Friday, September 17, 2010

Adapted Versus Athletic

Our bodies adapt to the demands placed upon them.  Called training specificity, we will improve the qualities needed to perform an activity/exercise by simply doing that activity/exercise.  We adapt and we get better at that activity.  However, adaption comes at a price.  A great example are young athletes.  With early, regular, structured training, many kids are excelling at younger and younger ages.  In what Malcolm Gladwell calls the 10,000-hour rule, kids will become expertly skilled by logging in thousands of hours of purposeful practice.  By the time they are 18 or 20 years of age, they have hit the 10,000 hours and they are expertly skilled.  They go onto excel at the highest level in their chosen sport.

The price of adaptation, though, is becoming more and more evident.  Young kids are experiencing repetitive stress injuries at a rate higher than ever.  It is now common to hear about an 11-year old with stress fractures and a 14-year old undergoing Tommy John (elbow reconstructive surgery) for elbow ligament tears.  More devastating is the fact that these injuries continue to cause issues later in life.  The biggest risk factor for a specific injury is a history of that injury. 

We, of course, use exercise training to improve our health and fitness.  We speak of the virtues of certain exercises (like the deadlift), but we must understand the consequences of adapting to those exercises.  I prefer my client to be athletic versus simply adapted to a certain exercise.  Endurance athletes are a prime example.  Crossfit calls these athletes "fringe athletes" because they have developed certain characteristics/movement patterns/strength/energy systems that allow them to perform their given sport efficiently.  If they try something different, they don't fair as well. They have also lost certain characteristics because of the specific nature of their training.  If a minimum level of fundamental movement patterns/strength/mobility is not maintained then risk of injury goes up.   You can have too much of a good thing.

We need to take a step back to see how these movements affect us positively and negatively.  For myself and my clients, I am careful to maintain (or develop) a minimum level of basic movement patterns to avoid compensation and risk of injury.  Gray Cook (in his excellent and highly-recommended book: Movement) makes the point to emphasize the important point: fundamentals are always first.  We should acquire (or maintain) fundamental movement patterns and basic mobility and stability.  Not being mindful of how our training impacts fundamental movement patterns and basic joint mobility and stability is a common error in fitness training.  This is one reason simply using an elliptical trainer has a lot of negative consequences that are overlooked, and the Reach and Rotate exercise is rarely seen (but valuable for most of us).

We need to strive for developing "adaptable" bodies versus "adapted" bodies.  This is a point often emphasized by Vern Gambetta.  We may want to be a better runner , golfer, or baseball player, but we can't ignore the basics.  Fundamental movement patterns need to be developed (or maintained) while adding specific movement patterns on top.  Without this foundation of basic movement patterns we put ourselves at risk of becoming "adapted" and the positive and negative consequences that go along with being "adapted" to specific movement patterns.


Steven Rice Fitness said...

Great point- for most people the goal is not the exercise or sport, but their body. Variety is critical, whether it is a variety of exercises, or particular exercises that include multiple joints and movements.

Do you think adaptability itself can be trained for? When starting a new exercise the initial gains are from neuromuscular efficiency, not muscle hypertrophy. I've never heard whether that process is something that can be improved so the next new movement can be learned faster.

The other comment on adaptability is to mention that it works the other way- the body loses "unneeded" muscle, connective tissue, bone density, and motor skills if they are constantly challenged.

Steven Rice Fitness said...

My last sentence was non-nonsensical. Should be "...that it ALSO works..." and "...if they are NOT constantly..."

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...

You are absolutely right about reversability. If you don't continue stimulating your body, it will change back- use it or lose it!

The question about can if you train to be adaptable is very interesting. I think you can, but there are two points. One, is that fundamental motor patterns need to be developed prior to specific motor patterns. And the window of opportunity to develop fundamental motor patterns is during childhood. If you miss out you will never develop these motor qualities to there full capacity. Two, we can maintain fundamental movement patterns and still train specific movement patterns. From a sporting standpoint, look a pitcher. He should maintain adequate internal rotation in his pitching arm, even though pitching decreases it. From a fitness or bodybuilding standpoint, many basic bodybuilding exercises cause joint and structural changes. Bench press, crunches, and curling exacerbate the common issues of excessively internal rotated shoulders, protracted scapulae, and flexed thoracic spines. With years of training and not addressing minimum fundamental movement patterns, problems will arise in the form of shoulder and low-back degenerative changes and pain.