Will discusses how the body gets used to the same repeated stimulus of an exercise and why we must change exercises in order to continue to progress
There is a delicate balance between the correct blend of specificity and the correct amount of variation to progress
You can continue to progress if you change your exercises regularly
A process of elimination is useful to discover where you are stuck
During the late 1960’s, a Soviet scientist named U. I. Ivanov performed and published results from an interesting experiment. Ivanov used three similar groups of people and had them perform strength training exercises twice a week for a period of three months.
Group 1: Performed (concentric) dynamic weight exercises
Group 2: Performed static strength exercises (isometric) with maximal tension
Group 3: Performed yielding (eccentric) exercises using weights exceeding 10-40% of what they were capable of lifting in an ordinary (concentric) manner.
After the period was concluded, the results were very interesting. Compared to their previous personal performances:
Group 1: Managed to lift on average 8.5 kg more in the squat and 5.5 kg more in the clean. They also managed to jump 3.7 cm higher and could pull with 14.6 kg more force in a back strength test.
Group 2: Managed to lift on average 9.2 kg more in the squat and 12.7 kg more in the clean. They also managed to jump 5.4 cm lower than before the training period and pulled with 30.0 kg of increased force in a back strength test.
Group 3: Managed to lift on average 15.0 kg more in the squat and 9.7 kg more in the clean. They also managed to jump 1.6 cm lower than before the training period and pulled with 19.1 kg more force in a back strength test.
What did and does this experiment reveal? The athletes tested strongest in the motor skills and tasks that were the most similar to the exercises they did in the experiment.
A problem arises though.
On the one hand, the specificity of the training produced the highest results in the motor tasks and exercises most similar to the ones performed.
On the other hand, if those same athletes would have continued using the same exercises for an extended period of time they would have ceased to progress any further. This is called Accommodation.
Accommodation is a biological law that states that a decrease in adaptation will occur to a repeated stimulus over an extended period of time. In other word, your progress will stop. Every activity you do has a learning life-cycle to it.
Let me provide an example. When you were a small child, you probably read kids’ books (maybe you still do). Simple stories, learning the alphabet and learning your times table were likely things you did. At an early stage of learning when these processes are not fully comprehended the brain is greatly stimulated.
Fast forward 20 years. You have left school and you are working as an accountant. Would you still be using such books to learn how to be a good accountant? I sincerely hope not! Your brain has exceeded the capacity to learn any more from such elementary activities. What you need is increasingly more complex demands to keep progressing. If you were to return to elementary teachings you most definitely would not be progressing in your accountancy job for long!
Believe it or not, strength and speed adapt in a similar way.
I’m sure you are aware or have seen people in the gym making rapid progress in the early stages of training only to hit a brick wall due to using the same routines. You have likely experienced it yourself. Most definitely I have.
Thomas Kurz reports that one cause of reaching a plateau is to repeat an exercise over and over with the maximal speed attainable in that exercise. The brain then learns to move with that speed to the point that it cannot be exceeded. A greater intensity of stimuli results in a faster learning of the movement. To illustrate:
- A sprinter hits a speed barrier due to using the same maximum velocity sprinting drills during training
- An olympic weightlifter cannot exceed their maxes on the competitive lifts because of repeatedly and with no intensity variation practising the competitive lifts
- A powerlifter cannot exceed their maxes on the competitive lifts because of repeatedly and with no intensity variation practising the competitive lifts
Stagnation can also occur as a result of lacking a particular strength or speed quality. For example:
- A sprinter who cannot exceed their sprint times due to a lack of maximal or absolute strength
- A powerlifter who cannot progress past a sticking point due to a lack of explosive or speed strength
- An olympic weightlifter who cannot progress past a sticking point due to a lack of maximal or absolute strength
Accommodation and stagnation can be conquered in the following ways:
- Changing an exercise or drill to another similar exercise or drill
- Changing the movement speed of an exercise or drill
- Changing the intensity zone of an exercise or drill
- Adding more exercises to a routine
In regards to maximal strength & absolute strength training this can be achieved by utilizing the following:
- Maximal and near maximal deadlift, squat, good morning & bench variations (wide stance, close stance, partial movements, inclines)
- Maximal and near maximal hip hyperextension movements (hyperextensions, 45 degree hyperextensions, glute bridges, hip thrusts)
- Using the repetition method to build strength in specific muscles
In regards to explosive-strength training this can be accomplished by utilizing the following:
- Bounds with long amortization times (not trying to minimise ground contact to an excessive degree)
- Depth jumps (falling from heights varying from 75-110cm – do not try to keep the legs stiff)
- Broad jumps (weighted, un-weighted, single jumps and repeated jumps)
In regards to speed-strength training this can be accomplished by utilizing the following:
- Bounds with short amortization times (trying to minimise ground contact times while simultaneously making the maximal distance possible)
- Drop jumps (falling from heights varying from 20-40cm trying to minimise ground contact times while simultaneously jumping the maximal distance possible)
- Broad jumps (weighted or un-weighted trying to minimise ground contact times while simultaneously making the maximal distance possible)
Exercises in the 3 categories above all have slight variations in movement, speed and intensity, but they remain within an intensity range which will continue to train a targeted motor quality or strength. This is an excellent way to avoid accommodation and stagnation.
Eliminate the impossible to discover the truth
It would be impossible in one article to cover every sports training method to combat accommodation and stagnation. What is possible, however, is to come up with a set of parameters to use to discover what areas must be addressed.
Here is a possible guideline to use for analysis:
- How many times has this exercise been repeated in this manner?
- How many total exercise variations are being utilized?
- What strengths or motor skills are not being trained sufficiently?
- Is the sport more heavily reliant on strength, or speed?
When answering such questions, some points for analysis to be mindful of are:
- Exercises with a high speed element can have a life-cycle of as little as 7-10 days
- Exercises with very high resistance can have a life-cycle of around 21-25 days
- The more exercise variations being utilized, the greater the chance to avoid accommodation provided the motor skills targeted are the same (e.g. explosive strength, maximal strength)
- The greater the resistance to be overcome the greater reliance of maximal strength (powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, strongman)
- The lower the resistance to be overcome the greater the reliance on speed and explosive-strength (sprinting, shot, javelin)
- Higher levels of speed and explosive-strength will assist in reaching high force levels faster
- Higher levels of maximal strength will provide the foundation for increased speed and explosive-strength
- Like a cake that must have certain ingredients in optimal quantities, when a mass must be moved, maximal strength, explosive-strength and speed-strength must be present and involved to a greater a lesser degree in optimal quantities.
So for a sprinter whose times have stalled, such an athlete may want to look at their current training with these points in mind. Perhaps their current training consists of the following common errors:
- An overdependent tendency to use block starts, maximal acceleration & top end sprint speed drills
- Insufficient strength work
- Using the same “plyometric” drills to death way beyond the point they have lost their effectiveness
It could be that this athlete’s technique is very good. If so, this could be eliminated as a potential problem. For such an athlete, perhaps performance could be improved by:
- Utilizing a greater variety of drills and exercises for technique, explosive-strength and speed-strength
- Utilizing maximal effort exercises & assistance exercises to build a foundation of maximal & absolute strength needed to increase speed and explosive-strength further
- Breaking training down into periods of specific focus during training cycles
Enter a possible new way:
- Using the preparation period to work on maximal & absolute strength in the glutes, hamstrings, leg, hip & torso muscles – incorporating a wide array of jumping drills that gradually increase in intensity over time
- Focusing more on strength, jumping & bounding drills in the preparation period whilst using sprint drills to perfect rhythm at a lower intensity in between strength sessions
- Reducing the volume of strength & jumping exercises during the pre-competition period and working on perfecting technique at maximum speeds
- Using parachutes and light weight vests of different sizes and magnitudes of resistance during the pre-competition period to avoid accommodation to the main sprint exercises
Notice the change:
- The speed of the technical exercises has been changed slightly without altering technique by using parachutes & light weight vests
- Maximal & absolute strength can be increased allowing for greater total force production
- Explosive-strength can be increased allowing for faster acceleration
- Speed-strength can be increased allowing for faster top end speed
- Breaking the training down into periods of focus ensurers that one form of training does not interfere with another – no form of training is ever neglected but the primary aims in different periods alternate
The proof is now in the performance. If it increases, that is a good indicator that the changes are working. If performance stalls out again later down the road, the coach or athlete can go back to the drawing board to figure out more solutions.
The process can be repeated for any activity. Identifying dominant strengths and support strengths in a sport activity will go a long way to being able to identify and eliminate weak links.
It has been said already – every drill or exercise has a life-cycle to it. Along the same lines, it is often what is not being trained that will hold performance back. To teach the brain and body to adapt further requires learning increasingly complex motor skills. Make adaptation your friend – let it work for you, not against you.
“Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches” by Yuri & Natalia Verkhoshansky
“Programming & Organisation Of The Training Process” by Yuri Verkhoshansky
“Depth Jump vs Drop jump” by Natalia Verkhoshansky
“Shock method and plyometrics” by Natalia Verkhoshansky
“Jump training 101” by Natalia Verkhoshansky
“The Science of Sports Training” by Thomas Kurz
“Sports skills and strength training” by Thomas Kurz
“The Science and Practice of Strength Training” by Vladimir Zatsiorsky