The Minimal Adaptable Load And What It Means For Your Training

As coaches and athletes we’re always in pursuit of the same thing:


And that progress will come in many different shapes and sizes. For one person it may mean losing 15 lbs, for another it may mean deadlifting 500lbs, and for another it may mean winning a world championship.

At the end of the day, however, progress is always the uniting principle by which we can gauge the effectiveness of a training program:

Is it taking you/he/she closer towards their goal?

If yes, then you’re making progress.

If no, then you’re not.

BUT, here's the magical question:  how do I or my athletes make progress?

The answer...stress.

But not just any stress, it has to be the right type of stressor, at the right time, in the right amount.  If any of those factors are off, then you won't be incurring the type of positive adaptation you're looking for.

While there are many variables to consider when putting together a comprehensive training program, I'd like to focus today on one that I believe doesn't get enough attention, and the implications it has for training.  And that variable is called:  The Minimal Adaptable Load.

The Process of Adaptation

Before continuing, it's important that you know a thing or two about adaptation since that is, at the end of the day, how we make progress.

Thus, let's walk through the basic process.

In the graph below you'll notice fitness level is on the y-axis and time is on the x-axis.  The 0 point on the y-axis represents your current fitness level, while above it represents improvement and below represents decline.  It's important to note that any fitness quality can replace "fitness level" on the y-axis.  For example, you could easily get more specific and put something like speed strength, or starting strength, or absolute strength, but for today we'll just focus on the broader concept of fitness.


As you can see in the above graph, the process of adaptation follows a pretty simple formula:

Step 1:  Provide a stressor/training stimulus

Step 2:  Fatigue

Step 3:  Recovery

Step 4:  Supercompensation

Step 5:  Involution

If you'd like to read more about adaptation, then checkout this post I wrote for Eric Cressey a little while back.

Let's take this a step further and consider three separate scenarios:


Scenario 1:  Not Enough Stress (Purple Dashed Line)

In this scenario, the athlete has not been stressed nearly enough.  While they did accumulate low levels of fatigue, it wasn't enough to force a positive adaptation (notice how the purple dashed line doesn't cross back over the original fitness level).

Scenario 2:  Too Much Stress (Red Dashed Line)

This is the exact opposite of our first scenario:  the athlete has been stressed far too much (driven too low) and can't adequately recover.  In other words, they dug a hole too deep to climb out of (again...not surpassing the original fitness level and maybe even getting worse).

Scenario 3:  Just Right (Green Dashed Line)

Jackpot!  The athlete has been stressed enough to force adaptation to occur.  Fatigue accumulated, but it was the right amount of fatigue because the athlete could adequately recover from it.

The Minimal Adaptable Load

What you just experienced in Scenario 3 is the minimal adaptable load.  And seeing as this is a term you're probably not familiar with (I'm fairly certain I made it up this past weekend) let's go ahead and define it:

The minimal adaptable load represents the total amount of volume in tons/lbs/kgs that must be lifted over the course of a designated period of time in order to incur a positive adaptation in a fitness quality.

Hopefully I don't need to explain why this concept is important, but this value does change with time.  When you first start off training you can practically just look at weights and get stronger, but once you've been lifting for a while it takes a little more effort to keep putting weight on the bar.

Which brings us to our next big point:

The Beginner vs. The Advanced Athlete

I think the real beauty of the minimal adaptable load shows through when considering how you go about training a beginner vs. a more advanced athlete.

Since the beginner has a lower training age it won't take nearly as much stress/load to improve a given fitness quality.  The more advanced athlete with an older training age, on the other hand, will require significant stress/loading to improve a given fitness quality.

For example, take a freshman in high school who hasn't touched weights once his entire life and an all american going into his senior year of college.  Different scenarios?

You bet your ass they are.

And that has to show through in their programming.


The beginner can afford to train several different fitness qualities at once because it doesn't take much loading to incur a positive adaptation.  For example, let's say it takes 300 lbs of volume (and this is a completely arbritrary number) for him to see improvement in maximal strength.  That's not much at all, so you can afford to go after multiple qualities at once.

The advanced athlete, on the other hand, might need 10,000 lbs of volume (again, made up number) to see progress.  Thus, he needs to periodize his programming to focus on one fitness quality at a time.  He cannot train max strength, strength speed, and speed strength simultaneously because it'll be impossible to make progress in any category.  If he actually did perform the necessary amount of loading in each category he'd be so overtrained that he'd get worse.

Keeping Track of Training

The other important thing to note is that you should be keeping track of your training (and your athletes training if you're a coach).

If you don't have these numbers, then how are you ever going to appropriately monitor training from month to month, and year to year.

For example, let's say you hit a 3 month block aimed at improving your deadlift.  At the end of those three months you retest and see very minimal gains.  What should you do next? should consult you're training log.  Look at volume, look at intensity, look at how many different fitness qualities you're attempting to train at once etc.  In essence, bury yourself in the numbers and figure out where your program is coming up short.

Granted, there are other variables to consider as well:  nutrition, total allostatic load etc.  But having a training log is an invaluable tool when it comes time to making consistent progress over the long haul.

Key Takeaways

While we touched on some bigger concepts in today's article, here are the three major takeaways I hope you have:

1.  Identify your and/or your athletes training age because it will have a big impact on how you approach programming for them.

2.  Keep track of your and/or your athletes training with a detailed training log because it gives you invaluable data on training volume etc.

3.  Begin thinking in terms of the minimal adaptable load (i.e. how much volume needs to be lifted over x amount of time for me to see gains in y lift).

As always, feel free to post questions, comments, concerns and/or pictures of people curling in the squat rack below.

about the author


James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram for the latest happenings.