Why we need stress to get better. It’s G.A.S. really.

Stress is a word thrown about now in a very negative manner nowadays. Many try to avoid stress at all costs because of the negative consequences of chronic stress, but what may not be understood, is that we need stress. According to Hans Selye (1956), we must undergo a stress stimulus, to improve our ability to undergo that stress in the future. Anything that is tough to do, will be stressful, but we will gain the benefits of doing it, and be better prepared for it in the future.


Hans Selye developed the general adaptation syndrome (G.A.S) theory, which in simple terms explains that in order to adapt to something – we must implement a short stress stimulus, followed by a period of adaptation, which subsequently develops our ability to do that task better upon repeat. This forms the basis for all theory on how our body adapts to training, known as the fitness fatigue paradigm (Zatsiorksy, 1995).

Selye defined G.A.S as triphasic, beginning with an alarm phase, in which the stress is introduced, followed by a resistance phase, in which the body adapts and concluding with an exhaustion phase if the stress is not removed.


This theory may be applied to various forms of stress and adaptation, but for now we’ll apply it to training. Below is a visual model of the GAS principle as it applies to a single training session. Notice the distinct phases, beginning with the stress stimulus (training) causing acute fatigue followed by recovery, into a supercompensation to a new, improved level of fitness.


Ok, so we’ve applied a stress (training), recovered and adapted, now what? Do it again, but make it slightly more challenging.

Why? Because of detraining – if we don’t continue to stress our bodies then we will lose the adaptations. Plus, we know that we aren’t going to make huge improvements in performance after a single training session, so we need to be consistent over time.

Many variables can be manipulated to further challenge the body. To optimize our adaptation, we need to be strategic about the type, amount and when we stress our bodies again.

This is where our F.I.T.T principles come in.

  • Frequency of training
  • Intensity of training
  • Time spent training
  • Type of training


Firstly, we have the frequency of training, this is fairly basic, we must just train again, when our bodies are recovered from the previous session. There will be a window, when we are fully recovered from the last session which is best to train, the aim here is to avoid detraining and to avoid  overtraining, training too much while not allowing for sufficient recovery. This forms the basis of our training periodization or planning. This is shown in the image below.


The amount of stress placed upon us is vital, to keep improving and to avoid detraining and to optimise adaptations. As a general rule of thumb, roughly 10% of overload, interspersed with de-load periods, is recommended for constant adaptation. The amount of stress relates to the intensity, and time at these intensities. Essentially these are how tough the training is on the body overall.

In research by Professor Tim Gabbett (2016), the Acute:Chronic  workload ratio is explained to be a reliable tool for measuring stress and adaptation and reducing overload/injury risk. Simply put, if the stress we undergo is too much (1.3 times the average of the previous 3 weeks), we are at a high risk of injury/illness. While if the stress is too low (0.8 times the average of the previous 3 weeks), we are at risk of detraining and losing the adaptations from our previous training. We can track this by internal and external load measures, which will be explained in a future post.


Type of training is vital. To get better at something, we must train to do it. This is the principle of training specificity, or the SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principle, something we’ll look at deeper in the future, for now, we must just understand that if we want to improve at a task, we must do the task, or similar tasks that will have transfer of qualities over.

Using the example of throwing a basketball, This stresses the neuromuscular system and develops motor patterns that control limb coordination, and the memory of how to do the task will be placed into easily accessed parts of the brain which require little conscious effort to access, making the task almost automatic. The muscles involved will also develop.

Steph Curry doesn’t end his practice session until he completes three, three-pointers from each position around the arc. Steph Curry holds the record for most three pointers in a season at 402.

Want to get better at something? Do it.

GAS isn’t it?

Training uses a specific type of stress, at a specific amount, at a specific time to develop the desired qualities. Over time, if this is repeated, massive improvements can be made, as shown in the image below.


The science on stress and adaptation forms the basis for the progressive overload principle of training, which all periodization strategies aim to exploit. If we strategically plan our training, stress can be an ally, but this planning requires careful consideration of many factors, so its best to utilise the services of someone qualified to administer your training. Keep an eye on this site in the future for deeper dives into topics such periodization strategies, load monitoring & recovery methods for optimising performance!

Thanks for reading.

  • Dave

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