A simple way to understand adaptation and progress

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JUNE 8, 2021

One of the biggest hurdles gym beginners need to overcome is the muscle soreness that follows. If you’ve taken some time off the gym and then started training again, you know how true this is. It’s not so much the workout that challenges you, but how it impacts you afterward.

After my first ever leg workout, I had a hard time using my legs for an entire week. I don’t remember the workout itself, just the agony that followed.

Sure enough, I did the workout the following week and was less sore after that. With each week that passed, soreness lessened. Fast-forward a few years and I was squatting five to six times per week for a month or two. My legs never felt sore from that.

This is the repeated bout effect. The more you do something, the less of an impact it has on you. In other words, your body responds to the same stimulus less with each passing bout.

The repeated bout effect is also why many good coaches recommend introductory weeks for new training cycles. This is a period of less intense training that helps prime the body before the real work starts. That way, the trainee has time to adapt to the training before the cycle begins, so they don’t feel overwhelmed by training stress and soreness.

But the repeated bout effect doesn’t apply to soreness alone. This is where the principle of progressive overload comes to play:

For a muscle to grow, strength to improve, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has experienced before.

You might gain some muscle and strength if you squat 135 pounds of 5x5. But eventually, you’ll need to increase the load on the bar, the number of sets or the repetitions to keep pushing your body, forcing it to adapt. Doing the same (135x5x5) will have less of an effect with each passing workout until it no longer does anything for you.

This is where many people trip up. They never focus on progressing yet always wonder why they’re not gaining any new muscle.

Me: So, what do your numbers look like these days?
Them: Well, I can bench 225 for a single, my squat is 335, and I deadlift 385.
Me: Okay. How did these numbers look a year ago?
Them: Pretty much the same, lol. But my problem is that I can’t gain muscle.

In other words, you need to be conscious of your progress, or lack thereof. What got you here won’t push you forward. If nothing changes, nothing is going to change.

This is not to say that you need to progress from week to week. Nor does it say that you need to feel soreness all the time to tell that you’ve had a good workout. It just means that you can’t do the same thing forever and expect to keep growing.

Thank you for reading! Until next week,



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