How We Adapt to Training
by Erik Castiglione
There is a common thought among many CrossFitters that if some is good, more must be better. This is not necessarily true, and is often dangerous. More often than not, athletes pick bits and pieces from different programs, trying to mix and match haphazardly. Following Gymnastics Bodies, The Outlaw Way, and Smolov simultaneously is not a good idea. It can lead to overtraining, adrenal fatigue, injury, and mental burnout. It is possible to increase training volume, as long as it is done intelligently to avoid overload. To better understand this, we must first look at how the body adapts to training. After all, getting fitter is a process of forcing the body to adapt in certain ways. Therefore, it is the adaptation, not the training itself, that is the goal. This is a very superficial overview of how we adapt to training.
Take a look at the state diagram above. The solid line represents you and your current abilities right now. Strength, power, stamina, endurance, you name it, the line encompasses it. Your body’s main goal is to keep you alive by maintaining normal functions at this state through a process called homeostasis. When we experience an external stressor, be it family stress, illness, or training, our state degrades and homeostasis is disrupted. The dotted line in the above diagram represents the maximum amount of stress our bodies can withstand and still be able to recover. It’s below your current state, because when you get stressed, you’re in a temporarily degraded state. As I just mentioned, training is a deliberate stressing of the body. Our goal with training is to stress the body enough to force it to adapt in a beneficial way, be it increasing alveoli in the lungs so that our wind improves, or building muscle so that we’re stronger. This is done through a process called supercompensation, and is shown in the graph below.
Looking at this curve can lead to the assumption that the greater the stressor, the greater the supercompensation. This is, unfortunately not the case. If you look back to the first state diagram, remember that we have a maximum recoverable volume. If we exceed it, we don’t recover. If we don’t have enough training stimulus, we don’t have any adaptation. Therefore, we need to have enough of a stimulus to encourage supercompensation, but not so much that we exceed our maximum recoverable volume. The least amount of volume that still elicits a training response is called the minimum effective dose. A more detailed supercompensation curve that illustrates this is shown below.
This is pretty simple to understand and account for when we’re looking at a single training modality. Take endurance training, for example. The more you train, the greater your capacity becomes, and you need an increasingly bigger stimulus to continue making progress. This is why sitting on an elliptical for an hour per day at the same speed works initially, but stops showing results after a few weeks. You’ll only continue progressing by increasing speed or duration. Continuing to push the stimulus increases both your base state, and your MRV, as shown in the state diagrams below.
When we mix modalities, as we do in CrossFit, things become more complicated. To illustrate how, I’m going to ask you to recall some high school physics, and the concept of interference. When we look at waves, if two interfere constructively, the peak of the wave increases. Keeping this in mind, let’s say we have a workout with high volume deadlifts for strength work, and then a metcon with more deadlifts, KB swings, and quick sprints. All of those movements heavily tax the posterior chain. Mixing them all together yields a waveform like the one below. If we superimpose that with our state diagram, it’s easy to see how we can exceed our maximal training volume.
This isn’t only applicable to a single day of training; the effect is cumulative as well. If you understand this, it should be easy to see how mixing and matching programs can easily cause you to overtrain by surpassing your maximum recoverable volume. To make progress in multiple areas simultaneously, the key is to mix modalities while minimizing interference. To make sure we can achieve this, the gym’s programming is methodically planned months at a time. Furthermore, our coaches consider each athlete’s current abilities, so we can scale the workouts appropriately for you. This is also why we cover the intent of the workout at the whiteboard before class and work with you to help you find the best way to achieve the goal for the day. Sometimes, we care more about speed, sometimes it’s weight, and sometimes it’s getting in the requisite volume of reps. Bottom line: listen to your coaches when it comes to the WODs. If you want some extra work, talk to a coach about a microprogram or safe ways to add in a little something extra without overtraining.