Understanding Stress and Adaptation
By Mike Westerling
I constantly see people debating over the best way to train. They extoll the virtues of one system while bashing all the others. Each system’s devotees are quick to point out the success of their favorite athlete following the program and bolster it up with stories of how it worked for them all the while saying they’ve tried all the other systems to no avail. How can this be? How can all systems of training produce world champions AND still fail those poor souls that “lost months of training time following this stupid system? Could it be genetics and some things just work better for some people than others? Maybe. However, I have different theory and I think I can shed some light on this but you’ll have to bear with me.
First we must understand how stress and adaptation works in a general sense. All strength training is based on subjecting the body to stress and the body reacting (adapting) to the stress by growing bigger, stronger and better conditioned to handle that stress. Of course endurance training has it’s own set of adaptations but this article is geared toward strength athletes so let’s stick to strength training. Now for the purpose of this discussion I am going to use a very simple model that will make it easy to follow and then elaborate a bit as we go on..
The Story Of Bob’s Legs
Let’s assume our friend “Bob” decides he want a pair of big strong legs. He talks to his old buddy “Neil” who used to lift weights back in high school. Luckily for Bob Neil read “Supersquats” at one time and remembers you’re supposed to do one all out set of 20 squats and drink a ton of milk. Bob decides to give it a whirl and goes out to his garage and does a few practice sets to find a manageable weight and then bangs out a set of 20 squats with 100lbs. Bob knows how to squat correctly because he learned in gym class and it stuck with him. He hasn’t really been doing any type of exercise so he feels a bit queasy after this and stops. Of course the next few days his legs are so sore he can barely walk and the soreness starts to let up around day 5. On day 6 Bob decides he’s feeling good enough to go again. After all he’s motivated and a little stiffness is to be expected. His second workout doesn’t feel as good as the first but he decides he will get used to it in a few weeks and decides he will stick to squatting once every 6 days. After a few weeks Bob is feeling stronger and the squats are getting easier so he starts adding weight. Bobs not greedy and he doesn’t have anyone to impress in the garage so he makes conservative jumps and keeps his form good and eventually hits 275 lbs for 20 reps. It’s a true effort and he barely makes it. The next time around Bob comes in and tries 280 but only gets 17 reps. He hopes this is a fluke but he comes in again in 6 days hoping to hit 20 and he barely gets 17 again. So what has happened to Bob? He has adapted to this training stimulus and has hit the dreaded “plateau”. Bobs body has gotten used to squatting for one set of relatively high reps and doesn’t feel the need to get any better. We’re going to assume he isn’t overtraining because he is only doing one set and we’re also assuming he hasn’t reached the limit of his potential.
Where Does Bob Go From Here?
To continue to progress Bob must increase the stress on his body. Here are some ways he can do it.
Bob can start squatting more often. The increased stress on Bobs system from squatting once every 3 days will send the signal to the body that it must get better at dealing with this new stress. The muscles will grow thicker and more resistant to damage and the central nervous system (CNS) will
become more competent at bringing more muscle fibers into play when squatting to spread the stress more evenly across the body. All in an attempt to make the added stress more bearable. At first Bob may lose a bit of ground as his body is not used to being stressed so often and won’t be fully recovered. In time however, Bobs body will adapt to the new stimulus and grow stronger. Bob could also choose to squat every day. Of course this would be way more stress to his body and therefore be an even greater stimulus for change BUT it would also take far longer for his body to adapt to before he would reap the benefits as it would be FAR more than his body is conditioned to. Likely he would have to back his weights way down for a while until he got used to it. The better plan would be to increase the frequency slowly and allow the body to catch up each time before increasing again.
Bob can start doing a second set after his main set. This added stimulus is another way to increase the stress on his body. For the sake of simplicity we will stick with 280 as Bob’s work weight. For his second set he may only get 9 or 10 good reps with that weight if he truly gives an all-out effort to his first set. This added stress will again cause the muscles to become thicker and more resistant to damage. Hitting the muscles with that second set while fatigued from the first will teach the body to call on more fibers that may haven’t been hit on the first set to accomplish the task. Having the CNS call in more fibers to do the work establishes a stronger neural connection to those fibers and makes it easier and easier to call in more fibers when needed. Bob could do 10 sets with that weight if he wanted maybe finishing up his last set with just a rep or 2. Of course this would be a greater stress and therefore a greater stimulus but since it is far more than Bob is used to it would likely have him hobbling around for the next 7 days and likely be weaker on his next workout. Of course, over time Bob would eventually adapt to this volume and get stronger from it but for a long time he would just be trying to survive the workouts. A better plan would be to add that second set until his body became conditioned to it and then add another until his body became conditioned to that and so on and so forth.
Another way to add stress would be to increase weight even though he didn’t get his 20 reps. He could add 5lbs each workout getting as many reps as he could with each weight increase until he ended up not even getting a single rep. This would be his best option if strength was his goal. He would likely be adding weight for quite some time as his reps dropped. Usually in the 8-12 rep range there is a week or 2 where he may even get a couple more reps than the week before even with the added 5lbs. Then at the 5 rep range there are quite a few weeks where the reps stay at 5 while the weight increases. Then that happens again at 4 reps, 3 reps, 2 reps and finally there may be a few weeks where Bob will keep hitting another 5lbs gain for his 1 rep max before missing. This is a good way to continually build strength and get used to lower and lower reps. Once the heavy single is hit Bob would be better off to bump up back up to higher reps like say a good hard set of 10 and begin adding weight again. However, I have seen lifters hit new 1 rep maxes week after week especially in the earlier stages of their career if they are conservative on their weight increases.
Such as adding forced reps or negatives could be added to maybe squeeze a couple more workouts of stimulus in but at some point Bob has to come to the realization he’s just beating a dead horse.
CHANGING THE EXERCISE
to a different style of squatting such as box squats, safety bar squats, front squats, or adding chains or bands could change the stimulus enough to spur on some new growth as well. Bob would have a break in period where he would have to get used to the new groove before he could really start to dig in and get the most out of the exercise. Just like when he first started squatting
the second time he hit the new exercise it may not feel as good as the first but after a few workouts he would be back on the road to making gains.
Yet another way to add stress would be to add another exercise that works muscles related to the squat. The best choice for this exercise would be something that addresses a muscle that doesn’t seem like it’s getting as much work as the others. Maybe the lower back is getting tired before the legs and as the legs get tired in the later reps Bob is leaning over more and more because he can’t keep a tight back arch. So Bob could add in a set of Romanian Deadlifts to fortify his spinal erectors to help him keep that arch longer. Of course Bob could add in back extensions, split squats, Romanian deadlifts, leg presses, reverse hyperextensions, and a whole list of other exercises that will fortify various muscles involved in the squat. However, just like adding another 9 sets of squats in it will be so much more than he is used to so he would likely go backwards for quite a bit before adapting to the extra workload and reaping the rewards. The better plan is to add volume slowly and in the way it’s most needed. In this case Romanian deadlifts would be added to strengthen the perceived link in the chain (lower back arch) but only that one exercise would be added to allow the body to adapt to the new workload and start progressing as quickly as possible rather than overwhelm it with a bunch of extra work that it’s not used to.
One Step Back, Two Steps Forward
Progress is never infinitely linear. In all of the above examples with the exception of the adding weight Bob will most likely have to take a small step backwards and lighten the weight a bit for a couple weeks to keep from mental and physical burn out or his reps may drop a bit more than he’d like as his body isn’t used to the extra fatigue yet. This is ok since the extra volume or frequency provided will still result in the extra stimulation needed to get the ball rolling again. Even in the adding weight example his reps may drop a bit more than expected but since he is increasing weight he is still providing a stimulus and mentally still moving forward. The best course of action for Bob at this point is largely dependent on what his goals for the immediate and distant future are. All of these examples are valid ways to increase the stress needed to get Bob going again and it will be up to him which way he feels best suits his personality.
Bob Lives in a Vacuum But We Don’t
In the above story Bob lives in a vacuum where he is only dealing with one exercise and one variable at a time. This is to simplify things and get us all understanding how stress works and the different ways we can effect it. Unfortunately none of us live in a vacuum where things are that simple and many other factors come into play during program design than simply adding one set or training an exercise a day earlier. However, I think it illustrates my point that the training life is just a repeated cycle of adding stress, adapting to that stress and adding more stress. Over a lifetime of training all these stresses will be added in one way or another or at one time or another to keep progressing forward towards our goals. For example we may be continually adding weight and dropping reps on a main exercise like the deadlift, increasing our frequency on a technical exercise we are struggling with like jerks, adding volume to an assistance exercise we are using to bring up a weak muscle like rows for upper back. The thing to remember is over the course of your training life the stress must continually increase but not at a rate so fast that you break.
Reasons Why Routines May Not Work
TOO SIMILAR: If an athlete switches to a routine that is of similar volume and intensity using mostly the same exercises they are currently using it won’t matter whether they use chains or bands or how cool the systems name sounds the stress just may not be enough to spur on progress. The athlete then concludes the routine is garbage when it’s merely the case that they were already doing something similar that got them to where they are now. If they had just stayed with it and started to adjust things to add intensity they would begin to progress once again.
TOO DISSIMILAR: If the athlete takes on a routine that’s radically different than what they are used to it will take some time to get conditioned to it and during that time there will be a period of what seems like stagnation. When in reality if they started a little lighter and eased into it or stayed with it a little longer the body would recover and adapt to the new stimulus.
Natural VS Geared Training
Every athlete whether on the gear or 100% natural has to go through this same cycle. Gains must be stimulated through more stress than the athlete is currently used to and then allowed to materialize through a combination of rest and food. A geared athlete will be able to go through the whole cycle faster and therefore can either train longer or more often. Oftentimes both. Regardless the athlete must constantly push the stimulus up and then eat enough to give their body the building blocks it needs and the time it needs to adapt.
This period of adaptation could occur in many ways. One example would be the athlete adds more work to an individual workout and then add a day of rest to allow recovery from the stimulus and a growth response to occur. This is why a beginning bodybuilder may do full body workouts 3 to 4 days per week and an advanced bodybuilder would do one body part a day with a week’s rest in between. The beginner can make chest gains on 3 sets of 10 with 150lbs on bench press and recover quickly enough between workouts to go again 2 days later. The advanced bodybuilder has grown to the point where anything less than 5 different exercises of 4 sets each just isn’t enough stress to stimulate new muscle growth and the weights he is using on these sets requires 7 days of feeding and rest to be ready to do it again. Another example is the powerlifter constantly adding weight. As he adds more and more weight to the bar the mechanical stress is increasing more and more and the muscle will need more and more time to recover and be fresh before its ready to add yet another couple LBs to the bar. Another example is that the athlete is training a body part more often but switching exercises as they go. In this case scenario the adaptation is partially that the body is becoming adapted to the increased frequency and it will take time for the body to get used to doing things more frequently. However, once the body becomes used to this increase in frequency; more weight, volume or a higher frequency will need to be attained for continued growth. If any of these methods is pushed too hard, too long or not given enough time to adapt before pushing for a new high, something will give. Especially in the case of the geared athlete as their muscles are growing and recovering at a faster rate than their connective tissue, and the strength of the muscle may outrun the tendons strength to stay connected.
Stress is Stress
Whenever starting a new routine we need to remember stress is stress. Adding 4 sets of 10 of a new exercise into our routine without taking anything out will result in a period where our bodies must get used to this new volume, recover from it and adapt to it by growing stronger. It can take 12 weeks to realize results from adding a new movement and sometimes much longer. The first few workouts you are basically getting better at the exercise through practice alone. This is why adding in a new assistance exercise for bench may not materialize in bigger bench numbers for quite some time. For example: if we add in heavy skull crushers to build our triceps for a bigger bench we will get strong at them relatively quickly. Let’s say our first workout we hit 4 sets of 10 at 100lbs. Three or four weeks later we will probably be at 120 for 4 sets of 10. That’s a 20% increase! Yet our bench hasn’t budged. Why? Because we just learned how to perform the movement more efficiently through practice. Our triceps may have gotten a bit better at that particular movement pattern but the triceps haven’t actually gotten 20% stronger. It will take at least 12 weeks for the triceps to make appreciable gains in strength and likely 12 more before they are strong enough to see the difference manifest in a bigger bench. During this period of adaptation the extra work will cut into recovery and at first may make the lifter feel even a bit weaker at pressing. What do most lifters do at that point: “That exercise is worthless! I’m never doing that again!” We must remember that stress is stress and we must apply it, recover from it and adapt to it to grow. Then, here’s the most important part: Repeat that a million more times!
The Role of A Coach
The role of a coach (or the athlete if he or she is doing their own programming) is to look at what the athlete is currently doing and decide where to apply enough stress to get (or keep) things moving in the right direction and where to cut away stress that may be redundant. For example if an athlete has weak biceps and they just added in a bunch of arm over arm work with the rope, stone loading, log clean and press for an upcoming show; there really isn’t any need to throw in Arnold’s Olympia winning bicep routine on top of it. Ideally the coach or athlete would structure the training so there is a bit more bicep work each week than the athlete is currently doing but not so much they end up tearing a bicep. As the athlete recovers and adapts to the added stress, more work can be slowly piled on. If the athlete is currently following a powerlifting routine that only sees them doing 4 sets of 8 rows and 3 sets of 10 hammer curls a week and they decide they want to convert to strongman and start hitting Log, Arm Over Arm and stones hard every week on top of that it won’t be long before they are unable to pour their own milk due to ridiculous tendonitis. Instead, log clean and press could be done hard on one week and the next week stones could be hit hard while log is done out of the rack. The sets could start out low and increase slowly allowing the athlete to get used to the added volume. The rows and curls may be dropped to every other week as well to allow more recovery. Now the coach or athlete must monitor progress. Maybe keeping arm over arm and stones on one week and rows and curls on another is working well and the athlete is getting stronger and therefore never needs to put them back in every week. Overtime as stress is slowly added and the program evolves as the athlete continues to adapt and grow. This is how champions are made.
Mike Westerling has been a strength and conditioning coach for over 30 years along with the other of Built By Mike: Practical Programming for the Strongman athlete. He programs for many amateur and pro strongman athletes including World’s Strongest Woman Kristin Rhodes, as well as athletes from a variety of sports including powerlifters, weightliters, bodybuilders highland gamers, triathletes and CrossFit athletes. Mike truly cares about the well being of his athletes and their longevity in their sport of choice. If you are interested in Mike’s programming you can contact him at email@example.com You can follow Mike on Instagram & Facebook
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