As we continue our series on the different parts of what makes specific training functional, next up is considering the individual biology and the history of the individual’s training. In training, as we said before, people are constructs of biology. This means that they function through adapting to stress from the second you’re born until the second you pass away. We’re adaptive organisms and, as Wolff’s Law says, the body will conform and adapt to the intensities and directions that it is habitually subjected to.
As we also discussed in an earlier post, consistent training means giving the body consistent, increasing stresses to adapt to. Through that adaptation to your biology, both muscular and neural, we create increases in performance.
There is not a single part of the body that is immune to this. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are affected by this. Your brain, nerve cells, immune system response, and hormone response are all affected by this. Every part of the body is going to be influenced by the stress that it’s exposed to and adaptations are a consequence. Make no mistake, the regularity of consistent training and progressive is the single most important part of training. However, the next biggest priority is matching the biology and the history of your training.
So, what we want to go for is something that is very often misunderstood or completely ignored; and that is minimal adaptive stress.
What is minimal adaptive stress?
When it comes to long-term training and long-term development, which is what everybody wants, minimal adaptive stress is going to be one of the key considerations in a training program.
What we want is to give the body the least amount of stress necessary where we can still force it to adapt in the way that we want. This is counter to what many coaches and many training programs do. The world of sports and training is in love with the idea of training athletes to their limits; exhausting them every single workout. “Harder-harder-harder! Faster-faster-faster! Rest is for the weak! That’s the way it is!” Not only is it just not optimal, but that’s also when you start getting to a lot of increased injury rates as well.
If coaches understand that it’s just not the best way to train, then the training environment would be a way better place for everybody that’s involved. Again, the whole purpose of minimal adaptive stress is long-term development. If we can create the threshold level of training stress to create adaptation by evaluating how hard the workout is, the sets, the reps, the exercise selection, how heavy it is, what good does it do to go above that?
A lot of that gap between how much training we need to incur adaptation versus how much we actually train is wasted and permanently lost. Yes, the body will actually go ahead and adapt to some of it in the form of a slightly higher gains as long as your body can handle it, but it is a game of diminishing returns which comes with an increasing chance of injury. Taking a long-term perspective, what’s so often forgotten is that it decreases the amount of change and it decreases how much you’re able to do later to create positive adaptation.
If our goal is to help athletes train and improve for as long as possible, then we should want to have the longest possible path laid out to keep training them so that they can get stronger, faster, more explosive, and have more endurance.
By doing the least necessary training that we can while still encouraging positive growth, we can continue to create that growth by increasing stress in measured, consistent increments. And the result is we can actually get a lot more out of a training program by focusing on that rather than wasting a lot of the possible positive stresses early on. If you go too hard early, your body will eventually adapt to it. But once it’s adapted, the only way that it can continue to be stressed enough to elicit changes is to go a little bit harder or do a little bit more again.
And so eventually you hit that point where the only way that athletes can continue going forward is to go as hard as they can or at breakneck volumes. Instead, we take advantage of all the gains possible during the earlier training loads and we can build them up to much, much higher levels before ever getting to those super-high intensity or higher-volume workouts. In this way, minimum adaptive stress expands and multiplies your ability to help athletes train.
What should be considered when determining minimum adaptive stress?
The biggest factors in this are going to be your chronological age (how old are you), your training age (how long you’ve trained), and your detraining timeframe (how long it’s been since you trained).
Whith chronological age, the biggest factors are the body’s natural systems and its hormones and ability to recover. Hormones are the biggest player here. It stands to reason that younger athletes, young adults or adolescents, are going to have relatively very high natural hormone levels. That’s going to allow them to have a larger magnitude of adaptations to smaller stresses compared to older athletes.
As athletes get older and become a little bit more seasoned, you can begin using harder versions of training as they build up. Because training is, in essence, always a pyramid. You’re always climbing the pyramid and then, every once in a while, consistently going back and re-expanding your base so that you can continue to build your pyramid even higher at the peak.
What special considerations should be given to very young athletes?
Younger kids do not need much training at all, particularly those who have not yet reached puberty. Learning general movement patterns, learning how to control their body, and letting their body just become stronger naturally through exposure is all that is required. Let them regulate it themselves. Kids at that age grow at completely different speeds, so don’t try to predict how much they’re going to be able to lift or what they’re going to be able to accomplish in any exercise. Simply give them the opportunity to do more if they’re doing it well and they want to do more. And, in essence, match their own personal growth as well as their mental growth and their curiosity about what their body can do.
The good thing about these kids too is you want them to be able to be very frequent with their constant exercise because you want them to be able to utilize early age adaptation to very regular, high-frequency activity. But it can all be on the lighter side or just very much a mixture of practice and play. So less intense training, more practicing, mixed in with general play and expanding their repertoire, will max out young kids’ development.
What about teens and young adult athletes?
As I touched on earlier, high natural hormone levels and minimal adaptive response come together very well for successful training. Younger athletes’ naturally high levels of hormones are already designed to help them make gains in physicality and growth. If you take these younger athletes and have them train with minimal load, but still enough stress to cause them to adapt, they will continue to have explosive gains over a long period of time.
As teenage athletes’ training becomes a little bit more specific and advanced, you still don’t need very much stress here to create an adaptive response. Two or three days a week of an actual intensive training program is going to be enough. And again, it doesn’t even need to be intensive in terms of high weight or high reps; it should be focused rather than exhaustive and frequently consider how much work they need to do to continue getting better.
Two or three days a week is going to be plenty, mixed in with their other day-to-day activities. And as they become older, progress from two days to three days, from three days to four days. They may even have timeframes where five-days-a-week shock systems may be better for them at that point.
How does training age differ from chronological age?
Even though chronological age has the most direct effect on adaptive response, with training age, you’re still going to benefit a lot from those early exposures to minimal stresses. This is for the simple reason that if you haven’t trained much before, it doesn’t take much training to start to get a little bit better. So, again, start easy, don’t go straight to what your gym rat friends have been doing. Regardless of your actual age, if you have not really trained before or are still very new to it, start with simpler workouts and focus on progressing them and getting better over the long haul. Make those changes.
Two days will usually be enough to get started at first but if you are older, even if you are beginner, the three-day-a-week training frequency will pay you much greater dividends because that higher frequency does, in essence, come across to your body as more practice. Your body will be getting better through that practice of the actual skill acquisitions, both the movements and the ability to actually produce force, speed, and endurance.
What impact do long periods without training have?
If an athlete has a history of training but has not trained for a considerable amount of time, this also affects minimal adaptive response. The longer you de-train, then the more like a beginner your body will be. Your body does have an amazing amount of muscle memory but it’s not just the muscles which come into play. It’s also going to be the nervous system and, to a large degree, your immune responses and your hormonal systems. You will be more like a beginner and you will want to start with basic workouts and minimal stress, but if you have trained significantly in the past and just happen to be de-trained, whether by several months or even a few years, then your body will remember and cover that gap faster than it would have initially as a new trainee.
You will have to elevate your training to more similar levels of intensity to what you were doing before more quickly than a true beginner who could progress a little bit slower.
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