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Four cornerstones of physical adaptation

August 8, 2016

One of Santiago Ramón y Cajal's fantastic drawings of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum (1899). 


This past week, I held a workshop at Valkyrie WMAA on building explosive leg strength with a specific application towards fencing. We spent a solid two hours discussing strength & conditioning science, rate of force development, and practicing some patterns designed to optimize our explosive strength. 

In light of the workshop, I thought I'd post some of my teaching notes. They're an easy way to see the main points and principles of strength & conditioning science and begin to understand the process of physical adaptation. 


From the workshop:


Four principles of physical adaptations:

Progressive Overload - A training adaptation will only take place if the magnitude of the stimulus is greater than the previously habituated level.

Modulating the volume, the intensity, or density of training are the most common forms of overload in physical training, and typically what you see in most powerlifting, olympic lifting, and weight training exercises. You add weight, increase reps, add workouts or do a combination of all of the above.

In gymnastics, circus, and bodyweight strength training, which is more of what I do, we focus on learning new and more challenging movement patterns which require both learning a new skill element as well as appropriate physical conditioning.

Training loads are one of three things:

a. Stimulating - the magnitude of the training effect is above the habituated level;

b. Retaining - where the magnitude is in the neutral zone at which the level is maintained.
Detraining - where the magnitude is less than the habituated level, leading to a decrease in performance and/or the functional capabilities of the athlete.

The second attribute is
accommodation, also known as the law of diminishing returns. This is where the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time. Simply put, as you accumulate more time under your belt training - and not just in your life, but in solid training programs over weeks, months, and years - the same level of stimulus elicits less of a response from your body. The magnitude of the adaptations diminishes.

Because of this, you can’t use the same program indefinitely - but this is different than the idea of “confusing” your muscles.

A solid training program will expertly balance - and constantly adapt - the need for variability, to avoid accommodation, and stability, to satisfy the demand for specificity.

Thus, the third principle is specificity. In essence, you get better at what you train.

Will pushups help increase your bench press? Yes, inasmuch as they target similar muscle groups and, in an appropriately designed training program, will make you stronger. No, inasmuch as they are not the same movement, and will thus have less carryover than directly practicing the bench press.

This is known as
the transfer of training results, the degree to which your time spent in the gym transfers to your actual performance in what you’re training for. As you can imagine, you want this transfer rate to be high - otherwise, you’re providing an inappropriate stimulus to elicit the adaptations you seek. Principally, the question here is how do you choose the most efficient exercises that result in the greatest transfer of training effect from the auxiliary movements in the gym, to the main sport movements?

In a nutshell, this is known as SAID - specific adaptation to imposed demand. You get better at what you train, and you should train what you want to get better at.

It’s also why metaphors and examples about “confusing” the muscles or “breaking them down to build them up” have never really worked for. Training isn’t like that.

It’s about communication: how can I ensure that the stimulus I communicate to my body is appropriate for the adaptation I seek, and how can I ensure that I receive and parse that information as well as possible in order to elicit this adaptation?

Which brings us to the last principle, and that is individualization.

Methods are many. There are thousands of training programs, thousands of ways to periodize, thousands of set/rep schemes, and thousands of coaches.

There are thousands of athletes that have followed thousands of programs who have all seen success and the achievement of their goals. The secret isn’t in using the methods, but in understanding the principles. Any solidly designed program will work, no matter their small and generally inconsequential differences. Solidly designed programs will work despite their differences because they all take these kinds of principles into account during their design. That’s what good coaching, to me, truly is - not a mastery of methods, but a mastery of principles and how they apply to individual athletes.

Simply put, it's that all people are different.

For an incredible example of adaptation & individual variation, take a look at Lamar Gant's deadlift - 5x bodyweight, a feat still unmatched - paired with idiopathic scoliosis. Unreal.

The same exercises or methods elicit a greater or smaller effect in various athletes. It’s necessary to keep the principles in mind to guide your training, but to optimize your training through individualization of what works for you.

How do you do this? I think it’s one of the most difficult things to develop during training, and something that only comes through longer-time deliberate and mindful practice. It’s a marrying of abstract principles with intuitive experience that comes only as a result of walking your own path to physical cultivation.

And how do you do that? Get in touch with us to connect with a network of likeminded athletes and coaches. We're happy to help you get started. 



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Feral Strength - 268 Keefer St. Unit 010 LG - Vancouver Strength Collective