Do you push yourself to failure every workout? Or are you on the opposite end of the spectrum and stop as soon as you feel a little discomfort? Most of us think the first option is the way to get results. We boast about our puke-inducing Crossfit workout or how we ran until we hit the wall. But neither approach is ideal.
To keep progressing in your workouts, you need to understand how your body adapts to the stress of training. It does this through the general adaptation syndrome (I personally would’ve coined a more appealing name like ‘how to kick stress in the balls and become your best version’). Names aside, if you can work with your body’s natural response to stress, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Let’s look at how you can do this.
What Is the General Adaptation Syndrome?
The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is a three-stage process that describes how the body responds to stress. GAS can occur with any type of stress (e.g., losing a job, medical problems, etc.), but in this post, we’ll focus on stress from exercise.
The Three Phases of the General Adaptation Syndrome
When you start a new sport or workout, the body has to adapt to it. As Hans Selye explains in his book The Stress of Life: “Most human activities go through the three stages: We first have to get into the swing of things, then we get pretty good at them, but finally we tire of them.” When you understand these phases, you can structure your training to spend more time adapting and less time plateaued.
Here’s what the three GAS phases look like:
1. Alarm Phase
The alarm phase is the body’s initial response to the new exercise. This phase lasts for 2-3 weeks and it’s when most of the neuromuscular adaptations (e.g., coordination, ability to recruit more motor units, etc.) occur. An example of this is when someone starts weight training for the first time. They get stronger and can lift heavier weights, but this is a result of neuromuscular adaptations, as opposed to building more muscle.
2. Adaptation Phase
The adaptation phase is when the body adapts to the new stimulus by changing structures and their function. For example, increasing the size of muscle fibres is a structural change. And becoming more efficient at coordinating movements between muscles is a functional change. This phase can last between 4-12 weeks.
The end result—you can pick up lots of heavy shit. This leads to the scientific phenomenon known as ‘beast mode’.
3. Exhaustion Phase
The exhaustion phase is usually where things turn pear-shaped. In this phase, the body can no longer tolerate the stresses of training. Adaptations usually come to a grinding halt (the dreaded plateau) and the risk of overtraining increases. If you push things too hard and end up overtrained, bad stuff happens. Usually overtraining manifests itself as recurring illness, loss of sleep, moodiness, overuse injuries, or decreased performance.
Why You Should Understand the General Adaptation Syndrome
Because understanding GAS will help you stay in the adaptation phase. More time in the adaptation phase equals more strength or faster run times. When you work with your body and not against it, you’ll spend less time injured or burnt out (i.e., you’ll stay out of the exhaustion phase).
How to Avoid Training Plateaus
So, how do we apply the GAS to our training? The most important thing to do is work in phases of between 4-12 weeks (length of the adaptation phase) followed by some lighter training and recovery. For example, a strength athlete may structure their training like this:
- Phase 1: 4-8 weeks of high repetition work used as a break-in phase.
- Deload week: one week of decreased training volume and intensity. In this phase, you reduce the number of workouts per week and lift lighter weights. For example, you could reduce your workouts from three to two per week. You would also decrease the weights so that you’re working at a rate of perceived exertion of around six.
- Phase 2: 4-8 weeks of a strength phase were you focus on low volume and heavy weights.
- Deload week
- Phase 3 . . .
The GAS is the basis for periodization. Periodization refers to changing up your training variables in a structured way. You map out different training phases to be at your peak before a race or other milestone. This helps you avoid plateaus and overtraining. I’ll cover this in detail in next week’s blog post.
For now, let’s keep things simple. You can stay out of the exhaustion phase by changing your workouts regularly. If you’re one of those guys/girls that’s been doing the same workout that your personal trainer mate gave you back in the 90s, it’s time to move on. Pick anything different and get started. Then tune in next week for more details on periodization.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) find a new workout and change up your training. Start with an easy change. Maybe hit up a class or find an online workout so you don’t have to think too much. As Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
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