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Strength Adaptation vs. Skill Adaptation Part III

By Andy Blaylock, 05/07/20, 8:30AM CDT


Hockey trainer Andy Blaylock continues his research in how the body reacts to specific training and exercises.

The hypothetical buckets we are imagining in this story leak far more slowly than the one depicted.

Train As If You Are Trying to Fill a Leaky Bucket

In Part II, we saw that keeping a regular schedule is critical in strength adaptation, while at the same time, it is almost a non-factor in skill adaptation. Here, we'll drive that point home using a metaphor of leaky buckets. Note: Here, our buckets are unrealistic in their leakiness. We have to imagine that the leaks are super tiny, so it would take days to weeks to leak back to the bottom of the hole after we add some water to the bucket.

Let's consider the idea of accumulation. In both strength adaptation and skill adaptation, we seek out training opportunities over many instances and let our body do its thing to automatically figure out how to respond in order to improve. Each time this happens, the body only makes a small adaptation, but it is almost like all of this training is being added up, and the result you get corresponds to that sum. In other words, there has been an accumulation of a series of training sessions.

We've already seen it isn't that simple in strength adaptation where we can't add the effects unless the schedule is right. We are not going to worry about that complication here. We are going to pretend that strength training leads to immediate improvement. However, we are going to imagine that one can't strength train again for a few days, so at least that part is realistic.

Let's use our leaky bucket to help drive the point home. Imagine we have a bucket to help us visualize the strength adaptation process. This bucket would have a hole in it right at the level of the "baseline" such that after adding some water, the bucket would immediately begin to leak (very slowly) to bring the level back to baseline.

The leaky bucket theory can also be applied to strength training.

Oh, by the way, we are going to pretend that a couple of additional considerations are true. First, evaporation is not a part of our imaginary leaky bucket world, so we only have to worry about these leaks. Second, we can only add a small amount of water at a time. The full height of the bucket represents our potential, and in a real training scenario, we can't get there in just a few weeks. So, to honor that, we need to imagine it takes lots of "fill-ups" to get us there.

The only way to make progress on filling the bucket up is to relentlessly add water to the bucket whenever you get a chance. In strength training, "getting the chance" basically means waiting for peak super-compensation to best leverage the dynamics of strength adaptation. This is why we can't just "add water" continuously. Hmmm, it seems like strength development is an exhausting battle against "the leak." It is.

Skill adaptation can be modeled with a leaky bucket too. But in this case, the leak is even tinier. The skill adaptation bucket leaks back to baseline over the course of a few months. So, if one ignores the bucket for three weeks, no big deal. Most of the gains from the last addition of water will persist (again, there is no evaporation in this world).

However, here comes the next unrealistic aspect of this leaky bucket world if we want it to match up with how training works. For skill adaptation, we have a really, really tall bucket. This is a reference to the 10,000 hours idea, popularized by renowned author Malcolm Gladwell, which states that one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expertise in an area.

Of course, the path to expertise isn't actually governed by a nice round number like 10,000 hours, but it conveys the general idea that one has to work and work and work to get to an expert level in various areas of life. Given the idea that it takes an extraordinary amount of practice time to achieve expertise, waiting three weeks between each practice session between filling the skill bucket is a counterproductive plan.

Why? Because it is going to take a ton of fill-ups to top off the super tall skill bucket. Even though the leak in the "skill adaptation bucket" is essentially a non-factor, If you want to get good, you'll need to train more frequently than that.

And, even more, if you want to get good fast, skill development can be done frequently, and you will make more progress more quickly. You don't have to wait a few days for the body to recover when just working on skills.

So, while taking a break, if the schedule demands it or you need to recharge is not worth stressing over in skill adaptation because movement back toward the baseline is super slow, it is still worth training frequently when you have time to make more rapid progress.

Competitive Edge helps players fill their "bucket" with comprehensive off-ice training.

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