Hans Selye General Adaptation Syndrome - Applied In Fitness
“Athletes find progress within a training program by cycling between stages 1 and 2 of Selye’s theory.”
As you walk into your local gym on a Monday evening, you’re guaranteed to see a few things. Number one, a lot of people participating in chest day. Number two, cobwebs wrapped intricately around a few squat racks from lack of use. Last but not least, a few men and women who seem to be miles ahead in the performance category. What exactly separates the strongest from the rest? The simple answer, whoever is designing their program (whether it be them or a coach) has a basic level of understanding of the general adaptation syndrome and what it means when ensuring progression over the course of a training cycle. The general adaptation syndrome is quite literally the water to a training programs earth. It is unavoidable, necessary to understand, and detrimental to your health if the proper guidelines are not followed.
What is The General Adaptation Syndrome?
In July of 1936, Dr. Hans Selye had a paper published titled “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents” and its findings inadvertently ended up being the backbone of all legitimate training programs since. His intent in this paper was to highlight the relationship between an organisms response and the preceding adaptation that follows said response when that organism is introduced to an external stressor. In laymen terms, he wanted to show that an organism can naturally adapt to better increase its chance of survival when faced with a poisonous (nocuous) stressor. In order for the organism to respond in a fashion that is consistent with Selye’s model, the nocuous stressor must contain the capability of causing death. As I break down the various stages of the general adaptation syndrome below, it is important for you to remember that exercise is considered a nocuous stressor because too much of it can kill you. Therefore, the body responds in a fashion that is consistent with Selye’s theory. These responses ultimately become predictable and subsequently utilized to increase athletic performance. Selye summarized that the body can go through three stages when introduced to a stressor. The stages include alarm/shock (stage 1), adaptation/resistance (stage 2), and exhaustion (stage 3). Athletes find progress within a training program by cycling between stages 1 and 2 of Selye’s theory. Stage 3, also known as overtraining, can lead to a long list of negative biological effects and is therefore avoided when running a good program.
Stage 1 – Alarm or Shock
Stage 1 of the general adaptation syndrome is summarized by a term that most people are familiar with. Fight or flight. The alarm stage is your bodies initial reaction to an outside stressor, in this case, it happens to be whatever exercise you’re performing. The body is considered to enter the alarm stage when it experiences a disruption of homeostasis. Homeostasis, in a biological sense, is the bodies tendency to maintain regulatory internal conditions (at the cellular level) regardless of ever-changing outside conditions. For example, our bodies are able to maintain functions such as breathing regardless of changing outside conditions such as temperature. However, when an outside stressor is intense enough it will disrupt homeostasis. When homeostasis is disrupted basic cellular function is suppressed and reorganized to attend to the area under attack, this is the alarm stage. As we just mentioned, the alarm stage is the instant reaction to a stressor (fight or flight), and because this reaction is instant, it is accompanied with a sensation of muscle fatigue/stiffness. Not to be confused with muscle soreness. It is also important to recognize that a direct result of the alarm stage is a reduction in performance ability. This reduction in performance ability is not always noticeable and affects novice lifters a lot differently than advanced lifters. For example, a novice lifter working through a set that is 90% of their one rep max for the first time may experience a drop in performance so severe that the result could require a 25% reduction in weight to complete their next set. On the other side of the spectrum, an advanced lifter will be able to perform sets across for 1-3 reps at 90% of their one rep max with ease (relative to the novice lifter). This proves, without a doubt, that total workload, volume, and weight needed to push a person into the alarm phase is completely subjective. Although the threshold to enter stage 1 is different for everyone, one thing remains consistent, training in a fashion that doesn’t force the body to disrupt homeostasis will not equate to an increase in performance.
Stage 2 – Adaptation Or Resistance
If you ask the average person how you get bigger, faster, or stronger, their answer would be to exercise. It is a fair assumption and one that many would share. However, this is incorrect. You get bigger, faster, and stronger during stage 2 of the general adaptation cycle, this stage is called adaptation. Adaptation is the process your body goes through trying to correct the damage caused by the specific exercise that forced your body into a state of alarm. An exercise vigorous enough to cause shock to the body does so by damaging muscle fibers. When these muscle fibers are damaged the body responds by increasing blood flow to the area, decreasing the release of cortisol, and altering hormone production. The body will also experience an increase in structural and metabolic proteins to aid in muscle recovery. Although some people believe that the adaptation stage can be summarized by simply calling it recovery, there is a vital difference between the two. According to Dr. Hans, your body is considered to have recovered from a stressor when hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure all return to their homeostatically regulated state. Two of those three categories are easily measurable in our everyday lives, so I think it is appropriate to address the potential confusion. The adaptation stage is not complete until the body is better prepared and able to face the same stress and respond in a more efficient manner. After reading this, it would be fair for someone to assume that they can track their heart rate and blood pressure after a workout and head back to the gym to lift heavier when both return to normal. This is false. It is common for someone to feel fully recovered well before their bodies have completed the adaptation stage. Hormone secretion often continues well after your blood pressure has returned to its normal state. This is common for advanced lifters as it can take a few months to complete a cycle of adaptation versus the few days it takes for a novice lifter. Recovering from an exercise in terms of muscle soreness, heart rate, and blood pressure does not necessarily mean you will experience an increase in performance when you return to said exercise. Adaptation also solely revolves around specificity. This means that you will not experience an increase in performance when running a mile because you did bicep curls. In other words, if you want to get a bigger bench, you need to bench more. If you want to run faster, you need to run more. If you want a bigger deadlift, you need to deadlift more, and so on. The last, and perhaps most important thing to understand about the adaptation process is the ability for our bodies to simultaneously adapt to multiple stressors in multiple different areas. Over the course of a program, we can focus on increasing performance in a multitude of exercises for this very reason. Remember, stage 2 is where strength, speed, and size is gained. Allowing your body sufficient time to work through the adaptation stage can be the difference between a successful program and injury.
Stage 3 – Exhaustion
Exhaustion, which we call overtraining in the sports performance world, happens when the amount, duration, or force of a stressor is too great to overcome in the adaptation process. Unfortunately, exhaustion isn’t something that simply halts progress, it frequently causes regression in performance due to the extreme amount of fatigue accumulated before entering this stage. In day to day language, it is common for the term exhaustion to be used to describe the feeling that we experience after a long day or a single strenuous workout. Please, do not confuse the two. The easiest way to tell if you’ve entered the exhaustion stage is a dip in performance capabilities that do not improve over the usual amount of time it takes to recover from the previous workload. If your program calls for a high volume bench day on Monday and you’re usually well recovered for high percentage work (work close to your one rep max) on Friday, a steep drop in performance during your Friday workout is an indicator that you’ve entered stage 3. Because exhaustion is the result of the accumulation of fatigue, those running a well-built program can run into this problem if periods of rest aren’t prioritized when needed. Especially when running a program that is designed aggressively. Flirting with stage 3 is ultimately inevitable, with that said, it is rather easy to avoid digging yourself into a hole that’ll take weeks or months to get out of. If and when you feel like you are overtraining, decrease your total volume and number of reps by 50% for a week or two and all should return back to normal. When jumping back into your program, incorporating a 10% reduction in weight from your previous stopping point is also recommended to ease back into tougher workouts. The more advanced the lifter, the longer it takes to recover from overtraining. Be smart, train hard, rest intelligently, and take advantage of the science you have at hand.
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