Let’s see if we can condense every single thing we know about training, health and fitness into a single act of understanding. If we’re smart, maybe we can fit it all into one good book. Or even better, how about a truly incisive paragraph that wraps the whole thing up into a single, powerful statement? Actually, we can do even better than that. We can condense the whole messy, expansive field down into a single acronym: SAID.
Now maybe you’ve never heard of SAID. Lots of trainers haven’t. I went for a couple of decades before I even heard the term and another decade or so before I heard anyone emphasize its significance. But when I finally understood the importance of SAID, it was a moment of enlightenment. Suddenly, all those trivial and disconnected facts about anatomy, physiology and biochemistry coalesced and told me exactly what I needed to be doing in training and teaching.
SAID stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. The meaning is simple: Animal tissue remodels itself in response to the challenges it encounters. The body sculpts itself to meet the demands that are imposed upon it. You become what you do. You get precisely what you train for. That’s it, end of story. Everything we need to know about training in one simple acronym.
The reason this concept is so compelling is that it describes how the body works in real life. When the animal, human or otherwise, is born into the world, it is physically naïve. It has no idea what kind of challenges it might encounter. Environments, after all, are variable. Conditions might be hot or cold, wet or dry, hilly or flat, smooth or rocky. The body might be called upon to run long distances, flee from predators, swim across rivers, gather plants, climb trees or sit motionless for hours. There’s no way to tell in advance. And so, the body adapts.
Natural selection (evolution) has given us this capability. Obviously, an animal capable of specific adaptations will have a huge reproductive advantage over an animal that doesn’t adapt or one that adapts in some general, non-specific way. For example, suppose that the environment suddenly becomes arid and food supplies become widely dispersed. Some animals will adapt specifically to the demands of long distance travel required to find food. Other animals won’t adapt as well, or their adaptations won’t fit the challenges imposed upon them. Obviously, the reproductive advantage will go to those who adapt specifically to long distance travel. If your adaptations are precise and appropriate, you’re more likely to survive and reproduce. Thus, animals that adapt specifically will pass their genes on into the future. Humans are no exception.
The precision of this adaptive process is astonishing. The slightest variations in intensity, duration, repetition and emphasis are all reflected in actual tissue changes in every system of the body, right down to the microscopic level. To the body, three sets of 10 is completely different than 10 sets of three. Running one mile five times a week is completely different than running five miles once a week. If we could examine the tissue closely enough and track the changes that take place, we’d see the difference.
Vascular tissue adapts to the challenge of endurance training. Muscle tissue adapts to the challenges of strength work. The nervous system adapts to challenges of speed, agility and balance. Not only do synaptic connections change, but the actual membranes of nerve cells change as well, allowing greater or lesser sensitivity to message conduction. Changes take place in the nucleus as well, with genes switching on and off (expression), which in turn changes the process of protein synthesis, hormone production and tissue repair. Every tissue and every organelle gets into the act.
Examples of the SAID principle abound. Tennis players exhibit increased bone density and development in their dominant arms, a perfectly appropriate adaptation to the repeated pounding that such arms are called upon to endure. Blue water divers develop increased lung capacity as well as resistance to the cold temperatures and intense pressure of deep diving.
In January 2005, a widely reported study of hikers revealed that different types of exercise had different effects on fats and sugars in the blood. Researchers in the Alps isolated uphill and downhill training segments by using a ski lift. They found that uphill hiking cleared fats from the blood faster, downhill hiking reduced blood sugar more and hiking either way lowered bad cholesterol. Concentric contractions had one biochemical effect, and eccentric contractions another. It’s safe to assume that metabolic adaptations would follow along over time. Uphill hikers would develop a specific “uphill metabolism,” downhill hikers a “downhill metabolism.”
In the world of sports performance, the SAID principle is everything. Consider the world of high-angle rock climbing. In the early years, the conventional wisdom in Yosemite was that the way to succeed was to train by doing lots of pull ups. Young climbers reasoned that climbing requires lots of upper body strength, and so it made sense to train by doing lots of upper body work. Swayed by this belief, climbers flocked to the gyms in the winter, doing hundreds of pull ups every day.
The problem was, it didn’t work. Climbers returned to the Valley in the spring and were shocked to discover that their powerful new guns didn’t give them much of an advantage. In fact, it was the guys who spent the winter actually climbing who improved, and they didn’t do any pull ups at all.
Later, we realized what we’d been missing. Climbing, it turns out, is more about using your feet and your legs to push your way up the mountain. Arms are useful but secondary. And so, the way to improve is to practice using your feet and your legs. Pull ups might help a little, but if you really want to get better at climbing, the only truly effective method is to climb a lot. And this is exactly what today’s top climbers recommend.
My favorite story of SAID conditioning involves legendary rock climber Tony Yaniro. Back in the 1970s, Yaniro pioneered a long string of incredibly difficult first ascents. In one notable case, he picked out an audacious route that he wanted to climb, a radically steep, overhanging hand crack near Lake Tahoe, California. Instead of throwing himself at the route with abandon or general purpose training, he crafted his preparation specifically to the anticipated demands. He even went so far as to map out the entire route on butcher paper, laid out in his driveway. (And you thought you were obsessive!) He charted every hold and position and made notes on what he would need to do on a foot-by-foot basis. He then started training, intentionally and specifically, for those demands.
And it worked. After training specifically for the challenge in question, every detail of his neuromusculature was prepared. Every muscle fiber, every tendon, every metabolic pathway was ready for this particular event. And so, he climbed the route and claimed the first ascent. Other climbers tried the route in the years that followed, but it was a long time before it was repeated.
It’s not just athletics. Consider Houdini (1874-1926), the famous magician and escapologist. A master of many spectacular escape techniques, Houdini was also highly disciplined in his training practices and a devoted practitioner of highly specific training. If a stunt or escape called for holding his breath while handcuffed in a coffin underwater, this is precisely what he practiced. No fool, this man. He practiced exactly what he was trying to achieve. If he had practiced some generalized program of training, he never would have succeeded.
The SAID principle applies equally to any form of neuromuscluar activity. Consider music, itself a form of small muscle athletics. How do musicians develop such incredible dexterity, speed and muscular control? Do they do it by following some generalized training program? Do they pump their fingers and hands with hours of boring fitness drills? Of course not. They get good at music by playing music. As they challenge their nervous systems for greater speed and grace, their bodies respond. The process is conceptually simple. Yes, scales and chords will broaden our understanding of what’s possible, but in the end, we get good music by practicing music, not by doing something else.
We can also see specific adaptation in sensory development. In 2007, Nature Neuroscience published a famous report titled “Mechanisms of scent-tracking in humans.” Researchers studied olfactory capabilities by asking blindfolded people to track the scent of a chocolate bar that had been dragged over a patch of grass. Incredibly, people who got down on hands and knees could in fact track a chocolate scent trail, but even more incredible was the fact that their performance actually improved over time. This skill development would certainly have a physical basis, as neural pathways between nose and brain re-wired themselves to support this new “imposed demand.” If you practice tracking chocolate, you’ll get better at tracking chocolate.
Of course, SAID isn’t the whole story of human training. There are general adaptations too. Give a person a program of consistent, vigorous movement, of almost any variety, and he or she will tend to get healthier. This is why wildly divergent programs all get results. In this sense, almost everything works. Bodybuilding and ballet, marathons and sprints, yoga and triathlons... all make people healthier. That’s because the body loves movement, all kinds of movement. So if all you want is health, almost any kinetic program will do. Get your vigorous activity on most days of the week, and you’ll improve your overall vitality. But if you want to perform in any specific way, you’ll have to think about what you’re doing.
The burning question at this point is clear. If the SAID principle is so important, why is it so commonly ignored in the world of health, fitness and sport conditioning? Not only is it ignored, an inverse strategy is often promoted. That is, fitness is often presented as a “one-size fits all” approach. There’s a formula, and we experts know what it is. Just come into our gym, and we’ll put you on the program. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you want to do with your body. We are the experts, and we know what you need. This non-specific approach will probably promote health, but we can certainly do a lot better.
The challenge for our profession at this point is to give up claims of universal knowledge and get down to the business of helping unique individuals achieve their own unique dreams with their own unique bodies. What we ought to be doing is listening to people and finding out what they really want to do with their bodies and their lives.
We might start our programs by asking people a simple, personal question: “What do you want to do with your body when you’re 70 or 80 years old?” Their answer, whatever it is, will help define their training program.
For example, your client might tell you that he wants to work in the garden and play with his grandkids. In this case, a little reflection will tell us what he needs. Some squats would be nice. Some up and down movements that mimic gardening challenges. And then some work with a squirmy med ball that mimics the challenge of holding a child. Push a wheelbarrow, carry some loads. These can all be mimicked with creative exercise.
Or another client might tell you he wants to hike and backpack in later years or work in the garage or go flyfishing in Montana. It doesn’t matter. A creative trainer should be able to craft a program for any physical aspiration. Of course, some clients have no idea what they want to be doing with their bodies. “I just want to get in shape,” they say. With such a vague objective, there’s not much we can do. We can either suggest that our client give it some more thought or simply serve up a general program of vigorous movement on most days of the week.
In any case, if we’re looking to improve performance, specificity will always be fundamental. We get better at X by doing X, not by doing something else. The nice thing about the SAID perspective is that it encourages us to think about training in the context of people’s lives. What do you want to do with your body? What do your clients want to do with their bodies? Think about it, and then write it down in detail. Then and only then, begin to craft your training program. Not only will you get better results, the process will be far more interesting, holistic and meaningful.