General Adaptation and Specific Adaptation

The process of the “general adaptive response” is conceptually a very simple process. Without going into great molecular detail, the following stress response occurs in the body

  1. Recognizes a stressor
  2. Hormones are released
  3. Mobilizes energies to deal with the stressor
  4. Structures may be destroyed while dealing with the stressor (myosin heads during a muscular contraction)
  5. Magnitude and duration of the stressor determines the amount of destruction and mobilization of energy
  6. Once stressor is removed or defeated (like a cold), the body can begin the repair process
  7. Energies that were used and structures were broken are rebuilt in a stronger fashion to allow the body to deal with future stressors of the same nature

This process can be represented by the stimulus-recovery-adaptation curve. In an even more simplified explanation, the SRA curve illustrates that the body encounters a stressors (stimulus), which reduces the body’s capacity. The body then has to recover (recovery) from the stimulus, using resources from either within the body or foodstuffs you consume. Then, assuming the stimulus was not too damaging, the body adapts to a higher level than it was before the stressor was encountered (adaptation).


Combining the above numbered steps and the SRA curve, we can that the stimulus response occurs over stages 1-5, the recovery process occurs during stage 6, and adaptation occurs in the 7th stage.

What Makes This Adaptive Response Specific?

The general adaptive response is what occurs to the body when pretty much any system is stressed, hence the term “general adaptation”. Thus, this is the same process that makes you tan, the same process that builds callouses, and the same process that builds muscles.

So, what does this mean for someone looking to make specific adaptations geared towards a specific goal?

Well, if we look at the above process, we can see a couple of key aspects that can aid in bringing some clarity.

In summary, what we stress needs to be rebuilt, the duration and magnitude affects how much damage occurs to these structures, the recovery process dictates how much adaptation can then take place.

In order to make the general response a specific response, there needs to be a systematic application of stresses and recovery processes on a specific set of structures/systems. The slow accumulation of these specific stimulus-recovery-adaptations processes will eventually manifest itself in the form of systemic change. Therefore, overtime the body will go through a process of specific functional specialization.

This may seem a little complex on the surface, but it simply means that training needs to be goal directed and complimentary. Firstly, the specific desired adaptation needs to be identified. Once this desired adaptation is identified, training needs revolve around applying stressors that evoke adaptation to the desired systems. If the adaptations vary too great in nature, the issue with competing demands will arise. This does not mean adaptation to multiple systems of different specificity cannot occur, it just means their adaptation will not be as pronounced if the competing demands were removed.

Its like trying to manage a garden and you only have one bucket of water. Pick the plants you like the most and give them the attention. If you try and water the plants, the entire garden will be subpar. If you focus on a couple of plants, you will at least be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor.


The body is not very good at understanding specificity. It is up to the coach and the athlete to make the general adaptive process specific to their goals. Systematic training and proper organization will likely make this process most effective.




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