Be Strong, Be Kind

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

Pulling Back the Curtain: Part 2, Adaptation

Sara Fleming

Of all the rules that govern physical training, Adaptation is the key to everything.  Adaptation is unique to living things and is the process by which an organism adapts to its environment and outside stresses to maintain homeostasis.  What is homeostasis?  It is the tendency of a living organism to maintain a constant internal environment.

Snowmen don’t shiver, but if they did it
would be homeostasis at work.

Okay, so that probably sounded more like this:  “blah blah science blah sciencey-sciencey-science”.  Basically, when you apply a stress to an organism, its will adapt to coexist with that stress.  Lower the temperature in the room? Your internal thermostat kicks in to maintain your body temperature.  Forget to drink enough water?  Your kidneys down-regulate output to maintain hydration.  Play a sport that involves a lot of running?  Your muscle cells make more mitochondria (the organelles responsible for making ATP), the muscles and tendons in your legs get stronger, and your nervous system gets more sophisticated at coordinating your efforts.  The end result?  You get better at your sport and play with less effort.  This is all adaptation.  As you can see, some ways in which we adapt are temporary.  However, in the face of constantly applied stress, the adaptation can become more permanent.

There are two more underlying theories related to adaptation that will determine whether or not long term adaptations continue to develop.  These are Overload and Accomodation.  Overload simply means that you must apply the right amount of stress to induce a positive change.  The stress must be above that of normal practice in volume or intensity.  This is the basis of progressive overload.  Another way to induce overload is through variation.  Accomodation is what happens when the same training loads are applied over a long period of time:  progress slows and eventually stops, even when volume is increased. 
Just because your boot camp makes you sweaty and
sore does not mean you are making long term adaptations.
So, to summarize, we must continually challenge the individual through progressive overload or variation if we are training to induce a change.  However, there is a very big BUT here.  It is very popular these days to use variety rather than progressive overload as a way to keep workouts challenging.  As a trainer, I know that if I change the workout every session, my clients will be sore, tired, sweaty and feel like they got worked over pretty hard.  This is generally what the client wants, so why not?  
To answer this question, you have to understand how these concepts are actually applied.  Variation, as a means of overload, is typically used with advanced athletes who have exhausted their ability to adapt to changes in training load and volume.  This can take over a decade.  That’s right, over a decade.
So, the question becomes, is variation an appropriate approach to take with beginners?  
The simple answer is no, and yes.  In training beginners, the main goal is to get them to develop a training habit and incorporate physical fitness into their lifestyle.  If training is boring or too difficult, its going to be hard to keep them coming to the gym.  However, beginners have an amazing ability to adapt.  Their ability to adapt to virtually anything you throw at them is much higher than those who have been training for a long time.  In other words, you will see a lot more significant progress in an individual starting their first training program than a seasoned athlete. 
Throwing rocks can be a lot of fun, but unless you compete
in Highland Games, may not be the best training tool.  
For a beginner, you could literally make a training program that consisted of throwing rocks, stacking cinder blocks, and running in place and you would see a lot of improvements in strength, endurance, and cardiorespiratory efficiency in a short period of time.  Why?  Because the body wants to adapt to be able to handle the new activity.  However, if you stick with the same exact program for too long, they will no longer see results.  They might get better at throwing rocks, but they may stop getting stronger and their endurance will become specific to rock throwing.  So, one way that a trainer might try and take advantage of this “novice effect” is to change the workout more frequently.  Maybe one day its rock throwing, maybe the next day its rock smashing with a sledgehammer.  And maybe digging holes.  The day after that is carrying logs and so on as you continuously change the activity.  Now your trainee is going to find him or herself out of breath, tired, and sore simply because every day he or she is doing something they aren’t used to and haven’t adapted to.  They will most likely develop some strength endurance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and get a little bit stronger because their brain had to get more efficient to coordinate these new movements.  Strength is primarily a neurological development and so coordination and strength are intrinsically linked.  
So, is anything wrong with this approach?  
Tendons are important.

Yes, there is.  It may not be sexy, but there is a lot of value in using consistency in the workouts you program for your trainees.  The coordination it takes to execute perfect form under load takes a long time to develop.  Practicing good form makes one stronger due to the increased neural coordination.  However, consistent practice under load is what develops secondary adaptations that reinforce the structures that support the movements.  Tendon and ligament strength, muscle growth, and bone density take months to develop.  If you are not consistently practicing the same movements under load, you may get stronger, but the supportive structures may not adapt as well.  Constant variation without a strength base can predispose you to injuries simply because your body did not receive enough overload stimulus to make your body structurally sound enough to handle the activity. 

So, we have a problem.  Beginners get easily bored.  But not developing consistent practice predisposes us to injuries.  What can we do about this?  
Well, first things first.  Try a basic strength training program.  I’ve rarely had anyone want to do much more than the 2-3 lifts we planned that day.  With appropriate loads, they don’t have much left in the tank when they leave.  As your trainees get more sophisticated, they will sometimes start worrying about conditioning, assistance work, or getting their ab work in.  This isn’t necessarily a problem.  There is nothing wrong with a 10 minute session of conditioning circuits or assistance exercises at the conclusion of a workout.  Gant Grimes authored a rather elegant approach to this a number of years ago and its both effective and fun.  Its not enough to undo what you’ve done in the gym and in some cases, may help reinforce some weak points, burn off some fat, or enhance one’s cardiorespiratory endurance.  For rank beginners, turning the entire workout into a 2-3 exercise circuit can be a fun way to develop good form in the strength movements while developing some strength and cardiorespiratory endurance.  The key is consistency.  You don’t need to have a lot of loaded movements for your clients to progress.  A squat, a press, a pull, or carry  are the basic forms of strength that most people need and are transferable to most activities.  
Got Squat?

To use adaptation to your advantage, you must begin with consistency.  Overload done right takes a very long time to adapt to and in the beginning, simply increasing training loads on a small set of movements will give you the strength base, both neurological AND structural, to handle more diversity in your training or competition plan.  As trainers and coaches, we are also business people and its hard to retain clients if they aren’t having fun.  However, its relatively easy to put together a smart consistent program with just enough play to keep your trainees happy and eager to come back for more.  I’ve found that when my trainees discover that they really can be strong, they find that consistency and practice isn’t really that boring at all.  


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