Principles of Training 1: General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Throughout this mini-series of articles, we are going to take a look at some of the fundamental principles that should be considered for anyone who is serious about their training and wanting to structure a training program that is specific to their goals. The fundamental principle that underpins many physiological adaptations, but particularly our body’s response to training regardless of its type, is the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

What is General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

The underlying mechanisms behind any form of training adaptation are that we need to cause a stress and allow for sufficient recovery to allow adaption to take place. If we don’t create enough stress, we don’t get an adaptation. If we create enough stress but don’t provide sufficient nutrients/rest for the amount of stress we apply, then you won’t get an adaption.

Unfortunately, we need to be careful about how much stress we cause, otherwise, recovery and adaptation become compromised in the various tissues that we place under stress during training. This means we have to have a graded progression in stress with measurable increases in training volume to allow the body to recover and adapt.

GAS and progressive overload

In resistance training this ties in with the idea of progressive overload, where each week we want to make small increases in training volume in order to cause consistent adaptations in our muscles, leading to muscle growth. The same can be said of endurance sports; if someone has never run before, the notion that going from this point to running a marathon in just a few weeks seems ridiculous, but for many people there seems to be a detachment of this idea when it comes to lifting weights, especially for beginners training with more experienced lifters and trying to keep up.

Everybody's training is different

This is a key reason why a general online program will not hit the mark for everyone. One of the key points in programming training for a specific goal is individualisation. If you choose a generic strength program, bodybuilding program or endurance program which may have incorporated rest, progressive training volume and even nutritional plans, everybody will inevitably be different in their ability to recover, the amount of stress they can take and this will be linked to many factors including experience, genetics and lifestyle factors.

Is it feasible for someone to do a program that is very high volume and high frequency (which will inevitably require lots of rest and excellent nutrition practices) who works 12-hour shifts in a job where they are highly active and only have time for one short break? I hope your answer is not very feasible at all! That’s not to say you can’t work long hours and train; it is possible to make progress using a nutrition and training strategy that will fit around work, family and other commitments but the whole point is that this needs to be carefully considered on a person-to-person basis.

However, if you have a program that works for you, then obviously if it isn’t broke don’t fix it! But you should always be thinking about ways to evaluate and improve your training to get the best possible results.

Specificity training

When we think about the kind of adaption we want to take place (build muscle, get faster, stronger or fitter), then our training not only has to cause stress but it has to cause the right kind of stress to force the right kind of adaptation. This is known as specificity, which basically means if you want to improve at something then you have to mostly do that thing. You can’t be a marathon runner if you train like a powerlifter!

Now that’s not to say strength training can’t help in endurance sports, but that this kind of training should be considered supplementary compared to our main focus which is the endurance component itself. There are many crossovers between training types, a classic example is that a muscle building program will build maximal strength, but not to the same extent as a specific powerlifting program that targets working for a large portion at the strength end of the training spectrum.

Remember the use it or lose  it principle

One thing we need to consider is the other side of the coin when it comes to GAS, which is the use it or lose it principle. This means that if we don’t maintain a certain level of stress once we have reached our goal, then we are going to lose our ability to maintain that adaptation. This is important because we need to get a balance between progression whilst allowing for recovery, but not so much recovery that we lose the adaption! The best way to monitor progress is to keep setting measurable goals each week and increasing these by a small amount.

What if performance stops or goes backwards?

If the body reaches a point where progress stagnates, particularly if performance is going backwards (usually accompanied by a constant background level fatigue), then you have reached a point of overreaching. It is at this point where we need to think about adjusting nutrition and training programs and a week or two out of the gym or at lower training volumes is common advice.

Hopefully, the body will then have had enough time to ‘super compensate’ and come back more adapted than before and this will allow you to handle higher volumes and break through your plateaus. 

On a final note, if you feel like this after a few weeks of a training program then the volume is probably too high or your recovery is too poor and you need to have a think about the increases in volume you are using and if you are providing the correct nutrition and rest. Failure to do this often leads to an injury that will put you out of training altogether… Sometimes less is more!