Fatigue Management and the Adaptive Process

One of the most common, if not THE most common question you will read on the net, or get from lifters in regards to training is, “how long should I stay on this routine?”

That, or as soon as the lifter hits a bit of plateau he or she immediately begins contemplating that it’s time to make a change because “dem gainz” aren’t coming anymore.

Depending on the lifter, and what they have been doing, there may be some validation to this.

Training is a stress on the body, and if the stress levels are high enough the body then adapts by improving it’s ability to perform these functions. Depending on how it is stressed, it generally adapts by growing more muscle mass, or by getting stronger. Sometimes a little bit of both. At a very basic level, that’s what lifting causes the body to do.

If stress is too low, then there is no adaptive response.

If stress is too high, especially for an extended period, then overtraining/under-recovering happens.

When stress is optimal or efficient, and recovery factors are met, then we grow larger, stronger, or a bit of both.

Specificity plays a role here as well because the body will adapt to what it is you’re asking it to perform better at. If you want to get good at something, then do that particular thing. So adaptation works hand in hand with specificity in order to allow you to perform better.

Eventually there comes a point where the body adapts enough to the stress placed on it that it can perform efficiently at what you keep asking it to do. To give a representation of this….

Week 1 – Start a new routine – You get sore from the change in movements and change in set and rep schemes
Week 2 – You perform better than in week 1, soreness is still on coming, but not as bad as week 1
Week 3 – You perform much better than in week 2, soreness is minimal
Week 4 – You perform much better than in week 3, soreness is mostly nonexistent
Week 5 – You perform slightly better than in week 4, no soreness
Week 6 – You perform no better than in week 5, no soreness
Week 7 – You perform no better than in week 6 or perhaps worse in some movements, no soreness

This is just an example, and obviously doesn’t apply to everyone in every situation. But it is fairly typical. Especially if the program has no deviations in it from week to week, like waving intensity, or any movement/exercise variation.

As you can see in this example, the adaption curve tends to trend upwards around week 4, then trend downwards thereafter. Theoretically speaking in this example, week 6 complete adaptation has occurred and the body isn’t being stressed in a way it cannot handle or tolerate. From there the athlete tends to hit a plateau, or can even regress at times. My own personal theory is that the body can sometimes reduce performance ability to find a “set point” that it can maintain with minimal effort. That is the body actually being “efficient”.

The other factor is that, based on the structure of the program being ran, the athlete could start to experience overtraining at week 6 or 7. Here is why I think that’s a possibility.

Once the body is no longer trying to adapt to performance and has reached a “set point” then all that is happening in training is fatigue accumulation. In other words, you go to the gym and train the same way you’ve been training, so you’re still accumulating fatigue from the stress, but because the body has no new stress to adapt to there are no “gains” coming.

Think about this….and get frustrated.

So you go to the gym, bust your ass, and all you’re really doing is digging a deeper recovery hole but doing very little to bring forth new results from said training.

Let me stress this once again. Once you’ve reached adaptation in a routine or a series of movements, improvements in said performance will be minimal, yet stress from training stays the same or even possibly increases.

So basically, you’re just training to get tired at that point. Training progress will be minimal more than likely.

Variations in training to avoid stagnation

So does this mean that as soon as a plateau arrives that training has to be overhauled completely?

Not at all.

Years ago I remember reading about a Russian coach who simply changed out the shoes his athletes wore for squatting in order to force them to adapt to a “new stress”. Whether this story is myth or not, I don’t know, but I get the idea behind it. He didn’t overhaul movements and training on a large scale. He made a small change that caused the body to have to adapt to something new again.

Once you realize that improvements in training aren’t forthcoming, you can start with small and subtle changes to get things moving forward again. Here are some ideas you can implement in order to avoid becoming a “chronic routine changer”.

Change rep and set schemes – Lots of guys get stuck in a specific rep or set scheme and don’t vary them from week to week. If you’re that guy that has been stuck for weeks on end hitting X weight for Y reps, then switch that out for something difference.

For example, if you’ve been doing a back off set in the bench press for maximum reps, you can do something as simple as breaking that set down into three rest/pause sets. So if you’ve been hitting 225×20 reps and can’t get past 20, break that set into three sets so more work is done. Do 3 sets of 8, with only 30-45 seconds of rest between sets. Now you’re doing 24 reps, but broken down over 3 sets, with minimal rest between sets. It’s not the SAME as 1 set of 225×20, and that’s exactly the point. It’s a simple change, but one that can possibly get things moving again.

You can also have a rotation of set and rep schemes that you cycle through in training so that stagnation is limited. For example, if you had been doing 5 sets of 8 reps in the bench press @ 75% and had several weeks where your performance did not improve, you could make just a few changes to create new stress in training without overhauling everything.

Bench Press 
Week 1 – 5 sets of 8 @ 75%, 1 set of as many as possible @ 65%
Week 2 – 3 sets of 3 @ 85%, then 4 sets of 6 @ 80%
Week 3 – repeat

Change hand and foot positions – Another way to create new stress to adapt to in training is to simply change foot or grip positions in a movement. For squats you can bring your stance in or out slightly. For pressing movements, the same change is applicable. Move your grip in or out for a few weeks.

You don’t even have to change that for the entire workout. You can do something as simple as use the last few sets in a volume sequence dedicated to that change.

For example if you had been doing 8 sets of 5 in the squat with a low bar, and medium stance, you could switch the last 3 sets to using high bar with a narrow stance. For bench press or any other press, you could use a close grip variation of the movement for several sets.

Deload – Also to add, every 4-6 weeks before you make these changes, take a deload. A deload in between can enhance the adaptive process and make sure fatigue is managed over the long term. This way the fatigue accumulation slate is wiped clean AND a new adaptive stress is introduced right after. Because the body is such a marvelous thing, a deload alone may not do the trick if you resume training in the exact same way you had been before. The adaptive process will be much shorter than the first time around, and fatigue debt will be reached far earlier than before. So deload between “changes” so that you’re getting the best of both worlds.


There are a myriad of ways you can change your training in order to further your progress without making a bunch of wholesale changes. If you’re a competitive strength athlete that actually has to perform particular movements for competition then it behooves you to keep those competitive lifts in your routine at all times. However, using variations of the movements as part of the training plan can and should be viable options throughout the year in order to avoid stagnation.

As mentioned before, a plateau is essentially when a place is reached in training where the body no longer has to adapt to the stress being supplied by your training, and fatigue accumulation is happening or cannot be overcome with recovery. You can’t get around accumulating fatigue in training, but you can make sure that your hard work and efforts are giving you a return on your energy investment in training.

Want to know more about Paul Carter’s methodology?  Get his excellent book Base Building over at Amazon.com

Paul Carter, Base Building