The human body adapts well when exposed to stress. The term stress, within the context of exercise, is defined as an exertion above the normal, everyday functioning. The specific activities that result in stress vary for each individual and depend on a person’s level of fitness. For example, a secretary who sits at a desk all day may push his/her cardiorespiratory system to its limits simply by walking up several flights of stairs. For an avid runner, resistance training may expose the runner’s muscles to muscular contractions the athlete is not accustomed to feeling. Although stress is relative to each individual, there are guiding principles in exercise that can help individuals manage how much stress they experience to avoid injury and optimize their body’s capacity to adapt. Knowing a little about these principles provides valuable insights needed for organizing an effective fitness plan.
Consider the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” Does exercise really have to be painful, as this adage implies, to be beneficial? Absolutely not. If that were true, exercise would be a lot less enjoyable. Perhaps a better way to relay the same message would be to say that improvements are driven by stress. Physical stress, such as walking at a brisk pace or jogging, places increased stress on the regulatory systems that manage increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased energy production, increased breathing, and even increased sweating for temperature regulation. As these subsequent adaptations occur, the stress previously experienced during the same activity, feels less stressful in future sessions. As a result of the adaptation, more stress must be applied to the system in order to stimulate improvements, a principle known as the overload principle.
For example, a beginning weightlifter performs squats with 10 repetitions at 150 pounds. After 2 weeks of lifting this weight, the lifter notices the 150 pounds feels easier during the lift and afterwards causes less fatigue. The lifter adds 20 pounds and continues with the newly established stress of 170 pounds. The lifter will continue to get stronger until his/her maximum capacity has been reached, or the stress stays the same, at which point the lifter’s strength will simply plateau. This same principle can be applied, not only to gain muscular strength, but also to gain flexibility, muscular endurance, and cardiorespiratory endurance.
In exercise, the amount of stress placed on the body can be controlled by four variables: Frequency, Intensity, Time (duration), and Type, better known as FITT. The FITT principle, as outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) falls under the larger principle of overload.
Frequency and Time
Each variable can be used independently or in combination with other variables to impose new stress and stimulate adaptation. Such is the case for frequency and time.
Frequency relates to how often exercises are performed over a period of time. In most cases, the number of walking or jogging sessions would be determined over the course of a week. A beginner may determine that 2–3 exercise sessions a week are sufficient enough to stimulate improvements. On the other hand, a seasoned veteran may find that 2–3 days is not enough to adequately stress the system. According to the overload principle, as fitness improves, so must the stress to ensure continued gains and to avoid plateauing.
The duration of exercise, or time, also contributes to the amount of stress experienced during a workout. Certainly, a 30-minute brisk walk is less stressful on the body than a 4-hour marathon.
Although independent of one another, frequency and time are often combined into the blanket term, volume. The idea is that volume more accurately reflects the amount of stress experienced. This can be connected to the progression principle. For example, when attempting to create a jogging plan, you may organize 2 weeks like this:
- Week 1: three days a week at 30 minutes per session
- Week 2: four days a week at 45 minutes per session
At first glance, this might appear to be a good progression of frequency and time. However, when calculated in terms of volume, the aggressive nature of the progression is revealed. In week 1, three days at 30 minutes per session equals 90 minutes of total exercise. In week two, this amount was doubled with four days at 45 minutes, equaling 180 minutes of total exercise. Doing too much, too soon, will almost certainly lead to burnout, severe fatigue, and injury. The progression principle relates to an optimal overload of the body by finding an amount that will drive adaptation without compromising safety.
Type of Exercise
Simply put, the type of exercise performed should reflect a person’s goals. In cardiorespiratory fitness, the objective of the exercise is to stimulate the cardiorespiratory system. Other activities that accomplish the same objective include swimming, biking, dancing, cross country skiing, aerobic classes, and much more. As such, these activities can be used to build lung capacity and improve cellular and heart function.
However, the more specific the exercise, the better. While vigorous ballroom dancing will certainly help develop the cardiorespiratory system, it will unlikely improve a person’s 10k time. To improve performance in a 10k, athletes spend the majority of their time training by running, as they will have to do in the actual 10k. Cyclists training for the Tour de France, spend up to six hours a day in the saddle, peddling feverishly. These athletes know the importance of training the way they want their body to adapt. This concept, called the principle of specificity, should be taken into consideration when creating a training plan.
In this discussion of type and the principle of specificity, a few additional items should be considered. Stress, as it relates to exercise, is very specific. There are multiple types of stress. The three main stressors are metabolic stress, force stress, and environmental stress. Keep in mind, the body will adapt based on the type of stress being placed on it.
Metabolic stress results from exercise sessions when the energy systems of the body are taxed. For example, sprinting short distances requires near maximum intensity and requires energy (ATP) to be produced primarily through anaerobic pathways, that is, pathways not requiring oxygen to produce ATP. Anaerobic energy production can only be supported for a very limited time (10 seconds to 2 minutes). However, distance running at steady paces requires aerobic energy production, which can last for hours. As a result, the training strategy for the distance runner must be different than the training plan of a sprinter, so the energy systems will adequately adapt.
Likewise, force stress accounts for the amount of force required during an activity. In weightlifting, significant force production is required to lift heavy loads. The type of muscles being developed, fast-twitch muscle fibers, must be recruited to support the activity. In walking and jogging, the forces being absorbed come from the body weight combined with forward momentum. Slow twitch fibers, which are unable to generate as much force as the fast twitch fibers, are the type of muscle fibers primarily recruited in this activity. Because the force requirements differ, the training strategies must also vary to develop the right kind of musculature.
Environmental stress, such as exercising in the heat, places a tremendous amount of stress on the thermoregulatory systems. As an adaptation to the heat, the amount of sweating increases as does plasma volume, making it much easier to keep the body at a normal temperature during exercise. The only way to adapt is through heat exposure, which can take days to weeks to properly adapt.
In summary, to improve performance, being specific in your training, or training the way you want to adapt, is paramount.
Intensity, the degree of difficulty at which the exercise is carried out, is the most important variable of FITT. More than any of the other components, intensity drives adaptation. Because of its importance, it is imperative for those beginning a fitness program to quantify intensity, as opposed to estimating it as hard, easy, or somewhere in between. Not only will this numeric value provide a better understanding of the effort level during the exercise session, but it will also help in designing sessions that accommodate individual goals.
How then can intensity be measured? Heart rate is one of the best ways to measure a person’s effort level for cardiorespiratory fitness. Using a percentage of maximum lifting capacity would be the measure used for resistance training.
Rest, Recovery, and Periodization
For hundreds of years, athletes have been challenged to balance their exercise efforts with performance improvements and adequate rest. The principle of rest and recovery (or principle of recuperation) suggests that rest and recovery from the stress of exercise must take place in proportionate amounts to avoid too much stress. One systematic approach to rest and recovery has led exercise scientists and athletes alike to divide the progressive fitness training phases into blocks, or periods. As a result, optimal rest and recovery can be achieved without overstressing the athlete. This training principle, called periodization, is especially important to serious athletes but can be applied to most exercise plans as well. The principle of periodization suggests that training plans incorporate phases of stress followed by phases of rest.
Training phases can be organized on a daily, weekly, monthly, and even multi-annual cycles, called micro-, meso-, and macrocycles, respectively. An example of this might be:
As this table shows, the volume and intensity changes from week 1 to week 3. But, in week 4, the volume and intensity drops significantly to accommodate a designated rest week. If the chart were continued, weeks 5-7 would be “stress” weeks and week 8 would be another rest week. This pattern could be followed for several months.
Without periodization, the stress from exercise would continue indefinitely eventually leading to fatigue, possible injury, and even a condition known asovertraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome is not well understood. However, experts agree that a decline in performance resulting from psychological and physiological factors cannot be fixed by a few days’ rest. Instead, weeks, months, and sometimes even years are required to overcome the symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Symptoms include the following:
- Weight loss
- Loss of motivation
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Feelings of depression
- Lack of enjoyment in activities
- Normally considered enjoyable
- Sleep disturbances
- Change in appetite
Chronic adaptations are not permanent. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it.”
The principle of reversibility suggests that activity must continue at the same level to keep the same level of adaptation. As activity declines, called detraining, adaptations will recede.
In cardiorespiratory endurance, key areas, such as VO2max, stroke volume, and cardiac output all declined with detraining while submaximal heat rate increased. In one study, trained subjects were given bed rest for 20 days. At the end of the bed rest phase, VO2max had fallen by 27% and stroke volume and cardiac output had fallen by 25%. The most well-trained subjects in the study had to train for nearly 40 days following bed rest to get back into pre-rest condition. In a study of collegiate swimmers, lactic acid in the blood after a 2- minute swim more than doubled after 4 weeks of detraining, showing the ability to buffer lactic acid was dramatically affected.2
Not only is endurance training affected, but muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility all show similar results after a period of detraining.
While the principles of adaptation to stress can be applied to everyone, not everyone responds to stress in the same way. In the HERITAGE Family study, families of 5 (father, mother, and 3 children) participated in a training program for 20 weeks. They exercised 3 times per week, at 75% of their VO2max, increasing their time to 50 minutes by the end of week 14. By the end of the study, a wide variation in responses to the same exercise regimen was seen by individuals and families. Those who saw the most improvements saw similar percentage improvements across the family and vice versa. Along with other studies, this has led researchers to believe individual differences in exercise response are genetic. Some experts estimate genes to contribute as much as 47% to the outcome of training.
In addition to genes, other factors can affect the degree of adaptation, such as a person’s age, gender, and training status at the start of a program. As one might expect, rapid improvement is experienced by those with a background that includes less training, whereas those who are well trained improve at a slower rate.
Below are links to the physical activity guidelines provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). As you review these recommendations, notice how closely they follow the FITT pattern described earlier in the chapter.
NIH Recommendations for Physical Activity
ACSM Recommendations on Quantity and Quality of Exercise
The recommendations linked above pertain to physical activity only. While they can be applied to fitness, more specific guidelines have been set to develop fitness. As stated previously, physical activity is aimed at improving health; exercise is aimed at improving health and fitness. These guidelines will be referenced often as each health-related component of fitness is discussed.