To define adaptation, one could go with the term in the biological sense, which would be the evolutionary process whereby an organism becomes better able to live in its habitat or habitats (2). This process is ongoing and happens throughout the entire life of a living thing. When we cease to adapt, we will no longer survive.

However, we aren't talking about the day-to-day life of all living things. The way I want to look at adaptation is in the realm of sports training. While this is a scientific process and some science will be included here, I'll try to look at this practically as opposed to trying to pack as many big words into an article as possible. There are already tons of resources out there that do so, and I want this to be an everyday look at some considerations to the process of adaptation and how it applies to athletics.

The concise version

To first understand adaptation, you need to understand what exactly happens to cause the process. The first concept to understand is homeostasis. This is nothing more than maintaining stable conditions. Your body wants to have a level of equilibrium and will strive to maintain this.

When you train, you are introducing an external irritant to your body. With this external irritant, internal irritants within the body also arise. This, in turn, disrupts homeostasis. When disrupted, the body will initially be in a compromised state and have an inability to deal with these irritants. However, it will use the appropriate energy sources, systems, and processes to cope. With enough exposure alternated with periods of removal of that exposure, the body will reconstruct itself and be able to deal with more than before.

Once the body has stabilized, the irritants will no longer cause these reactions because a new level has been achieved. This is what some will call accommodation. At this point, from a training perspective, new irritants need to be introduced to further elicit responses.

This all goes back to the principle that your body wants nothing more than to survive and will attempt to adapt to reach homeostasis. Training is anything more than systematically disrupting this equilibrium and allowing higher levels of functioning to occur.

While on the surface it appears that it is merely a process of stimulate (disruption of homeostasis) and adapt, there really is more to it. Much will depend on exercise selection, volume, intensity, sequencing of exercises, and designing micro-, meso-, and macro-cycles.

Standardization of training loads

When it comes to producing adaptations, one has to look at the issues of standardization. Standardization is covered extensively by Bondarchuk in Transfer of Training in Sports (volume two). The basic idea is that the same exercises are used for a given period of time for a given amount of training sessions.

According to Bondarchuk, the following benefits can be seen from standardization (1):

  • shortening the limits of entry into the state of sports form
  • directing the training transfer
  • flowing restorative processes to the central nervous system and other body systems
  • learning and improving technical mastery

The shortened period prior to entry into sports form occurs because the same exercises are used. This allows the body to adapt due to constant stimulus from the same exercises for the given time. Due to this, the body can restructure more quickly with the appropriate adaptations. Also, looking at the technical mastery aspect, the more the exercise is practiced with desired form, the better an athlete can become at performing the movement. This helps ingrain motor patterns and assist with the ability to join previously learned concepts with new ones.

However, this isn’t to say that the same exercises should be performed over and over. If this happens, accommodation (equilibrium in presence of stimulus) will occur. The process of adaptation is to continue to disrupt homeostasis and make the body create new adaptations. Due to this, after a certain period, exercises, intensity, volume, and so on must be changed. This is individual and must be looked at through numerous variables such as the qualification of the athlete, desired training effects, competition calendar, and other factors. On the other end of the spectrum, some people look at any standardization as bad and feel the need to vary exercises in every training session. Unfortunately, all that occurs is disruption of homeostasis. This doesn’t allow the body to restructure itself accordingly. Think of it this way—if you study for a test for one night simply to pass, you will only retain that information for that purpose. If you actually take the time to learn the material and practice its use, you will retain the information for a longer period.

Defense mechanisms

Within the process of adaptation, there are processes within the body that act upon the introduction of external stimuli. While some may think it is as simple as this causing internal stimuli that will lead to adaptation, it is more complex. When a stimulus is presented, the first reaction is to only return the body to its initial state. According to Bondarchuk, this is to give the body systems the ability to mobilize themselves in time for future counteractions against further external irritants. This will return the body to homeostasis as opposed to further changes that would establish new levels of adaptation.

The process of inhibition is one of these mechanisms. Inhibition appears as a precursor to maintaining form. This process prevents the spread of excitation to nerve cell ensembles that should not participate in the activity. Inhibitory processes will minimize immediate excitation, dose it correctly, or stop it all together if there is a need for this (1). Basically, these processes are attempting to direct the excitation to the areas that should be affected and limit the spread elsewhere.

The strength of the irritants can influence whether or not there is an excitatory or inhibitory response. The use of intense training sessions will cause a strong inhibitory response. If the loading continues to be in this region, inhibition will be lengthened even more so. At this point, this is limiting the ability of the body to adapt. Because of this, it is necessary to alternate periods of intensive loading with those of extensive loading. This will help shift the phase of inhibition back to excitation.

The idea of alternating these means isn't anything new. This is the basis of the high-low programming that Charlie Francis developed and it has been discussed numerous times by Buddy Morris and the Thinker. When the body is constantly loaded with high central nervous system stressors, the inhibitory response will prevent further adaptation and hinder recovery. By alternating periods of high intensity (sprints, jumps, intensive throws, heavy or lower body weights) with periods of low intensity (tempo runs, extensive jumps and throws, light or upper body weights), it allows the body to shift back to excitation and allows the central nervous system to recover.

Another way to look at this is in the longer term programming, which should include deload weeks periodically or, on an even larger scale, restorative blocks. The body can only handle so much over time and eventually will be pushed to inhibition if constantly loaded.

Another consideration of defense mechanisms is the qualification of the athlete. I know I have beat a dead horse with this subject, but it does have some relevancy in this discussion. Improvement in sports takes place rapidly over the first few years. At this point, in an adaptational sense, the athlete is winning the battle against his body’s defense mechanisms because they don't resist. As the athlete progresses, this becomes much more difficult, as his defense mechanisms step up their game, so to speak. The extraction of genetic information from DNA molecules appears to cease and rapid increases begin to slow down. Elite athletes can be observed to have a greater number of periods where increases can be observed as they work to develop sports form. It has been theorized that the defense mechanisms in truly elite athletes are weaker. In turn, this prevents this from occurring (1). While this theory isn't completely proven, it is interesting to consider. Those athletes who seem to be superior usually take to training better. They reach the desired training effects and often at far less volumes. However, it can also be theorized that the weaker defense mechanisms also make these athletes more prone to injury.

Adaptation needs to be looked at for what it is—a multi-year process. Sports training is also adaptation and needs to be looked at in the same way. All the means of producing the desired training effects need to be logically placed in a long-term system of developing the athlete. Appropriate selection of training means will help produce the desired training effects while limiting inhibitory responses. Many athletes and coaches get tunnel vision and only train for the next game, meet, or competition. However, by trying to look for quick fixes and introduce means that may be too intensive at times, one can actually set back progress, especially in the long run.

It is also important to know when it is time to change the exercises. I have had training partners who keep repeating the same programs and sets of exercises over and over but somehow think that they will have better results. Variation with some logical programming will assist in continuing the process of adaptation. Once the body reaches a level of accommodation to the stimulus, it is time to move on in one way or another. Conversely, I've known both athletes and coaches (sadly) who change the complex of exercises every training session without any real reason for it other than that they get bored with the same things for more than one day. The problem with this is that they don't really know what they're trying to accomplish. Even if by some chance they did, they probably don't have any idea as to why they did.

Remember that all your body wants is to survive. It will always try to maintain a level of equilibrium. In order to get the advancements that are desired, it takes logical planning to “fool” the body into thinking that it needs to become stronger, faster, more explosive, or whatever training effect you seek in order to survive.

In closing, always remember that training, which itself is adaptation, is best aged slowly like a fine wine. While it may be easier to go to the corner store and buy Cisco or MD 20/20, I assure you that attempting to rush this process will create nothing but headaches like that $2.95 bottle of bum wine.


    1. Bondarchuk Anatoliy P (2010) Transfer of Training in Sports. Vol. II. Ultimate Athlete Concepts: Michigan.
    2. Dobzhansky T, Hecht MK, Steere WC (1968) “On some fundamental concepts of evolutionary biology” Evolutionary Biology. Volume 2 (1st ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, pg1–34.