Constituent and Emergent Adaptations

Training is all about adaptation. In writing a training program, what we’re doing is structuring stressors which (we presume), when applied to/by the athlete, will result in certain adaptations. When we program sets of 10 in the back squat, there is a range of adaptations we seek to elicit (hypertrophy, for example.) Same when we program a sixty minute row at 140-145 heart rate (aerobic endurance.)

So what’s the adaptation we’re seeking when we program something like the following:

4 Rounds For Time:
12 Thrusters, 155#/105#
500m Row

If there exists some commonly known characteristic of fitness – that is, some particular, named adaptation – that a workout like this is aimed at developing, I don’t know what that characteristic is called. My (purely speculative and anecdotal) suspicion is that there does exist some unique adaptation not only to this type of training, but perhaps (if one is tolerant of such granularity) for each particular workout.

Let’s subdivide these adaptations into two categories: constituent adaptations and emergent adaptations.

Constituent adaptations are the sort of things most strength and conditioning coaches are familiar with – things like strength, power, aerobic power, anaerobic endurance, and the like. Most of the time, fitness sport programs are based around these adaptations. This is for good reason: these sorts of adaptations are well researched, legible, and provide a sound structure for developing the base of fitness needed for success in competitive CrossFit and related endeavors.

Emergent adaptations, on the other hand, are deeply illegible – at least for now. We don’t have a name for them. In fact, there’s no sense in which I can prove that they exist. But as a conjecture, the existence of emergent adaptations certainly seems to have a lot of explanatory power for an experience that I (and I suspect many other coaches in this sphere) have had. Sometimes, an athlete makes tremendous progress in some set of constituent adaptations, but then fails to carry that progress over into areas where it would seem relevant. As an example, rowing a PR 2k and improving your front squat and push press seems like it ought to make a significant difference to an athlete’s performance in the workout above – and sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn’t. The possibility of there existing more specific adaptations, which are developed much more efficiently, if not exclusively, through the sort of multimodal endurance work that the above workout provides, seems a plausible explanation for this phenomenon.

What does this mean from a programming perspective?

In my book “Fitness As Sport: Theory & Practice”, I suggested a model of yearly periodization for fitness sport athletes which I called “Hourglass Periodization”.

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In this model, the first and second phases of training are primarily focused on constituent adaptations, while the third phase is focused primarily on emergent adaptations. “Broad, general” training refers to a focus on establishing a base of capacity and ability in each of the constituent domains of the sport (as I define them, of course) – weightlifting, strength, gymnastics, and endurance. During this period, we seek to build a base in each of these domains, preparing the athlete to chase down new personal bests across them. “Broadly specific” training is aimed at maximizing capacity and ability in each of those domains, taking the base from the first phase of training and capitalizing on it. Finally, in “specifically broad” training, we’re aiming at transferring the gains we made in broad, general training and broad, specific training, into the sort of events we are most likely to see in CrossFit competitions. “Specifically broad” refers to the nature of these events – they demand proficiency across a broad range of attributes, but those attributes will be tested in a specifically broad way. In other words, you’re not going to be expected to just be able to row a fast 2k and showcase a strong front squat and push press. You have to put them together.

The putting together is what emergent adaptations are about. This is a huge topic and one I feel I’m only scratching the surface of, so I won’t go into more here, though I hope to in future. For now, I’ll leave you with this: since writing the book, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the importance of trying to specifically develop emergent adaptations, rather than relying on the development of constituent adaptations to bring emergent adaptations along on their own.