Many people don’t consider scientific theories to be flashy or interesting, but they are important for increasing our knowledge and understanding. These two theories in particular are very helpful for understanding exercise program design and explaining why some workout programs work, some fail, and some result in improvements, but not necessarily the ones we hoped to achieve.
The field of health and fitness is continually evolving and many things we believed 10 – 20 years ago are now thought to be outdated or inaccurate, but these 2 theories show no signs of being replaced anytime soon. The longevity of the first theory, the General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS, is particularly impressive, because it has been around for over 70 years.
The General Adaptation Syndrome was not originally designed with exercise in mind and it is really a model for the body’s reaction to stress. You may be surprised by this, but exercise is actually considered a form of stress, which is why GAS can be applied to workout routines. This theory does such a good job explaining the body’s reaction to training that it is still frequently used, possibly because it succinctly and accurately sums up the basic progression of every exercise program.
The General Adaptation Syndrome has 3 separate parts, each corresponding to a different stage in your body’s stress response. The 3 stages are alarm, resistance, and exhaustion and I will discuss each stage as it relates specifically to exercise and program design. By examining this theory, you will learn some basics of program design and develop an understanding of why some exercise routines lead to long-term success, while others are doomed to fail.
Stage 1: Alarm – This phase, which can also be called the shock stage, occurs at the beginning of an exercise program or after a significant change in training. This is what happens when your body is exposed to a new stimulus, such as exercise. Exercise is initially alarming to your body and does cause a shock to your system, but some amount of unfamiliar stimulus or shock is necessary for improvement to occur.
During this time, you will likely have increased levels of stiffness and soreness and you may experience short-term decreases in physical performance. The amount of the negative response is determined by your body’s natural ability to handle stress, as well as the intensity of the stimulus. In other words, the more you push your body out of its comfort zone, the more negative effects you will experience. Eventually your body will begin to recover and you will get to the second phase.
Stage 2: Resistance – The second phase represents the time when your body adapts to the training stimulus that was previously a shock to your system. In order to get past the alarm stage, your body must make physiological changes or improvements until the stimulus is no longer considered a shock to your system. Building up a resistance to a previously alarming stimulus is really the foundation of any type of improvement, regardless of the goal of your exercise program.
Without adapting and overcoming a new stimulus, you can maintain your current fitness level, but you will not actually improve without applying some shock to your system. During the resistance stage, your body not only recovers from the negative effects in the alarm stage, but you will typically have a rebound effect where your performance actually improves for a brief period of time. This is known as supercompensation, because your body improves by a larger amount than is needed to overcome the previous stimulus.
Supercompensation the true goal of any workout designed to improve your body and long-term progress depends on maximizing your supercompensation response. This can be tricky, because supercompensation is temporary and if you wait too long between workouts (new stimuli), your improvements will disappear and return to their previous levels. On the other hand, if your next workout is too soon or the stimulus is too much, then your body will go into the next stage of stress response: exhaustion.
Stage 3: Exhaustion – This is the final phase of stress response and unlike the other two, this one you want to avoid whenever possible. The exhaustion phase, which may also be referred to as the Maladaptation phase, occurs when the stress level is too much for your body to handle. In terms of exercise, it means your workouts are too hard for your body to recover from.
Transition from the resistance stage to the exhaustion stage can happen for a number of reasons, but some of the most common are: staleness or a lack of variety in your workouts, excessive amounts of exercise, workouts that are too challenging, poor nutrition, and too much overall stress in your life. Typically it is a combination of factors that leads to exhaustion, but the end result is a lack of further progress and eventually a decrease in performance and/or loss of previous gains.
If you are performing your typically challenging workouts and start feeling burnt out or stop experiencing positive results, then you are likely in the exhaustion phase. At this point, your main priority should be to change your program and get out of the exhaustion stage as quickly as possible. Nothing good comes from experiencing the exhaustion stress response and further increases in stress will just result in further deterioration of your body.
From the General Adaptation Syndrome, we can see that trying to push through exhaustion stress is not a good idea. Pushing your body more will just lead to overtraining, which may take weeks or months to fully recover from. When severe overtraining occurs, you have to drastically reduce your exercise or stop training altogether, until your body has a chance to recover.
The GAS theory also shows the importance of having the right amount of exercise stimulus. You need enough of a training stimulus to reach the alarm stage and trigger the resistance stage, but not so much that you go into the exhaustion stage. On the other hand, if your workouts do not cause an exercise stimulus high enough to reach the alarm stage, then your body will not have a reaction or enter the resistance stage and you will not experience positive changes.
The General Adaptation Syndrome obviously does not explain specific aspects of program design, but it does provide the basic foundation for any successful workout routine. You can approach exercising from many different ways, but if the intensity of your program doesn’t result in your body fluctuating between the alarm stage and the resistance stage, then your program will be ineffective.