Home Blog Strength and Conditioning Programs: Understanding Stress and Adaptation

Strength and Conditioning Programs: Understanding Stress and Adaptation

Written on February 25, 2015 at 7:24 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern, James Cerbie. Enjoy! -EC

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

Your body has its own bank account.

It’s an account full of what we’ll call adaptive currency, and it’s responsible for buying you different fitness qualities. For example, say you want to add 10 pounds to your deadlift…well, that’s going to cost you.

In fact, every decision you make in both life and training impacts the size of your bank account and influences how much “money you have to spend” at any one time.

For those of you out there who have aspirations to perform at a high level, and stay healthy doing so, it’s vital to understand this concept.

Stress and Adaptation

We all have training-related goals:

  • look like a Superhero
  • cut your body fat down to 6%
  • deadlift 500 pounds
  • have a 30-inch vertical jump
  • bench press 300 pounds
  • win a competition in the sport of your choice

Whatever your goal, you're relying on one of the most basic survival/evolutionary mechanisms to make it happen: adaptation.

And let's make one thing perfectly clear: while we may come across as sophisticated humans, deep down, we're still biological animals who survive to pass on as many of our own genes as we can. That's really the name of the game: do whatever you have to do to survive, so you can pass along more genes than the next guy or girl.
It sounds barbaric because it is, but deep down, it's a driving force we can't escape.

Thus, our "system's" number one goal is survival, and it's going to do everything it can to make sure that happens. Enter adaptation: the way in which we react to stressors in our environment to improve our likelihood of survival.
Before we talk about how it works, here are two definitions with which you need to be familiar:

1. Homeostasis: the body’s desire to stay within normal ranges needed to function and survive. For example, your blood prefers to stay within a pH range of 7.35-7.45 because that's where it's happy, that's where it functions well, and that's where we have the best chance of survival.

2. Allostasis: the body’s adaptive response to maintain homeostasis. In other words, how the body manages to maintain homeostasis in the face of a stressor. Think of it like those bumpers you set up in the gutters at the bowling alley: you need to stay within those set limits or else all hell will break loose.

When considering adaptation, this is the basic process* it follows:

*Please know that adaptation, stress, allostasis and everything we're talking about today is an incredibly complex topic. In order to make it more approachable, we're going to dumb it down a bit so you can focus on the big picture. Thus, if you're a big science person, please don't get all worked up because I know there's way more to this than what we're going to talk about today.

Step 1: You provide a stressor.

Step 2: Stressor threatens homeostasis and thus survival.

Step 3: The body, via allostasis, works to maintain homeostasis in the face of this stressor.

Step 4: You adapt to the original stressor in order to limit the amount of stress it can place on your system in the future.

Here's what that would look like in a graph (notice how it resembles a training cycle?):

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As you can see, there's a decrease in performance while your body attempts to manage the unfamiliar stressor. Remember, it's trying hard to maintain homeostasis so you can stay alive.

Eventually, however, you adapt (supercompensate) above a level you were at previously. This is to ensure that the same stressor in the future won't have as large of an impact on your system.

Here's an easy example of this process in action: think back to when you first did back squats...what happened?

For starters, they were probably pretty ugly, but I'm also willing to bet you were sore the next day.

What about four weeks down the road when you squatted the same weight as you did on day one; were you as sore and/or beat up the next day?

Absolutely not. Why? Squatting was an incredible stressor the first time you did it. It's something your body had never encountered. But after a few weeks of exposure, your body had started to adapt to the new and repeated stressor to limit its overall effect on the system. This is the reason you must periodize your training; stimuli must change over time to continue the process of adaptation.

To review: your body’s goal is to limit the impact a stressor can have on your system to increase your likelihood of survival, and improve your chances of passing on copies of your own genes.

The way our body makes it all happen is via adaptation and the adaptation reserve.

The Adaptation Reserve

In a far-off land, behind desert and mountainous terrain, guarded by an army of manticores (do yourself a favor and Google that), you'll find your adaptation reserve.

While the adaptation reserve may seem like a mythological creature you've never managed to catch, it's really just your own personal bank account. It represents the resources your body uses to buy new things (adapt).

You have to keep in mind there's a finite amount of resources in this reserve. Think back to a time when you were a kid and saved up money to buy something you really wanted: you passed on buying other goods because you knew you needed to save up "X" amount of dollars to purchase "Y" toy.

Great. However, what happened after you did by the toy for which you’d been saving? You had no more money.

Does that mean you'll never be able to buy a new toy again? No. It just means you have to save up and make deposits into the account until you have enough resources to do so.

But what determines the size of the bank account? How do you make withdrawals and deposits? Is there more than one account?

Your Body's Bank Account

Below is a fictional image of your body's bank account (adaptation reserve), and it's full of your body's adaptive currency.

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Feeling good after a restful weekend, you head off to the gym to crush a deadlift session, because you really want to pull 500lbs.

The following morning you wake up and take a look at your imaginary body bank statement to realize you made a big withdrawal the previous day. Hitting deadlifts over 90% of your 1-rep-max must have really used up a lot of your adaptive reserve because the account is vastly diminished.

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This, in a nutshell, is what's happening on a daily basis: you introduce or encounter different stressors that act upon your body in a certain way, and then your body uses its adaptive reserve to respond/adapt.

Remember, your main goal is survival, and in order to increase your likelihood of survival you have to limit the impact stressors have on your system.

A More Realistic Story

For as awesome as it would be for your training session to be the only stressor you encounter, that's simply not the case.

Our life is full of stressors: work, relationships, traffic, etc. Each of these has an impact on your system and it's ability to adapt.

It's not as simple as, "Oh, I lifted today, and that's the only stressor I encountered."

Do I wish for both you and me that that's the case? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it's entirely unrealistic.

There's a good chance you’re stressed about a project at work. Perhaps you didn't sleep at all last night because you had too much caffeine late in the afternoon. Or, maybe you think your significant other is cheating on you and you spend all day and night stressing about it.

The point is this: there are an infinite number of stressors in our lives which all detract from our adaptive currency.

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The Size of the Bank Account

An obvious question to consider is: how do I increase the size of my bank account?

Besides genetics, which you have no control over, we can relate the size of the bank account to your overall fitness level. Another way of saying the same thing is to improve your GPP or work capacity.

If you've read anything I’ve written in the past, then you should be familiar with the concept of building a pyramid. In order to one day achieve high, optimal levels of performance, you must put in the time and groundwork to build yourself a monster base. That means attacking things like movement quality, base strength levels, aerobic fitness, and a host of other factors.

Depending on where you're at and what your goals are, you'll have to focus on different fitness qualities.
For example, are you a heavily extended stress ball posture with a resting heart rate in the low 70's? If so, you need to spend a fair amount of time doing low-level aerobic work and working on full exhalation because your body could never handle the type of work required to perform at high levels.

As your work capacity improves, however, you give yourself the potential to one day attack a more aggressive training program because you have the adaptive reserve in place to actually be able to handle large levels of stress.

Do you think Zach Hadge (with a 700+ pound deadlift) trained the way he does now eight years ago? Absolutely not. He spent a ton of timing building himself up to handle the volume and intensity levels he trains at now.

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Ultimately, if you have aspirations to be a monster in both training and life, you have to put in the work on the front end to build yourself a large bank account.

Withdrawals and Deposits

We began touching on this concept earlier, but when you look at your training program you have to consider what's making withdrawals from your bank account, what's making deposits, and how big of a deposit/withdrawal you're making.

At the end of the day, you're not making progress if you don't have any adaptive currency to spend. To keep this simple, rest and recovery makes deposits to your account. This includes things like active rest days, sleep, and quality nutrition.

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Withdrawals, on the other hand, involve all forms of stress.

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For example, let's consider three different training loads and the impact they'll have:

1. Stimulative: a very moderate training load from which one can recover quickly.

2. Developmental: this can be broken down further into high, medium and low, but for today just know that a developmental load triggers the adaptive responses and takes 2-3 days to recover from. For reference sake, a developmental load will fall somewhere between a 6-9 on an RPE scale out of 10.

3. Maximal: this is all you have. A true, "I have to do this or I die" type effort. It crushes your system (especially central nervous system) and takes a long time to recover from.

Here's another thing to consider: different types of fatigue. For example, there's a big difference in CNS fatigue (running a sprint) and local muscular fatigue (doing a bunch of curls). In all honesty, you're probably starting to look at separate bank accounts all adding up to one master account – but let's not go down that path today. Just focus on one bank account, and nail down this concept of stress and adaptation in broad terms (you have to see the forest before you can look at the individual trees).

Hopefully this is all beginning to make sense: training is really just an advanced form of stress management. All forms of stress will have an impact on the body, but the extent of that stress depends on things like volume, intensity, training history, genetics, nutrition, sleep, and a host of other factors.

The End

If you take one thing away from this post, please let it be that you view your training goals as goods you have to buy with money.

It doesn't matter if you want to lose weight, gain weight, have bigger arms, squat more weight, run a better 40 etc. etc. because each of those qualities requires an investment from your body, and your body only has so much to give at any one time.

You have to be methodical in the way you apply stress if you ever hope to see big improvements from your training. Just doing high-intensity work for the sake of doing high-intensity work is a waste of time without figuring out where it falls in the grander scheme of overall development.

Ask more questions, don't be afraid to push the envelope, and structure your training and life in a way that sets you up to succeed.

About the Author

James Cerbie (@JamesCerbie) is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Precision Nutrition, USA Weightlifting and Crossfit. He works with athletes from the middle school to professional level, is the founder of Rebel Performance, and works as a strength and conditioning coach at Pure Performance Training in Boston, Massachusetts. You can also connect with James on Facebook.

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  • Richard Favaro

    Hi Great article!
    Could you expand a bit or point me in the direction of more resources for developing a base
    Specifically for the stressed out person with a heart rate in the low 70s that you referred to in
    The article?
    Thank You!

  • James Cerbie

    Hey Rich,
    Glad you enjoyed the article! Why don’t you shoot me an email (james@rebel-performance.com) and we can talk more about it. It’s a relatively complex topic, so I’d rather do that than bastardize it here in the comments. Thanks!

  • Thus the logic in Rocky, where he was training way out where there were no people… I get it now.

    Kidding aside, this does remind me of Arnold refusing to attend his father’s funeral in Pumping Iron. He knew, probably without knowing this concept specifically, that the stress would take from his account.

    This is the tough reality of exercise we all must face at some point. We cannot chase all things right now. Get big, strong, fast, and lean all right now. Not gonna happen. Especially with all that other stuff going on.

  • James Cerbie

    Very true Adam. Thanks for the comment!


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