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The Law of Accommodation The Secret Key to Continuous Gains in Isometrics and all Resistance Training Part 1

Accommodation weightlifter
Everyone should know what accommodation is. Accommodation causes your performance to stagnate or decrease. Zatsiorsky stated that the response of a biological object to a given constant stimulus decreases over time. —Louis Simmons
If there’s one law that’s completely universal—and yet, woefully underestimated by strength athletes and coaches alike—it’s the Law of Accommodation. And that’s a god damn shame, because if you don’t understand this law, your chance of reaching your full potential is zero.

The Law of Accommodation can be defined as follows:

When an identical stimulus is continually repeated, the response to that stimulus reduces over time, and ultimately stops.

Accommodation Curve Chart
A graph displaying a potential accommodation curve. At first, the stimulus causes rapid adaptation; then it slows, peaks, and finally, regresses.

What psychologists call habituation is actually a form of accommodation. Here’s an example you probably know well, from experience. Imagine walking into a large, silent room. Suddenly, the air con busts into life, with a loud, buzzing hum. You’ll notice that, right? But in about ten minutes, you won’t hear the noise at all. It will, effectively, become inaudible. When a noise (stimulus) is at the exact same level, after a while, we stop noticing it (response).
Drugs and accommodation
Here’s another example of the body seeking homeostasis; over time, the effect of drugs tend to diminish, even with an increased dose.

This phenomenon famously rears its head in resistance training and bodybuilding. There’s an old saying about what works in these sports: everything. Or, more accurately, everything works—for a while. Specific methods only work "for a while" due to accommodation. In these fields of endeavor, the "response" is adaptation—getting bigger and stronger. If you stick to an exercise or routine (stimulus) for a certain amount of time, it eventually stops making you stronger and/or bigger (adaptation).

The Law of Accommodation is NOT the same as the Law of Diminishing Returns. The Law of Diminishing Returns says that, in resistance training, the closer you are to your genetic limit, the slower the progress you’ll make in any area of adaptation. But it should take years—decades, possibly—until we reach that limit. Accommodation happens much, much sooner. In strength training it can take months or even weeks to kick in.

Here’s something you will have definitely seen if you’ve been around gyms long enough:

A guy wants to hit two plates on the bench press (or three plates on the squat, or yadda, yadda. Pick your own exercise or numbers). So, he finds a routine and sticks with it. He starts with eighty pounds on the bar. He makes good gains, getting to a hundred pounds, 150, 175, in a matter of months. Then, his progress slows. It takes months more just to get from 175 to 205.
Bench press accommodation

By now, he knows he’s just twenty pounds away, so he doubles down on his program, often trying to max out with singles on each workout, just to add some weight, any weight, to the bar. But he stalls. And finally—after another couple months, he not only makes no progress, but he starts going backwards. Now, he can only bench 200! But he digs deeper. He knows he can do it, if he just doesn’t quit.

Then, inevitably, POP—snap city, baby.

None of this makes sense, our man broods, as he convalesces. Why has my improvement stopped? Maybe I’ve reached my genetic limit? He thinks. Perhaps I’m doomed to be weak. Is it time to stick a needle in my ass and hop on a cycle of gear? It can’t be the program—it worked so well before.

Yep, the program DID work—that’s part of the problem. Accommodation is triggered by a certain level of adaptation; which means that the more effective your training methodology is, the faster accommodation occurs. This is why accommodation is of particular importance to isometric athletes—since isometrics is the most efficient method to build strength, accommodation occurs sooner than for inferior methods. The famous sports scientists of the Soviet era understood this all too well; as did Hoffman’s world class lifters in the fifties.
Kono deadlift
"A coach who is planning isometric training should keep in mind that accommodation to isometric exercises occurs very quickly." —Zatsiorski, Science and Practice of Strength Training, ch. 6
Fortunately, none of this needs to happen. If only our hero had understood the Law of Accommodation—and how to negate it—he could have met his goals, and beyond, all the way up to his max potential (which was light years beyond his goal of two plates).

In these articles, I’m going to teach you exactly why accommodation exists, and how to avoid the nasty bastard.

Accommodation: What’s the damn point?

At first sight, accommodation might seem like a pretty dumb law for our bodies to follow. If a stimulus is continuous, why the hell shouldn’t the response be continuous? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

The answer is—no. That’s not how the body works, and it’s not how you’d want it to work. Let old Paul explain.

Accommodation basically functions as a useful energy-saving feature. You probably have one of those new TVs—you know, the kind that shuts itself down after a couple of hours, if you haven’t changed channel, or altered volume, or stuff like that. The TV figures; this dummy’s not watching…they ain’t interested in what I’m doing. I might as well shut down to save energy.
TV standby warning

Your nervous system is even smarter than a TV. You may not realize it, but it also has a very similar built-in energy-saving feature.

All biological organisms strive for what’s called homeostasis. The word comes from two Greek terms meaning "same" (homo) and "stopping" (stasis). Them dudes in white coats define homeostasis as: the self-regulating processes by which an organism tends to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival.

Homeostasis—this effort to maintain equilibrium—is absolutely crucial for survival, because life can only exist under some pretty narrow parameters: we need internal temperature to be regulated, because if it gets too cold or too hot, we die. Our oxygen levels need to be regulated, because we die if we have too much or too little. The same is true for blood pressure. Key to this discussion, we also need to keep our energy levels stable. Too much energy (for example, glucose in the blood) and the tissues can become damaged and we may die relatively quickly. Too little energy, and the organism can’t do what it needs to fight, feed, and survive.

So, our bodies protect their energy levels very aggressively. One way they do this, is by a series of checks and balances to prevent energy wastage, or drain. Accommodation is a major tool for this. Adapting to stressors requires significant energy—in terms of calories, but also precious chemical resources.
Franco Curl
Building muscle and strength significantly disrupts homeostasis.

Getting stronger as an adaptation to lifting heavy weight is a great example. The body adds muscle and strength as a survival response to having to heave heavy weights up and down; but it really doesn’t want to be doing this, because it costs energy, resources, etc. In other words, it’s a disruption of homeostasis, which the body does not like. At all. It only permits the adaptation because it assumes there must be some significant environmental threat related to doing so. As soon as a certain period passes, the organism figures out that stimulus is not a threat, therefore the response (adaptation) is a waste of energy.

Here's an example illustrating the "threat" concept. Imagine that you’re terrified of public speaking. If you were forced to speak to a large crowd for five minutes, this would be the stimulus. Your heart would race, your head pound, your palms would be sweaty; you’d be anxious, and begin to shake and quiver; this would be the response. Now, imagine that you are also forced to talk to a large crowd the next day; and the day after that.

What would happen after a hundred days? Five hundred days?

Your nervous system would eventually accommodate: it would work out that all this public speaking jive is not really a threat. The stimulus would stay the same, but the response would vanish, replaced with homeostasis. The fear would be gone. The racing heart would be gone, along with the sweaty palms. The response may even reverse, and you might start to enjoy yourself.

This accommodating dynamic applies to exposure to every kind of stimuli: from psychological and emotional stimuli (fears, phobias, etc.) to physical stimuli (like working out). At first, these stimuli cause a profound response (like sweaty palms, or a strength adaptation). But after repeated, consistent exposure to these stimuli, the organism ceases to see them as threats; and the response diminishes, and finally vanishes altogether. It works exactly the same for resistance training—your body outsmarts ya.
Iso French press
Even with all the effort in the world, and the most versatile isometric equipment available—the Isomax—accommodation is still inevitable, unless you train specifically to avoid it!

Like the TV that figures you’re not watching any more, accommodation turns off the response, and saves the energy required for extra adaptation. With no significant variation, the stimulus becomes simple, inaudible "background noise" (like the air conditioner) and is effectively ignored by the organism, so that homeostasis can be restored.

I know what you’re thinking—okay, so accommodation will quickly stop all my gains. Makes sense. Got it. But Paulie—what the hell can I do about it?!

Turns out—you can do a whole lot, brothers and sisters. That gold is heading your way in Part II of this article!