The Benefits of Harm
Progressive overload – gradual increase of stress placed upon the musculoskeletal system and nervous system.
Perhaps the most important training principle we have is progressive overload. That is, we must subject ourselves to what is incrementally more difficult than what we are adapted to, in order to adapt to said new stimulus. This principle is married closely with recovery, as it is the aftermath of positive recovery that creates a stronger individual.
Current scientific investigations behind training suggest that incrementally introducing training stress (make no mistake, you are harming the body), positively affect the quality of the system in which you are training if given adequate recovery.
So the point of training is to subject ourselves to activities that will produce sufficient harm that it forces our body to adapt, but not so much that it causes us to break.
If there is any field that does not lie, it is evolutionary biology. We have evolved and exist, because we are a species that has positively adapted to the stressors placed upon us. Put simply, nature has not yet been able to kill us.
I believe progressive overload also plays out in the natural world, not just as a concept in training.
Let’s use a typical example of a higher thinking, rational man by the name of Yoda. Yoda lives by the ocean. One particular night, strong ocean winds remove some roof tiles from his house. Yoda doesn’t just fix the tiles that have flown off, he now replaces the tiles AND the surrounding area with stronger tiles than previous. This is adaptation in effect, it is not enough to simply repair the damage. It is prudent to repair and reinforce such that the same stimulus does not cause the same harm.
Let us now take that example but extend it with much more gravitas. Let’s say instead of strong ocean winds, Yoda encounters a strong hurricane. His home is destroyed, so he is now homeless. This is an instance where the harm was beyond what was recoverable.
Had the stimuli been progressive however, we can hypothesise that Yoda would systematically repair his house proportional to the damage caused. For example, each week the elements would be progressively worse, worse enough to cause repairs, but not so much that the system would completely break. Eventually, Yoda’s house might be strong enough to meet the demands of the hurricane.
Of course, most of life does not work in a ‘progressive overload’ fashion. Stressors are usually minimal, followed by maximal. There is hardly an in between. This is why it is important that we routinely subject ourselves to intentional harm, harm that stimulates growth within us, but is insufficient to crush us. This is all to mitigate the effects of a max stressor.
Another example we can observe is the building of immunity. The method by which we overcome illness is by producing antibodies that combat said pathogen, AND protect us from it in the future. However, this is not without an initial stage of harm, where we might experience periods of discomfort – fever, body aches and difficulty breathing could be signs of this.
What we must remember is that harm provided in the right dosage forces us to adapt. Although not necessarily comfortable in the short term, the dividends definitely show in the long term.