A Few Thoughts on Adaptability

6dfac813c6ecee60a58ba28e75e3400182761b960908728de21cd4b364170cfeOne of my strength mentors, Dr. Michael Hartle, has a saying: “Plan the work and work the plan.”

I’m a big believer in that. It has been my experience that a well-planned program that is grounded in tried-and-true approaches to strength and fitness results in greater and more sustainable improvements (and, as a result, increased motivation to continue training).

Not to mention that it avoids the perils of what can (and has) been called “random acts of variety,” which plague all too many people’s approaches to exercise.

My barbell programming is put together mindfully, simply, and with a solid understanding of my abilities: as such, I rarely have to deviate from it. In fact, I have by now gone several cycles without having to change any of the planned sessions. I can’t remember the last time I had to when I wasn’t sick.

That is, until yesterday.

16b486812a7e1b1d355c7c849f0922a8My warm-up sets on my back squats felt significantly heavier than normal, and it became clear during my first work set that my planned set and rep scheme was quite simply not going to happen.

There are any number of factors that could have contributed to this. I was training more consecutive days than I typically do: because the gym is going to be closed on Christmas, I had to adjust my weekly schedule. Furthermore, I had gotten sub-par sleep the previous two nights. Both of those variables surely had an impact.

Fortunately, I was able to adapt my workout rather than pushing through on ego and stubbornness. I didn’t need to end the training session, but I allowed the weight and volume of my squats to change according to the reality of my body’s condition in that day. The other parts of my workout went smoothly as planned: it was just an off day for my squats.

I still got in a great workout and had fun doing so; I didn’t let the fact that it didn’t exactly match the planned workout get in the way of taking joy in the movement that I was able to do.

That’s the middle way, the way of balance. I could have stubbornly tried to finish my workout as planned, but would have placed my already tired and sleep-deprived body at significant risk.

Alternatively, in the moment of recognizing that—for the first time in months—I was not going to be able to do a workout as planned, I could have gotten frustrated and negative, and either given up altogether or had a miserable time during the rest of the day’s training.

Instead, I adapted and moved on.

(Which, to protect his good name, is also consistent with what I’ve learned from Dr. Mike: by all means, plan the work and work the plan… but don’t do so with stupid stubbornness that could tempt injury!)

canyougocover350-231x300Earlier today, I got a chance to read a good chunk of Dan John‘s book Can You Go?: Assessment and Program Design for the Active Athlete… and Everybody Else. It’s a wonderful book that I’m enjoying a lot: it comes highly recommended.

One of the quotations that I came across in today’s reading really spoke to me in light of the previous day’s workout:

Your clients’ days, weeks, kids, bosses and just about everything else will impact their training, for bad or good….

Whenever I'm about to do something, I think Would an Idiot do that and if they would I do not do that thingAnd let me tell you this: Idiotic training and programming will be as toxic to the system as many diseases. I’ve had my share of parasites in my life (sadly, true), and a good case or two of pleurisy, and these were easily overcome compared to idiocy and tomfoolery in the gym. One moment of too much load, poor technique or just bad timing can hold a person back for months, years or even decades….

Understanding that the body is one piece begins the process of seeing the life of the athlete, a training year and a workout from a more distant vantage point. It’s a global view, a paradigm shift from seeing everything as bits and pieces like Frankenstein’s monster to seeing everything as miraculously interconnected. 

Sometimes, idiotic training is a problem within the programming itself: perhaps someone doesn’t have any plan for their training at all,…or perhaps they have a plan, but one that is poorly put together.

A few good indications that either of these are happening are a stagnation of progress, training-related injuries, or burnout and apathy regarding workouts… and a good response is to seek out someone who can help you put together a safer, saner, and more effective program.

Other times, the programming itself can be solid, but the training can be at risk of become idiotic due to stubborn unwillingness to adapt to the athlete’s condition and capacity within a specific day, a specific moment. To lose sight of the fact that the training of every athlete, from beginner to professional, is interconnected with everything else in their lives is to put them at risk.

As I mentioned before, one of my core beliefs about training is that it is important to plan one’s work and to work that plan.

One of my other core beliefs about training is that we do it to take care of ourselves, not to punish ourselves.

With a program that is well designed by a knowledgeable coach or trainer, the two are almost never in conflict.

But sometimes circumstances change. Life happens. People experience sickness, divorce and break-ups, job-related stress, sleep deprivation, periods of less-than-optimal nutrition, and just the general ups and downs of life.

When that happens, don’t be afraid to adapt.

And, just as importantly, don’t hold it against yourself that you had to. Just make the necessary changes, smile, and move forward into your strong and healthy future.


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