Image 1: General Adaptation Syndrome
“Adapt or Die.” This was the stabbing line from the movie Moneyball that Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) gave to Oakland A’s most experienced scout when the scout seriously questioned the revolutionary methods Beane was employing (consulting a statistical engineer - played by Jonah Hill) to evaluate players and build a professional baseball team. The scout thought that Beane should follow the previous ways-of-doing-things, but Beane could see that for the A’s to be able to compete with teams with much larger player-salary budgets, the franchise, and all its personnel with it, had to adapt. In their careers, they had to adapt or die. This became the most iconic scene from the 2011 film.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” The immortal quote (paraphrased from Friedrich Nietzsche) at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian explores a similar idea. We all know that if we work hard and push ourselves through something difficult, we are always better for it on the other side, whether the self-improvement is mental, psychological, physical, spiritual, or all of the above.
What is this process of stress → recovery → improvement? It is ADAPTATION, the fundamental purpose of training.
Adaptation is defined as the adjustment of an organism to its environment. Also, “a mutation, or genetic change, that helps an organism, such as a plant or animal survive in its environment” (National Geographic Encyclopedia.)
Image 1: The General Adaptation Syndrome Process. With regards to training, the stressor onset line would be the beginning of a workout. The onset of shock would be the end of the session or shortly thereafter. The compensation phase would be the beginning of the recovery and the resistance phase would correspond to the peak of the adaptation from that session, that is the optimal time for another session. Decompensation would refer to the loss of the adaptation if there were no further training sessions.
In biology, the ability to adapt is considered essential to the continued survival of an organism. A very common example of adaptation can be noticed in the difference in fur from the summer to winter seasons in many animals. In the autumn/fall months (the months when the transition from summer to winter occurs) the fur on many animals slowly thickens. The reverse pattern takes place in the spring (the months when the transition from winter to summer occurs). In both cases, the environment is changing, and, in both cases, the animals’ organisms are adjusting to this change to ensure survival. If the animal’s winter coat were present in the summer, it would cause problems from overheating, and if the coat were not present in the winter, the animal(s) could perish due to cold. This is adaptation.
Adaptation can happen on a much longer or shorter scale than the above example. In fact, many mental and neurological adaptations happen in a matter of minutes or less. Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument or learned a complicated form of dance knows how often the ability to perform a part or movement appears seemingly instantaneously. You’re practicing and, one moment you can’t do it, the next moment you can. After a few more minutes of practice, good technique becomes almost automatic. This is an example of a rapid adaptation.
Adaptation(s) can also happen over a very long period of time. For example, did you know that horses can sleep standing up? This ability is attributed to the "stay apparatus" ingrained in their leg anatomy. When a horse decides to rest, it’s front legs will lock, which allows it to fall asleep without falling down. This was a long-term adjustment to the presence of predators in their environment. As prey animals, horses had to adapt to have the ability to sleep on their feet, so they could quickly react and escape in case of a hungry predator’s attack.
So how does all this relate to your fitness development? Simple. In the second article of this series, I made it clear that your own training purpose determines the specific types of adaptation(s) that your trainer must design your program to cause. Now you know that an adaptation is caused by an adjustment an organism makes to a change in its environment. When you go to the gym and work out, what you are fundamentally doing is causing a change to your environment in a certain way that is particular to your goals.
What is most interesting and relevant about the Moneyball example is that the adaptation that Beane was forcing the Oakland A's organization to undergo was seen through becoming more methodical in their selection of players, relying more on hard baseball statistics than the whims of individual scouts. This is exactly what you and your trainer must do in your training; define your purpose, set goals, understand the metric variables you can control, and intelligently control them to your ends.
The Bottom Line
In order to fundamentally improve your approach to all your workouts, make sure you always keep these concepts in mind. When you are in the gym, you are there to apply just the right amount and type of stress to cause the optimal amount and type of adaptation you can from that session (day, week, etc.). This basic outlook will help give purpose and clarity to your workouts, both during planning and performance.