Adaptation Is a Beautiful Thing

Charles Darwin put forward the concept that the species most likely to survive is not the strongest, or the smartest, but the one most adaptable to change. Often times I think we forget how adaptable we really are. There are countless examples of human beings finding ways to survive in trying times. In the Seige of Vicksburg in the Civil War, the entire town within the walls of the base took to building and living in caverns to survive. The British of World War II spent much time hiding from bombings by the Germans on their commutes to and from work. We are an amazingly adaptable people.

The Gains of the Novice

We are so adaptable that we know human beings are likely to improve at the performance of things at a rate of 100% the more we practice it. Take for example the young man (5’11, 180 lbs) who comes into the gym for the first time to get stronger for an upcoming sports season. The first time he picks up the barbell to bench press it, he might be able to bench 100 lbs. Take that young man for a two to three month time period and teach him a few pointers on the bench press. How to breath, how to position his hands and arms through the lift. Test his one-rep-max again at the end of that time. It’s very likely the young man with discipline, and a short period of practice, can bench between 150-200 lbs.

This is anywhere from a 50-100% increase in performance. Now take this same young man, and put him back in the gym and do the same thing. It’s very unlikely, after the next two to three month time period that the same young man will see the same level of gains. It’s more likely that his bench press increases between 25-50% during this second round of adaptation. Finally, after the young man has reached a very high potential in terms of this lift, he will be lucky to increase this same lift by more than 5-10% after training regularly. In example; a 300 lb bench presser would need to add 15-30 lbs to his 1RM lift to make an increase of 5-10%. Any one with experience in heavy lifting understands how difficult it can be to make large gains in this final round of adaptation.

Third-round Adaptation

This concept of multi-round adaptation and the increasing of skill resulting in a decreasing in the range of increase of performance should be encouraging to us. I meet so many people who are weary of attempting to try a new sport, hobby, or skill. If anything, you should realize that in the first month you will see massive improvements in said sport/hobby. This improvement will lead to increased self-confidence and new-found knowledge of another tool for the tool box. It is sticking with said sport, hobby, or skill to reach elite levels that requires a massive amount of discipline. The weight lifter competing in the olympics is focusing on sleep, diet, macro and micro-programming, testosterone levels, when they had a bowl movement before a lift, and the list goes on and on. Getting good at a new sport is not difficult, getting great at it is the hard part.

To Whom Much is Given, More Will Be Given.

The Matthew Principle, an Christian and Economic principle posits that “to whom much is given more will be given and to whom more is given more will be taken.” This should be the motivation to maintain discipline to push forward and achieve third round adaptation in a sport or skill. Yes, it requires a massive amount of discipline, but those people performing at elite levels have mastered something. To gain 5-10 lbs(1-2%) on a lift when you have a 500 lb back-squat is a tremendous deal. To increase the gains of a 100-million dollar portfolio by 1-2 % is to make an additional 1 million dollars.

When you have gone very far down a path in a positive direction, the ability to make small movement further down the path although extremely difficult results in huge gains. If you’re hesitant to try a new skill, remind yourself that getting better at this skill is the easiest right now. If you’re hesitant to stick with a skill that brings you joy and you have made great gains in already, remind yourself of how far you have come down the path and that you have an opportunity to charter new territory. The adaptation of humans is an amazing thing that has placed us in our current state as a society.

Author’s Note:

I cannot take credit for the Bench-presser example above. A person I admire, Ben Bergeron synthesized this concept so well in his podcast and I had to re-use it to share the example. Please check out his Podcast Chasing Excellence.

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About the Author

John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.

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