Physiology of Strength Training: Stress, Recovery, Adaptation

Appropriate Stress Yields Maximum Progress

We’ve all heard the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So, naturally if you are in a car wreck that doesn’t actually kill you but you end up a paraplegic are you stronger? Obviously not and you can think of numerous examples where this saying doesn’t hold up and YET, the underlying principle of this saying is actually the key to literally all of the success of our strength programming.

It’s the process we call the Stress Recovery Adaptation cycle. While the underlying physiology of strength training and all of the biochemical, hormonal, neurological, cellular signaling processes that make this happen certainly ARE complex, the process itself is pretty simple. You stress the organism enough to kick off a recovery response and as a result of this recovery process you will accumulate some type of adaptation. There are of course a few key details to fill in but that’s pretty much it. Stress. Recovery. Adaptation.

Let’s talk about each piece of this concept in just a bit more detail.


The amount of stress needs to be appropriate for the individual. For example if I were to try and develop a luscious suntan, an hour outside would be inappropriate. Similarly if the stress is not significant enough, nothing will happen. Further, as the organism begins to develop a tolerance or adaption to the stress, over time the stress MUST increase. If you go to the gym and bench 225 pounds every time, you will not develop the ability to bench more than 225 because you failed to drive the appropriate stress. It seems counterintuitive but keeping the weight constant and only adding weight when it “feels” easier is no way to drive this process along.
So. Stress: not too little, not too much, and will need to increase as the individual adapts.


Once a stress is applied, an appropriate amount of time and resources must be provided in order for your body to lay down the structures or mechanisms necessary to recover from that stress. Since we are talking about strength this means you need to rest and eat your protein. Once your body has recovered from the initial stress it will lay down the foundation for a tolerance to that stress or said otherwise an adaptation.


The adaptation is ultimately the mechanism that is there to protect the individual. It is your body’s way of preparing for an encounter with the same type of stress in the future. And therein lies one more principle of this model. Specificity. The type of adaptation that is presented is specific to the type of stress applied to the system. For example when you deadlift you might get calluses on the palm of your hands but not your face. If you are getting calluses on your face from deadlifting, you might want to have that checked out by one of our coaches. Seriously.

So if you are not making progress in the gym, go back to this model and ask yourself a few questions: Is the stress appropriate? Am I providing enough recovery resources? Is the adaptation I’m looking for specific to the stress being applied?

For more information on this concept, listen to our podcast on Stress, Recovery, Adaptation.



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