“We cannot make good news out of bad practice.” - Edward R. Murrow
Many of us don’t enjoy the idea of “practice” very much. The idea of being really proficient in a skill though, now that sounds pretty great! I guess everyone wants to be able to play like a pro on game day but very few people want to train like a pro in the gym. It turns out that if you practice something long and hard enough, eventually they’ll call you “talented.” But if you get a chance to ask any of the so-called talented players where their amazing skill comes from, they’ll tell you it’s “practice.”
So if it really is the accumulation of training hours that yields such fantastic results, why doesn’t the prospect of spending those hours seem all that appealing for many of us? I think that one reason is that we tend to get overwhelmed by the broad scope of elements required to get truly skilled at something and lose hope and interest in the subject. We think of practice as “wide” instead of “deep.” But what if we could direct our journey in skill development to focus on the principles that make up a skilled player's great performance instead of trying to just mimic all the activities that a top performer does without ever understanding why? This is power of practicing “deep” instead of “wide."
One of the biggest hurdles we face on a journey in fitness is that "working out” can seem like a tedious, uncomfortable and even boring prospect. I used to think that all this could be solved when you shifted your perspective away from doing “work outs" and considered a training session as a “skills practice.” But even from this perspective, the definition of practice we are so familiar with: "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it,” still sounds frightfully dull! It also implies that repetition alone is all that is needed to achieve proficiency. Although the idea of “practice" vs. "work out” is enough of a shift in mindset to give training another chance, it still falls short for one essential reason. Most of us take for granted that we know how to practice effectively but actually we don’t. We’ve got just the one tactic; repeat something until it gets better, and that’s it.
Some professionals instinctively solve for this on their own and are able to transcend early in their careers, others learn it at some point later on, but all of them know how to structure a practice session to leverage the minimum investment required to achieve maximal results. Ergo, the time spent in practice drives palpable benefits without much (if any) wasted effort, which offers up more time to spend on more high-yield practice and thus dramatically accelerates the pace of growth. Those tangible results are what makes the process very satisfying and dare I say, fun! Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It is, and anyone can learn how to do it.
I’m sure almost everyone reading this is aware of the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who noted that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the "vital few”). As such, until we know how to effectively practice, 80% of our skill improvements are likely derived from only 20% of our practice. You can also look at this the other way, 80% of the time spent in practice is yielding only 20% of the benefits. What a waste! In the strength training world we refer to this type of practice as performing “junk repetitions.” These are reps performed without intention; hoping to derive some positive effect in the mere performance of the movement without a skill-based objective. Yes. there can be some benefit in simply going through the motions, but a 60 minute training session that only yields 12 minutes of really productive work?! It sure would be great to get those 48 minutes back to do something more productive with them. If only we could use our knowledge of the Pareto principle to actively target that 20% of the productive practice time that is driving 80% of our results.
It can be difficult to harness the "vital few” elements of a training session because these productive moments are usually scattered throughout the practice time. As such, we can’t simply cut out a block of stuff that we think isn’t productive. “I’m going to skip the warm up and just get to the stuff that really matters.” Too often this simplistic approach results in obvious disaster. Avid gym-goers might also have thoughts like, “at my peak I feel and look my best, so I should just focus on peak-phase training and get rid of all the lower intensity stuff that doesn’t get me these results.” This fallacy also only nets diminishing returns at best and injury at worst.
Instead, we can prevail upon the extensive research and experience of the most successful athletes across the broad spectrum of sport and extract the most productive combination of elements that deliver the biggest benefits in their training. At Breakthrough, our programming is all designed around this principle; to focus our practice time on the “biggest bang for your buck” elements to drive results and satisfaction without compromising health and safety. In this case I’m not even talking about specific movement patterns like squat or push, but rather a series of concepts that cover how we chose to perform those movements. Once again we’re trying to practice “deep” instead of “wide.”
My current definition of these 5 key elements is as follows:
Corrective and Recovery Work - Self massage, relaxation, improving mobility, range of motion, reflexive stability, maintaining muscle and joint health, and addressing any imbalances, rehabilitative or other recovery needs.
Movement Skill - Improving balance, reaction time, coordination and neurological connection to muscular contractions.
Inter-Muscle Contraction Strength - Improving the synchronization of muscular contractions under load.
Intra-Muscle Contraction Strength - Improving the intensity of contractions within a muscle, isometrics.
Energy Systems - Improving the function and deployment of all three energy systems; Alactic, Aerobic, and Glycolytic.
The power of applying these elements in training lies in their depth. These can be used to generate the greatest results from a general physical preparedness session just as much as they can be applied specifically to a given topic like powerlifting or marathon prep! If a coach and athlete understand how to structure a practice session around these aspects, consciously assign them to each training block and periodize them across phases of programming, there is minimal risk of any wasted effort or “junk reps.” Palpable improvements will be achieved within each practice, yielding greater satisfaction and enthusiasm for the next session!
As we approach a new year of training sessions and programming, let’s consider how we might apply one or more of these elements in each set or block that we perform and make sure we're not missing out on any of their benefits by the end of a practice. A good program should reveal an obvious opportunity to work on almost all these elements in every session. Any tedium or boredom we might have experienced in the past just slips away when we concentrate on these 5 results-driven focal points in training. Deep practice is what can ultimately lead to a wide range of satisfying skills!