How Muscular Adaptations Happen


In some of the recent posts I have made in the past few weeks we have talked about gaining muscle, today we are going to talk about how muscular adaptations actually happen.  The ironic thing about muscular adaptations are how similar they are to basic psychology.  It is like the old adage: “as a man think, shall he become.” In this post I will cover the science of how the body responds to an adapts to training. 


Hans Selye And Muscular Adaptations

A few decades ago a man named Hans Selye did some research into the topic of stress.  Selye specifically wanted to know how, not just humans, but how all organisms responded to stressors in their environment.  He found many common occurrences between all organisms.  This led him to construct his behavioral model to describe the events of stress.  It is called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). 

Selye also described the two distinct types of stress.  They are Eustress and Distress.  Eustress is the good stress.  Although that sounds like an oxymoron, eustress is a necessary part of life.  Stress is a stimulus and if we had no stress in our lives we would be dead.  Eustress is a stress that promotes growth, progress and adaptation.  Muscular adaptations fall into this category. 

The other type of stress, distress, is the bad type of stress.  Distress promotes disease, decay and sometimes death.  Unfortunately, most people have more distress in their lives than they do eustress.  Most recreational activities such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating junk food cause distress.  Worry is also a cause of distress.  Paying the bills, raising children and work related issues all can contribute to this.  By far the largest amount of distress placed on most lifters and most Americans as a whole is from nutrition. 


Selye’s 3 Stage Response Applied To Muscular Adaptations 

From the above descriptions of the two types of stress, a 3 stage response was developed.  The three stages describe the common ways that any organism will respond to stress.  They are alarm stage, adaptive stage and exhaustion stage.  When you first perceive a threat in your environment, your body gets a little jolt.  That is the alarm stage.  This is alerting you that there is some kind of stimulus that is directly affecting you whether good or bad.  This stage is typically relatively brief. 

The adaptive stage runs off of the alarm stage.  The aim of this stage is to attempt to adapt to the stressor.  In our case of weight training, this makes perfect sense.  You start lifting and your heart rate goes up and you start to get warm.  That is the alert stage.  After training, you go home to have a post workout shake, your body tries to immediately start repairing the muscles.  This is the adaptive phase.  When given sufficient time, the body will overcompensate for the stressor.  As a result the muscles will get bigger and stronger. 

The last stage is the exhaustion stage.  This is where you do not want to be.  The exhaustion stage is when the stressor is too powerful for the body and the body is actually starting to break down and decay.  In our particular context, this is referred to as overtraining.  Overtraining is the worst thing that can happen to any athlete.  In fact it can end your athletic career.  In order to fully recuperate from overtraining, your body needs about two full months of rest in order to get back to normal. 


Understanding What It All Means

Whoever doesn’t understand the adaptation process is doomed to be overcome by it.  All training whether you like it or not is stress.  Too much stress whether good or bad ends up becoming bad.  In western society we have a real need for some knowledge of stress management. This is a society where every quarter people are pushed to work harder and harder for more and more profits. 

In a materialistic sense this is just all fine and dandy (especially for the CEOs and shareholders).  However, for the average worker this is just terrible.  Look, we all like to think that we are superman from time to time.  Eventually the body will need a break.  If it doesn’t get a break it will force you to give it a break.  You don’t want it to get to that point. 

Take a break and do some yin energy training to help you relax.  As any successful athlete, business owner or professional will tell you the key is to work smarter and not harder.  It’s great that you want to push yourself to the max and I appreciate the enthusiasm.  Instead though, try to be more energy efficient and to get more done with less work.  This will not only make you feel better but it will also keep you in the game longer.       


Using Stress To Get Muscular Adaptations    

If we use the lessons learned above and apply it to Selye’s model for stress we can greatly increase our muscular adaptations.  The goal is to increase muscular adaptations via the stress of training without dipping too far into the exhaustion stage.  So we want to cause an initial shock to the system and allow it some time to recover before we hit it again.  Makes sense.  However, this simple system often goes south as most lifters stall out very often. 

Part of the problem is that most lifters simply don’t know how to back off of the heavy stuff.  The thrill of getting under a heavy bar becomes pleasurable as progress starts to ensue.  This leads to lifters continually trying to push the envelope to make progress faster.  Remember, this mindset is not the fault of the lifter, it is a side effect of western civilization.  It is important to detach yourself from this point of view as most muscular adaptations don’t happen in the gym, they happen during down time. 

The eastern bloc countries were well aware of this during the Soviet Era.  The called it restorative exercise.  This was designed to help the athlete recover for an prepare for the next training session.  Training sessions provide the stimulus and restorative methods provide the muscular adaptations.  The optimal way of using restorative methods is to use a light de-load training session at least 1-2 times every week in order to give the body a rest.  Then when you go heavy again your muscles will be rested, recovered and ready to lift heavy weight.      

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