Your Body is an Adaptive Machine (What Areas You Need to Focus on in Fitness and Nutrition to Reach Your Goals)

Key Points:

  • Your body is an adaptive machine, and will always try to reach a point where it is functioning well given its current environment.
  • Some of these adaptations are positive, but many are negative. 
  • In training, identify your goal (strength, hypertrophy, mobility) and tailor your program to that.
  • Maladaptations in nutrition are common – Many people’s “normal” is a state of low-grade inflammation due to the foods their eating, and they might not even know it. 

Homeostasis – “a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism, population, or group.”

Last rep. 500 pounds on your back, high energy music blaring into your earholes, tunnel vision forwards. Pure focus.

With one last breath out, you breath in, Valsalva against your belt, and break at the hips and knees. Slow, controlled decent, and you hit the hole. Now all you have to do is stand up. Engaging every muscle in your body, you begin the slow, painful ascent.

You notice every vein and blood carrying-tube in your now lobster-colored face and neck popping out in the gratuitous gym mirror.

Finally able to lock your knees, you rack the weight. You catch your breath; slight head rush. Feelings of elation and accomplishment. The completion of your last heavy set.

Neuromuscular Adaptation

 

What you just accomplished set off a load of different processes in your body.

 

The acute result is primarily a phrase which people use to describe exhaustion and an inability to have a high power output without muscular exhaustion (which may or may not be accurate) – nervous system fatigue. All of your nerves had to work in conjunction to activate every muscle fiber in your body to lift that weight.

 

The secondary acute result is muscular fatigue. Since you didn’t place a high volume of work on the muscle, it didn’t fatigue quite as much as your nervous system. In effect, this signals your body to first and foremost adapt the nervous system to recruit the necessary muscle fibers faster and more readily, and be able to lift that heavy weight more easily in the future.

 

Secondly, it signals that the muscles need to grow to become stronger, but this signal isn’t quite as loud as the aforementioned nervous system signal. After the appropriate rest and nutrient assimilation, your body adapts. If we didn’t adapt, we’d have been long extinct by now.

Muscular Adaptation

 

The same happens when you’re following a higher volume routine.

Six sets of an isolation exercise with 12-15 reps finished and 2 reps left in the tank, perhaps taking the last one or two sets to failure; shorter rest periods in between sets. Not quite as taxing on the nervous system, but you place a repeated higher load on the muscle, causing more muscle damage and the build-up of metabolic waste products.

This (amongst a host of other things known and unknown) signals the muscle that it needs to grow and expand to be able to handle the more extended time periods of stress placed upon it, and hypertrophy is the result with strength secondarily occurring. More adaptation.

Marathon runner? Your body will strip off all unnecessary mass, both muscle and fat, to make you light as possible for the task at hand.

Take repeated ice baths? Induction of brown fat and more body heat production.

Repeated use of the sauna? Increased sweating and induction of heat shock proteins to better handle the stress later.

Fall asleep on the beach sans sunscreen? That painful red turns into a natural sunscreen – your golden tan – that will aid you against those UV rays later (unless you’re me – then you just go from tomato to pink-rose and back to white).

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

The takeaway on the training side?

 

 
If strength is your main goal, you need to go through training blocks of, perhaps, 8 weeks focusing mainly on strength; lower rep ranges, higher weight, higher rest periods.

 

 
Then you can enter a hypertrophy block for slightly less period of time of time, perhaps 4-6 weeks  (higher rep ranges, 8-12, shorter rest periods, overall more weekly volume) to get your muscles bigger in order to foster more strength.

 

 
And repeat. Of course, this is a generalized recommendation; if you want maximal results for you, your training age and overall health history matters, so I’d advise getting with an experienced coach.

 

 
You could also do a daily undulating periodized program focusing more on strength with 70% of your work in the 3-8 rep range and 30% of your work being in the 8-20 rep range – i.e. 1 day in focusing on the big compound movements in the 3-5 rep range, one day in the 5-8 rep range, one day still incorporating some big compound movements, but doing a lot of isolation and machine work in the 12-15 rep range.

 

 
Hypertrophy is your main goal? The same can be said as above except the opposite. You want to challenge the muscle, not the movement. 70% of your work in the higher rep ranges and 30% of your work in the lower, “strength” rep ranges, focusing on perfect execution of the exercise and feeling the tension in the correct muscle throughout the full range of motion.

 

 
 
For better or for worse, your body is an adaptive machine. These processes are constantly happening, every second of every day.

 

 
All of the aforementioned adaptations are for the better. Though it can be a fine and blurry line. But the opposite also occurs – your body will adapt for the worst. And what’s even more disturbing? A lot of the times you won’t even know it.

 

 

Maladaptation

 

 

Let’s take an example of maladaptation from Type 2 Diabetes.

 

 
A normal fasting blood sugar for a healthy human is around 75-90, but optimal is said to be between 75-80. If your blood sugar begins to dip below 60, for most folks, they’ll begin to experience unsettling symptoms.

 

 
Clammy skin, cold sweat, shaking hands, lightheadedness. This is the signal to find food to get it back up.

 

 
For those unfamiliar, Type 2 Diabetes is essentially a disease of blood sugar dysregulation. Insulin can’t do it’s job correctly (excess sugar disposal from the bloodstream), resulting in fasting blood sugars above 120 and an inability to get post-meal blood sugars down as well.

 

 
Having worked for an endocrinologist in the past, I’d routinely see newly diagnosed T2DM patients come in with fasting blood sugars well above 200, and unbeknownst to them, it had been this high for months.

 

 
Part of the endocrinologist’s spiel to them would be the fact that they have to get their blood sugar back into a normal range, but their body is going to fight it.

 

 
When your body first sees that your blood sugar is high, it’ll send out alarms. However, after a period of time with consistently high blood sugar, your body’s sensor will experience a kind of reset.

 

 
If a patient’s blood sugar has been consistently in the 200’s for a long period of time, their body will “lie” to them and give them symptoms of “low” blood sugar when their sugar drops to a lower sugar (but still abnormally high) of 100-120.

 

 
Adaptation, albeit with negative health consequences. The endocrinologist would consistently have to tell patients to ignore those symptoms and not eat any sugar in order to reset the point at which the sensor thinks your blood sugar is low. Eventually, the reset happens.

My Maladaptation Anecdote

 
Back in my days of un-health and debauchery, I would consistently drink 6-10 beers every night.
 

 

At first, this resulted in rather horrible hangovers. However, after a period of consistent alcohol abuse, I was sending signals to my body that the toxins weren’t going to abate.
 

 

I eventually stopped waking up with nausea and headaches as a result – no more hangovers.
 

 

This isn’t to say that less harm was being done, on the contrary; just as much, if not more harm was being done, but since I was continually bombarding my system with the signal, it adapted in a way that it needed to given that situation.
 

 

The least it could do was stop making me feel sick every morning so I could try and function better in everyday life.

 

Homeostasis

 

Your body is always going to attempt to reach a homeostatic point – that is – it’s going to try and attempt to bring your physiology back to a set point so that you can function and react to everyday occurrences as needed.
 

 

With that said, your body doesn’t know whether or not the adaptation it has set in motion is good for you or bad for you; it just adapts. It knows no different.

 

 
Think about it. Do you currently have any physical maladaptations you can think of? We all do to some degree.

Subtle Maladaptations in Nutrition

 

 

The “new normal” – most times adaptations occur so slowly and over a long period of time that the effects are sub-perceptual.

 

 
When you were 20, you certainly didn’t have that nagging low back pain you have now, nor did you have that muscle stiffness that makes getting out of bed in the morning more of a chore. But at the same time, you definitely don’t plan on going to the doctor to address it any time soon – you just accept it. It occurred over such a long period of time that this is your new normal.

 

 
The same thing happens with nutrition, often for the worse.

 

 
Since the majority of Americans have eaten the SAD (standard American diet) high in refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and inflammatory, oxidized vegetable oils all of their life, they’re in a constant maladaptation process.

 

 
This is why their bodies aren’t sending them acute emergency signals telling them what they’re eating is slowly killing them. The signals are slow and often unnoticeable until they build up to such a degree that manifests in chronic disease.
 

 

Food Intolerances

The same can be said for subclinical food intolerances.
If you’re just reactant enough to a compound in food that it causes mild, low-grade gut inflammation, but not violently so, chances are your normal is a constant state of low-grade digestive distress.
This could manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on how long it’s been going on and sometimes it won’t even manifest with gut symptoms! Fatigue, lethargy, anxiety, depression could all be symptoms.
This is the exact same reason that if you cut these foods out of your diet for at least a month, you’ll begin to experience a new normal that feels significantly better.
You might stop forgetting where you put your keys. You might have better verbal fluency. That nagging low back pain might even go away. However, upon reintroduction of said foods, your body WILL send you violent signals to let you know what you’re doing to it.

The Takeaway

 

Now what can you do with all this information?
I would encourage you to sit still and quiet with as little external input as possible. Really hone in on how you feel right now. Feel every aspect of your body.
Practice better awareness practices. Feel your breathing currently.
After a meal, hone in on your digestion. Do you feel bloated? Do you have gas?
When you wake up, are you stiffer and more tired than you used to be?
Try and remember how you felt 2, 3, 5, 10 years ago. Do you feel the same? Chances are that you don’t.
Age is a natural, unavoidable process, but our environment and our inputs (food, stress, etc) can accelerate it or slow it.
If you realize that you don’t feel as well as you could, then I’d encourage you to really pay attention and try to make connections to these feelings, the food you’re eating, and the lifestyle that you’re living.
To change in nutrition, I would personally start with the rule of thumb that if it comes in a sealed package, try your best to avoid it. If you do eat a packaged food, the ingredient list shouldn’t be a paragraph long. Start out with all whole foods and work your way down from there.
The human brain evolved being comfortable with black-and-white (an evolutionary adaptation that definitely helped us survive in hunter-gatherer times!), but the physics-based laws that govern this world operate on a very granular and nuanced greyscale.
I wish I could give you a more concrete “Eat this! And don’t eat this!”, but beyond the obvious nutritional suspects, I can’t. I would encourage you to do many elimination/re-introduction experiments, and with enough playing around, you will find the right diet for you.

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