Adaptation and Its Relation to Your Fitness

Woman doing a plank
Getty Images/Brook Pifer

We know that, if we want to change our bodies, we have to overload the muscles. This is called functional overreaching—which leads to super compensation. The result is called adaptation, and it is your body's physiological response to training after repeated exposure.

The Phases of Adaptation

Adaptation occurs when you do new exercises or load your body in a different way, your body reacts by increasing its ability to cope with that new load. There are different phases of adaptation that your body experiences.

First Few Weeks

The first few times you do cardio or strength training, your body kind of freaks out as it gets used to this new stimulus. It's during this period that you experience soreness and, maybe, the feeling that you're making a big mistake. But you're not, so don't give up.

4-16 Weeks

Four to 16 weeks is a big range, but experts suggest that it's during this phase that your body adapts and becomes more efficient at the exercises and activities you're doing. Your goal during this phase is to keep your program consistent.

After 16 Weeks

After about 16 weeks or four months, there's a point of diminishing returns. If you haven't changed up your workouts, the body will stop responding. But keep in mind that the body will continue to respond if presented with new stimulus—new exercises or new challenges.

How to Maximize Adaptation

To make the most of your hard work at the gym, you want to make sure that your body continues to adapt. To do that, you need to be aware of signs and signals that your workout is losing its effectiveness. Then, you need to change your workouts.

Signs to Look For

These are the most common signs that it is time to try something new.

  • You start to hate exercise - If it feels like a chore every time you workout, that may be a sign you need to shake things up.
  • You're bored: The first sign you need to change is when your workouts are so boring, you'd almost rather do anything else.
  • You're burned out: Burnout is a little more serious and you may actually need to take a break from your regular routine and try something totally different. If you exercise alone, try a group fitness class or vice versa. Just about anything new will feel refreshing. 
  • You're constantly injured: This may also be a sign that you're overtraining. Doing the same thing over and over is never good for the body or mind, so this is a great time to take a bit of a longer break and maybe do other activities to heal your body, like yoga or Pilates.
  • You've hit a plateau: If you stop losing weight or stop making progress with your strength workouts, it's time to make a change. In fact, any time you feel stuck in a rut, you probably are. Don't wait for it to happen, but start making changes as you go along.

How to Change Your Workouts

So, how do you change your workouts? Your first step is to start with the F.I.T.T. Principle—the guidelines that help create an effective workout. Start by manipulating one or all of these elements: Your frequency, intensity, time and type of activity.

The important part of the exercise isn't the type of program you have, but having one you'll actually do. Don't get too hung up on doing the right thing for a certain period of time.

If your body and mind, has adapted to what you're doing, any change is a good thing.

Once you get to a certain fitness level, say after training consistently for three or more months, you can change things up every week if you like. It might also be worth it to set up a ​periodization program so that you never have to worry about hitting a plateau.

Keep in mind that you need to track your workouts to make the F.I.T.T. principle work to your advantage. It's hard to manage what you don't measure. By keeping track of your workouts, you'll be able to review and analyze what you've been doing and make changes accordingly.

Whatever you do, pay attention to how you're feeling about your workouts and make the change before you hit that plateau. It's easy to get into a routine without realizing how long you've been doing it.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."