In the conclusion of Part I, we alluded to the difference in scheduling requirements between skill adaptation and strength adaptation. In this part, we will dig into that difference a bit more.
Let's first consider how strength adaptation plays out over time. To do this, we'll start with day zero. Day one will be when the athlete does their workout, but we want to understand where they were before the workout. On day zero, athletes are at baseline. This is not to say that they have not made gains in the past from which they are still benefiting. Instead, it is wherever they are when its time to start strength training again after their most recent season or some other break in strength training.
As I said, on day one the athlete does a workout and their body starts to respond immediately. The initial response is not favorable. As the exercise goes on, their performance decreases due to fatigue.
But, then, the body begins to "compensate" or, more commonly, "recover." Recovery is when systems throughout the body react to the work they've been put through by preparing the body to do better under the same workout conditions in the future. However, before it can do that, the body has to get back to baseline. For many muscle groups, return to baseline happens on day two or three.
Once back to baseline, the body continues to improve performance with "supercompensation" or improvement beyond the baseline. This typically is the state on day three or four. What happens then?
The body will not hold on to the benefits of supercompensation forever. It is inefficient to maintain a body that is built up beyond what it is being used for. So, at the end of supercompensation we have the dreaded return to baseline.
The general stages of the body's reaction to training.
Let's say that an athlete decides to only do one workout per week in their training regiment. Their second workout would be on day eight. By this time, they will have returned to baseline. That is a pretty minimal level of strength training program effort, but still, all of the effort is wasted as the athlete will bounce around the baseline for as long as they follow this plan.
Let's consider a program at the opposite extreme. In this case, the athlete goes right back in for additional workouts on days two, three, four, and so on. Here the athlete has not gotten through the compensation phase yet, and the athlete encounters the next stimulus when their performance is below the baseline. Thus the next stimulus takes them even further below the baseline. At each step, the athlete is making themselves worse. So, now, its a lot of effort and negative results. Much worse!
So, the ideal thing to do is to shoot for the peak of supercompensation for the next workout. Life gets in the way of getting this perfect most of the time, but training programs try to get close by evenly spacing out workouts for a given muscle group over two or three days per week. Regardless, one can see that the schedule really matters with strength adaptation.
Spacing out workouts for specific muscle groups is a key piece of effective strength training.
Once again, we can start with day zero to establish a baseline and put training on day one. What happens to performance quality during this training? As long as the challenge of this training is primarily focused on skill as opposed to a skill/strength blend, performance will improve during training. Is this where the benefit stops? No, in many cases, far more significant gains are made over the next couple of nights of sleep.
Then we taper back to baseline right? Well, yes, in some sense. First, the return to baseline is extended over months because the adaptations made to more efficiently encode these skills don't put a heavy burden on the body to maintain. Second, with enough practice, the return to baseline may not happen. Consider riding a bike. Sure any adult who hasn't ridden a bike for a while will be worse than they were last time they rode a bike. However, they will still be clearly better bike riders than when they first learned in early childhood.
So, if the taper to baseline is over months, it doesn't become critical to get back in right away. The schedule can be flexible, with virtually zero loss of learning.
There are some more points to make, so it turns out this will go to Part Three. For now, I hope the difference in importance of the schedule between strength and skill adaptation is clear!
Riding a bike is an example of a skill that can come back to you even after time away from it.