When More Isn’t Better

More isn’t better! You all shuld know this!

Ok, look, let me preface this article by admitting that I used to do all of the same shit that I am about to tell you not to do. This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • 2-a-day resistance training workouts. Sometimes 3…
  • 2,000 push-ups a day. (Admittedly this wasn’t sustained long). Also, once 3,500, just to prove someone wrong. (I WON, Torrey…the crusty old Chief Petty Officer beat you!)
  • 30+ mile runs.
  • Back to back long runs for not reason, with no ambitions to run an Ultra.

Naturally, this list isn’t all inclusive.

Before you go off and get yourself in a huff, understand that I’m not saying that his is ALWAYS contraindicated. It isn’t, but there is a time and a place to employ this time of overload.

By training Hybrid athletes, military folk, and other assorted maniacs, I tend to attract more of the same. Make no mistake: this is a GOOD thing, as these people tend to keep me on my toes while simultaneously taking everything I throw at them with very little complaint. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I am cut from this same cloth…so we are all like a huge family of overachieving nutcases living happily ever after.

Life is good!

Of course, there is a dark side to trainees with this sort of “beat-the-shit-out-of-me-I’m-super-Alpha-more-more-more-more” attitude. The problem is that they always want, well, more.

And sometimes more isn’t better. In fact, MOST of the time, more isn’t better.

As I recently posted in a Facebook status, the Military’s attitude toward training (particularly remedial training) always made me chuckle. Whenever I would have a Sailor fail the semi-annual Physical Readiness Test (PRT), I would have a conversation with my superior officers that would go something like this:

Department Head would be like:

“Chief! Petty Officer Jones failed his PRT. Put him on two-a-day workouts!”

Then I – in my infinte smart-assery – would be like:

“Sir, our latest PRT demonstrated that he can’t even handle ONE fucking workout a day.”

Ironically, my most impressive PRT performances, consisting of maxed-out calisthenics and sub-8 minute 1.5 milers, came when I actually did LESS (!!) overall training. My easy days became REALLY easy – tethered to a Heart Rate Monitor and slogging along at 70% HRR or less, and my hard days became brutal: increased intensity, increased speed, far more weight moved in the gym. The net result was less “junk miles” and “going through the motions”; more quality training. As I aged, I began to notice that this was even more important. Yes, folks, recovery is just as critical as the workout. (If you are 20 years old and don’t believe me, please come back in 16 years and talk to me). When Alex Viada tells you to “be lazy”, he isn’t bullshitting you: in most training situations and particularly in multi-sport/military/hybrid situations, minimum effective dose and max recovery often mean better performance.

Among the hard-chargers out there, there is a tendncy to want more work and want it now. Similarly, there is a tendency to try to add work to “make-up” for various shortcomings: missing a workout, not feeling tired enough, feeling ‘really good’ even after the prescribed work sets are complete, etc. Or, even worse, as punishment for other shortcomings.

Issues arise when that excessive work gets in the way of the long term programming vision, which leads to stalled progress or even injury.

This can be a colossal challenge to address, both as a coach and as an athlete, but here are a few tips to keep you from driving yourself and your coach crazy, as well as to get you to understand that more isn’t better:

  1. Stick to the plan – More often than not, deviations from programming stem from a lack of communication between coach/athlete, or simply a lack of trust. This is one of the reasons I am so proactive with communication and encourage all of my athletes to question me freely if they are unsure. Oftentimes coaches (and I include myself here) can do a poor job of communicating the LONG TERM vision and planning. For example, a marathon client may look at the base phase and think: “This slow LISS is boring! I’m going to add some intervals!” In this case, indeed the work can be tedious, but without base aerobic capacity in the short term, later development of speed and threshold will only be limited.
  2. Keep modifications in the sprit of the original workout – Shit happens, which means that sometimes workouts will not go as planned. This is fine, but keep the modifications within the parameters of the energy system that was intended to be worked. So, if you can’t perform 5 x 5 Back Squats, don’t substitute it for 200 Air Squats. At worst, you are going to hurt yourself, at best, you are going to intefere with future workouts that week by hampering recovery or having excessive DOMS. Likewise, not being able to perform a LISS run outside due to inclement whether is not a valid reason to substitute this for HIIT on a treadmill.
  3. Understand your own physiological and psychological biases – Often, especially with military folks, pure strength training can seem too easy. When an athlete shifts from higher intensity calesthenic workouts or metabolic conditioning, pure strength work can seem like it isn’t doing much: they aren’t sweating as much, they aren’t gassed, and 3+ minute rest periods leave them feeling like they aren’t working heard. Does this sound like you? I was this guy at one point. What we fail to realize is that these workouts are very taxing neurologically, just in a different way. Coming to grips with this can be daunting, but, once again, communicating with your coach and being honest with yourself are critical.
  4. If something feels hurt, just stop. Assess. Live to fight another day – If your shoulder is screaming with every repetition of Overhead Press, don’t substitute this for a similar movement that “hurts less”. Ditch the workout. Reassess yourself the next day and don’t be afraid to seek medical attention if things still don’t feel right. I see this ALL THE TIME with military folks, and I can relate to living a lifestyle that preaches “no pain no gain”.
  5. Give yourself a break. Fitness, health, performance – it’s all part of a long process, and if you are constantly beating yourself up with the feeling that you aren’t doing enough, your compliance and motivation will eventually take a nosedive. Be active in the decision-making and programming process, but if the trust is there in the coach/athlete relationship, allow them to do the heavy lifting with regards to the program design. This reason is precisely why I almost always pay someone to program for me  it takes the stress off of me and allows me to simply execute at provide feedback.
  6. Perhaps most importantly, if you are doing extra, are you able to justify the added work? Does the extra training stimulus serve a purpose that goes beyond merely making you tired or fulfilling a psychological need to have worked hard? I am fond of telling people that any coach work his salt will be able to justify each exercise within their program – why is it included, why it is in that specific place ok the workout, why it has its specific number of sets/reps, etc. If you are unable to justify the addition of movements or mileage, there is a fairly solid chance that this is just filler exercise done to plug a psychological gap, rather than provide a legitimate physiological stimulus leading to improvement.

So, to wraap this up, there is a time and a pace for going nuts with volume, but, in many cases, more isn’t better. Think of the big picture when making plans to deviate from your program, and remember that doing less can sometimes result in doing more…or doing it better…or both.

Coaching Philosophy, Personal Development and Sport Psych: What I do

It dawned on me recently that, while many people know of me, not many know exactly what I do with regards to my style of coaching. This is, of course, totally my fault, so this article will give you a primer on what I am all about.

What is Sport Psych?

Although the fitness industry has been inundated lately with a rash of “mindset” experts, there is actually a rational and science behind the application of Sport Psych principles. This is not “woo”, or “voodoo”, but rather a systematic intervention that focuses on multiple areas related to performance. Sport Psych skills include the following:

  • Effective Goal Setting
  • Eliminating Negative Self-Talk
  • Boosting Self-Efficacy (task-specific confidence)
  • Fostering Mastery Climates
  • Energy Managment
  • Relaxation
  • Energization
  • Imagery

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t magic, or esoteric nonsense based on laws of attraction, but rather evidence based techniques that have been proven, in the literature and in the field, to enhance performance, motivation, adherance, and – ultimately – enjoyment.

In addition to the above, Sport Psych also focuses on self-awareness, performance planning, practice planning, and contingency planning,

What is My Coaching Style and Philosophy?

Based on my military experience as a Navy Chief Petty Officer, people tend to make assumptions that I take a hard-line, “Drill Sergeant” approach to my coaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although mainstream media and the movies like to romanticise the Boot Cam aspects of the military, actual day to day leadership tasks in the military are highly centered on developing personnel to be leaders in their own right. Rather than applying extrinsic motivators to “drive” a person, my coaching style focuses on education and growth of the athlete/client.

This means autonomy.

This means that I am not telling you what to do, but rather guiding you on a journey of self-discovery and travelling with you. As a team.

If this sounds “touchy-feely”, well, frankly, it can be.

One of the most critical components to success, whether it be a specific race performance, or weight loss and general fitness, is to have concrete goals set up as a guide. General Sport Psych interventions can do an excellent job of developing a “process” for you, which focuses on small, actionable goals that you have control over. However, one of the most neglected components of goal setting is encouraging a person to explore their “why”: that is, their reason behind doing something.

And rightfully so – to get a person to explore this type of thinking require a coach/athlete relationship rooted in trust. It requires investment from both parties.

Even more critical: the “who”.

Even with a “why” that is sound, nobody will see a lofty goal through to its completion if it isn’t aligned with their values. If the reason why you want to achieve something isn’t in complete congruency with who you are, it will make the goal that much easier to abandon when the going gets tough.

By the way, working with someone to find their “who” takes even more trust and investment than the “why”.

It requires diligence and commitment. It requires a coach that cares.

This is exactly what you get with my integrated services.

Self-Efficacy: Mastery Experiences and Strength

Self-efficacy is an important concept in sport.

The term is often used interchangeably with “confidence”, but there are key differences. “Confidence” is more of a loose term that indicates a belief in oneself without specificity. “Self-efficacy” is a more precise term that concerns one’s belief that they can be effective at a certain task. According to Albert Bandura, these are more than minor semantic differences, as self-efficacy is a descriptive term that fits within a theoretical framework. (Bandura, 1997). In this case, the framework is Social Cognitive Theory (SCT).

So, let’s stick with Self-Efficacy for precision’s sake.

Albert Bandura is the father of this stuff. Incidentally, Bandura is also the mind behind Social Learning Theory, and the “Bobo Doll” experiments (this is worth a Google search), and is the 4th most cited Psychologist of all time…but I digress.

Within the framework of SCT, Bandura (1977) outlined four ways in which self-efficacy can be developed. In order of effectiveness:

  1. Mastery Experiences
  2. Vicarious Experiences
  3. Verbal Persuasion
  4. Somatic and Physiological State

NOTE: How this fits into the context of Social Cognitive Theory will become a bit more transparent when we discuss vicarious experiences in the next article.

Self-efficacy and the Deadlift

Mastery Experiences are the most critical and and also the most sketchy with regards to maximum strength efforts, so we are going to start there.

Mastery experiences are the single most powerful way to boost self-efficacy. Simply put, if you have succeeded in an endeavor before, you will have a strong tendency to expect to succeed in future instances of the task.

Hit a home run in the major league? You will have more self-efficacy with regards to home run ability.

Hit an NBA 3-pointer? More 3-point self-efficacy… Hit the game winning shot? Major boost!

Unfortunately, things aren’t so cut and dry in max effort sports such as powerlifting. In the case of a Personal Record (PR), how can one have a mastery experience if the weight is uncharted territory for them? Does this make the concept of mastery experiences useless for powerlifters or other max effort strength athletes?

These are things I ponder.

Ordinarily, one would assume to simply move down the line to vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and arousal states. However, there are some ways to leverage mastery experiences in the case of a PR, and I want to outline some further detail and practical application.

Performance Aspects of Mastery Experiences

There are three of them:

  1. Consistency – Not just in training, but also with regards to the pattern of sustained experiences of success. It is important to note that we are not talking a couple of victories in a sea of losses, we are talking about a pattern of wins, even small ones, that can generate momentum.
  2. Recency – Succeeding yesterday holds more weight than succeeding ten years ago. I could write an entire article about what I used to squat before I screwed my hip/groin up, but I won’t bore you with my woes. Suffice it to say that what I used to squat four years ago has no bearing on my feelings of self-efficacy for squatting the same weight under my current program.
  3. Quality – Is the success happening on easy task, or challenging ones? The higher the quality of success, in terms of difficulty, the better the self-efficacy. Worth noting: this also works inversely. Succeeding in easy tasks provides less of a boost and failing at any tasks, regardless of  difficulty, damages self-efficacy.(Burton & Raedeke, 2008)
    Practical Application for Strength Athletes

Now, here are some practical, actionable tips for getting the most out of mastery experiences:

Goal-Setting

I could argue that this is a “chicken or the egg” type of conundrum. That is: do effective goal-setting techniques lead to enhanced self-efficacy, or does self-efficacy lead to a more effective approach to goals? I wrote an entire guide for this that goes into depth about effective goal setting (sign-up for my email list and I’ll send it to you), but here are the highlights.

  • Be realistic with what you want to attain, yet don’t shy away from an appropriate challenge. Generally, a good rule of thumb is 10% higher than your current capabilities, but take this with a grain of salt. If you are already an elite squatter, for example, lifting 10% more than that might be a bit outrageous for a short/mid term goal (or even a long term goal, depending on where you are).
  • Set up midterm goals that have clear performance milestones.
  • Don’t forget about process goals for the short term goals. We are looking to develop goals that stress consistency, effort, and technical mastery. These goals will give us a pattern of success that will provide momentum to our performance goals and eventual PR.

Remember, by nature, a PR is uncharted territory, so we need to psychologically experience as much success in skills and habits that have transferability!

Training and Programming

Here are a few thoughts:

  • When looking to set percentages for programming, be honest with yourself and calculate them using a recent 1RM (or another applicable RM). This sounds like common sense, but many people, myself included, will pick an “all-time-best-ever-lift” to calculate their training ranges. What you lifted 15 years ago, as a college sophomore, isn’t applicable. Sorry.
  • Training to failure should be avoided. There are caveats to this, but from the standpoint of strength sports, there should be an effort made to succeed as much as possible. Strength sports will concern performance and outcome goals, so the chance of failure is unavoidable, but contingencies should be in place to reduce this.

Remember, setting up a pattern of success is critical!

Wrapping it up

Even in the context of performance markers that are out of the realm of what we have ever achieved, we can still leverage the power of mastery experiences to boost our self-efficacy. I calculated effort to pack a training/meet preparation cycle with as many success experiences as possible will go a long way to raising our confidence when it is time to compete. Combining these master experiences with vicarious experiences, persuasion, and arousal control will provide a potent boost in mental performance.

Stay tuned for more on self-efficacy techniques.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.