Adaptation vs Skill: Conflict and Compliments

Strength Training -

Adaptation vs Skill: Conflict and Compliments

Training is a pretty simple affair most of the time – until you start getting good. As you improve, you need to start thinking more about the specifics of your training and how it works.

Today we’re going to make a crucial distinction that will help you better-structure your own training and provide another way of thinking about exercise. We hope this will help you better-understand how your body works and how you can make it do what you want!

If you’re here for sustainable progress in training, then read on, as this article will be perfect for you…

Painting the Scene

    Examples from training are always great to better-understand the principles at work.

    We’re going to look at what happens when you perform a squat , as this is the most widely-applicable shared ground between powerlifters, weightlifters, crossfitters, and the recreational fitness enthusiast (at least, it better be!).

    We’re going to use this example and look at what happens in the body, which we’re going to break down into two key responses: the adaptation and the skill.


      The adaptation in response to an imposed training stimulus, like the squat, is perhaps the key idea we have about training.

      It’s the response of the body at a systematic and tissue-level to the thing you’re doing. The muscles, for example, respond to the squat through a variety of mechanisms. There are two key aspects to the adaptation you experience in response to training

      Firstly, there’s a tissue-change response. This is the result of local stress on the muscles and connective tissues, which signals for a super-compensation response. This is when the muscles themselves, for example, signal for more protein synthesis – they’re preparing for more stress in the future.

      On the other hand, we’ve got a systematic-metabolic responses, which include the performance of that specific energy system. For example, squatting heavy weights for very few repetitions will produce a positive response in the ATP-CP system.

      This energy system is responsible for high-intensity energy, and your body produces increased efficiency in this area through consistent use. This is one type of metabolic change, which is a contributor to muscle growth and performance.

      These are considered to be the primarily-adaptation responses because they denote a change in the anatomy/physiology of performance. They’re not learned, they’re a structural change or increase in response to training.


        Skill development, as contrasted with adaptations (though they’re not opposites), refer to the learned movement differences associated with training.

        In the squat, this could refer to the movement pattern, the rhythm/timing of the movement, the sequencing of different muscles, or even the different conscious cues that produce a different movement.

        These are the changes that we look for when we practice – and it is their conscious practice that makes athletes better at their sport. You can become much stronger without improving the skill component of a movement, but this is a significant stumbling block for long-term progress.

        These are also considered when we look at skill-acquisition. The ability to learn and perform new movements, which is why introducing new types of movements can be really beneficial and result in rapid progress in that movement.

        Skills are, perhaps, more of a conscious development. You can build strength by just mindlessly doing the same exercises and performing proper recovery/nutrition. However, a deliberate, present approach to training with attention to detail allows for skills to be developed and improve the overall performance in a movement.

        It’s through this approach that we develop and ingrain technique, which in turn improves performance, longevity, and allows for the best possible expression of adaptation at the cell/tissue/system level.

        The confluence: specificity of strength-skill adaptations

          We’ve talked about skill and adaptation as if they’re separate, or competing, changes. The reality couldn’t be more different: they’re complimentary and every exercise is an opportunity to develop both.

          Firstly, they can’t be separated very easily. The development of a squat requires that you use weights that produce a structural, adaptive response, but you can’t really practice squat mechanics without some resistance. In this way, you need to remember that adaptive loads (roughly 60%+) are necessary to develop technique that is relevant to your top-end performance.

          Secondly, the development of adaptive responses is very specific to technical positions. Strength occurs at the muscle-length, joint-angle, and loading specifics that you’re working with. It’s a game of finding carryover between skill and adaptation, as they tend to overlap in the 60-80% intensity range, where the most meaningful, enduring change is made.

          The overlap and separation of adaptation and skill has very little use if you’re not putting it to work with your training. Here are a few ways you should consider its applications and keep this distinction in mind.

          Progressing competition lifts

            The ability to train your squat, bench, deadlift, snatch, or clean and jerk is what establishes your competitive viability. Even if you’re just chasing down personal goals, it’s important to do so as effectively as possible.

            Noting your weaknesses and structuring training to develop the specific skills and adaptations for that goal is key. A squat requires adaptation and skill – and you can pay attention to the specific change you’re training for right now based on your own strength/weaknesses.

            If you want to progress competition lifts, or key exercises, working the skill and adaptations are key.

            Accessory work

              Accessory work, being those exercises that make you better at the important stuff, are also subject to these two types of change.

              For example, a leg press is one of the ways you might improve adaptations at a structural level for a squat, while the paused or pin squat would be better ways of training the skill of squatting.

              This doesn’t make one type of accessory – or one type of change – better. It’s about fitting their strengths to your current goals to ensure they’re contributing to what you need to work on.

              For example, a weightlifter needs to have strong legs and a good postural position. However, there comes a point where heavy squatting has very little positional specificity for the snatch/clean and jerk and is often abandoned after the adaptive changes have been reaped.

              The carryover is the most important part – how it contributes to better performance in specific movements – and this could be strengthening muscles and/or improving specific movements.

              Closing Thoughts

                Proper training requires you to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s a simple principle that needs to be used properly to continue to progress sustainably over time.

                The distinction between skill and adaptation focuses isn’t cut and dry, but it does help you to understand the goal of certain exercises. There’s a difference between getting a stronger squat and getting stronger legs and applying exercises to the right component is one of the simplest ways to ensure you keep improving.

                Take a little time to work through your program with an idea of what each exercise is for – if you can’t explain it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.



                About The Author


                Professional sport/fitness writer, Weightlifter, high-performance enthusiast. Liam wears many hats, but they’re unified by a love for competition, performance, and engaging writing. You can get in touch (or hurl abuse) over at ApexContent.Org.

                Liam Rodgers