Note: Today, I will revisit some of my writings from fifteen years ago and then expand on the topic of health and performance.
According to Prof. Bayevsky, at any given moment, between 50 to 80% of all people are in the so-called donozoological state, or between health and illness. According to academician Nikolay Amosov, these people are only “statically healthy” — until the environment disrupts their fragile status quo. Although they may be feeling fine, even a mild infection is potentially dangerous to them. Not the infection itself, but the complications from the strain it puts on the supply systems. You might know someone who died of a cardiac arrest while struggling with some other malady.
Say, Bob’s tissues need a gallon of blood a minute at rest and his heart can pump out 1.3 gallons per minute max, which is average — this is called the maximal cardiac output. Everything is fine and dandy — until the man goes to South America and catches typhoid fever. His energy requirements skyrocket. Fighting a disease is not unlike performing hard labor. Typhoid fever doubles one’s oxygen consumption. The heart now has to pump two gallons of blood per minute. Except…its limit is only a gallon and a half. Bingo. The traveler returns home in the jet’s cargo bay in a body bag. The man died from failure of systems that were not even stricken by the disease. Had Bob cared to work on increasing their functional reserves, he would have survived.
The Problem With Bob
Academician Amosov coined the term “the quantity of health,” or the sum of the reserve powers of the main functional systems. These reserve powers are measured with the health reserve coefficient, the ratio of the system’s maximal ability to the everyday demands on it. For example, Bob’s heart’s reserve coefficient is 1.3:
Obviously, to improve your quantity of health, you need to increase the reserves of your functional systems, cardiovascular, pulmonary, muscular, etc. There are over a hundred measurable health parameters. Individual adaptation has been defined as gradual development of resistance to a particular environmental stimulus that enables the organism to function in conditions earlier incompatible with life and meet challenges that previously could not be met.(1) In other words, adaptation is about survival.
The path to health seems simple: train hard, increase your “quantity of health,” and live happily ever after. If Bob built up to the point of being able to swim non-stop for an hour a day, surely he would have built enough heart capacity to survive typhoid fever! Certainly — while making himself more vulnerable to other stressors.
The Cost of Adaptation
A number of Soviet and Russian textbooks, from the 1970s until today, cite a study of young rodents undergoing an intense swimming regimen — one hour a day for ten weeks.(2) Their heart mass increased while the mass of their kidneys and adrenal glands went noticeably down, and so did the number of the liver cells.
In other words, while the training increased the functional capacity of the heart, it simultaneously reduced the capacity of several inner organs. If later the “athletes” from the study encountered significant physical loads, they would be better prepared to handle them and survive compared to their untrained peers. If, on the other hand, the challenge were directed at the liver or kidneys (through a change of food, an increase of sodium intake, etc.), the hard training rats would be at a disadvantage compared to their lazy brothers and sisters.
This phenomenon is called the cost of adaptation.(3) The cost can be exacted from the systems of the body directly loaded by the stressor — or from other system(s) not directly involved in dealing with the stressor.(4) The focus of this blog is on the latter.
You Must Rob Your Health to Pay Your Sport
You just saw one example in the unfortunate rats whose swimming dedication made their livers less resistant to vodka (a tragedy where I come from). Another example is female machinery malfunctions typical in young girls who are high-level athletes in bodyweight sensitive sports like gymnastics. Even worse, the muscles of a hard-training and dieting young gymnast cannibalize some of the heart muscle to find some precious protein.
When supply is tight and demand is high, competition for the resources is fierce. Years ago, a Russian named Martinyuk even proposed a cancer treatment based on this fact. He suggested putting patients on an ultra-low protein diet and an intense bodybuilding regimen at the same time. As his theory went, the body would search for places to cannibalize proteins for the muscles and the tumor would be one of the places it would go first. To the best of my knowledge, no studies of the sort have ever been conducted, but I hope they will be. If you know an oncology researcher, pass this idea along.
Back to sports. If you choose to excel in a sport, you must face the fact that your decision has nothing to do with health. You are going to rob Peter (your resistance to illness and your ability to excel in other pursuits) to pay Paul (your sport). In elite sports, where the body performs at the edge of its capacity and all resources must be thrown at the “war effort,” there can be no other way.
To mitigate the downsides:
- Start with a great foundation of GPP.
- Avoid early specialization. (Negative adaptation in organs and systems not directly challenged by specific training is especially pronounced in immature organisms.(5))
- Do not force the rate of your progress.
If you choose health, do not reach for Olympic medals, avoid narrow specialization, and train in moderation. Because high adaptation cost is experienced especially by specialist athletes and people who perform hard physical labor.(6)
Soviet research teaches us that sport training and physical culture lead to a significant decrease in diseases overall and injuries.(7) Renown Soviet scientist Prof. Zimkin concluded, “It has been determined from animal experiments and observation of human subjects that muscular activity increases the organism’s non-specific resistance to many unfavorable stressors people are subjected to in modern conditions, e.g. hypoxia, some poisons, radioactive materials, infections, overheating, overcooling, etc. A significant decrease in illnesses has been observed in people training for sport or practicing physical culture.” He went on to add that “rational” training is what is needed to deliver such resilience.(8) Moderate physical loads stimulate the immune system.(9)
Options That Blend Strength and Health
Train for and compete in raw drug-free powerlifting—without attempting to max your muscle mass. It is fact that to be competitive internationally a six-footer has to be a super-heavyweight. Obviously, pushing your bodyweight to 300 is going to carry a high adaptation price sticker.
Learn the lifting basics at a one-day StrongFirst Lifter Course. Find reliable training partners and hit the platform.
Do not forget to address your other qualities, such as flexibility and endurance. Two days a week do the S&S regimen. Do some mobility and stretching almost every day. Last but not least, live an active outdoor life — hike, swim, play tennis, etc. In moderation! Running from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon is going to exact an adaptation price from your powerlifting and your health.
Study a martial art. Take classes three to five times a week. Enjoy what you learn without ambitions to become a champion or a grandmaster. Do “easy strength” type training with a barbell three times a week. Take yoga classes on the nights you do not fight. Start “tempering” with cold water. And do not forget the outdoors.
Become a student of bodyweight strength. Learn the basics of tension and linkage at a one-day StrongFirst Bodyweight Course. Master the basics. Reach the “simple” goals like the one-arm-one-leg push-up. Then set your sights a little higher, e.g. the front lever and free handstands.
Almost every day do the S&S swing regimen to give power and conditioning to your lower body and back. Do get-ups twice a week. Get serious about stretching and slowly work your way to full splits.
As with the other two options, outdoor activities are not negotiable.
Which Path Do You Choose?
Because your body’s adaptation resources are finite, you have to choose how to allocate them. There is no one correct answer. You have “X” dollars in your pocket. Do you buy a new couch or take a vacation? Do both and go in debt? Or buy a cheap couch and take a short vacation?
Exercise your free will.
1. Meerson & Pshennikova, 1988
2. Vorobyev, 1977; Bloor et al., 1968
3. Koberg, 1997
4. Slonim, 1979; Kamskova, 2004
5. Platonov, 1988
6. Volkov, 2000
7. Rosenblat, quoted in Zimkin, 1975
8. Zimkin, 1975
9. Yakovlev et al., 1990