Trust The Process: Adaptation Phases of Strength Training

You know that old saying, "Listen to you body?" Well, there is some truth to it. There's also a good time to tell your body to "shut the hell up." The problem is, you and your body may be speaking different languages when you start resistance training and I'm here to get you on the same page. In order to know when to listen and when to power through, it's helpful to understand the adaptation process involved in strength (resistance) training.

Since I am involved in the CrossFit world as a trainer and box owner, much of my context will be focused there. However, it isn't far off from training for any other sport. So, let's get into it.

Anatomical Adaptation

This is where you start as a beginner, either as someone new to CrossFit or new to strength training in general. During this initial, and crucial, phase you will be focused on developing good movement patterns. It is also when you build up the foundational capacity in your tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues. You are working with low to medium loads here and getting plenty of repetitions. This phase can take a solid 3 months (maybe even more) depending on your skill level. You'll probably be sore as hell from using all these areas that have never been primed in this way before. Pain is a red flag, but we can work through soreness.

An example of this is taking someone from ground zero to their first strict pull-up. It's rare that someone can go from never doing a pull-up to doing one strict on day one. That's why we spend time recruiting the small moving parts (ligaments, tendons, tissue, etc) by doing ground-to-standing rope climbs, static holds, negative pull-ups. Build the foundation before you slap a roof on the house.

At SPSC CrossFit, this is pretty much a matter of scaling workouts properly. Learn the basics before going to RX level. It'll take time, but it works.

Strength Phase

Once you have the foundation, we can build on it by adding real strength work. This is a mix of making your muscles more durable with higher rep work (hypertrophy) and then complimenting that with lower rep ranges at heavier weights. In sports, this may be done separately in periods which is why it is called (wait for it)...periodization. 

SPSC's strength model is periodized, but we are training the spectrum so to speak. What I mean is that we are including higher rep work, like you'll see in metcons, with lower rep work in our strength-focused segments. I believe you can train both simultaneously when dealing with general fitness clients. 

You simply can't get what you need from the strength phase if you didn't put in the time to develop the anatomical adaptations. Again, training through some soreness and discomfort is to be expected to push into new levels of strength. However, training through real pain is dumb and near-sighted. Know the difference.

Max Strength Phase

When you have developed a good level of relative strength and are competent in your technique, the maximum strength phase is the peak of strength work. Here, we are seeking the highest possible amount of force that can be produced. This is when we are pushing the heaviest weight we can for the fewest amount of reps to set new markers.

This is where you are setting those 1RM personal records that we love to share on social media :) In my opinion, I see too many athletes hanging around this phase for too long. You can't train this way all the time and expect constant results (or to stay healthy). At this point, you better be speaking your body's language if you want to get the most bang for your buck.

Power Phase

By now, soreness isn't much of a worry for you. You've been conversing with your body enough to know when to push and when to shut it down. The power phase is seeing how quickly you can get work done. 

Sound familiar? Like improving your Fran time? Your maximum strength has gone up, leaving the lighter weights moving easier and quicker when under the clock. You are able to produce more force in a shorter period of time, thus being more powerful.

CrossFit is so unique because it demands both power and muscular endurance. A stronger and more durable muscle is capable of meeting the demand. If you are a crossfitter, then the power phase is your sweet spot. It's your goal. And it took going through all those other phases to get there.

Progression is a beautiful and rewarding process, but you must put your trust (and time) into it. 

-Taylor Race, owner and trainer at SPSC CrossFit / St. Pete Strength and Conditioning