The Practical Paradigm: Threshold of Adaptation

TAGS: Jeffrey Moyer, adaptation, training considerations, Dr. Yessis, increased strength, training athletes

“We want to get the most out of our training and our athletes.” This is a phrase that gets thrown around among coaches when talking about their training process, but what does that mean exactly?

An athlete’s ability to adapt and recover from training is of utmost importance in the sports training process. If the athlete isn't able to adapt and recover, the training is fruitless. In looking at the training load/effect relationship, getting the most out of an athlete and the training is relative to the individual and his ability to adapt and recover. My intent for this article isn't to discuss the direction of the training demands but rather the relationship between training stress and the threshold of adaptation.

Trouble in our industry

As an industry in general, we tend to go overboard with volume and intensity of the training load. The idea that ‘more is better’ has been instilled into our athletes. Training means and programs contextually meant for high level athletes are used, and tools, gimmicks, references, and the importance of image are seemingly always more significant than research, logic, and results. Coaches, athletes, and parents are often worried too much about the former and lose sight of the latter. As Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky said, “The most frequent coaching error is when he strives to obtain an increase in the athletes physical fitness level as soon as possible, increasing the training loads volume. However, 'nine pregnant women together cannot assure the baby’s birth after one month'."

Exercises and training aren't looked at as a set of stressors but just as exercises that athletes must do with the assumption that they'll recover and get better. Soreness and the inability to walk properly for days after a training session are badges of honor that coaches love to place on their athletes. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” right? “You can always train more, but the majority of athlete’s careers are limited by underperformance, overtraining or injuries” (1).


In the field of physical preparation, Han Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) has been widely discussed and used among coaches for years (stage 1, alarm; stage 2, resistance; stage 3, exhaustion). Selye’s model became the theoretical framework for training load prescription and periodization.

In 2012 at the University of Richmond, Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky presented on GAS and its application in sports. Without going into great detail about the specifics of the presentation, some of the key points were:

  • The originality and context in which GAS was discovered
  • The first attempts of applying the GAS concept into sports training
  • Scientific critiques and updates of the concept
  • Applying the updated GAS concept in sports training

According to Selye, stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it. “No matter what kind of derangement is produced, all these agents have one thing in common: they increase the demand for readjustment. This demand is nonspecific; it requires adaption to a problem, irrespective of what that problem may be” (2). In his work, Selye talks about the ability of the human body to readjust. He discusses how stress draws upon the adaptive energy of the body and how the body can restore this energy during rest. The GAS concept gave us the first indication that the body’s adaptability/adaptation energy is finite.

For years, physiologists had considered Seyle’s GAS concept as vague and incomplete. The criticism was that stress, the organism’s reaction on the influence of very strong, damaging stimuli, can't be a common pattern for the adaptive reactions on mild stimuli (3). In her talk, Dr. Verkhoshansky discussed research that was done in the Soviet Union in 1975 by scientist L. Garkavi in which the influences of the organism’s reactions to different magnitudes of loads of stress were examined. The results of the experiments showed that:

  • The stress syndrome (alarm, resistance, and exhaustion) develops only under influences having high magnitude.
  • A low/mild stimulus, in contrast with stress syndrome, enhances the body’s defense systems and doesn’t bring it to exhaustion; this was termed an “anti-stress reaction.”
  • A correct training load shouldn't reach the level of stress because, in this case, the training load's impact overcomes the threshold of adaptability (4).

If the training stimulus is low enough relative to the individual, it will yield a favorable adaptation and mobilize the athlete’s adaptive resources and activate specific adaptation processes. With this constant exposure to short-term favorable stressors, mobilization of adaptive energy will then activate specific mechanisms of the body’s adaptation processes and defense systems. These mechanisms assure the growth of specific protein synthesis of the working organs that will lead to an increase of their functional capacity, thus raising the body to a higher homeostatic level. The more exposed the athlete becomes to the stressor, the higher the levels of stress that will be needed to exceed homeostatic response in order to continue making improvements.

Plasticity/adaptive reserve

The adaptation threshold and the amount of adaptive energy/current adaptive reserves (CAR) that an athlete has, the degree in which it is used, and the speed at which it is replenished are based on individually and genetically conditioned limits. Adaptive reserves are the energy in the body available for adaptation. Therefore, limits exist as to the human body’s ability to facilitate energy due to a finite amount that has its own threshold. The human body has an interaction between two main energy flows:

  • Energy that is used for external work (running, lifting, jumping)
  • Energy to attain restitution ensuring adaption against stress (5)

This mobilization of energy allows the body to be very plastic and formable. The plasticity of an athlete is a term that is often used when describing the trainability of an athlete. Plasticity means the ability to change and adapt (formidable). The lower the training experience, the higher the plasticity of the nervous system and vice versa.

The more stress (continued volume and/or intensity) that is placed upon the athlete, the more CAR will be used, which will lengthen the time for replenishment and also harden the plasticity of the athlete's central nervous system, shortening the longevity for adaptation. “One would think that once adaptation has occurred and energy is amply available, resistance should go on indefinitely. But just as any inanimate machine gradually wears out, even if it has enough fuel, so does the human machine sooner or later become the victim to constant wear and tear.”

Application in the training process

The art of coaching is seeing how the athlete responds to the demands placed upon him and adjusting accordingly. The idea of low/mild stress and the adaptation threshold is relative to each individual. What is considered low stress for a 21-year-old college football player will be different than what is considered low stress for a 14-year-old or ten-year professional basketball player. The key is to find the optimum amount of stress for each athlete. Trying to find the athlete’s sweet spot of adaptability should be the aim when applying training loads. The athlete’s body is only going to adapt at its own rate. As coaches, there isn't anything that we can do to speed this process up. We can only mess it up!

You will never know what is too much unless you start with the least amount and work up. Give the athlete a light but precise load and watch how he performs. Monitor his progress, the quality of his training, his recovery process, and his temperament. Observe how the athlete handles the low load before making any adjustments.

Forced intensification is unwise because the earlier the intensification happens in the athlete's career, the sooner he will plateau. The plasticity of the athlete's central nervous system will harden, thus shortening the athlete’s longevity for improving and realizing his true performance limits. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger but less sensitive” (6). In his presentation in 2006, Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk discussed the long-term training of athletes and stated, “Research has shown that with youngsters, whether you use high or low intensity, you will get the same results” (7).

Application into practice

This idea of low dosing and working to find the threshold of adaptation has been applied and used with youth, high school, collegiate (Division I, II, and III), and professional athletes.

I'll admit that I'm just a practitioner when it comes to this sports science stuff. Dr. Yessis first told me of this concept of applying a low dose and it seemingly went against everything that my previous background and experience in training had taught me. Skeptical as I was at first, I only applied this idea of starting out with one set of every exercise with only half of my team. The other half of the team performed the standard three sets of exercises. Halfway through the training calendar, I ended up switching everyone over to using a “low dose” due to the improvement in results in the weight room and the feelings and movements of the athletes.

In two seasons, my high school football program's average 40-yard improvement was 0.36 seconds. They improved in the shuttle run by 0.32 seconds, and their squat increased 130 pounds in an off-season. In the two seasons of using the low dose methodology, the football team had a 19-1 record.

At the collegiate setting, Jason DeMayo of the University of Richmond has applied this methodology into the training of his Division 1 men’s basketball team, who, in 2010–2011, made it into the Sweet 16. At Michigan Tech, Matt Thome has used this idea with his teams. Just this past fall with his men’s basketball team, their average vertical jump increased 1.6 inches with ten players in four weeks of training. They now have 29-inch or better vertical jumps. The team's average broad jump increased 3.4 inches. Ryan Bracius at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has been working with the basketball and tennis programs. The female tennis team won 75 straight matches. The men’s team captured the singles and doubles championships.

Some athletes will only need one set to improve. Others will need two, three, or four sets. However, if you don’t start with the lowest amount first, you will never know how much is too much. I would much rather under train an athlete than overtrain one.

The long-term development of an athlete should always be in the forefront of every training program. Considerations should be made for not only how the training being done now affects the athlete but how it will affect him two to three years down the road. By starting with a low dose, it allows the athlete to continue to make progress later on in his career because the plasticity of his central nervous system wasn't hardened at an early age due to more volume and intensity than what he was able to handle.

“Train the athlete as much as necessary, not as much as possible.” — Henk Kraaijenof


  2. Selye H (1974) Stress without Distress.
  5. Verkhoshansky Yuri (2009) Supertraining. Sixth edition.
  7. Advanced Training for High Level Sports: The Transfer of Training (2006) Seminar DVD.

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