“You get what you pay for”- You’ve probably heard this cliche many times before. Most of the time, it is used to suggest that more expensive options are better than less expensive options, and the superior quality is the justification of the higher price. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not… but that doesn’t have anything to do with what this article is about. I just thought it was a catchy title. Now, I’m going to teach you some cool shit.
Often, when I’m having a conversation at the gym about how to achieve a specific goal, you might hear me say something like, “your body is an ADAPTATION machine”. (What I really mean is that your body is a complex adaptive system, but I’ve found that most people understand the word “machine” a bit better). If YOU are exposed to a specific stressor in your environment that you are not already well suited to deal with, your body will adapt SPECIFICALLY to THAT particular stressor.
“Sounds complicated, Nathan. WTF does all that even mean?”
Let’s try it like this- Nathan has been lifting heavy weights for a while, and Nathan’s body has adapted to THAT particular stressor. Nathan’s body has adapted by adding muscle mass, bone density, and a number of other things that will specifically improve his ability to lift heavy weights… BUT, how much has all of that heavy lifting done to improve his ability to do a 5 mile run? I sat down and asked myself that question in preparation for the writing of this piece, and my answer was a resounding, “not too fucking much”.
You see, your body is “wired” to be efficient with its resources. Building muscle, adding tendon thickness, improving cardiovascular performance, and/or any other super cool fitness adaptations are costly in terms of energy and other resources. Energy and resources are needed to build the additional muscle, for example, and that extra muscle also constantly requires additional energy to maintain- thus, the extra muscle makes it more likely that you will starve to death if there is a food shortage (believe it or not, humans couldn’t always just use their iphone to have doordash deliver taco bell to their doorstep. We used to have to WORK for our food. And I don’t mean working as a doordash driver… I mean, we had to PHYSICALLY work for it… like HUNT AND KILL it).
But wait, let’s think about this- If I live in an environment where I show my body that I don’t have to do ANY physical work to get food, my body responds by being super efficient (it has no reason to become the sort of bad ass that can hunt, kill, farm, gather, or do work of any kind. It can focus entirely on avoiding the one thing that it will forever be scared is always lurking right around the corner… starvation). BUT, what if I show my body something very different? What if I show it that it NEEDS to be more badass to “survive” (like, suppose I continually pick things up that are so heavy that they feel like a mild threat to my survival). Suddenly, my body has more to worry about than just starvation. Now it “believes” that “starvation might come as the result of me not being badass enough to survive in this new environment”, so it has to strike a balance between being efficient and being strong, but you’ll notice that it still doesn’t have any reason to devote precious resources to making me better at running long distances.
And now we come back to my clever title- You Get What You Pay For. In the fancy-schmancy research literature, “you get what you pay for” is often referred to as the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). Very simply, if you force yourself to run 1 mile fast enough that it crosses the threshold necessary to trigger adaptation, you will begin to adapt in ways that will make you better AT RUNNING DISTANCES OF ROUGHLY 1 MILE. Anything that’s very similar to “running 1 mile” will also be improved by these adaptations (for example running 1.5 miles or biking 4 miles), but things that are very different (ability to do pull ups, bench press, playing the piano) won’t be improved much, if at all. WHY? Let’s briefly explore.
Since this is a newsletter and not a textbook, I’m going to try to keep this short (if you want to hear me ramble on about this, or any other topic, just ask). Put simply, the adaptation that you’re likely to see from your training will be directly related to the limiting factor of that training. An example will help clear things up-
You’re doing the following workout-
20 kettlebell swing (53/35)
5 overhead squat (95/65)
5 pull up
You happen to be pretty decent at all of the exercises in the workout, and the prescribed weights aren’t heavy for you. You’ll be able to go FAST, right? So what will be the limiting factor that keeps you from going even faster? You try it, and you find that when you push as fast as you can, you “run out of air”. It’s not that your glutes are reaching muscular failure during the kettlebell swing (muscle is the limiting factor). It’s not that your quads are failing during the squat (muscle again), or that you can’t maintain the overhead position (technical failure). You are USING those abilities, but you may not be pushing THEM hard enough to cross their individual adaptation thresholds (i.e. 5 pull ups might be very easy for your arms and lats, and therefore not enough of a stimulus to trigger the adaptation of additional muscle growth in that area as a result of THIS workout). But you ARE triggering other adaptations. Your cardiovascular system is being pushed past its threshold, certain muscles are being pushed past endurance thresholds, etc. This workout will likely result in your body adapting by increasing its “work capacity” (this IS what you “paid for” in this workout). But your body will likely NOT adapt to THIS PARTICULAR WORKOUT by increasing its absolute strength, nor by adding muscle mass (that ISN’T what you paid for in this workout. You’ll need to do something else that will trigger THOSE specific adaptations if they are important to you).
I’m guessing that not everyone who started reading this article is still with me at this point. To those of you that are still here, just know that your brain has crossed an adaptation threshold that all of the quitters failed to reach. I hope this was helpful.