Three things i've changed my approach on & why
Three things I’ve changed my opinion on
I often look back at how I used to train myself & others a year ago & think to myself, “what was I doing?!”. I now realise that this is sort of an essential part of the process of improvement, you may see smaller wtf moments when looking back, but there is no end point to attaining knowledge, you can always improve, you can always develop a new method or learn a new golden nugget; so with this in mind, I’m going to talk about three things I have I’ve changed my approach on;
1. Focusing on one goal at a time
Some people that know me, know that I spent a decent amount of my training time doing CrossFit, or training that was very similar, so most of my training was spent trying to get better at 10+ skills/qualities at once, in a very generalised fitness way.
At the time of this training, I did not understand how to structure my training at all, or how to bias improving in certain areas, whilst maintaining others. There was always a pursuit of getting stronger, more powerful, more skilled, better at gymnastics, faster, improved endurance & probably more, all at any one time, my training at that time was so varied, that there was no real structure to how we were improving in the long term.
Don’t get me wrong, I made improvements, in mostly everything I did, but I attribute these improvements more to the environment in which we trained in, & the individuals I trained with. I’ve never worked as hard as I did when I was doing CrossFit, which was a blessing & a curse in the same way. It was a blessing as it taught me how to be tough, resilient & to never give up, but where this fell down was in giving me a false sense of security, that what I was doing was actually the most effective way of improving, when in reality, hard work & grinding myself down was what got me results, & these results slowed to a grinding halt over not so long a time. What this brought me was lots of frustration, niggles & eventually a pretty serious shoulder injury that has giving me jip for the past 3+ years, & that is only now getting much better, & I can manage it.
Had I known that working on one quality at any one-time point, & maintaining everything else, would have been more effective & efficient, & potentially keeping me healthier in the long term, then I may not have had to do so much work, to get the same result. I may not have needed to train multiple times daily, doing workouts that murdered me, that forced me to push through pain that was not necessary. I completely attribute this to my own naivety, & I think if I had been smarter, I may still be CrossFitting now, as the environment was amazing, & the physicality of the multiple pursuits was something I did really love, but unfortunately, I got caught in a trap of improving only based on how much I could grind myself down, not in a smart, structured approach, that gave me longevity & ultimately more results in the long term.
What I have learnt, is that if you want to get the most out of anything, you must give it as much of your focus as possible, tailoring your training & recovery to that single goal. If you want to be strong, focus on training that is tailored to that, if you want to be more muscular, train in a way that allows that to be the overriding theme (not that the two are completely exclusive of each other). If you really want to get the most out of something, don’t get into the trap of making training specific to so many goals, that on the whole it’s not specific to anything. The same applies for nutrition, if you want to be leaner, you have to be in a calorie deficit for a long enough period, so dipping in and out of it is not going to get the job done to the same effect, or within the same time as being consistent.
This all boils down to two training principles, that apply to nutrition too, specificity, & phase potentiation; with the former dictating that to attain a specific goal, training must specifically be tailored to that goal near exclusively, & phase potentiation being the theory that improving certain qualities, allows the improvement of other qualities to be more effective (i.e. doing a mini cut to get leaner, so that you can have a more effective muscle gaining phase, as your body is nutritionally more sensitive to anabolism, or in training, spending time gaining more muscle, so that you can then turn that new muscle into more strength further down the line, as the size of muscles usually correlates well with improvements in strength, when trained for it).
So, focusing on one goal at a time, whilst trying to maintain other qualities, is a smart idea if you really want to get the most of each quality. Luckily for us, when it comes to training especially, there is plenty of overlap between training styles, that can easily attain improvement one quality, whilst at least maintaining another, for example, the training that is ideal for gaining strength in the barbell lifts, is likely voluminous enough, & the intensity is sufficient that we will maintain our current state of muscularity, & visa versa. Similarly, performing a mini-cut, when done right, allows us to maintain our current new level of muscularity, whilst still losing significant levels of body fat, allowing us to return to the goal of muscle building in a better position.
Thinking of progressions as moving forward for a period on for one specific goal, then sideways for a period whilst something else is being accomplished, then picking up again & moving forwards whilst the other goals are achieved. This is the sort of process we are looking to attain & has worked well for me, to likely improve the most we can over time.
2. Injuries aren’t only because of ‘poor movement’
As I mentioned in the last section, I have suffered a fair few niggles/aches & pains in my short time training, & when they first started to happen, I was keen to research the issues so I could resolve them. As I did, all I came across was mobility drills, activations & do’s & don’ts of movement & biomechanics, nothing on how volume, intensity, misapplication of variation & more could affect injuries. Whilst this biomechanical model of injury helped in some ways, it didn’t solve any of the underlying issues, as I was simply doing too much training volume, with not enough variation applied, & the tissues that were being aggravated didn’t have sufficient time to recover, so the amount of training I was doing well surpassed the amount of training I could recover from & adapt to.
What I have learnt recently is two things, the amount of training volume, & the acute changes in that training volume (in terms of how much you normally do on average vs. what you are doing now) both play a big roll in cause & prevention of soft tissues injuries (non-contact in nature, basically mostly the types of over-use chronic injuries we see in the gym); also, how we perceive our ‘injury’ will affect the pain/discomfort we feel from it.
The former has more & more research backing it now, which is nice, with some meta-analysis even suggesting a ratio between acute to chronic training volumes that put us at increased risk of injury (1) (2), the latter, is an even more interesting concept, & it has even been coined a nickname, the nocebo effect.
The nocebo effect is basically the opposite to the placebo effect, in which when we expect a negative response to something, this expectation increases the likelihood that this negative outcome would manifest itself in real life, even when there is no pathology/injury or actual damage in the first place (3). Why is this important? I think for me, & many other individuals who deal in the minutia of training, this nocebo effect exacerbated the time it took me to recovery from my shoulder injury & in reality, I think that I was ‘healed’ physically way before I was healed mentally. I think this nocebo like effect, caused me to obsess over the biomechanics of exercise technique more than I needed to, as I was so hyper focused not only on my injury whilst training, but also in the thought that any deviation from perfect technique was what was causing me pain, when in reality, this was not the case, the pain I was feeling was potentially a result of not addressing what was actually the causal factor when it came to my injury, the insufficient recovery from my training, as no matter the amount of sleep, relaxation, nutrition or other recovery modalities I applied, I would not have been able to recover or adapt from this training.
Now I have this knowledge, when someone comes to me with a niggle, or what seems to be a chronic injury, I ask questions like “How much training are you doing?” “How frequently are you training the same muscles & movement patterns” & “When was the last time you deloaded training, or had time off?”.
It’s important to understand that as a general rule, a chronic overuse injury, is a case in which we have exceeded that tissues capacity for training in the way that we are currently doing, so training has to be changed in some way than it currently is, to take stress away from it.
You can 100% exceed this threshold with ‘perfect technique’ (although perfect technique is not really a thing, there are probably guiding principles that we should stick to, but technique can vary vastly between two people, & still be appropriate). The fact is this, that some joint positions are just going to be more resilient than others, they can take more training stress, so allow you to get the most benefit in your requisite skill over time. & some positions just don’t have this capacity. An example, deadlifting with a rounded back, I will frequently see people do this in the gym, with significant loads, & they continue to do it, yet don’t get injured? How do they do this? It is because there is some level of capacity in that position to do that, & this capacity is just a lot less than with a neutral spinal position for example. The injury occurs when this is done enough times, or with enough load, that you then exceed that tissues capacity & it ‘breaks; understand that there are no inherently good or bad positions, there are just better ones for the job at hand than others.
3. Find as many places to progress as possible
This point is key when it comes to long term adherence, any really significant body composition changes do take a long time, & unless you are either a complete newbie, being able to attain the famed ‘newbie gains’, or you are a seasoned trainee, that has a hardened mentality & understanding of the process, this time to results can be hard to deal with. What I’ve learnt is, whatever your goal, find as many progression points as possible, & recognise these little wins when they happen, to reaffirm that you are doing the right things & that you should continue to do them. When you keep seeing successes in different places, sticking to the plan long term becomes much easier.
Some examples for fat loss include; improving sleep, reducing external & unnecessary stress, hitting personal bests in reps, weight, relative intensity (i.e. you can usually squat 100kg for 10 but that’s to failure, if you can do it with a few reps in the tank is progress), improving technique or ROM, getting more veggies in daily, drinking adequate amounts of water, meal prepping more consistently, focusing less on food &improving step count. As you can easily see, the list can be near endless when you look hard enough, keeping an eye on as many as you can sustainably, is probably a good idea, because there can always be something you’re getting better at, but it can be lost in the weeds when you are hyper focused on 1 or 2 metrics.
You will never improve every single metric, consistently, every week, so when you don’t see something improve, seeing something else improve can help keep you from feeling stagnant, or changing something drastic. This is especially true at the start of working towards a goal, at this time it can be hard to see how you will ever stick to this for any period of time, but understanding that things always get easier to stick to over time, & as you repeat & condition them more. As you can see below, there is an example, of what it may look like visually to condition a habit/new skill for the long term, as you can see, at the start it always takes more effort, when comparted to the return you get, over time, the need for these levels of effort diminish, & you start to think how did you ever struggle in doing something day in day out.
In the past, the majority of my focus would be on how much weight I was lifting, & then the weight on the scales, with any deviation from what I wanted to see, resulting in negative feelings. As I know now, these 2 metrics in particular, can be so variable over time, & at the time I didn’t realise how or why these metrics fluctuated, learning that life is so full of ups & downs, in all ways imaginable, was so liberating, & removed this hyper focus & put it into the bigger picture.
Now I know better, I look at as many data points as I can, as a whole, & not individually, trying to look at the whole picture, & not one or two things that haven’t changed. If there is one thing you can do for long term success in any goal, this can definitely be one of the most valuable things.
I hate the adage “trust the process” as it has come with various negative connotations, to me & clients I work with, but as long as your plan makes sense & is feasible, then you really do have to trust the process, & start to look at what does improves & what doesn’t as part of the bigger picture, not as individual measurements. It’s so true that most of the metrics we have to track progress, are actually inaccurate in telling us exactly what’s happening at that time, they cannot be taken as gospel as a singular, but as a whole they can give us a better picture on which direction we are headed, & all we can do really is continue to generally steer the ship in the right direction.
Aaron @ Myonomics
(1) Jones, Christopher M., Peter C. Griffiths, and Stephen D. Mellalieu. “Training Load and Fatigue Marker Associations with Injury and Illness: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.) 47.5 (2017): 943–974. PMC. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.
(2) Gabbett, Tim J. “The Training—injury Prevention Paradox: Should Athletes Be Training Smarter and Harder?” British Journal of Sports Medicine 50.5 (2016): 273–280. PMC. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.
(3) Horsfall, L. “The Nocebo Effect” SAAD Dig. (2016), 32:55-7. PMC Web. 1 Feb 2018.