider’s principles, the concept of progressive overload is probably the most well known and well understood.
Progressive overload is the idea that in order to increase any attribute of fitness (strength, size, stamina, etc), you must force your muscle to perform more work than they previously have. For building muscle, this could mean lifting more weight, performing more reps, and/or increasing training frequency. For increasing strength, it’s simply adding more weight to the bar.
Boosting endurance can be accomplished by continually increasing the number of reps you perform before exhaustion, or shortening the rest between sets while continuing to perform the same number of sets.
Progressive overload is a cornerstone of physical fitness and one that all lifters know, use, and understand in pursuit of making gains.
Workout principle #2: The Set System
Early bodybuilding training philosophy was that a lifter only needed to perform one set of an exercise per bodypart. So, if you were performing a full body routine consisting of 6 different exercises (chest, back, legs, biceps, triceps, and shoulders), you would only perform 6 sets.
That’s not how Joe believed things should be done. He suggested that workouts should involve multiple sets of the same body part exercise to fully exhaust a given muscle. This exhaustion would serve as the stimulus needed for optimal muscle growth.
Workout principle #3: Isolation
When performing the vast majority of exercises, a large number of muscles are involved either as agonists, antagonists, stabilizers, or synergists. Using every lifter’s favorite exercise (the bench press) as an example, the chest is the agonist (primary mover) in the exercise, but it’s also aided by the muscles of the shoulder and tricep. The muscles of the back serve as the antagonist.
Joe believed that in order for a muscle to grow as much as possible, it must be trained in isolation of the other muscles to the greatest extent possible. That means, for example, if you’re trying to build up your side deltoid, rather than focus solely on pressing movements, you would use the side lateral raise. By performing these isolation exercises, you should be able to grow each individual muscle to its maximum.
Workout principle 4: The muscle confusion principle
Muscle confusion, a concept forever immortalized (for better or worse) by Tony Horton and his P90X training system. This concept, which is another incredibly well-known principle, states that in order for a muscle to continue to grow, it must constantly be exposed to different stimuli.
The body seeks homeostasis, it likes to be comfortable. But, if you want to build muscle, you need to make your body “uncomfortable”, and you do this by increasing weight on the bar, increasing reps, adding sets, or increasing frequency.
But, there’s also another way to “shock” your muscles -- changing exercises that you perform in your workouts. Muscle confusion involves the periodic switching of exercises, sets, number of reps or angle of exercise execution (flat vs incline bench). This “confusion” serves as a means to force your body to adapt to a new stimulus and avoid the dreaded “plateau”. By experiencing this, it serves as a signal for new growth.
While this principle is still very much valid, today’s workout programs (P90X in particular) have taken it to the far extreme, including 12 different variations of a pushup within a single workout, or changing exercises every week. While this certainly “confuses” the muscles, it also prevents you from getting really proficient at a given exercise, which inhibits your ability to progressively overload on any exercise and make gains.
So, that take home is that yes, it is good to vary your training from time to time, but you don’t need to change exercises every week and you don’t need 12 variations of pushups in a single workout in order to train your chest.
Workout principle #5: Muscle Priority
After some time of training, every lifter develops certain weak points in their physique and performance. If you’re struggling on bench for example, this could mean that your triceps are lagging.
The muscle priority principle states that a weak body part should be trained at the start of your training session so that you can attack it with more intensity, since your energy, focus, and concentration are at their highest.
Workout principle #6: Pyramid Training
Most of us can’t walk right into the gym and deadlift our 1-rep max without performing a warm-up or at least a few ramp up sets. Your muscles aren’t warmed up and your CNS isn’t really ready to max out on a compound lift without a proper warm up.
In theory, you possibly could walk right into the gym and pull your 1RM... If you’re willing to subject your body to the risk of serious injury, but seeing as we’re in this for the long haul, you’re going to do some warm up sets before attempting a 1RM.
Performing those warm up or “ramping” sets before your heavy working sets is one of Joe Weider’s principles.
It’s called “Pyramid Training”, and it involves performing an exercise using a lighter weight for higher reps and gradually increasing the weight while lowering the reps. By doing these lighter weight sets, you are driving blood into the muscle, joints, and connective tissue, warming them up, and decreasing your risk of injury.
This concept can also be reversed where you start with heavy weight and low reps and gradually decrease the load while increasing the number of reps. Current research has shown that pyramid and reverse pyramid training are both effective for building strength and size. 
Workout principle #7: Split-System Training
“What’s the best training split?” is a question that’s been asked probably as many times as “Hey bruh, how much ya bench?”
The concept of splitting your workout up into different body parts is another one of Joe Weider’s training principles. After a time spent performing full body workouts, Joe would have his bodybuilders switch to body part splits. For example, on Mondays, you’d train Chest/Shoulders/Triceps. Wednesday’s training session would be Back/Biceps, and Friday would be Legs/Abs.
Splitting the body part up allowed for greater intensity and focus to be devoted to the sessions targeted muscles, which enabled you to perform more exercises and develop the muscles more completely.
Workout principle #8: Circulation
To spark muscle growth, blood must be circulated around the muscle that is being trained. This principle resides at the core of “pump” training which entails performing a high number of reps, with brief periods of rest, to flood the muscle with blood, increasing oxygen and nutrient delivery along with “sick” muscle pumps.
Workout principle #9: Supersets
Another one of the better known and oft-utilized Weider principles is the training concept of supersets.
A superset involves performing two exercises targeting antagonistic muscle groups back-to-back with little to no rest between the two exercises. After completion of both exercises, then a normal rest period is taken.
This was another one of the ways to “confuse” the muscles, increase workout intensity, and shatter plateaus. Common examples of supersets include chest & back, biceps & triceps, quads & hamstrings.
This concept has actually held up in the world of research too where antagonists regenerate more quickly when its opposing muscle group is worked immediately proceeding it.
Workout principle #10: Compound Sets
Compound sets are a close relative of supersets and can be used to increase training stress on a given muscle as well as one hell of a pump. Whereas supersets involve performing two exercises for opposing muscle groups, a compound set is one in which two exercises are performed consecutively on the same muscle group.
For example, a compound set for chest would be performing an incline dumbbell press followed by an incline dumbbell fly. The addition of the dumbbell fly after the incline dumbbell press serves to fully exhaust the muscle and drive as much blood as possible to it, which if you remember from the “Circulation” principle should lead to more muscle growth.
Workout principle 11: Holistic Training
Muscles are composed of both fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers and respond to a variety of stressors. Weider believed that in order to develop a muscle as completely as possible it must be trained using a variety of methods including fast lifting tempos, slow lifting tempos, high reps, low reps, and different exercises for the same body part. Utilizing all of these various training methods would target all factors that drive muscle growth (mechanical tension, metabolic stress, muscle damage).
By taking this holistic and all-encompassing approach to training, an aspiring bodybuilder can develop his muscles to their fullest extent and leave room for no weak points or shortcomings.
Workout principle #12: Cycle Training
You might know this principle by its more common moniker -- periodization.
Cycle training simply revolves around the concept of devoting different portions of your training “year” to different phases. For instance, you might spend 8-12 weeks working with lower reps and heavier weights to increase strength. Following that, you then might spend another 8-12 weeks working with moderate weights and higher reps to build muscle and increase size. Then, you might devote another 12 week block to light weight and high reps to improve endurance and work capacity.
Rotating through these different training cycles is yet another way to “shock” the system, avoid/break plateaus, and ensure continual progress with your performance and body composition.
Workout principle #13: Iso-Tension
This is one of Weider’s less discussed training principles, but if you’re involved in the world of competitive bodybuilding and physique competitions, you’re well acquainted with it.
Iso-tension is all about controlling the muscle outside of an exercise. For example, this could mean flexing the muscles for three to five seconds in between working sets. Iso-tension was a favorite technique of 2-time Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno, who routinely held muscle contractions for six seconds in between his sets. This helped to increase the mind-muscle connection and muscle control, which translated to better posing during competition time for physique athletes.
Workout principle #14: Cheating
While cheating (a.k.a body english) is often frowned upon in beginner and intermediate lifters, for the advanced trainee, cheating serves as invaluable technique to work a muscle beyond failure. After all, building muscle requires continually increasing the amount of stress that a muscle is exposed to. After reaching momentary muscle failure using proper technique, a lifter can use supporting muscles to lift the weight and allow the primary movers to bear the weight on the eccentric phase.
In practice, the cheating principle looks something like this.
Say you’re doing unilateral preacher curls and you can perform 8 reps but you’re supposed to do 12 reps in the set. Instead of ending the set, swapping out the weight for a lower weight, or using rest-pause training to complete your reps, you would use the non-working arm to help lift and lower the weight to whatever degree necessary to complete all reps for that set while maintaining tension on the working arm.
However, the cheating principle can also be applied incorrectly where you’re contorting your body is such a way that it relieves stress on the muscle during the lift rather than maintains stress. In practice, this equates to heaving the weight up in a curl and letting it simply drop on the eccentric phase of the lift, not resisting its descent at all. Here, cheating the weight did not provide any benefit as the biceps really played no part in the raising or lowering.
Workout principle #15: Tri-Sets
Tri-sets are a progression of compound sets. Whereas compound sets used two exercises performed consecutively for the same body part, a tri-set involves performing three different exercises with little rest in-between each exercise all for the same body part.
An example of a tri-set for back would be barbell bent over rows followed by pull-ups followed by lat pulldowns.
The purpose of tri-sets is to increase the amount of stress that a muscle is under, increase blood flow to the muscles being worked, and deliver a pump you likely won’t forget.
Tri-sets are particularly grueling, as they tax the muscles and cardiovascular system rather extensively. As such, tri-sets are typically programmed once a lifter has progressed beyond straight sets, supersets, and compound sets.
Another added benefit of tri-set training, at least in the view of the world of bodybuilding, is that by attacking the muscle with three different exercises from a variety of angles is that it helps “shape” a muscle and bring up “stubborn” muscle groups.
Workout principle #16: Giant Sets
Giant sets ratchet up the intensity on tri-sets another notch. When using giant sets, you’re using at least four different exercises performed back-to-back on the same muscle group. Just like tri-sets, compound sets, and supersets, the rest between each exercise in the giant set is kept to a minimum. You rest only as long as it takes for you to transition from one exercise to the next. After completing a giant set, then you would take your rest.
Tri-sets and giant sets alike are best used for big muscle groups like the legs or back which can take a lot of volume and stress to fatigue.
Using legs as an example, a giant set would look a little something like this:
- Barbell back squats
- Barbell front squats
- Leg press
- Leg extensions
- Leg curls
Repeat this sequence three or four times to completely break down your legs, tax your cardiovascular system, and test your mental and testicular fortitude.
Workout principle #17: Pre-Exhaustion
Pre-exhaustion is a more intense and “refined” form of training with compound sets. Where compound sets used two different exercises to target a particular muscle group, pre-exhaustion uses two different exercises for the same muscle group, but the first exercise in the pair is an isolation exercise intended to fatigue (“exhaust”) and then hit it with a compound exercise.
In practice, a pre-exhaustion “set” would entail performing dumbbell flyes before dumbbell bench press or side laterals before overhead pressing or leg extensions prior to squatting.
In each of these instances, you would have to use less weight during the compound exercise than you would had you just performed straight sets of the compound exercise. Using pre-exhaust training is yet another way to increase training stress on a muscle without necessary having to go super heavy on the weight lifted.
Workout principle #18: The Rest-Pause Principle
A personal favorite of Tiger Fitness Editorial Director Steve Shaw, the rest-pause training technique provides a way to increase training volume while still using a heavier weight. This is a great way for building size and strength.
For example, let’s say you’re doing a set of shoulder presses using your 10RM. If you were performing straight sets, you would perform 10 reps and then take a break. For a rest-pause set, you would perform several “mini sets” (usually between 4-7), which would look something like this:
- Mini-set #1 = 7 reps
- Rest 30 seconds
- Mini-set #2 = 4 reps
- Rest 30 seconds
- Mini-set #3 = 3 reps
- Rest 30 seconds
- Mini-set #4 = 2 reps
- End rest-pause set
At the end of one rest-pause set, you will have completed 16 reps as opposed to the 9-10 reps you would have gotten had you done a typical straight set of shoulder presses.
Rest-pause training can be scaled up or down the intensity scale where you’re doing mini-sets with your 8RM, 5RM, or 3RM. You set the intensity and the number of mini-sets, with the goal being to perform more high-quality reps, overloading the muscles, and promoting more growth.
Workout principle #19: Peak Contraction
Peak contraction is pausing at the top of the concentric phase of a lift and squeezing the muscle as hard as possible for a few seconds before lowering the weight.
As you lift a weight, there are phases of the lift where tension is not as large as during other phases. For example, in a bicep curl, tension is at its greatest when your forearm is perpendicular to your shoulder. Tension is reduced at the top (fully contracted) position and the bottom (fully extended) position.
Applying the Weider principle of peak contraction to the bicep curl, when you have curled the weight up, you would squeeze your biceps as hard as humanly possible for 2-3 seconds and then slowly lower the weight. Doing so increases tension in the muscle at a point where it would otherwise be less, which increases overall training stress during each rep leading to better gains.
Using peak contraction technique also helps to fortify the mind-muscle connection, too!
Workout principle #20: Continuous Tension
When comparing bodybuilding and powerlifting the two take a vastly different approach to lifting weights. In powerlifting, a lifter is concerned with moving as efficiently as possible in order to move a maximum amount of weight. Bodybuilding tries to make the movement as inefficient as possible, getting the most training stress you can out of a given weight.
As such, momentum is the mortal enemy of the aspiring bodybuilder. Momentum removes tension from a muscle, reducing the amount of work it has to do during a repetition.
The principle of continuous tension dictates that you lift a weight slowly under control, maintaining tension on a given muscle throughout the entire range of motion, thereby maximizing muscle fiber recruitment.
Workout principle #21: Retro-Gravity
Retro-gravity simply refers to “resisting” the weight down (fighting gravity) using a load that is heavier than what you would typically use for a given set and rep scheme.
This principle is best explained using the following example.
Let’s say your 10 rep max on the bench press was 225 lbs. Applying the retro-gravity principle, you would load the bar up with 245 lbs and have your training partner help you lift the weight for those 10 reps, but you would perform the lowering or eccentric phase of the lift by yourself.
Retro-gravity is another form of overload for your muscles which can be extremely useful during phases where you are trying to build strength. Be warned though that this training principle is notorious for leaving lifters extremely sore and achy. Due to the high-intensity nature of the style of training, retro-gravity training is used sparingly.
Workout principle #22: Intensive Reps
Intensive reps as you would expect from the name, is an intense and extreme style of training. Performing intensive reps involves continuing to perform repetitions on an exercise long after you’ve reached the point of muscular fatigue.
The intensive rep protocol is typically used only by elite bodybuilders that are exceptionally strong mentally and physically.
An example of intensive rep training would be performing a set of heavy leg presses using your 10RM, after hitting 10, your lifting partner would help push the sled just enough to allow you to grind out another couple of reps.
Workout principle #23: Double-Split
The double-split is a progression of the split training principle, used by quite a large number of professional bodybuilders in the weeks leading up to a competition.
The double-split principle involves training one or two body parts early in the morning and then training another body part or two in the evening.
This training principle allows you to train more muscle groups in a day with greater intensity. Since you are only working one or two muscle groups at each session, you can more fully devote yourself to training those specific muscles.
However, unless you’re paid to workout for a living (i.e. professional bodybuilders, professional athletes) this principle isn’t really feasible if you have to work a typical day job.
Workout principle #24: Triple-Split
Taking the double-split principle one step further is the triple split.
The triple-split training principle entails breaking out the day’s training into three separate sessions. Broken out across a day, an example of triple-split training could be chest in the morning, calves at lunch, and triceps in the evening.
Typically, these workouts are heavy-hitting, but brief. A lifter would go in, knock out a few intense sets, and then be done. Again, this training principle or technique is really on reserved for those who are paid to workout for a living.
Workout principle #25: Partial Reps
Partial reps entail performing a specific, limited range of motion of an exercise. The use of partial reps is to increase strength and move past a “sticking point” in a given exercise.
For instance, let’s say you’re struggling with the lockout portion of the deadlift, you would set up a barbell in a power rack at the height of the midpoint of the lift. You would unrack the bar and only lift the weight from the middle to the top and repeat for a prescribed number of reps.
Another way to do partial reps that’s popular with the bodybuilding crowd is performing “21s”. With 21s, you would first perform 7 lower partials, lifting the weight from the bottom of the lift to the midpoint. Then, you would perform 7 upper partials, lifting the weight from the midpoint to the point of peak contraction. You would finish your set of 21s by performing 7 full range of motion repetitions.
Note that 21s can be applied to other exercises, and will create an intense burning sensation in the muscles, along with a massive pump. Just be aware that you will have to use a lighter weight than you typically would on a given exercise when performing 21s.
Workout principle #26: Burns Training
Burns training refers to a specific type of partial rep training where you perform a given exercise for a specific number of reps, going through the full range of motion. Then when you have fatigued the muscle, you continue to perform partial reps until reaching complete failure.
The thinking behind the Burns training principle is that while you might not be able to lift a given weight with control through its full range of motion, your muscles still have the ability to move the weight through a portion of its complete range. Even if this partial range is mere inches, by performing these “burns” reps you’re increasing overall work performed by the muscle as well as the amount of blood driven to it, which as you know by now leads to gains.
Workout principle 27: Quality
This principle is perhaps the most confusingly named of Weider’s system.
Back in the glory days of bodybuilding, during the off-season, lifters would use straight sets with moderately long rest periods (2-3 minutes). As competitions neared, they decreased their rest periods while maintaining the rep counts to increase training density with the understanding that doing so would increase metabolism and boost calorie burning, hopefully burning fat, improving definition, and enhancing vascularity along the way.
“Quality” refers to gradually reducing your rest periods between sets while continuing to perform the same number of repetitions or increasing the number of reps performed. You could just as easily call this the “decreasing rest” principle, but for some reason (unbeknownst to this writer), it was called quality; maintaining or increasing the number of reps performed.
Workout principle 28: Descending Sets
Also known as “strip sets”, descending sets is another brutal training method for taking the muscles beyond failure. With descending sets, you would perform a set of an exercise, then remove (strip) some portion of the weight, typically 10-20%, and perform more reps until hitting failure. At this point, you would strip some more weight, and perform a final set of reps until you hit failure.
Due to the intense nature of the strip/drop/descending set technique, it’s used sparingly or when trying to force a stubborn muscle to grow. Most coaches will advocate that this technique should really only be used on one set of one exercise in a given training session due to the drain it places on your muscles and CNS.
Workout principle #29: Instinctive
We all have those days when you walk into the gym and you’re just not “feeling” the particular workout that’s laid out in your training program. There’s a saying in the world of bodybuilding that “only you know what’s best for your body”, meaning that you, and only you, have the ability to design train optimally for your particular body.
We all are built differently, perform exercises slightly differently, and respond in our own unique way to various training and diet plans. The more time you spend training and experimenting with different nutrition protocols, you begin to develop a sense of what works best for you as an individual.
As such, eventually, you can design your own “perfect” training and nutrition plan.
This is the instinctive principle.
Basically, after you spend enough time in the gym, you figure out what works best for you and what exercises give you the biggest training effect at a given time. This doesn’t mean your “perfect” plan stays the same year after year after year. As you age and develop as a lifter, certain exercises, training splits, or rep schemes may not feel right anymore. So, part of being instinctive is being willing to change what at one time was your “perfect” routine into a new “ideal” or “optimal” one.
However, being “instinctive” isn’t an excuse to haphazardly change your workout all the time. If you’re a newbie to lifting weights, find a quality training program and follow it until you’ve built a solid foundation. Then, after a few years, you can start being instinctive with your training.
n bodybuilding there is only one rule that applies to all: only you can know what is best for your body. Sooner or later, all bodybuilders develop the ability to organize their own training programs in a way that is best for them. Only by doing so is it possible to make best use of the potential nature has given you.
Everyone responds differently to different training and nutrition plans. As your experience increases, you will begin to train in the correct way for you by instinct in order to achieve the best progress. Everyone is different and your training regime should take this into account.
Workout principle #30: Staggered Sets
Staggered sets are used to bring up stubborn smaller muscle groups such as the forearms, calves, or abs. This Weider principle was used extensively by the great Arnold Schwarzenegger in his early days of bodybuilding to bring up his lackluster calves.
In between doing sets of chest and back, Arnold would interject a set of calf raises while he was waiting for his muscles to recover before performing the next working set. By the end of a given workout, he would have performed an additional 15-20 sets for his calves.
Staggered sets are great for getting in extra training volume for smaller muscles during other that don’t get enough volume otherwise.
Workout principle #31: Superspeed
While Joe Weider and his legion of bodybuilders understood that muscles received the most amount of tension when performing slow, controlled reps through an entire range of motion, he also understood that the proper application of some momentum and speed could help eek out some “hidden” gains from a muscle and at the same time help a lifter move a heavier weight.
Superspeed training was another facet to Joe’s “holistic” approach to building muscle -- using any and every means necessary to stress a muscle and force it to grow.
Applying superspeed training to your workouts involves lifting the weight as fast as possible, then lowering it at a steady, controlled pace. By lifting in this explosive manner, you recruit more of the fast-twitch muscle fibers and build strength. Research has confirmed that explosive lifting does lead to better gains in strength than slow and controlled lifting superspeed on only the positive portion of reps. Get the weight up as fast as possible but then lower the weight at a normal pace. 
A lot of trainers and coaches have released their own workout programs and training systems over the years. But, when you really dig down into them, you’ll find by and large, they borrow heavily from the Weider Principles.
Did Joe actually develop every single one of these himself?
Highly unlikely, but he assembled them all together and promoted the every living hell out of them.
Decades later, exercise scientists are validating many of the Weider principles as being effective for building muscle and strength.
Do you need to use all of the Weider principles in order to make gains?
Absolutely not, but you’d best be served to utilize a great many of them (especially progressive overload) if you want to make the most from your time spent in the gym.
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