Training Adaptations

Training adaptations are why we train, right? Well you would think that but you would be surprised at how many people don’t really understand training adaptations, even on the most basic level.

Ok, so you may think adaptations don’t apply to you, or perhaps you understand them enough already to not have to read any further. Well you’re both likely wrong. Everyone needs to understand the adaptations their body will go through in response to the training they are doing or are not doing. Also, for those that believe you know enough, it is most likely that there are certain aspects you do not fully understand or have not considered.

What is a Training Adaptation?

An adaptation is the response your body has to any kind of stimulus. Doing the same thing at the same rate for a period of time will produce only adaptations necessary to sustain effective performance of the trained-for task and nothing more. Gradually increasing the stimulus will cause a need for further adaptations to take place. The outcome depends on which stimulus you decide to increase. Do you increase the overall volume of work? Do you increase the intensity? Or maybe you change rest patterns. The outcome is determined by these things.

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Just as with training adaptations to stimuli, the body will also adapt to a lack of stimuli or a change in activity patterns. Going from a daily 10km run to doing no exercise at all will create negative adaptations or detraining, and the body will return to an untrained state.

The Misguided Approach

Many people start a training programme without a clear idea of the adaptations that will take plafce by following that programme. Let me provide you with some examples of poorly planned programming.

Group Fitness Classes

Group fitness is a good thing and bad thing….but it’s mostly a bad thing. You get classes that string a bunch of movements together with no particular plan in place and no rhyme or reason as to why those movements are chosen except for the sole purpose of increasing your heart rate….oh and destroying your joints through overuse and pointless impact.

What many people don’t realise is that many of the movements in a typical group fitness class are detrimental to desired training adaptations. This is mostly on a neuromuscular level, meaning that the movements you are doing are not specific or transferable to anything outside of the group fitness class itself. This causes detraining of the movements required in everyday activities or in sports. As we will cover later, specificity is required at various levels if the training is to progressive, meaning that improvements are to occur. It’s like trying to condition a marathon runner through jumping jacks. This will produce a poor result. By the way, never do jumping jacks, they are a very poor exercise and will only serve to ruin much of your fitness in other areas. Many will disagree with me here, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

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Cardio Junkies

These people come in various shapes and sizes. You will see some of them pounding the pavement trying to run themselves fit. This works to a certain degree for those training toward a specific race or performance, however there are many people (most) training incorrectly and simply “jogging” daily with no plan or purpose, hence lack of progression and stagnated results.

The other cardio junky is a common fixture in every major health club and they can be found in their natural habitat every morning and every evening generally sweating it out on a treadmill, a cross-trainer, an exercise bike or the worst of all, the stepper. This is by no means meant to offend anyone, however there is no doubt that it will. Quite a few of the people you see dominating the cardio area of the gym are quite literally going nowhere and they will look the same as they did two years ago while exercising at the very same pace. This is not the case for everyone but it is a fvrequent problem for far too many people. The few that do produce major results through large amounts of cardio exercise have a plan. That plan always involves some form of progression and at least a base level of understanding of training adaptations.


Ok, now I know I will get some negative feedback for mentioning this. Hardcore crossfitters the world over will try and have me killed. But keep in mind that I hold some regard for crossfit for many of their principles. The aspect of crossfit I am referring to is their lack of planned programming and wildly varied results. Oh and lets not forget the absurd drop-out rate. No doubt there are a massive number of crossfitters getting fantastic results, but there are also so many people that drop out, get injured or simply get incorrect results for their chosen goal due to poorly planned programming and a lack of understanding for training adaptations.

To quote directly from the crossfit website “we specialise in not specializing”. what this means is that they cater to those that require a broad base of fitness in all domains. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however the way that many of the crossfit affiliates go about programming for this is incredibly flawed and can be really dangerous in terms of sustaining an array of injuries, especially of the overuse variety.

Crossfit can be rather unpredictable, which is kind of a selling point for them. The issue here is that a person can’t adapt to anything in particular if the swing between one session to the next is not consistent. So Monday may be a maximum deadlift workout and Tuesday is a 10km run then Wednesday might be some insane circuit like five rounds for time of 30 box jumps, 30 cleans, 30 pull-ups and 30 double-unders. That is of course just an example, however it is also indicative of the randomization of their typical approach. There is nothing wrong with crazy circuits and trying to develop endurance while also needing a lot of strength. What is wrong is the random way in which it is approached. There is no plan and adaptations and progression cannot occur unless things are somewhat consistent.

As stated earlier, these methods are not inherently bad, they are simply misguided in many ways due to a lack of education and understanding of training adaptations. Crossfit has the potential to be an awesome system, but so many affiliates just fuck it up (excuse the French).

The Personal Evolution Approach in a Nutshell

I am a supporter of a very low-tech way of training when it comes to athletic development and even fat loss. When I say low-tech don’t confuse that with a lack of development and research of training methods that are cutting edge and up to date. What I mean is that the best human development of physical capacity is achieved through the physical training itself, not through any kind of equipment technology or scientific nutritional supplements that promise the world.

Personal Evolution Training systems focuses on both broad/non-specific training objectives such as those of police, military and fire fighters and highly specific objectives such as specific sports. Either way, I believe in a bit of a different approach than the haphazard randomization of methods like crossfit.

All training objectives, whether broad or specific, require some kind of target or multiple targets to aim at. Training needs to have an objective, simply training for “general fitness” will lead to a very unspecified result at the end and often results in a lack of any kind of major progression at all.

There are two types of programming for the two types of training adaptations or objectives.

Broad/Non-Specific programming

Broad “general fitness” refers to the needs of people that have a large range of fitness components required in their chosen field. For instance police officers require a large range of physical skills in order to effectively do their job. This could range from aerobic endurance all the way to maximum efforts of strength and power.

Physical skills this varied do not go hand in hand as a general rule, hence they need to be trained for separately without conflicting with each other. Keep in mind that there will be some compromise here, in that these two components, as varied as they are, are not compatible. So a person with broad training needs must be satisfied with mediocre results for each. Essentially this broad focus will make somewhat good at all domains of fitness with no weak links, but it will also mean that in order to get good 10km running times as well as decent sprinting times you will have to settle for far from elite standards for each. Moral of the story; be damn sure of what your goals are because you can’t have it all and if you’re doing long distance road cycling you will have to accept a low to moderate result for each of these things.

The way I approach this is different from crossfit and other similar methods. We start with a blank slate and work with an order of priority. We start with the most important area of fitness then work out from there. So all training is biased towards that particular fitness component with everything else being secondary conditioning. This is not achieved through random workouts, it is achieved through carefully structured phases of training with logical progressions and objectives for each phase.

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Highly Specific Programming

Highly specific objectives are rather easy to programme for if you are familiar with how to effectively train each required component of fitness and if you are familiar with protocols, movement patterns and energy systems.

To keep it as simple as possible I will just say that training occurs in phases with each phase building on the last. So for instance if muscle growth is the primary goal then there will be a period of lower repetition, low volume strength development before increasing volume to focus more on the development of mass. All training is focused on the task at hand with only limited deviation.

Types of Adaptations

Training adaptations come in all formsand there are many ways to categorise them. Here we will break them down into the following…

  • Movement pattern related, which applies to the applicability and transferability of the actual movements being done in a training environment.

  • Energy system related, which refers to the actual intensity and duration of the training.

So lets look at this a little more in-depth but in terms that most people can understand.

Movement Pattern Related Training Adaptations

When you perform any type of exercise regularly for the purpose of conditioning, whether that’s a strength movement or something like running or cycling, your body will adapt to that specific movement with limited transference into other areas. So for instance a runner is best conditioned through running as their primary form of training, whereas cycling for the runner would be a non-specific and unsuitable training modality. You see how that works so far. Right?

Strength and other indirect movements are another story and need to be considered slightly differently because they are generally not movements that are exactly the same as the actual task that is being trained for. For instance a heavy squat, unless you’re a power lifter, is something that is highly relevant to many sports yet is indirectly related to other tasks and activities but is not an exact replication of most of the movements that may occur outside of a training session. This does not make it any less valuable. Squatting, as an effective training tool, is useful in developing posterior chain strength and is fairly universal, being a primal movement pattern. The same applies to many other indirect movements applied to an effective fitness or strength and conditioning programme.

Movement pattern related training adaptations pertain to the nervous system. The nervous system is like a computer and it needs to be programmed to do things in a certain way. This programming occurs over time and is a product of repetition and frequency. It’s like the auto-correct function on a word processor or a smart phone, you need to teach it what to correct so that it only captures what it is useful.

What you do most often is what the nervous system will be patterned to do best. Train your body to cycle and it will become good at cycling. Anything outside of cycling might either slightly improve due to centralized adaptations or it may become detrained due to incompatible movement patterns. An example of the former might be increased cardiovascular endurance for a runner, however the gains are blunted somewhat because the movements are different. For the latter, lets say we have a consistent swimmer producing X result. That swimmer then reduces their swim training and starts running instead. Even if the running training is at a higher level than the swimming and the athlete may technically be fitter than before, they may produce reduced performances in swimming due to the great difference between movement patterns.

Energy System Related Training Adaptations

Energy system use or dominance is determined by a number of factors. Intensity of effort is first and foremost.

Keep in mind that all of your energy systems are in use all of the time, it’s not a question of which you are using at the time, it’s a question of which is dominant during a particular activity. Intensity determines dominance. So for instance, a slow jog will call on aerobic energy primarily, whereas a maximum squat or Olympic clean and jerk will call on the ATP/creatine phosphate system primarily.

The second factor for determining energy system dominance is duration. Both anaerobic pathways have a time limit, whereas aerobic energy is continuous, indefinite and runs at a steady rate.

Before going on lets look at the basics of the three energy systems and how they work.

ATP/Creatine Phosphate System

This is the system responsible for absolute maximum effort of a very short period of time. The time limit on this system may be as short as 8 seconds or as long as 15 seconds but rarely is it any longer than 10 seconds.

Anaerobic Lactate System

This is your next port of call and overlaps on either side with the other two energy systems. Anaerobic lactate energy supports near maximal efforts lasting from about 8 seconds right up to several minutes. An example is running anywhere from 200 metres up to 1500 metres. The unique thing about anaerobic metabolism is that it can function at a moderate level and share dominance with the aerobic energy system. A good example of this is a 5km or 10km runner. They can spend a large portion of the race running beyond their anaerobic threshold.

Aerobic Energy System

Aerobic simply means “with” oxygen, whereas anaerobic means “without” oxygen. What this means is that oxygen is the catalyst for the access of energy during aerobic activities. Aerobic energy is accessed indefinitely and has no time limit, it is essentially what keeps you alive. One characteristic about anaerobic metabolism is that it is a slow yet efficient system and gradually takes its time to supply energy to the working muscles.

Adaptations and Training For Them

For training to be relevant and transferable it needs to pertain as closely as possible to the energy systems to be used in the task you are training for. This is a simple concept in many ways, with a few extra factors that will be discussed soon.

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If you are to develop your fitness as an ultra-endurance athlete you will need a highly efficient aerobic energy system. The only way to get that is through consistently training in your aerobic zone at its upper limit in order to gradually condition your body to perform at a higher level for a given task. Likewise, if your sport is shot put then you have little use for a highly conditioned aerobic energy system because the activity is dominated by very short and very explosive movements performed at maximal effort. This obviously calls for a highly conditioned ATP/creatine phosphate system and little else.

An athlete that is clearly dominant in a given energy system often has conditioning needs that fall outside of that. Lets use a road cyclist as an example. Clearly they need a very high level of aerobic fitness. However it’s not really that simple, well not entirely anyway. An endurance athlete requires a highly conditioned anaerobic lactate system along with their highly developed aerobic fitness. The is for two reasons; first of all they need the capacity for performance beyond their usual steady pace. That generally comes in the form of an uphill climb, a surge of extra effort to get into a better position or a sprint at the end of a race. This requires anaerobic endurance, meaning that the athlete needs to train to both prolong the use of this energy system and to do it at a higher level when energy stores are already depleted. The second need for this anaerobic conditioning in an aerobic athlete is the raising of the anaerobic threshold, which is arguably the most important factor for effective endurance performance.

This factor also involves many other fitness requirements, some more than others.

So in a nutshell for fitness and training adaptations to be most effective they need to fulfill two requirements, the first being specific and transferable to the movement patterns being trained for. This means programming the nervous system to function more effectively for a specific chosen task.

The second requirement is energy system related, which means activities performed in training need to be as close as possible to the energy demands of the activity being trained for. It’s a simple concept but one that includes many other factors to consider.

This article exists to provide a framework for better understanding training adaptations, but it’s by no means a substitute for a professionally designed programme. Lawyers have a name for people that represent themselves in court, they call them convicts. Similarly, those that design their own programmes are often injured and poorly conditioned. It’s not everyone, but it is far too many.

What About Non-Athletic Objectives?

So you’re not an athlete. You don’t really care how fast you can sprint or how far you can throw a javelin. You don’t plan on flattening anyone on a rugby field and you certainly never plan on climbing Everest. All you want is to be fit, strong and healthy all-round or maybe just to lose weight.

So for weight loss and general health do training adaptations still apply? My word they do. Here I will cover a few common non-performance related fitness goals.

Weight Loss

Weight loss is an incredibly common goal. With most of the western world dealing with obesity it is probably a good thing that burning fat is now a priority for many people. Who knows, maybe the preoccupation with getting lean and essentially not being overweight might be of benefit to the population and may eventually see a decline in obesity rates.

This is an article about training adaptations, not specifically about weight loss, so I won’t go too far into it here. However I will say this; exercise is only a very small part of an overall weight loss effort, unless training is taken so seriously as to compete at a high level in endurance events such as marathons. For the general population nutrition and non-exercise physical activity are of greater concern for losing weight. Exercise is simply a catalyst.

For exercise to be of benefit to weight loss efforts it needs to be selected carefully. Many people tend to think in terms of calories burned during a workout, which is not a lot unless you run for three hours at a time. What makes a greater difference is what happens as a result of the training, as in the training adaptations.

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There are two main options here and also one mode of training that I consider an absolute requirement.

The first option is the one that seems most common and popular over the years. Endurance training, or steady-state cardio is one way to exercise for weight loss. This can be ineffective for most of the people that do it, however if you take into consideration the training adaptations it can produce. This is why I always recommend training towards performance and not just for weight loss.

When you gradually increase your aerobic endurance you increase your body’s ability to access and use energy. This occurs through increased muscle cell mitochondria, which is essentially the little fat burning powerhouse inside a muscle fibre. By increasing endurance performance you are directly improving your body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. However just slogging out an hour on the stepper or hitting the pavement for a jog will not produce this necessary training adaptation unless you understand progressive overload and you plan for it.

For endurance training to be effective for weight loss it must by of moderate to high volume and must aim to increase performance in some measurable way. It’s not just the session itself that burns fat and reduces bodyweight, it is primarily the training adaptations and your body’s ability to access and use energy both at rest and during physical exertion.

Increase endurance performance and you will reduce bodyweight, it really is that simple, provided that other factors are aligned such as nutrition.

The second option available for weight loss is high intensity interval training. For most people high volume endurance training is not really feasible or maintainable. My personal recommendation is high intensity interval training. This is a short and sharp training method that has acute and long term benefits and involves only brief sessions that can be done less frequently if required.

In the short term high intensity training is inefficient, which is a good thing for weight loss. Training at a rate that is highly anaerobic costs your body a significantly greater amount of energy than aerobic training of up to double the duration. That means more calories burned in less time. The other acute benefit is the increase in metabolic rate your body experiences in the hours following a workout. The more intense the exercise and the more intervals you do the higher your metabolism will be for a longer period of time.

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In the long term, in terms of training adaptations, high intensity training causes the body to have a greater capacity for using large amounts of carbohydrate energy in a shorter period of time. Burning through carbohydrate stores causes a drop in blood sugar and less activity in the body by the hormone insulin, which, for a number of reasons will cause the body to burn through more fat stores while at rest and at the same time preserve and even add muscle mass, which, as you will discover next is an essential tool for burning more fat around the clock.

Ok, I said this last point on weight loss was a critical requirement and it is. This requirement is the gain of muscle mass. Now many people are balking at this right now as they read this, however that’s due to a lack of understanding of what it is that I am referring to. By adding muscle mass you may be picturing slabs of raw and masculine bulk, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. However this is not the only form of muscle mass gain. In fact, for the purposes of this I am here recommending just a small increase in overall muscle mass with a correspondingly large increase in strength.

Gaining muscle mass is an essential component of a weight loss plan due to a number of reasons. The primary reason being that muscle is incredibly metabolically active, meaning that it chews through a large amount of energy just to exist. The more muscle mass you have the more fat you will burn, simple as that. Even a small gain of 1kg of muscle mass may mean a loss of several kilos of body fat in the time it takes to gain that muscle and the period following that.

Besides the metabolic activity of muscle mass, it also allows for a person to complete a greater capacity of work in a shorter period of time, which means more energy burned. So the message here is that strength training is an absolute must and should be a part of every weight loss programme. The level of strength training is up to you and depends ultimately on your end goal.

Overall Health and Well-Being

This is a fairly simple goal and is easy to programme for. There are no specific performance goals and overall it is a fairly broad focus. There are a few fitness training adaptations that I believe pertain best to health and well-being and are of benefit to both quality and quantity of life.

  • Strength: This is a hard one for many to believe and most people will refuse to entertain the thought that strength relates to health. Strength is a big one for many reasons and if you were to onle do one form of training I would recommend strength. Strength training increases cardiovascular endurance, assists in development of efficiency of movement, develops postural balance and allows for overall structural changes that make the body function more effectively.

  • Flexibility: Flexibility development and maintenance is important for health and well-being due to the effect it has on two things; the first is obvious, flexibility allows for greater range of motion if approached in the right way, which simply means a) only stretching muscles that need to be stretched and not stretching muscles that are already loose and lax and b) not creating hyper mobility and making joints unstable. The latter is a common problem for many dancers and gymnasts.

    The second benefit of developing flexibility for health and well-being is the effect it has on circulation and elasticity of blood vessels. Several studies have shown that regular yoga participants have blood vessels that appear younger than people of the same age that did little or no flexibility training.

  • Cardiovascular Fitness: This has been deliberately left broad and vague. By cardiovascular fitness I am referring to both the aerobic and the anaerobic aspects of cardiovascular fitness. Cardiovascular fitness can be summed up as an increased capacity of the heart, blood and blood vessels to transport oxygen to the working muscles in order to metabolise fuel more effectively. With regard to health and well-being it is beneficial to have an increased level of cardiovascular fitness simply because the better the heart and blood vessels function during periods of exertion the more effective they are at rest too. A highly conditioned cardiovascular system is more durable and resistant to disease. It will also have a longer lifespan and so will you.

There are more components of fitness, however the preceding three mentioned here are of primary importance to health and well-being.

Anti-Aging/Quality of Life in the Elderly

As we age we lose our capacity to do many physical tasks. Pretty much every component of fitness is affected negatively by age, however there are some things that decline more rapidly than others.

Lets keep this one short. The three components mentioned for health and well-being are still the primary ones for this area, however I will cover one a little further as it pertains especially to aging.

As we age we lose the ability to do a lot of things, of most prominence are tasks requiring any kind of strength and mobility. This is the fastest decline after about age 35 unless it is countered with physical training.

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So why does grandma and grandpa need strength and power? You need to think less about heavy lifts and athletic pursuits and more about mobility and independence. Old people are injured and frequently die as a result of falls caused directly by a lack of strength. Strength training is the single most important preventive measure for frailty and dependence and is the only way to increase mobility during the twilight years.


Training adaptations are the purpose of ALL training, no exceptions. If you are training without aiming toward some kind of physical training adaptation then you are wasting your time. Without a physiological adaptation to the ongoing training stimulus you’re essentially not achieving anything except passing the time.

Training must meet the following criteria…

  • CONSISTENCY: The training must follow a regular routine and must not be done in a haphazard and infrequent pattern.

  • PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD: In order for training adaptations to take place the body must be consistently and gradually pushed beyond the level that it is used to. For example, for strength gains to occur the load lifted for a particular movement pattern must be greater than they were at a given point in the past.

  • SPECIFICITY: For gains in any component of fitness to be made the training stimulus must consistently and somewhat systematically be specific to a certain component of fitness. This is simple to understand for a narrow focus of fitness such as Olympic weightlifting or running a marathon. For broader needs specificity gets a bit harder to understand. It works well when there is a central focus of training and sessions are all dedicated to something specific and follow on logically from the past sessions.

Training adaptations are results, they are the measurable units of change that tell you that what you are doing is working. So keep in mind what it is you are training for then train for it. Pretty simple concept really.

I hope this article provides a bit of a clearer understanding of physiological training adaptations in terms of practical application and applicability to your own circumstances and training needs.

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