It's June 15th, and you decide that this is the year you're going to get a suntan – a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan.
So you decide to go out in the back yard (to spare the neighbors and innocent passersby) to lie out at lunchtime and catch a ray or two. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you get up, come in and eat lunch, and go back to work.
That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you're back outside for your 15 minutes per side sunbath. You're faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week, because that's the kind of disciplined, determined person you are. At the end of the week, you've turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and, heartened by your results, resolve to maintain your schedule for the rest of the month.
So, here's the critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?
If you ask a hundred people this question, ninety-five will tell you that it will be really, really dark, but fact is it will be exactly the same color it was at the end of the first week. Why would it be any darker? Your skin adapts to the stress of the sun exposure by becoming dark enough to prevent itself from burning again. That's the only reason it gets dark, and it adapts exactly and specifically to the stress that burned it.
Your skin doesn't "know" that you want it to get darker; it only "knows" what the sun tells it, and the sun only "talked" to it for 15 minutes. It can't get any darker than the 15 minutes of exposure makes it get, because the 15 minutes is what it's adapting to.
If you just got darker every time you were exposed to the sun we'd all be black – especially those of us who live in sunny areas – since we all get out of the car and walk into the house or work several times a day.
The skin doesn't adapt to total accumulated exposure, but to the longest exposure – the hardest exposure. If you want it to get darker, you have to stay out longer to give the skin more stress than it's already adapted to. The widespread failure to comprehend this pivotal aspect of adaptation is why so few people actually understand exercise programming.
Exercise follows exactly the same principle as getting a tan – a stress is imposed on the body and it adapts to the stress, but only if the stress is designed properly. You wouldn't lay out for two minutes and assume that it would make you brown, because two minutes isn't enough stress to cause an adaptation.
Likewise, only a stupid SOB lays out for an hour on each side the first day, because the stress is so overwhelmingly damaging that it can't be recovered from in a constructive way.
Stress Causes Adaptation
Many trainees come in to the gym and bench 225 every Monday and Friday for years, never even attempting to increase the weight, sets, reps, speed, or pace between sets. Some don't care, but many are genuinely puzzled that their bench doesn't go up, even though they haven't asked it to.
And some bench press once every three or four weeks, or maybe even more rarely than that, using some arbitrary number like their own bodyweight for 10 reps, then 9, then 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and finally 1 rep, and wonder why their bench doesn't go up, or why they're sore for days after.
Your bench press strength doesn't adapt to the total number of times you've been to the gym to bench or your sincerest hope that it will improve. It adapts to the stress imposed on it by the work done with the barbell.
Furthermore, it adapts to exactly the kind of stress imposed on it. If you do sets of 20, you get good at doing 20's. If you do heavy singles, you get better at doing those. But singles and 20's are very different, and you don't get better at doing one by practicing the other.
The muscles and nervous system function differently when doing these two things and they require two different sets of physiologic capacities, and thus cause the body to adapt differently. The adaptation occurs in response to the stress, and specifically to that stress, because the stress is what causes the adaptation.
This is why calluses form on the hand where the barbell rubs, and not on the other parts of the hand, or on your face, or all over your body. It can obviously be no other way.
Furthermore, the stress must be something you can recover from. Like the two hours of sun the first day or the 55 bench reps once a month, the stress must be appropriate for the trainee receiving it. If the stress is so overwhelming that it can't be recovered from in time to apply more of it in a timeframe that permits accumulated adaptation, it's useless.
Training or Exercise?
An awareness of this central organizing principle of physiology as it applies to physical activity is essential to program design. Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you're through.
Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity isn't designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don't get to call it training. It's just exercise. For most people, exercise is perfectly adequate – it's certainly better than sitting on your ass channel-surfing.
But for athletes, an improvement in strength provides more improvement in performance than any other adaptation, especially if the athlete isn't already very strong. Strength is the basis of athletic ability. If you're a good athlete, you're stronger than a "less-good" athlete at the same level of skill. So if you want to be a better athlete, get stronger.
If you're already very strong, then it's necessary to devote most of your attention to the development of other aspects of performance. But the truth is, it's likely that you just aren't that strong. You may think you're very strong, but really, you know you could get stronger, don't you? Sure you do. You may have convinced everybody else that you're strong enough; you may even be convinced of this yourself. Your coach may have even told you so, too.
This isn't productive, because a lack of strength may be why you're not performing as well as you know you should be. If your progress is stuck, and has been for a while, get stronger and see what happens. And for a strength training program to work, you must do something that requires that you be stronger to get it done, and this must be inherent in the program design.
The Novice Effect
The less experienced the athlete, the simpler the program should be, and the more advanced the athlete, the more complex the program must be. We're going to take advantage of a phenomenon I have called the "Novice Effect." This is simply what happens when a previously untrained person begins to lift weights – he gets stronger very quickly at first, and then improves less and less rapidly. It's nothing more than the commonly observed principle of diminishing returns applied to adaptive physiology.
Rank novices aren't strong enough to tax themselves beyond their ability to recover because they're so thoroughly unadapted to stress. They've made almost no progress on the road to the fulfillment of their athletic potential and almost anything they do that isn't outright heinous abuse will cause an adaptation.
This explains why when an untrained person starts an exercise program, he gets stronger, no matter what the program is. Anything he does that's physically harder than what he's been doing previously constitutes a stress to which he isn't adapted, and adaptation will thus occur if he provides for recovery. And this stress will always produce more strength, because that's the most basic physical adaptation to any physical stress on the body that requires the production of force.
For a rank or novice trainee, riding a bicycle will make his bench press increase – for a short time. This doesn't mean that cycling is a good program for the bench press, it just means that for an utterly unadapted person, the cycling served as an adaptive stimulus.
The problem with cycling for a novice bench-presser is that it rapidly loses its ability to drive further improvement on the bench since it doesn't produce a force-production stress specific to the bench press.
Good Programs vs. Less Good Programs
The thing that differentiates a good program from a less-good program is its ability to continue stimulating the adaptation. So, by definition, a program that requires a regular increase in some aspect of its stress is an effective program for a novice, while one that doesn't, is less effective.
For a novice, any program is better than no program at all, so all of them work with varying degrees of efficiency. This is why everybody thinks their program works, and why you'll always find perfectly honest testimonials for every new exercise program on TV or the Internet. But nothing works as well as a moderate mathematical increase in some loading parameter each time, for as long as an adaptation to the increase continues to occur, because it's specifically designed to produce both stress and adaptation.
And since the best way to produce athletic improvement in novices is to increase strength, a program that increases total-body strength in a linear fashion is the best one for a novice athlete to use.
It seems rather apparent that there can be only one efficient way to program barbell training for a novice – a linear increase in force-production stress using basic exercises that work the whole body.
This approach always produces a linear increase in strength because it takes advantage of the most basic rule of biology: organisms adapt to their environment if the stress causes an adaptation, as long as the stress isn't overwhelming in its magnitude.
Rank novices can be trained close to the limit of their ability every time they train, precisely because that ability is at such a low level relative to their genetic potential. Put another way, a novice can recover from relatively hard training because the training isn't really that hard in absolute terms because he's weak. The result is, he gets strong relatively quickly. That's why weak people can get stronger faster than strong people can.
But that changes rapidly, and as you progress through your training career, the program should get increasingly complicated as a result of the changing nature of your adaptive response. The intermediate trainee has advanced to the point where the stress required for change is high enough that when applied in consecutive workouts, it exceeds the capacity for recovery within that time.
Intermediate trainees are capable of training hard enough that some allowances for active recovery must be incorporated into the training program, but progress still comes faster for these athletes when they're challenged often by maximum efforts.
Advanced athletes are working at levels close enough to their genetic potential so that great care should be taken to ensure enough variability in the intensity and volume should be monitored so that overtraining doesn't become a problem. These principles are discussed at length in Practical Programming for Strength Training, 2nd Edition (The Aasgaard Company, 2009).
So, as a rule, you need to try to add weight to the work sets of the exercise every time you train, until you can't do this anymore. This is the basic tenet of "progressive resistance training," and setting up the program this way is what makes it different from exercise. For as long as possible, make sure that you lift a little more weight each time. Everyone can do this for a while, and some people can do it for longer than others, depending on individual genetic capability, diet, and rest.
If you're challenged, you will adapt, and if you're not, you won't. Training makes the challenge a scheduled event instead of an accident of mood or whim, and certainly not a random occurrence within an exercise program.