Adaptation Revisited

All athletes are trying to accomplish the same thing in their training. They're trying to adapt to the demands and specificity of their sport. In order to achieve proper adaptation, we need to understand how the body reacts to stressors.

First off, stress needs to be looked at differently than the common perception. It isn't always a negative event. Stress is anything that has an effect on the body—emotionally, mentally, or physically. It can be good or bad.

Application of Stress

Adaptation is the result of a stress applied to the body. It's the adjustment made for survival or protection of the organism.

Each person has a given amount of energy available to handle stress and adaptation. Hans Selye calls this “adaptation energy” (also known as the current adaptive reserve). Once this limit is reached, further adaptation isn't possible. In the global perspective of life, further stress beyond the adaptation limit means death. In training, this means a plateau.

In sports, most often we're trying to find the best possible way to allow the athlete to adapt to the specific demands of the sport and then continue adaptation until mastery of the sport is reached. To keep this article as simple as possible, I will use powerlifting as an example.


In order to improve the squat, bench, and deadlift, a lifter must do a certain amount of work. For optimal results, he must choose the methods that will allow for the greatest gains in those three exercises and those exercises only. As a powerlifter, no one cares how many handstand push-ups you can do if you still can’t bench. Any training that doesn't yield progress in the three main lifts is a waste of energy.

As described above, each lifter will have a certain amount of energy available for adaptation for the squat, bench and deadlift. This is demonstrated in the table below. As illustrated, the circle represents the total amount of adaptation energy available, which will be filled up by all the training means selected by the lifter.

The key to filling up this circle is to select the exercises that will yield the most improvement in the squat, bench, and deadlift. However, many times we try to use far too many exercises that will spread our adaptation among many different stressors. This is shown in the following table.

A lifter who trains in this manner is the classic example of a “jack of all trades, master of none.” How is a lifter supposed to improve specific targets when he's devoting so much energy to such a high number of targets that aren't specific to the main movements? And it isn't only the sheer number of targets but also the energy expenditure of each. While one may be doing Prowler® sprints only once a week for 15–20 minutes, the energy expenditure is so high that it interferes with the energy demands of the primary lifts.

The opposite train of thought is to only perform the three primary movements. One third of the training is devoted to each—the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. This is shown below.

In an effort to concentrate all adaptation to the primary lifts, this model avoids the fact that each lifter has a personal set of weaknesses that need to be brought up. Assistance work can prove highly valuable when used appropriately. A more rational example is shown in the next chart:

Optimal Results

In order to achieve optimal results, we must choose the biggest bang for the buck exercises and avoid devoting time and energy to exercises that have little or no carryover to our main objective. While there are times in training when a large variety of exercises works, there are also times when we need to focus our energy on what’s most important.

Highly varied programs are great for developing the body but not for developing a specific movement. In early phases of training, variety is important for prehabilitation, hypertrophy, range of motion, and work capacity among others. In later phases of training, we need to focus our energy on highly specialized and specific means of developing the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Recommended reading

  • The Stress of Life by Hans Selye
  • Supertraining by Mel Siff
  • Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sport Training by Vladimir Issurin