Adaptation and Varying Your Training for Success

Photo Credit:  Rogue Fitness

Are you a creature of habit?

I know I am.

I like routines and tend to stick to them.  It helps me stay productive and keeps me on track.

Occasionally I’ll mix it up, but most of my days look pretty similar.

I’m willing to bet you’re in the same boat.

You probably get up around the same time, eat similar things, and go through a daily schedule that varies by fractions instead of wholes.

As nice as routines are for day to day living, they can be disastrous for your training.

I’m not talking about warming up and all that jazz.  I’m talking about the lift itself.

If you show up to the gym and do the same lift over and over and over again you will not make progress over the long haul.  Sure…in those first couple of weeks you might see some gains, but that’ll eventually come to a screeching halt as you hit the dreaded wall of no progress.

Similar to the Dikimbe Mutombo commercial, but instead of rejecting rolled up paper he’s rejecting your desire to (fill in goal of choice).

This is usually when I hear from people–when progress stops being had.  It just so happens the quantity of the “help I’m stuck” emails has been rather high recently, and in looking over all of their “routines” one thing stands out immediately:  the lack of variety.


Adaptation rules all.

But seriously…it does.

It dictates who you are now and who you will become in the future.  The nice part is you can control for adaptation if you understand it.

Thus, adaptation can be defined as the adjustment of an organism to its environment.  The environment provides the stimulus and then our bodies will adapt.

Training is no different.  We provide a stimulus, whether it be running, squatting, or doing push ups, and then our bodies adapt.

Not all stimuli, however, are created equal.  Some will produce a positive adaptation, some will produce no adaption, and some will produce a negative adaptation (for our purposes negative adaptation simply means decrease in performance).

The three types of adaptation can be classified as follows:

Stimulating- magnitude of the training load exceeds the previous level causing a positive adaptation.

Retaining- magnitude of the training load equals the previous level causing no adaptation

Detraining- magnitude of the training load falls below previous levels causing a decrease in performance.

You can picture a graph with physical fitness on the y axis and training load on the x axis.  The stimulating load will arch up, the retaining load will stay flat, and the detraining load will arch down.


Law of Accommodation and Law of Diminishing Returns

Two other important concepts to understand are the law of accommodation and the law of diminishing returns.

In a nutshell, the law of accommodation states that the response of a biological object (human in our case) to a constant stimulus diminishes over time.  This makes logical sense.  As your body sees the same stimulus over and over again it will eventually adapt and the stimulus no longer has an effect.

We can use music as an example.  The first time you hear a new song it may be awesome.  Play it on repeat for a few days and you eventually will no longer like the song.

The law of diminishing returns gets after the same idea:  over time the magnitude of adaptation that occurs from a given stimulus diminishes.  For example, a beginner lifter can see gains from simply squatting the bar because he or she has never performed the movement, while an elite powerlifter can lift a near maximal load and see hardly any adaptation because of the increased exposure to the stimulus.

These two ideas may seem simple, but they’re powerful.  You always have to keep them in mind and respect they are there.

Also, these two laws bring to light the importance or need to continually challenge the system–a concept known as progressive overload.  As the system adapts you have to continually provide it with a greater stimulus, or else you’ll flatline and eventually die off.

Another way to get after progressive overload is via variance–finding ways to change your routine to continuously generate a stimulus greater than what your body is used to.

How To Vary

When it comes to varying your routine you really have two options:

Change the load

Changing the load comes down to manipulating volume and  intensity.

For sake of this conversation, volume will be the total number of lifts performed.  Here’s an example:

You do 5 sets of 4 reps in the bench press.  Your volume that day is:

5 x 4 = 20 reps 

Intensity, on the other hand, deals with the average weight of the barbell, and can be calculated by dividing the total weight lifted by the number reps.  The greater the weight the greater the intensity.  Here’s an example:

Say you do 4 sets of squats for 5 reps a set, with each set looking like this:

Set 1:  100 lbs

Set 2:  100 lbs

Set 3:  120 lbs

Set 4:  120 lbs

To calculate total weight lifted you’ll do the following:

(100 x 5) + (100 x 5) + (120 x 5) + (120 x 5) = 2200 lbs

To find intensity you’ll divide 2200 by the total number of lifts:

2200/20 = 110

There you go.  The average weight lifted that training session was 110 lbs.

With that in mind, I want you to think about how you can vary a training session.

Go ahead and take a minute and write something down.

Alright, good.

So to vary a training session you’d have to either increase sets, increase reps or increase the load (general rule of thumb is to decrease volume as intensity goes up.  just so you don’t make that mistake).  Let’s see what that looks like the next time you squat:

You come back in to squat and decide you’re going to do 4 sets of 2 reps.  Your sets look like this:

1.  150

2.  160

3.  175

4.  175

Now let’s find intensity:

(150 x 2) + (160 x 2) + (175 x 2) + (175 x 2) = 1314

1314/8 = 164

Notice what happened.

Your volume decreased from 20 reps to 8 reps, but your intensity increased from 110 to 164.

Now I wish we could go into more depth on this front, but there’s just not enough time to do so because what we’re beginning to tread on is periodization–the art of planning training to control for volume and intensity in the most effective manner.

That convo will have to wait for another day, so just remember to change up volume or intensity and you should be good for now.

Change the movement

Another way to mix things up is to change the movement.  The opportunities here are limitless, so don’t be afraid to get creative.

Here are a few examples:

Change the movement completely

This is as simple as it sounds.  Pick an entirely new movement.  You’ve been doing squats…try deadlifts.  You’ve been running…try pulling a sled.  The list can go on and on.

Add chains or bands

Putting chains or bands on the bar can completely change the movement by way of accommodating resistance.  Although it may not seem much different to you, I can promise you’re body and central nervous system think it’s different.

Change your stance

Another easy way to mix things up.  Instead of doing something standing up drop into a half kneeling or tall kneeling stance.  Try squatting with a wide stance.  Try squatting with a narrower stance.  Try deadlifting while standing on a small platform to increase the range of motion.  Just use your imagination and have some fun with it.

Vary the tempo

A lifts tempo is often overlooked.  You can change how long the eccentric, concentric and sticking point of the lift lasts.  For example, while doing a single arm dumbbell row take 1 second on the concentric portion, 1 second on the sticking point and 3 seconds on the eccentric portion.  I think you’ll enjoy the different stimulus.

Change the type of bar you use

Unfortunately, a lot people do not have access to a wide variety of bars.  I’d be willing to go even further and say most people don’t know different bar types exist.  Either way, they can be an extremely powerful tool in your toolbox.  Here are a few to get you started: trap bar, swiss bar, cambered bar, and safety squat bar.

(If you’re in the market for bars I’d recommend checking out Rogue’s selection.  They have some of the best stuff around.  Just click this link and it’ll take you straight to the page:  Rogue Weightlifting Bars)

Closing Thoughts

This has been a very brief overview of how to vary up your routine, but I hope you’ve gotten something out of it.

Adding variety to your training routine should be fun.  Get creative, experiment, and see what works best for you.

As I mentioned earlier, variety will depend on your training experience.

If you’re a beginner, you won’t need to vary your routine as much as an experienced lifter because you haven’t spent much time around the stimulus.  And please god take advantage of that.  Don’t get all trigger happy and start changing things up every two weeks.  Ride out the good wave while you can.  Continue performing a lift as long as you’re seeing progress.  Once progress drops off then change things up.

For intermediate and more advanced lifters, a generalized rule of thumb is to change things up every 3 to 4 weeks.  Start there and see how things go.  As you lift you’ll get a better feel for how your body adapts and how long you can spend on any one thing.