Stress is a popular topic these days, the subject of innumerable magazine articles and a favorite at cocktail parties. Because stress is discussed so often in so many different circles, it’s bound to be misrepresented and misunderstood. For a precise definition I quote Hans Selye from his fantastic book The Stress of Life: ‘Stress is the common denominator of all adaptive reactions in the body.’ Further on Selye gets more specific: ‘Stress is manifested by a specific syndrome which consists of all the nonspecifically induced changes within a biologic system.’ That means that stress has specific characteristics and composition but no particular cause.
The human body is exposed to myriad stressors, or stress-producing agents, day in and day out. These include cold and hot weather, emotional stimuli, viral infections and muscular activity, just to mention a few. So, while all of these things can induce a state of stress, thus making causation nonspecific, the form it takes is always very specific.
The body’s specific reaction to stress Selye termed the ‘general adaptation syndrome,’ or GAS. The GAS consists of three distinct stages: a general alarm reaction, a stage of resistance and, if the stress persists, a stage of exhaustion. Stress is present during all three of these stages, but its manifestations, or symptoms, change during the evolution of the syndrome. Most of the stressors that act upon us result in changes corresponding to the first and second stages of the GAS’at first they alarm us and then we get used to them. Only very severe stress leads to exhaustion and, if prolonged, eventually death.
Selye goes on to illustrate activities that go through the three stages and concludes by saying, ‘Most human activities go through the three stages: We first have to get into the swing of things, then we get pretty good at them, but finally we tire of them.’
The Nature of Adaptation
Most of us have had the experience of lying in the hot summer sun in order to get a tan. Though our reason for tanning is a cosmetic one, nature had something else in mind. The process of tanning is an example of adaptation designed to protect us from the stress to our tissues caused by ultraviolet light.
The adaptive process, then, is essentially defensive in nature. And the degree to which the adaptation is stimulated is directly proportional to the intensity of the stressor. Have you ever attempted to get a tan in the middle of winter? You can lie in the sun for hours on end with little or no response. This is because the sun is not overhead during the winter and hence not very intense. Even repeated exposures of long duration will stimulate little response.
What a difference exposure to the hot midsummer sun directly overhead makes. The body’s response is immediate and dramatic. Initially there is a reddening and inflammation of the skin. This, of course, corresponds to the alarm stage of Selye’s GAS. During the alarm stage the body gains time for the development and mobilization of specific adaptive phenomena in the directly affected region. In this case the body mobilizes its store of melanin, or skin pigment, in readiness for further exposure to the sun’s intense ultraviolet rays. If exposure is repeated, adaptation moves into the second stage, the stage of resistance. It’s during this stage that overcompensation in the form of a tan takes place. The energy involved in the adaptive process, or adaptation energy, as Selye refers to it, is limited. If we prolong exposure to the intense sun, we will swiftly enter the third stage of the GAS, exhaustion.
In the stage of exhaustion the body’s local reserves of adaptation energy are used up and the deep reserves of adaptation energy cannot be made available readily enough. Instead of overcompensation with a tan we decompensate and lose tissue as blisters develop, then burn. If exposure is of long enough duration, death will supervene. So, up to a very definite point in time, exposure to the stress of the sun will result in overcompensation in the form of a tan, and if exposure exceeds that point, the body loses its ability to overcompensate and heads instead in the other direction and decompensates. To stimulate the adaptive process, then, stress must be intense, but exposure to such stress must be brief and infrequent so as to not use up the reserves of the adaptation energy that allow for overcompensation.
A Practical Solution
It’s my belief that we can apply Selye’s concept of the GAS to training and thereby make it more productive.
1) The alarm stage. Just as exposure to the sun initially causes redness and inflammation, your first exposure to weight training, either at the start of training or after a layoff, results in muscle soreness and general irritability. This alarm reaction, which is experienced by the individual as soreness, is observed clinically as a ‘bodily expression of a generalized call to arms of the defensive forces in the organism’ and is unavoidable. While some soreness should be expected at first, it doesn’t have to be crippling. Selye writes, ‘The alarm response of the body is directly proportionate to the intensity of the aggression.’ Extreme degrees of muscular soreness can be prevented by following a break-in period of training that is carefully designed to impose low-level stress in preparation for the more intense activity to come.
Beginners must be especially cautious and follow the break-in routine listed below very carefully. Selye points out that during the acute phase of the alarm reaction the general resistance to the particular stressor actually falls below normal. This is because the body has not yet had sufficient time to mobilize its defensive forces in readiness for further assaults from the stressor, in this case exercise. During the alarm reaction the body’s reduction of general resistance is marked by increased blood flow to the trained areas and even a reduction in bodyweight. Curiously enough, this reduction of general resistance is similar to what happens to the body during the state of exhaustion.
During this break-in period, which should last at least a week, depending on the individual’s existing condition and innate adaptability, the beginner should perform the following routine every day for five consecutive days:
1) Full squats 1 x 10
2) Bent-over rows 1 x 10
3) Bench presses 1 x 10
4) Barbell presses 1 x 10
5) Stiff-legged deadlifts 1 x 10
6) Barbell curls 1 x 10
7) Calf raises 1 x 10
8) Situps 1 x 10
These exercises should be performed with a weight that doesn’t require extreme effort for the completion of the 10th repetition. This would increase the stress of the program to a high level and exacerbate the symptoms of the alarm stage. The idea here is merely to ‘mobilize the body’s defensive forces’ for further assaults and move the body into the stage of resistance. Inducing debilitating soreness is not necessary. While some soreness is unavoidable, it can be held in check if the exercises aren’t carried to a point of exhaustion.
If soreness persists after five days on this program, rest during the weekend and continue again on Monday, followed by a workout Wednesday and Friday. This time, however, perform two sets of each exercise; the first set should be performed just like the sets done in the first week, with the same weight. On the second set increase the weight by 10 percent and try to perform 10 reps. Even with a greater weight you should still be able to perform 10 reps but, of course, with slightly greater effort. The greater effort required on the second set raises the stress level and thereby induces further adaptation. As Selye points out, ‘No living organism can be maintained continuously in a state of alarm.’ If the stressor isn’t so intense that ‘continuous exposure to it is not incompatible with life,’ the alarm reaction is necessarily followed by a second stage of adaptation, the stage of resistance.
2) The resistance stage. Please keep in mind that while a state of stress can be induced by any number of agents, the form it takes is always specific. This is not just true for some people but for every human being. I reiterate this here because bodybuilders have been mistakenly led to believe that our requirements for exercise are absolutely unique. Bear in mind that lifting weights is a stressor to our bodies just as the sun’s rays are. Though it’s true that some respond more readily and to a greater extent to exercise, just as some acquire tans more rapidly than others, the factors underlying the adaptive response are exactly the same in all human beings. So, while it may be true that some may derive greater benefits from a given program than others, every one of us ‘adapts and resists’in this case by growing larger and stronger muscles’in ‘proportion to the intensity of the stressor.’ Moreover, every human being who has ever lived possesses only limited reserves of local adaptation energy that can slowly be restored from deeper stores during rest.
Weight training is a form of stress over which we have direct control; the intensity level depends on our ability or willingness to generate effort via muscular contraction.
For the purpose of inducing rapid and large-scale increases in muscle mass and strength from weight training, such training must be of high intensity. If it isn’t, results will be slow, if they come at all. While some will seemingly gain more dramatically than others, even on a lower-intensity program, all individuals will respond more rapidly when intensity is the highest that they can generate. So, while so and so has had a fair measure of success with only moderate training intensity, he would have experienced far greater progress on a higher-intensity program. This is true for anyone.
As we adapt and respond to stress in proportion to its intensity, we also use up reserves of adaptation energy in proportion to the intensity of the stress. While he has not yet proven it clinically, Selye has come to believe we possess local reserves of adaptation energy that are used up initially as we adapt to stress. This draining of the local reserves is what leads us to cease a certain activity, such as weight training, at a certain point. These local stores can be replenished from deeper reserves elsewhere in the body, however. Selye points out that such restoration of local reserve is slow. How slow? Well, you can tell if your workouts are brief enough and spaced properly to allow for full restoration by whether or not you are adapting; i.e., getting bigger and stronger. The first thing your body must do following a workout is restore its local reserves of adaptation energy. If the workout was intense enough to stimulate a strong adaptive response and not too long, your body will overcompensate and grow larger and stronger. If you haven’t experienced progress lately, there are three probable reasons: 1) The intensity wasn’t sufficient enough to stimulate a strong adaptive response; 2) the workouts weren’t brief and irregular enough to allow for overcompensation; or 3) your workouts were too low in intensity as well as too long and conducted too often.
My advice to those who have experienced an impasse in their training progress is to take a layoff of at least one full week. This should allow your body enough time to fully restore its reserves of adaptation energy, which you’ll need when you resume training with a higher-intensity program. Your new program should involve no more than four workouts a week and should consist of no more than four or five sets per bodypart. The low number of sets will enable you to generate maximum intensity of effort by going to complete failure on each and every set. Any more than that and you’ll have to hold back somewhat on each set; i.e., pace your effort so you’ll have enough energy and drive to complete the sets that loom ahead with like intensity. While it may actually require something less than maximum, or 100 percent, effort to induce growth stimulation, how would you know where that level might be and how would you accurately measure anything less than 100 percent effort? You couldn’t, so be sure to pass that threshold. If such a program doesn’t produce immediate results, cut your workouts back to four every nine days instead. If the intensity is high and you’re still not seeing progress, then you’re not allowing enough time between workouts. If you’re merely not making progress, yet not regressing, then you’re at least compensating for the stress of your workouts but obviously not overcompensating.
3) The exhaustion stage. As a high-intensity workout proceeds, we experience a reduction in drive. If we proceed long enough, this reduction becomes acute and exhaustion sets in, so we’re forced to stop our activity. Enough time must be allowed between workouts for full restoration of the local reserves. Otherwise, we will continue our workouts while drawing from the deep reserves. This will result initially in a loss of size and strength, then a feeling of being burned out, along with a strong disinclination to continue any type of physical activity, and, ultimately, death.
Selye believes that local adaptation energy is immediately available upon demand. Deep adaptation energy, however, is stored away safely as a reserve. The stage of exhaustion, after a temporary demand like a workout is reversible, while the exhaustion of our reserves of deep adaptation energy is not. As these reserves are depleted, senility and, finally, death ensue.
While it’s not very likely that anyone would carry overtraining to a point that might result in death, we should at least know enough about the nature of adaptation to realize that our ability to successfully cope with the effects of a workout are limited; and if we are to make optimal progress, our workouts must be brief and irregular as well as intense.
As our training progresses over the years, we seem to invariably hit plateaus in our progress. While I stated the probable causes earlier, theoretically, sticking points should not happen. If we apply our knowledge of the GAS to our training, we should continue progressing until we reach the absolute limits of our potential. Most of us probably would not progress continuously even if we did apply such knowledge, due to ups and downs in motivation, along with those inevitable pitfalls along life’s way, which will occasionally force us to stop training for different periods. (As yet no one has reached the absolute limit of his potential’even top bodybuilders like Sergio Oliva or Arnold. From what I’ve been able to gather, they didn’t possess such knowledge and their training proceeded haphazardly for the most part.)
If we can fully grasp the fact that training intensity must progress as we grow larger and stronger, we will continue adapting by growing still larger and stronger. As we fully adapt to a certain level of training intensity by getting bigger and stronger, we must increase the training intensity again if we wish to continue to improve. As we progress and adapt again in response to the new higher level of training intensity, then we must up it another notch and so on up the ladder of intensity until we reach our limits of adaptation, the limits of our muscular potential.
Editor’s note: Mike Mentzer is available for phone consultations and personalized supervision at the Fitness Forum in Marina del Rey, California. For rates and info call (310) 827-7661. Also, check out his Web site at www.mikementzer.com. His new book, Muscles in Minutes, is available for $19.95 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse, 1-800-447-0008, or visit www.home-gym.com. IM