Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The (real) mind-body connection (or why your optimal training method is failing you right now)

Those even mildly familiar with the iron sports (either for strength or volume gains) will recognize the mind-body connection as one of the recurring concepts presented as a key ingredient of progress (much touted by Ah-nold back in the days, and likely pirated from someone else). My position regarding it, as with most “broscience”, is that there is no such thing, beyond some placebo effect (you can find some pseudo-scientific defense in Sad attempt at a scientific justification of BS but it probably speaks more about the limited applicability of EMG data than about the true effectiveness on “focusing on feeling the muscle”).

However, I do believe there is a more empirically based connection between how your mind feels and what results you get, although it is a bit more convoluted and complex to manipulate that thinking really hard about the muscle you are contracting in each rep. The real deal here is the ongoing enthusiasm you can gather for your own program, to keep going after it every single day, in every single (growingly punishing) session. I’m assuming some experience here, so for this to apply you have to be an intermediate/ advanced lifter already beyond the novice phase (so no more Linear Progression gains, but needing to periodize and take each cycle to a slightly higher intensity, thus requiring a considerably higher expenditure of will power, in exchange for lesser and lesser gains). If you fit the bill I’m sure you’ll relate with how difficult it is to convince oneself not to focus with zen-like abandon, but just to keep getting under the bar and performing each set as it gets excruciatingly closer to the physical limit you feel able to reach.

That’s why most elite powerlifters (and weightlifters) thrive in group settings, and identify lifting in a team of like-minded individuals as the most important factor to achieve greatness. If you train all by yourself it is too easy to skip/ delay workouts, take some freedoms w the programmed weights or be more cavalier about recovery. Belonging to a group gives them the extra oomph needed when laziness rears its ugly head and makes us question how badly do we really want to go in the freezing cold to do battle with a heavily loaded bar.

And that’s why the optimal training program you are following ends up not being so optimal after all, as the more demanding the program becomes (and it absolutely HAS to be demanding to keep progress coming beyond the initial beginners’ phase) the stronger the temptation will be to take some minimal slack, and those slacks add up to finally not following the program that much. For example:

·         Big lifts programmed with F3 (to be performed 3 times a week) end up being done in F2, or even F1.5 (as other commitments –work, family life, extended recovery- keep on popping out and reducing the days you can actually go to train)

·         90% intensity becomes more like 70% in the accessory movements (as after the main lift of the day you just cannot summon the mental fortitude to go so close to your limit again)

·         The 5,000 calories a day you identified as needed for top recovery end up being more like 3,500 most week days (as you eat outside, feel like crap after guzzling just half of it and decide to compensate later on at home, only to arrive there as fed up as right after lunch)

I’m talking mostly about myself here, but I think it is pretty common within this particular population. So when you honestly assess how what you have been actually doing vs. what you had planned to do you may surely find out that in terms of volume, frequency and intensity you have been consistently underperforming. It is just being human. A first approach to solving it, if you are utterly convinced of the validity of the programming principles applied, is to adjust the program down a notch so the workouts become less demanding (and so they are easier to comply with). We may call this strategy “increasing stickiness by decreasing the challenge factor”. Progress may be slower (you end up moving less total weight per session, be it by performing less sets, less reps, or the same but at a lower intensity), but more consistent and continuous than in the “half-compliance” scenario.

A second approach would consist in the dreaded “program ADD”, or keep switching programs just to keep training varied and thus funnier, and make it more palatable. As long as those program are not markedly suboptimal, the advantage of following them more closely surely more than compensates for their potential shortcomings.

A third approach (the one I favor) is not just to rotate different programs, but to keep changing the whole training philosophy (after a minimal period to ensure each one of them can deliver the goods that made you choose it in the first place), chasing different physical attributes (between the ones I identified in this post: What to train for). Readers of this blog will recognize that approach as the one I am currently following, as I rotate the pursuit of strength (measured as 1RM in the powerlifts), speed-strength (measured by the distance I can put the shot) and power (measured by the weight I can put overhead in the Olympic lifts), each for about 3 months. The only problem I’m facing (and which has indirectly caused much of this post) is that I made the rotation “circular”, starting the year with the same pursuit with which I ended the previous one, which will have me pushing strength through powerlifting for almost  five continuous months, which is starting to take its toll (very busted knees and wrists, almost perennially fried lower back, alarmingly low aerobic capacity...). HOwever, we are only six weeks from the Spanish Powerlifting Championship, in which I’m planning to compete, so I guess I’ll just have to man up and keep it going until then

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