Old Dog, New Tricks!

You SAID it all the time! SAID is an acronym which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. It means that when the body is placed under some form of stress, it starts to make adaptations that will allow the body to get better at withstanding that specific form of stress in the future. The adaptation process does not occur by any one mechanism – it is a general tendency of the body which is played out in innumerable separate mechanisms.

While it is almost impossible to understand and account for all these separate mechanisms in devising a training program, it is easy to remember the general SAID principle – it means that the body is always trying to get better at exactly what you practice – good or bad!

Adaptation is Specific

Let’s take some simple examples. If you place mechanical stress on the bones of the body by shock or impact, this will set in motion simple physiological processes that will thicken and harden the bones in the exact area of stress. For example, the place where your heel bone strikes the ground will be very hard and dense. The dominant arm of a tennis player will have larger bones than the opposite arm. Martial artists can toughen their shins and forearms into steel weapons through repeated shock training of the bone. The same thing happens with tendons and ligaments, which thicken and strengthen in response to mechanical stresses such as resistance training. Stress to muscles will cause them to get bigger, and so on.

The SAID principle also refers to adaptations that are far more sophisticated and complex, such as learning new motor skills. As you practice physical skills, there are numerous physical changes to the structure of the brain as a result. For example, if you spend hours practicing the piano, the part of your brain that controls hand coordination will actually grow larger. The neurons responsible for the coordinated finger actions will develop better and faster lines of communication between themselves. And your memories of hand skills will be placed into parts of the brain where they can be accessed and executed automatically, without any degree of conscious effort or thought.

So if you want to get better at dealing with some form of stress such as hitting a tennis ball or running 26 miles, start exposing yourself to the stress in question. There are two major limitations to keep in mind. First is that the training stress must be the right dose and second, the stress must be sufficiently specific to ensure “transfer” or “carryover” to your sport or activity.

The Effective Dose

Stress in the right amount simply means not too much and not too little. If there isn’t sufficient stress, there will be no adaptation, and if there is too much stress, you will cause injury or burnout. If you want to strengthen your arm bones, tapping them with your finger won’t help, and a whack with a hammer will just break them. If you have been biking for years without improvement in your speed or endurance, then maybe you are not exposing yourself to sufficient stress to encourage the body to build the adaptations that will allow biking success. On the other hand, maybe your failure to improve is because each workout is too stressful, and therefore the body is failing to fully recover before the next workout and is instead just progressing into chronic injury. The basic rule about getting better at anything is to keep progressing the level of difficulty of the training without getting hurt or overtired. Very simple concept in theory, but it can be hard to apply in practice. Performance tends to plateau when the difference between too much and too little is so small that we can’t find it. The greatest athletes in the world are those people who are able to expose themselves to the greatest amount of stress without injuring themselves. At some point even they will reach a point where further stress will only cause injury instead of adaptation. Most of us reach this point much sooner.

Carryover of Training to Sport

The carryover issue is a little more complex. Remember that that the S in SAID stands for specific. This means that the body only makes adaptations to withstand the specific stress it encounters – it has no interest wasting time making changes that don’t directly address the issue. For example, if you train your right arm, the right arm will get stronger, not the left. If you practice the piano, you will get better at the piano, not basketball. But if you practice the piano will you get better at the oboe? Maybe a little. In other words, there is a some carryover or transfer from piano to oboe. There’s probably a lot of carryover from piano to organ.  How much does your training program in the gym carryover to the sport you are training for? The answer as confirmed by almost any study on this issue is – at our studio, more than you think- but that is with careful planning and exercise program designs. Want to be better at golf? Loosening the hips to help with pivot, oblique strength and power for torque in creating rotation, and of course breathing all play a part, but then you have to take it to the course and driving range!

You SAID it!


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