The Tipping Point of Progress (and the Trap of Commission Bias)
Water boils at 212 degrees fahrenheit, or for my friends across the pond 100 degrees celsius. Water doesn’t care how much time or energy you invest into heating it - you can dedicate your life to the task but there still won’t be an outward change until the boiling point is hit. Does that mean the work required to get from 60 to 212 degrees fahrenheit doesn’t matter ? Of course not. ‘Results’ may only be seen when the water reaches 212 degrees, but that would have never occurred had the work to heat it prior not been done.
Similarly, the biggest breakthroughs in our training careers are always the result of previous actions which build up over time to create a tangible result. Not the 4 week squat cycles or nasty endurance peaking cycles which simply serve to leverage functional adaptations, which can be defined as the transient adaptations where an increase in capacity results from an overabundance of stress. These adaptations occur on a short time scale, and can be thought of as an adaptive survival mechanism.
For example, in the mile run or 2k row we can deduce that fatigue is largely driven by our brains reaction to a build up of certain by-products. So, to combat this we can create a scenario in training with an ever increasing amount of by-product, and as a result week to week improvements in training will be driven by a need to survive this short term, transient, stressor, Once this stressor is removed, and a need to ‘tolerate it’ subsides then an athlete will return to a baseline state. This is why athletes see rapid gains when thrown on an aggressive training program, but lose these ‘transient’ improvements when they inevitably get burnt out or injured. In these cases they get a quick improvement via functional adaptation despite the fact that they’ve yet to develop structural adaptations to support these training loads.
However, if we apply these transient stressors without a high enough frequency, and at a proper dose, they will effectively become ‘environmental stressors’ which are potent stimuli which will elicit structural adaptations over time, which are changes to the muscle, bone, heart, lunge, mitochondria, and so forth. These changes changes allow our bodies to handle the demands of training, and sport, long term and are the base for which we can build new functional adaptations in the future. As such, we are always going through an overlapping process of functional and structural adaptations.
The trap athletes often fall into is making a few changes to their program, failing to see immediate results, and then stopping. To make a meaningful difference the work you are putting in needs to persist long enough to break through inevitable plateaus. What you as an athlete may experience as a static period doesn’t mean the work you’re doing isn’t having an effect. Like the water gradually heating, you are gradually changing under the hood.
If you’re an intermediate to advanced athlete it’s unlikely that you will ever consistently hit PR’s in a linear fashion like you did when you were a beginner doing starting strength 5x5’s or Wendler 5-3-1. Rather, it’s more likely your snatch is stuck at 235 pounds for 8 months, then suddenly jumps to 240, then seemingly out of nowhere a few weeks later you hit 250. While these PR’s may have seemed to emerge from a magic training prescription composed of exact sequences of sets and reps the reality is they were forged from a foundation of prior work during a period where observable improvement was much less substantial.
As humans we suffer from what behavioral psychologists call a commision bias, which by definition is the tendency towards action rather than inaction. It’s hard for us to believe that the solution can sometimes be doing nothing. We as coaches are especially subject to this bias - we believe the only way to help in athlete is to always throw novel stimuli there way, when in reality they may be better off continuing to chip away at the same set of workouts week in and week out without much change.
If an athlete isn’t seeing results we get impatient and feel a strong urge to give them something, or anything, to expedite their progress. Often times this gives them cheap and easy results a la functional adaptations, which makes us look like wizards and creates some job security, but the reality is that while constantly changing training variables makes it look like an athlete progresses on paper they don’t move the needle much in time scales larger than 2-4 weeks.
It’s worth mentioning that none of this is to say that you shouldn’t ever adjust training or radically overhaul your approach altogether. Sometimes that makes sense and is the best option. However, it’s often the wrong approach. Knowing when to distinguish this is key. If we are heating our water it wouldn’t make sense to take it from the stove top and put it on the microwave, then transfer it to a kettle, then back to the stove. By doing so we never let it simmer long enough to reach the boiling point.
Similarly, if you are always jumping from program to program you’re never putting in consistent work long enough to let the work do it’s ‘magic’. Every plateau is just a temporary delay on the long, slow march of progress. What you need is to continue to put in your reps until they accumulate enough to hit the tipping point, which is when you’ve crossed a threshold of work and results amass like 8th cousins after winning the lottery.
"To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go—we have a long way—no hurry—just one step after the next"