Theoretically speaking…

Exercise Theory, Training, Fitness, Coaching, Sports Science

A little theory has never hurt anyone. Unless you drop a big book on your foot and break something…

Because a bit of theory never hurt anyone, and because about a year ago I promised I would do so, this post is about the principles underlying training methods aimed at increasing physical fitness.

Because that theory is well understood, and very simple, this will be a short post.

Because simply saying “you train hard, and you get better” is not enough, this post won’t be that short.

A bit of biology

No matter how complex, or simple, an organism, biologically we all are the same in that we interact with our environment to find our sustenance and proliferate. (By the way, even a single-celled bacterium’s complexity should not be under-estimated. But that’s another discussion altogether.)

A large proportion of those interactions can be summarized by a simple cause and effect relationship:

Stimulus ——> Response

Even if the initial action was a movement by the biological entity, the resulting stimulus of the environment on the biological entity will cause a response. For instance, you move your hand to seize a cup on the table; at a touch (stimulus), you feel the scalding heat of coffee therein, and withdraw your hand (response).

Another example: You are sitting quietly in a cafeteria when an alarm rings loudly (stimulus); you immediately get up and leave (response).

Now, often, as the examples above show, the response is one of fight or flight or avoidance. Much like if you start exercising vigorously and find it difficult, the response to the discomfort might very well be to cease the exertion. But sometimes the stimulus is a pleasant one, like sweet food (or sweet NOT FOOD), and the response then becomes to eat more of it.

There is always a response to the stimulus.

However, there is an extension to the simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to biological systems (i.e. living beings). This comes about when the stimulus is provided repeatedly:

Stimulus (repeatedly) ——> Response (each time) ——> Adaptation

Basically, when a biological system is subjected to a stimulus often enough, not only does it respond in the short term, but it can also modify itself (its behaviour, its own sub-systems) so as to be able to change the short-term response and even deal with the stimulus.

That, as you may be able to guess, is the basis for the Training Principle.

(Admittedly, human beings have big brains that allow us to speed up adaptation, and even predict stimuli we don’t particularly care for. However, how effective we are at doing that is still subject to debate. Revisiting the example of the fire alarm in the cafeteria, if your response is to stay put because there have often been false alarms, then your adaptation to the stimulus could end up costing you your life. But I digress.)

The Training Principle

Simply stated (in my own words):

Subject the body to a specific physical stressor (stimulus) repeatedly and provide sufficient recovery time from the ensuing fatigue (response) to allow it to become stronger (adapt) in dealing with that specific stressor.

That is how all exercise regimens and training programs function.

The trick, the real job of coaches, is to vary the correct details. Because the body will adapt to the stimulus it is subjected to, and only to that stimulus.

That is why you will not gain much muscle mass by doing endurance training; that is why doing a lot of weight lifting (a.k.a. body building) will do almost nothing for your cardio-vascular capacity; and why doing always short bursts of intense activity may gain you some muscle mass and power, but will not make you burn much fat because that energy system is barely used in that kind of activity (you’d need to do longer, less intense activity for effective fat burning).

Moreover, note the potential pitfall in the principle: The body adapts to the stimulus provided. Which ultimately means that the body will not change beyond a certain adaptation if the stimulus remains the same.

That is why simply jogging 30 minutes per day will only get you so far in improving your fitness. To get even better fitness, you need to vary the stimulus once the body has adapted to it, or a little before that.

Sport scientists often use the acronym FIT to describe how the stimulus can be varied:

  • Frequency: How often one trains or exercises.
  • Intensity: At what intensities.
  • Time: Or duration of each training session.

Some even add a second T (making it FITT) by including Type, because different types of exercises also make a difference. For instance, doing core work, which is strength training, is now recognized as a way to improve running performance. But it was not the case until a few years ago.

I like FITT. That’s what coaches work with. That’s what is fun about coaching: Finding the correct mix of FITT for each person to get them to increase their fitness as fast, and as safely, as possible.

But it all starts with subjecting your body to the right stimulus. Or stimuli. Like getting up and moving.

The nice thing is that one of the ways in which your body will adapt, past the initial response of finding it hard, is to ask for more. You just have to use your big brain to deal with the temporary discomfort, and then you’ll be on your way to better fitness…

In a future post, and hopefully not in a year’s time, I’ll describe the many ways in which the body adapts to exercise. That’s also fascinating, and goes a long way in explaining why better fitness leads to increased odds of being healthy for a long time.

Picture from Pixabay.