I was inspired to expand on this topic after listening to a podcast with John Call aka “Jujimufu, the “anabolic acrobat.” When asked about his ability to gain strength & muscle mass, and maintain an impressive amount of flexibility (just go watch this guy move), he laughed and explained how there’s so much more depth and complexity behind being “flexible” and that people often tend to reduce the ability to be flexible or to do the splits into something with “diminutive value.”
This rung so true to me.
People say they want to be “flexible” as much as they want to be strong, but their training does not reflect it. We say that our training is balanced, but we’re all focusing so much on strength and capacity and reducing movement & flexibility to something that is as simple as “doing some stretching.” Getting “flexible” or doing the splits can be as complex as wanting to squat 600#. If you want to squat 600 pounds, you don’t just go and “do some squats.” You add variety, you periodize, you do accessory work, and you take it seriously. Why do we think movement work should be treated any differently? Or other qualities for that matter.
In this article, I’m going to explain why I think all aspects of fitness that you find important, and that are relevant to your training goals, should be approached comprehensively and deserve an equal amount of focus. If you’re someone who has training goals, but struggles with letting go of previous biases or are afraid that you’re “strengths” will suffer, hopefully this article will give you some insight into a different approach.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” - David Allen
Let me start by defining what I mean by training qualities in relation to this article with a few examples.
Gymnastics - Performing complex skills & routines & having a high volume capacity in a workout setting.
Strength - Mainly proficiency in the Olympic lifts in a high & low percentage setting relative to your one rep max, as well as the ability to perform the lifts under fatigue.
Running - Pure capacity for a specific distance & fatigue based running during mixed style workouts.
Movement - I chose this one last because I would say that out of my experience this is the category or skill that is easily the most commonly reduced down of all the other training categories. And rarely do you see someone choose a “movement” skill like the middle splits or an advanced lizard crawl as a movement goal. But, in the rare case you do see that happen, the time given to this goal is typically not equal to those of improving a strength metric like a snatch or a back squat. I think a helpful goal that would carry over into EVERYTHING would be to try and enhance your ability to learn new movement patterns.
“Beware of the person who can’t be bothered by the details.” - William Feather
Try to understand the complexity of what you’re trying to accomplish.
When choosing an outcome based training or performance goal, it’s super important to make sure it’s worth the blood, sweat, & tears. It needs to be something that you actually believe you can achieve, but won’t quit on after the first failure. Diving in to solidifying your “why” behind training goals is an important part of the process and I think it deserves enough merit to be expanded into it’s own article, so I just wanted give it mention. For now, let’s assume you are in love with your fresh new training goal and will stop at nothing to see it done.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to make sure you truly understand the details and complexity that you might run in to when asking these things of your body.
1. What has already been done?
Seek out what other athletes have done in the past. Ask questions, and see if you can learn anything from their passed mistakes & experiences. How long did it take them and how far are you from where they started? Asking yourself these questions could help you avoid pointless mistakes and make your training time much more efficient.
2. Am I moving to fast?
You need to push really hard to achieve your goals. Hard effort is essential to training progress. But, don’t let hard effort be confused with impatience. If something isn’t developing at the rate you want, make a quick check to see if you’re asking too much from your body. Is it short term thinking? If training is something you’re truly passionate about and you want to see long term success, taking the time to build a platform that allows you to train for a long time is worth the investment. Try to cash in now, and sure, you’ll get quick PR’s, but at what cost? Slow down. Learn to play the long game.
3. Am I ok with sacrificing capacity in one skill to develop another?
Balancing training goals is hard, but that’s what makes it fun. You have to be ok with letting go of some capacities if you’re going to put your time into another. It may not suffer, but just try to understand that your training time is limited and for every minute that you’re adding to your new training goal, it’s taking away from another.
For example, “movement work” is extremely important to an athletes health and longevity in sport. It’s also very time consuming. If you are in season, the majority of your training is likely spent focusing on sport specific training. At TTT we take movement work extremely serious, but also understand that it comes at a sacrifice, sometimes. If you’re spending an hour of your 2 hour training session doing slow and methodically movement patterns, that’s one less hour a day that you’re pushing high intensity pace and training capacity. Now there could be carry over for most people. Perhaps you were in a situation where you were training with too much intensity & volume, and backing off could have benefited you. We definitely see that a lot. My point here is that you can’t always expect there to be direct carry over. We see the same mistake made in Crossfit™ with aerobic training. Cyclical work on a rower or an assault bike is great for building capacity on those devices. But sometimes this is confused to have direct carry over into mixed modal Crossfit™ style workouts. It’s just not the same.
When I look back at my training history there are two training blocks that stick out to me that I can remember having a significant impact on my skill development. I also remember being ok with the time they would take away from my typical style of training. But these were skills that I really wanted to improve.
The first being olympic weightlifting. When I began this sport I trained haphazardly for a few years until I realized I needed to narrow in on specific skills to see specific development. Every morning for about 3 months I dedicated time to an olympic weightlifting program (Catalyst Athletics Blog). With barbell warm-ups and cool-downs, sessions lasted about 90-120 minutes. But the bulk of the time was spent filming and reviewing my own lifts, with occasional help from other coaches in the gym. I just remember the sessions feeling more like practice instead of hard & intense training. I would even go home in the evenings and review some of the lifts. Dissecting them, until I felt like I found a takeaway that I needed to work on. It took a while, and was tedious work, but I would definitely say this phase contributed to my long term development and comfort in the lifts. It’s without a doubt that my proficiency in the olympic lifts is much higher relative to other training skills. An important lesson that I learned that I now apply to all my clients is that you will see development where your time is spent. So choose your time wisely.
The second phase of skill development that I think was super impactful was a running phase I put myself through. This was back when the Pose method came on the scene. I knew that running was a big “weakness” for me based on my placement in competitions back in the day, so I decided to step back from other training and spend my mornings following a running program. I had followed “volume” based programs in the passed with tempo, distance and interval style runs, but had never took the time to work on technique or running as a skill. I knew my “engine” was decent, but I just could not find a way to make running feel “easier” or more efficient and just doing more of it was not working. So I figured that it had to be my mechanics. This specific Pose Method program I decided to follow was extremely skill based. Warm-up drills taking as long as 30 minutes to complete and total running volume with cadence not usually longer that 1-2 miles. “Helen” was my test retest for the running development and after 12 weeks I crushed the retest by over 60 seconds. If you’ve ever done the CrossFit™ workout “Helen” the majority of the time spent in the workout is running. My point here is that the time I chose to spend dedicated to improving this “weakness” approached from a skill development & mechanical perspective. Now, I still suck at running, as sum of the total I’ve spent working on it as a skill is still heavily outweighed from other training qualities. The lesson here is that I did take time to develop my running abilities, but in the global view of time spent in my training history, it is still heavily outweighed from time spent under a barbell. The numbers don’t lie, and had I continued cycling running phases in and out of my training, I’m positive there would be more balance in my capacities.
“The details are not the details. They make the design.” -Charles Earns
Focus on the details.
If some of these concepts are new to you and you’ve been living a training life of randomness, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to see if your training is balanced and actually reflects the goals you’re after.
1. Did I do an assessment?
You need to test yourself to set some metrics and establish a starting point. Like I mentioned above, how far are you from achieving this goal? This is super important as it will help give you a realistic idea of how far you are from achieving your goal and will help you set up a realistic timeline. I’ve seen a lot of people set an unrealistic timeline with their training goal and burn out just because they didn’t take the time to understand how long it might actually take.
2. Is my focus balanced?
Another important piece that stems from an assessment is that it will help you organize your priorities to maintain balance in your program. If you tested correctly in your assessment, then it should be pretty clear where your time needs to be spent.
I see it happen often and have been guilty of it myself. To give an example, “I wanted to increase my work capacity, so I’ll do “met-con’s” every day after “some” strength work.
The training plan might look like, a barbell warm-up, mobility work, 5 sets of 3 reps on the snatch, some clean & jerks, then some back squats. And to finish it off, some posterior chain work because accessory work is good for you. Now, I’ll spend 10-15 minutes doing my “goal specific” work in the met-con. There might even be some cool-down/flushing work in their after wards.
Seen this before? My point is, we put so much emphasis and attention to detail on our strength priorities, and reduce down work capacity to a diminutive value of “just doing met-cons” and “going there” more often. There are so many other factors that could be limiting your work capacity.
A different approach might look something like…
Cyclical Warm-Up - Cyclical
Breathing Mechanics Work (because you need to develop the ability to maintain energy, breathing is your main source of energy, and it feels good) - Check out coach Kyle Ruth’s blog from last week for some training examples.
TNG Barbell Efficiency/Breathing Work (learning to breathe while under load for multiple reps, again learning to maintain energy)
Mixed Modal Capacity Work/Intervals - Short Time Domain (8-10 min improvement, aerobic power/high turnover)
Cool Down/Parasympathetic Breathing Work
3. Am I spending my time wisely?
If you want to take an objective approach, just ask yourself, “What are my priorities right now?”. Then sit down and add up how much time your spending in each training session for each of those goals. You might be surprised with the answer.
It gets even trickier when you have limited training hours in a week. So narrow the focus, and make sure your time is well spent. I believe it’s much easier to see progress in a specific area when the focus is narrowed and the priorities are limited. Trying to improve too many things is sure to leave things watered down and slow the progress. It’s much more rewarding to know very specifically what you’re trying to improve and actually seeing a marginal improvement.
The main points that I hope you took from this article.
1. If you want to gain proficiency in a skill, give it your time. Be patient with the sacrifice it might have on other training qualities.
2. Try to understand the complexity of each training quality, don’t be afraid to dig in to the details.
3. Take an objective look at your training to see where your time and energy are spent. It should reflect your goals. Time is limited, if it’s not helping you get closer to your goals, get rid of it.
Remember, there are no “answers”, only time & experience. Don’t be afraid to not have answers. Be afraid of thinking you have all the answers. If you have all the answers then you have nothing left to learn. The same concept applies to your training. If you think you’re good enough at something, then you have no pressure to keep improving. Keep learning, keep growing, stay curious.