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The Principle of Individuality

Updated: May 27, 2020

Key Takeaways:

  • Due to the principle of individuality, athletes will have varying responses to a given training plan.

  • A training plan should be customized to the athlete using not just quantitative data, but also qualitative information.

  • The communication between coach and athlete is critical in forming and adjusting the training plan and has an impact on the athlete’s expectations and mindset.

  • An athlete’s expectations and mindset influence their training outcomes.

  • To improve self-efficacy, athlete’s should focus their energy on things within their control.

  • Goal setting, mental imagery, and self-talk are mental training strategies that can have a positive impact on training outcomes.

What is Individuality

The principle of individuality states that individuals will exhibit a range of responses to a given training stress. In other words, if 100 people do the exact same strength training program, it is likely that some will see various levels of progress, some will see no progress, and some may even regress[1],[2]. Why do individuals exhibit such variability to a given training protocol? An individual’s training outcomes are not solely dictated by the training stress, but are also heavily influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors and these factors vary across individuals[3].

How Does Individuality Influence a Training Plan

So what does individuality mean for a training program? It means the focus should be on the program fitting the individual and not the individual fitting the program. Training plans need to have a starting framework, and there are key principles (discussed in previous posts) that help create that framework. However, the plan should be adjusted based on the athlete’s responses and feedback.

To accomplish this, a system should be in place to gather information that will help determine future changes. That information should include both objective as well as subjective data. Metrics like volume and estimated 1RM should be tracked over time to measure progress. However, often times people allow this quantitative data to overshadow qualitative info. Subjective information like an athlete’s motivation to train, fatigue/stress levels, and perceived difficulty of training are just as important to monitor.

Therefore, it is critical that there is consistent and open communication between the athlete and coach to facilitate the sharing of this information. Additionally, it is important for the coach to communicate the objectives and reasoning behind training plans, as well as incorporate the athlete’s input. The athlete has a unique perspective and their input can improve the effectiveness of a training plan. Additionally, this two-way communication model promotes athlete buy-in which can have a positive impact on training outcomes[4].

How Does Individuality Influence Execution of the Plan

We have discussed individuality and some programming considerations, next let’s discuss some implementation considerations. Once the plan is in place, the athlete should pay attention to the biological, social, and psychological factors that are in their control. As stated earlier, these factors influence an athlete’s training outcomes. In the rest of this section we will cover these three factors.

Biological Factors

Genetics are a biological factor that can influence an individual’s training response[5] but of course we can not control our genetics. Since we can not control our genetics, there is no productive reason to worry about how our individual genetic profile influences our training outcomes. In fact, obsessing over one’s genetic potential can have negative effects on training responses because it can decrease one’s self efficacy (one’s beliefs about their abilities to produce outcomes). Since it is outside of our control, we should focus our energy on other factors. Nutrition and sleep are two factors most people have some control over. So instead of worrying about what your genetic potential is, make sure you are setting yourself up to eat an appropriate amount of calories with an appropriate amount of protein while getting as close to 7-8 hours of daily sleep that your situation allows.

Psychological and Social Factors

An athlete’s expectations and mindset significantly influence training outcomes[6] and psychological and social factors influence an athlete’s expectations and mindset. We have already discussed the importance of athlete/coach communication and athlete buy-in, two psychological and social factors. Additionally, cognitive strategies like goal setting, mental imagery, and self-talk can impact an athlete’s expectations and mindset and have a positive effect on sport performance[7] and strength performance[8]. Let’s discuss these three cognitive strategies.

Rather than reviewing the benefits to setting medium- and long-term goals, I want to discuss the importance of goal setting and the use of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) in daily training. As an example, a training prescription might have an athlete squat five reps at an 8 RPE. How should the athlete prepare to execute this training prescription? The athlete should go into the training session with a set target weight rather than taking a “let’s see what happens” approach. RPE is best utilized when target weights are established ahead of time, allowing the athlete to focus on hitting that goal. The athlete can make adjustments based on the warm-up work, but having a specific target to achieve has shown to produce better results[8].

The use of mental imagery and self-talk can increase one’s self-efficacy and have a positive effect on strength outcomes[9]. Mental imagery is when the athlete visualizes themselves performing a desired task. Self-talk is defined as an athlete talking to themselves. Self-talk can be broken out into two forms; motivational and instructional. An example of motivational self-talk is Ronnie Colmenan’s famous saying “lightweight baby!” Instructional self-talk is using a cue to help direct a desired movement. Examples are telling yourself “big chest” in the bench or “pull the slack out” in the deadlift. While instructional self-talk can be beneficial, especially for athletes with less experience performing a movement, motivational self-talk has shown to provide a greater benefit[8].

Since mental imagery and self-talk (mental training) can have positive effects, should they be used all the time? Probably not. Using visualization and self-talk for every single set of every single exercise for every single training day is likely overkill. In fact, excessive mental training can lead to increased mental fatigue[10]. Using these techniques on important training sets and competition day is a more reasonable approach. Similar to physical training, responses to mental training are individual. So athlete’s should experiment with how and when to use these techniques to identify what works best for them.


In summary, the principle of individuality states that individuals will exhibit a range of responses to a given training stress. Therefore, the program should be focused on fitting the individual and allow for adjustments based on the athlete’s responses and feedback. Often times, more attention is paid to quantitative performance responses however qualitative feedback is just as important. Consistent and open coach/athlete communication allows for the sharing of information, which is critical for creating and adjusting the training plan. An athlete’s expectations and mindset will influence training outcomes, so they should provide feedback and input on the training plan. Athletes are well served focusing on things within their control and can use goal setting, mental imagery, and self-talk to help produce better training outcomes.


[1] Hubal, M., Gordish-Dressman H, Thompson PD, Price TB, Hoffman EP, Angelopoulos TJ, Gordon PM, Moyna NM, Pescatello LS, Visich PS, Zoeller RF, Seip RL, Clarkson PM. Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain after Unilateral Resistance Training. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise. 2005 Jun;37(6):964 –72.

[2] Ahtiainen J, Walker S, Peltonen H, Holviala J, Sillanpaa E, Karavirta L, Sallinen J, Mikkola J, Valkeinen H, Mero A, Hulmi J, Hakkinen K. Heterogeneity in Resistance Training-Induced Muscle Strength and Mass Responses in Men and Women of Different Ages. Age. 2016 Feb;38(1):10

[3] Kiely J. Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2012 Sep;7(3):242-250.

[4] Neupert EC, Cotterill ST, Jobson SA. Training Monitoring Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach in Elite Sport. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2018 Jun;28:1-21.

[5] Mann TN, Lamberts RP, Lambert MI. High Responders and Low Responders: Factors Associated with Individual Variation in Response to Standardized Training. Sports Medicine. 2014 Aug;44(8):1113-24.

[6] Kiely J. Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Medicine. 2018 Apr;48(4):753-764.

[7] Brown D, Fletcher D. Effects of Psychological and Psychosocial Interventions on Sport Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. 2017 Jan.

[8] Tod D, Edwards C, McGuigan M, Lovell G. A Systematic Review of Cognitive Strategies on Strength Performance. Sports Medicine. Sports Medicine. 2015 Sep.

[9] Slimani M, Cheour F. Effects of Cognitive Training Strategies on Muscular Force and Psychological Skills in Healthy Striking Combat Sports Practitioners. Sport Science for Health. 2016 Mar.

[10] Marcora SM, Staiano W, Manning V. Mental Fatigue Impairs Physical Performance in Humans. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2009 Feb;106(3):857-864.

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