One early Saturday morning I went into the club where I train my clients and had an interesting conversation with someone I’ve worked with at the gym. I asked Jena how her deadlifting was coming along, since I had taught her this lift a month earlier.
She said it wasn’t going that well so I asked what was going on. She said that she hasn’t been working out very much. Again, I asked why.
What she told me surprised me but it wasn’t anything I haven’t heard before. She said she would workout, but felt that she didn’t know what she was doing, whether she was doing the exercises correctly, and that she was ‘researching’ instead if training.
This reminded me of a great article by James Clear called, “6 Truths About Exercise That Nobody Wants to Believe.”
One of the most important messages in the article is to prioritize volume before intensity when starting to train. You might be asking yourself, ‘What does this have to do with Jennifer’s situation?’
When you learn a new lift at the gym — let’s use the above example of the deadlift — you can’t be expected to lift very heavy in a highly technical lift until you have mastered the lift. In the beginning, it’s all about a lot of repetition at low weight to improve technique and your ability to manage heavier loads over time.
As you progress to lifting heavier loads, the relationship between volume and intensity can change, i.e. you can now lift more intensely (heavier weights) at a lower volume (fewer repetitions). This is also a demonstration of the inverse relationship between volume and intensity.
The message in Clear’s article, “to prioritize volume before intensity,” can also be used as a metaphor for all new things in life — where ‘volume’ is what we practice (in order to master or understand the new skill), and ‘intensity’ is the skill we implement with intention.
For example: you can’t write a university-level essay before you’ve done your research; nor can you prepare and cook a five course meal based on French cuisine, unless you’re done your homework and understand the complexities and techniques required to make such a meal.
Each step forward is a successive step. If we believe we’re multi-tasking, we’re wrong. You can only focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a myth — you are only doing many tasks, each one after the other, with limited focus.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
How do you solve a problem? Put all of your focus and attention on it.
I mentioned the article to Jena and suggested that all she do in her upcoming workouts is two things: 1) train for ’volume’ with each exercise, and, 2) only with the exercise that she knows how to do well.
I suggested volume to her, because higher repetitions with a lower load (weight) is not as challenging as lifting to increase strength or maximal load, but it’s also appropriate when you’re still learning a new lift. Volume will allow her to practice. Volume will offer her ‘comfort’.
When the high volume approach gets easy and she’s getting bored — when she’s relaxed into homeostasis — then she can attempt something new that she’s been researching (i.e. trying to understand the deadlift by reading as opposed to just doing it), or get coaching assistance, or a workout buddy to integrate and practice a new lift, like the deadlift.
Once this skill becomes easy or second-nature, you have mastered the skill and it has become a mental and physical habit-pattern.
Without intensity there will be no growth, only stagnation. Learning something new requires both volume and intensity, but not at the same time. The more intensely you train, the less volume you can handle.
When you first learn the deadlift, you might only be able to manage the weight of the Olympic bar. Over time and with practice you will lift progressively heavier weights, reducing volume as you increase intensity, and master the technique.
The next time you find yourself stuck or experiencing ‘analysis paralysis’, ask yourself, “What one simple (or easier) thing can I focus on?” “What one thing can I practice and do now to overcome this paralysis?”
Pump up the volume or increase the intensity — one or the other, but doing both at the same time will only hurt you or send you down the crazy path called ‘analysis paralysis’.
In other words, start with what you know and learn new things along the way. Keep learning and keep growing. Become a master at what was once challenging.
© 2013 Darren Stehle. All Rights Reserved.