“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”
Because Einstein said it, it’s got to be true?
Well, first of all there is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. The linkage to the genius whose hair was always uncombed, clothing always disheveled, and who never wore socks occurred long after his death. It is one of many completely unsupported quotes attributed to him.
When one looks for the very influential statements’ real origins it seems like it originated in one of the twelve-step communities. Twelve-step programs are mutual aid organizations for the purpose of recovery from substance addictions, behavioral addictions and compulsions. Being communities who greatly value anonymity adds to the difficulty to identify a specific author to the saying.
Regardless of who first said what, the idea that one can try something and instantly see if it resulted in anything useful or not, is something that we mostly take for granted. From this we, usually without thinking much about it, similarly take for granted that if something did produce positive effects it would do so again if we kept doing it.
When doing so we fail to see that not all change and not all strains within a system are visible on it’s outside or by the parameters we measure it by.
Further it can make us rush on to try new things too soon. To give up when we would need to be patient and let the things we do bring about the change they could, given some time.
Systems can be analyzed in terms of the changes of their states over time. A state is an attempt to characterize, or define, a system by a certain set of variables. When a system changes its state its variables also change as a response to its environment and a completely different behavior might emerge.
This change is called linear if it is directly proportional to time, the system’s current state, or changes in the environment. They are called nonlinear if it is not proportional to either of them. In a nonlinear system very small changes might sometimes give rise to great changes of the system, and vice-versa.
Complex systems are typically non-linear, changing at different rates depending on their states and their environment. They have stable states, called attractor states. These are states that are preferred, and govern system behavior to stay the same even if perturbed. They could also be unstable, at which the systems can be disrupted by a small perturbation.
Examples of complex systems are the ecosystem, the weather, forests, organisms, the human brain, infrastructure, social and economic organizations (like cities) and ultimately the entire universe.
When these attractors are in such unstable states, exposure to what might look like the same environment, or such tiny changes of it that they can hardly be seen, could quickly completely change the entire systems behavior.
This type of change, which characterizes much of nature, is often abrupt and discontinuous. Systems experience periods of turbulence as attractors destabilize and create the potential for phase transitions (sometimes called bifurcations or tipping points). During these transitions, systems reorganize into new patterns of functioning.
A familiar example is the transition from liquid water into gas when boiling water. Under gradually increasing heat, the water remains liquid until the tipping point of 100°C is met and the sudden transition toward the gaseous phase takes place.
If one wanted to boil water but gave up when nothing happened after a minute or two, one would be prematurely looking for other ways to get things cooking.
Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and most famous for his play Waiting for Godot. A play that was famously described by Irish critic Vivian Mercier as in which “nothing happens, twice”.
Two dysfunctional men encounter others along the road as they wait forever and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. They fill their idle hours with a series of mundane acts and trivial conversations as the world of the play operates on nothingness.
Surely the author of such a play could offer a counterpoint to the dominating “definition of insanity”? Something more useful to handle the everyday struggle of nothingness without prematurely abandoning or giving up on one’s efforts?
Sure enough, In 1983 Beckett offered a different perspective in his work Worstward Ho:
“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What Beckett is telling us is that no matter how good the attempt, all actions inevitably fail to be perfect, then one must make another attempt and another, and the effort is in the attempt – not in the product.
In a non-linear world one could be considered mad if one would think that doing the same thing over and over again could not produce a different result. For both the person and the environment where the action is carried out is always different, if only so subtly.
Possibly the hardest thing to do as a trainer is to back off. To realize that while you are very important in some parts of the process of learning, most of the time must be spent simply doing.
I have a friend who is a very accomplished trainer, and who have few superiors when it comes to designing exercises. His skillful eyes see not only unsatisfactory movement outcomes, but also at what point initial flaws that might be causing them arose. On top of that he has great understanding for manipulation of the exercise to open up for better movement patterns, as well as being skilled in communication.
We often teach together and his imagination and sharp eyes never seize to impress me. Then things go wrong. He’ll have the athlete do the exercise a few times, or maybe a week, watching closely. If he sees better outcomes, he goes on to take on the next pattern to be sharpened.
Change takes time.
Much like parents often end up trying to fulfill their dreams through their children, teachers often get too involved in the process. Over-coaching and pushing too quickly can be just detrimental to the development of new and efficient attractor states as the opposite.
In other words, it simply happens. The coach, the midwife of all those new skills, is simply momentarily assisting in the process, but not making it happen.
Practicing and performing require a quiet mind: a mind that is empty of expectations, ideas, and presuppositions, that is open to what happens in the presence of every aspect of a movement.
To be a masters trainer, on top of all your technical wisdom, you need to be patient.
To see possible improvements and manipulate exercise in order for these improvements to arise.
To communicate so that the student understands what constitutes a good rep versus a less good rep.
Stepping away and letting the student find his or her way of increasing the frequency of good reps, until it is something done without thinking. The failed reps in the process is what eventually lets the good reps just happen. (very hard, and often forgotten)
Staying cool and detached yet a little bit longer, remembering that just because some good reps are being done, it does not mean that they just happen, just yet. (requires the patience worthy of Buddha himself)
Coaches momentarily assisting the process I said… But sometimes that moment is long. One week? Four weeks? Months?
It is impossible to tell how long it takes for a new attractor state to emerge, but in my experience it varies not only between individuals, but also with time for the same person. All we have is to stay rooted in the present and to evaluate the fluctuations of the athletes results.
When an attractor is getting more stable there will be less fluctuations in performance. In order to see this we cannot vary the exercises and workouts too much.
A master coach who did take this to great lengths was Anatoliy Bondarchuk. A former Olympian himself, he turned to coaching after his career and is widely regarded as the most accomplished hammer throws coach of all times. He developed what can best be described as completely response-based programs. His method largely consisted of repeating the same session over and over again, with no wave loading of training variables and abilities, and no changes in strategic or qualitative elements.
Will there be no variance in such a system? Surely there will be, for in a complex world both the person and the environment is always slightly different.
A program with little variation allows you to see the states of the system over time. When data and form seems stable, then we can also assume that the attractor states are stable. When this happens, but not before, we should be increasing task difficulty in order to force adaptations via yet more phase changes.
One note of warning though – one might be tempted to think that we now know how this athlete responds to training, and would be able to predict the time to adaptation or phase transitions for the athlete. But when a system changes its state, a different behavior will have emerged.
While we now know our process of exercise selection and communication likely functions well for this athlete, we can’t ever relax and be the lazy coach.
“For the young the days go fast and the years go slow; for the old the days go slow and the years go fast.”
Regardless of what specific method one adheres to, for there are many possibly great ones, one thing I see more from the experienced coaches is that they are likely to let things take their time and by doing so allowing for more possible growth of their athletes.
In the first article of this series I explored the risks of assuming that there is something fundamental beneath the surface, which must first be optimized in order to increase performance later on. In the second article I challenged the need to continually increase physical training load, suggesting to focus instead on adaptation of task difficulty to where our athletes are exactly now.
In this last article of the series we will continue to explore methods to stay in the present, and how the use of our language can help but also overthrow our attention to what is really going on and hinder the transfer of the exercises we prescribe.
As we have seen, the promise of the ideal is repeated over and over again but never fulfilled. When technology was invented to measure oxygen consumption, blood lactate concentrations and force it gave rise to new models for training. Now the recent ability to sequence DNA is looking to change the way we measure and prescribe training.
While this way of looking at the internal processes of the body certainly has merits to many sciences, it is still not able to add much to the decision process constructing training programs. Just like with the preceding reductionist approaches comes the same possible pitfalls.
We could also measure the length of fascicles, concentrations or flux of chemicals, energy storage or the efficiency of the electron transport chain and… Well, it’s likely to be a mess to bring all those parts together in a general capacity. The whole is not the sum of its parts, despite how magnified they may be.
The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden not because of their depth, but because of their simplicity and familiarity.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once described the situation as it is as if a man is standing in a room facing a wall on which are painted a number of dummy doors. Wanting to get out, he would fumblingly try to open them, vainly trying them all, one after the other, over and over again. But, of course, it is quite useless. All the time, although he doesn’t realize it, there is a real door in the wall behind his back, and all he has to do is to turn around and open it.
Having explanatory models of how it all works, seems to be helping us to take the right actions. But the problem with the concept creation is that it assumes that by creating concepts, we can lay down in advance what it is we are thinking about. In plain English, there is really not much evidence supporting the theoretical concepts of phase potentiation, but we have a hard time to see this since it is all we know.
To help our man get out of the room all we have to do is make him look in a different direction. To do this we should turn things around, away from the safety of dogma, and look at what is hidden in plain sight.When do our athletes struggle in racing or during competition? Describe those situations without explaining why they happen.
This brings us to the topic of terminology, on how to best communicate with the people we coach.
Concept language is used to describe words or constructs that bundle a lot of actions and interactions under a simple word. To transmit less detail and more fundamental aspects of information faster and easier, mainly by experts of a defined field.
Complementary training, meaning all training carried out away from the field of the game, with the intention of helping successful execution of skills in the game itself (or a more functional life for that matter).
Coaches, specifically us who provide help with complementary training, are usually using the concept language of our field, as opposed to the language of the game itself. We use constructs that are natural in the gym, like “strength”, “strength endurance” and “speed”. We speak a language of “intensity”, “volume”, “sets” and “reps” with the athletes that we train.
When athletes are new to complementary training they usually struggle. They have a hard time to understand our lingo and to perform the training we prescribe with it. When we invite athletes into this world, filled with new mysteries to solve, they will eventually get better and better at speaking our language and doing our type of training.
But this was never the end goal.
It is not enough to show how clever we are by showing how obscure everything is
There is some evidence that memories are stored in the same brain regions as they are perceived. This means that not only what you mean when you phrase your coaching cues matter, but also how the athlete interprets them and in what context the training is carried out for their subsequent retrieval.
The way language seems to provide a gateway into athletes’ motor cortex is quite stunning. Studies show that when participants hear verbs like lick, pick and kick it activates the respective brain regions of the tongue, arms or legs.
By using language so different from the field of play, we might accidentally be creating a rift between the athletes training and the application of it. By using ourconcepts instead of mapping into the common language that is better understood by our trainees we are limiting the transferability of the training they do .
Sports is a practical matter. It is not about words, but rather about actions. Action language, on the contrary from concept language, is the language used to describe only relevant details in a clear, concise and objective way, transferring details without judgement, often with a more direct purpose. It tells what to do in a specific situation of a game.
When we start with what we see, rather than from physiological constructs, we are more likely to be able to create terminology that ties the action language of the sport and concepts of exercise science together. Then we can utilize this terminology in a coaching process that is individualized without becoming abstract.
The athletes will perform their exercises more purposeful and they will intuitively know how to use the skills they are strengthening. And, although they might not be well versed in your world, they often are very knowledgeable of their sport. They know themselves and they will be able to help improve those exercises in a constructive way.
A muscle fiber generates tension through cross-bridges of actin and myosin. Under tension, the muscle can be made to lengthen, shorten, or remain the same. Muscles also have elastic properties where energy can be stored to increase force, but only for a very short time. When a muscle is not tense it is “slack”. To produce movement, that slack has to be removed by pretensioning.
At high speed and high power the demands for contraction velocity, pretensioning and efficiency of storage, and return of energy are greatly increased. As a result there is little positive transfer between different types of muscle contraction. In cycling most muscle actions are shortening contractions.
Cyclists produce higher peak pedal power and rate of force development on a stable cycle, commonly referenced to as an ergometer (like a watt bike, a spinning bike or a trainer) than when riding in a velodrome.
When sprinting on the ergometer, the riders only have to focus on producing maximum power, whereas on a bicycle they also have to control the direction and stability whilst trying to produce maximal power. Also, one of the biggest factor to overcome during cycling in aerodynamic drag which is not easily simulated in a gym.
Because of different demands there is an altered riding position observable as difference in hip, knee and ankle angles.
With the principle of specificity in mind there would seem to be arguments for the the track cyclist to train on the track, or to find other ways to challenge stability if that is not possible.
Cadence, or pedaling rate, is an important factor influencing the economy of motion, power output and the development of fatigue during cycling. In track sprinting the use of fixed gearing makes this a very important consideration at race day, but also to guide training. The inability to select the best gear for specific situations during a race, forces a decision on which gear would be overall most suitable for a rider in all situations. Some factors influencing this are the type of race, the opponent and the rider himself.
Bigger gears give the opportunity for higher maximum speed with less fatigue. If one is able to get up to speed and then to effectively spin it around, that is. With higher inertia comes higher demands of force.
There has been considerable research in what is called optimal cadence, the cadence where peak power is achieved. Given the importance of contraction velocity and efficiency in high speed and high power movement it is thought to provide important insight in the selection of pedaling rate, and therefore appropriate gearing.
Optimal cadence is highly correlated with the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and in a sport where the ability to push bigger gears are so rewarded as it is in track cycling, there is likely not much drawback in continually training to increase their proportion. Given the low risk of gaining mass when doing large volumes of training, there is little reason for the road sprint cyclist to think differently.
As with other constructs there is a catch to letting peak power testing dictate training decisions. Those tests are almost always carried out with very little pre fatigue and from a stand still or low cadence. Following periods of exertion cadence at peak power has been shown to change. Higher velocity provides less time for cross bridges to form, and therefore the demands for the speed of contraction increases. The demands of the athlete shift with each situation and each athlete.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs…?
In a small country like Sweden, with a limited talent pool even in our national sports (football, ice hockey, skiing), we need to adapt our coaching to improve each person in front of us, rather than the other way around.
One would need to look at the specific situations each athlete struggles with to best construct exercises to increase their capacity in those situations.
Sven Westergren is the current Master national champion in Match sprinting. Match sprinting is the discipline where two opponents go head to head for 3 laps, or 750 meters. He is big and strong and able to push bigger gears than his smaller opponents. They however have the upper hand when it comes to quick bursts of acceleration from lower speed.
Tactics comes down to controlling the pace. If Sven is able to keep the base speed high enough to prevent aggressive “jumps” from his opponents they tire quickly, and have little to do when he eventually accelerates to top speed. In order to strengthen his ability to do so, exercises for acceleration and maximum speed can be constructed to involve a build-up beforehand.
With little access to the only Velodrome in Sweden, which is located more than 2 hours drive from where we live, and knowing that the transfer of skill development from ergometers to the track might be low, we do most of our training during winter season on resisted rollers. This is not ideal, but better than other options.
Rollers might provide less physiological overload, because their larger demands for creating stability. Peak force and power are lower than on an ergometer, but quite similar to the track, and we have seen more transfer of improvements on to the track because of this.
We should use our coaches’ eyes when we construct exercises for our athletes, but if we can formulate them with language well understood by our athletes, we are improving both their transferability and the chance for better feedback. A clear goal for our exercises also allows for better judging if the exercise was successfully executed and functional.
A possible way to create a helpful terminology would be to first define a game model based on the broad actions taken in their sport.
For track cyclists we could construct such a model by going through each broad component carried out in a race. A very simple example would be to specify the possible actions to master as the start, the acceleration, maximal speed and speed endurance.
For each of these areas we can assign suitable actions, which would be a good starting point in order to create a more individual and usable “dialect” of a general sports language. Actions however do take place within the boundaries of space and time. If we sat down in a car and all everything that was told to us was to “drive” the action would seem less connected to its environment than if we were also given instructions on how fast and in which direction.
Similarly our cues will also benefit from the inclusion of direction and distance.
Christoffer Eriksson is the Nordic Champion in Keirin. Keirin is an event similar to the match sprint but features between three and seven riders competing in a sprint race of 3 laps after having followed in the slipstream of a pacing motorbike for 3 laps. The motorbike gradually increases in speed before peeling off and letting the sprinters battle it out. The event is fierce, fast and unpredictable, with many split-second decisions about when to hold and when to attack that have to be made under fatigue.
Christoffer has lower top speed than many of his opponents, but on the flipside he is perceptive and he does not tire easily. In competition he cannot just muscle himself to wins but instead has to see how the match unfolds. He wins by finding the opportunity to get a gap early, or to follow the strongest riders when they do so. Using his strength to not get boxed in, and accelerate to fill gaps is an important quality for him.
One exercise to practice this ability could be to build, then simulate staying on a wheel, relaxing to get some distance in order to use the slipstream to get enough speed to go past on the outside. We could call this exercise “hit, fly, hit”.
In order to build the language for this we should consider the actions involved in it. Most important is the verb that should be the main descriptions of the action to take. I’ve often used the word “push”, as it is pushing the pedal away we would like the athlete to do. But considering that pushing is something that could be done slow I prefer “punch”, which I think would be a perfectly fine option. You can push slowly, but you can’t imagine punching slowly.
Knowing about the very specific encoding of memory storage, I would like to use a word less associated with the upper body. I would propose using “stomp”, which would seem as a similar action as punching, but for the lower body, where power is most important for cycling.
When describing the exercise, I would use something like “Build up to speed and and then stomp as hard as you can to go faster, closing the distance to a breakaway rider. Then stay as smooth and effortless but without losing cadence, and then again stomp hard to accelerate past”.
In order to sharpen the action cue I prefer to shorten it to a minimum. Keep the action, direction and distance, and end up with “stomp fast forward”, and after the “fly part” again tell Christoffer to “stomp hard past”.
The exercise will be tied to race tactics, and we would be able to get a nice feedback loop going in order to improve future exercise according to the needs and skill level of the rider.
The skeptic could point out that the examples given in this series of articles appear to be quite simple. That all I do is to observe my athletes, and when I think I’ve seen what needs to be improved upon, I have them do that very thing. Yes, with some variation, and sure, carefully considering communication and possible improvements of the exercises – it all appears to be so simple.
They would certainly be right. Even though I would argue that doing the simple thing well, is not easy. Let’s also describe how one could use the same methods to develop something less like what is performed in the sport itself.
When an exercise is very specific, by definition it has a low degree of overload. If we would like to lift the middle of a rug from the floor, we would do best to direct most of our lifting to that point exactly. If we want to maximize how high we could get it, we would also benefit from at the same time lifting at the edges.
In elite sports, you rarely win with the distance of a landslide. More often with the small margins visible in the loser’s sigh. The athlete also needs the marginal gains found in general overload.
You have to appreciate the impact that variation and change has on how an athlete reacts to training across the board
The upper body is involved at a remarkable extent when cycling hard compared to when cycling less hard. The degree of negative relation between upper body asymmetry and maximum cycling power production is quite exceptional.
This should not come as a surprise – in high intensity movement the opposing forces are so great that muscle fibers have to stay close to their optimum length, and as the feet are attached to the pedals, there is less flexibility of positions in the lower body. One can imagine how much this must challenge the trunk and the pelvis when force is applied into the pedals. Studies also indicate that compromised coordinative patterns for the ankle joint correlates with loss of power.
For the cyclist who wishes to win in a sprint this would seem to make an argument for
Core training (oh, those circuits that burn so good)
Ankle strengthening (Calf Raises, for more of that sweet burning sensation!).
While there is nothing wrong with these exercises, I would treat such isolation as things we do at the end of the session, after we’ve done everything else.
In movement, force produced by muscles moves through the body. Patterns between muscles occur with the changing demands of force in order to develop synergies. The whole body efficiently forms a unit capable of more force production than any of its muscles in isolation.
Again, with the principle of specificity in mind, there seems to be an argument for multi-joint compound movements in the gym to maximize transferability of increases of strength.
The need for variation is fulfilled already if we make sure that there is a large extent of overload.
“The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”
In bicycle sprinting you need to subdue very heavy resistance, especially in starts and acceleration. Further, these efforts must not make you so tired that you can continue to turn around those heavy gears the distance required to complete the race. Being strong for the sprinter is very specific.
In some of its disciplines, like in the match sprint and Keirin, a modernization of tactics has raised the need for top speed over acceleration. This has forced the riders into an arms race for the capacity to push bigger and bigger gears.
In earlier posts we have explored the balance between specificity and overload in the gym setting, and isolated the following basic rules
Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
Overload as much as possible while satisfying rule #1. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
Anddo not let the main movement mechanics break down or change during the set
I argued for single leg movements for developing maximal leg strength for sports played on one leg (cycling, team sports, track and field, racket sports, etc) and double leg movements for those that have movements performed symmetrically (powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc).
Possibly we could tweak this even further.
Before we go on to explore this I’d like to point out that I do not propose to exclude single joint general movement, despite having less obvious benefit. In fact I have all of my athletes do such movements, like pull-ups and dips, but they do it late in the session, after the more contextual work is done.
The way our muscles in the lower body are structured allows for a unique role in the transformation of rotation in the knee joint into the production of high force. Biarticular muscles are muscles that cross two joints rather than just one, such as the hamstrings which cross both the hip and the knee. Rectus Femoris in our quadriceps and gastrocnemius in our calves also have this property.
These bi-articular characteristics allow for extending the joints one by one in a sequence called the proximal-to-distal sequence more commonly referenced as triple extension. Extension of these joints one by one allows at least one of them to have a favorable translation relationship throughout the full extension.
This sequence allows for the possibility of more net force production, but in order to function properly the extensions should be completed in a certain order.
An ankle collapsing during the pedal push does not translate into movement of the pedal, but still cost energy. To prevent this leakage of force efficient cycling pedaling depends upon the ability to keep the ankle locked into position.
If the push downwards is done with a highly extended or flexed ankle the extension movement becomes rapidly less efficient. It would seem that cycling therefore cannot fully use the benefits of the triple extension.
During the sprint, ankle joint power decreases more rapidly than power at other lower limb joints, while hip extensors and knee flexors sustain their power for a longer time at higher rate.
The hip extensors are also the strongest muscle group in all velocities, followed by knee extensors and hip flexors. The weakest muscle group are the ankle flexors.
This seems to further support that there are differences in the efficiency of the pushing sequence with fast cycling, possibly at least partly as a result of not being able to execute the triple extension in the most efficient sequence.
New inventions in technology to measure performance in endurance training changes the way training is conducted and planned. The way things work in the strength world is no different. Traditionally the measurement was the weight on the bar, but lately bar speed, or power, has been popularized as a way to monitor performance.
More contextual always means less optimal for overload, meaning that athletes will always have lower numbers to show for their efforts. The systemized way of using such constructs could potentially bias us to high performance in these constructs, rather than to look for more contextual performance increases.
It will also subconsciously nudge us toward movements with the highest efficiency, regardless if we do not have these options for movement execution on the field. This is often defended with references to higher neural stimuli of these exercises. High effort in more contextual movements will also have equally high neural stimuli, despite lower measurements, as an effect of their lower mechanical efficiency.
Very seldom do we train strength in the gym with our joints in such non-optimal positions. Since muscles do change their optimal length and other properties with exposure, this is the whole point of strength training, and given that the coordination of chains of muscle is no less trainable – maybe we should?
The standing start is no different from seated pedaling. If the knee joint and hip joint creates force by opening up, the ankle must stay fixated in order to translate this force from above into the pedal. If it does not there is a leakage of force.
As we found in an earlier article the split squat is a fine example of an exercise capable of generating a lot of force. Even more so with the added stability of the hands. We can see that the ability to transfer force through the ankle is one limiting factor in the video of the standing start above.
Possibly we could try to combine a dynamic high force output from the hips and the knee joints with a static high force demand of the ankle?
As cadence increases, the time we have to create force shorten.
Disregarding exactly what the optimal pedaling rate for high power sprinting is, it is definitely high enough to not allow for inefficiency. For us to develop efficiency to perform unloaded high intensity movements, we should practice pre-tensioning with the use of co-contracting muscles alone.
This could be done with high power ballistics movements, such as jumps, especially from static positions with the least possible help from pre-loading and counter movements. I see few drawbacks doing some of them from mechanically challenged positions similar to what you would find in bicycling.
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.
Theodor W. Adorno
The main reason we still lean so much on these perfect systems of explanation for decision making is that they provide the false safety of the ideal. Numbers are clear and concise, actual situations are messy. But in that mess there is also information that is lost when quantified.
A magnifying glass quantifies and enlarges an image, but the spectator cannot truly construe meaning from what is magnified. Only when we get a “splinter in our eye” we are forced to stop to regard the things that do not fit in. The flaw in vision, becomes a way of seeing better.
To say something about particular situations risks exposing our ignorance. Our challenge then, becomes not to hide from our possible ignorance, but to embrace that risk.
In the realm of sports science what can be thought of as classical periodization was originally discussed by Russian scientist Leo Matveyev and further expanded upon by Stone and Bompa. Periodization is a logical method of organizing training into sequential phases and cyclical time periods in order to increase the potential for achieving specific performance goals. All while minimizing the potential for overtraining.
Phase Potentiation is the strategic sequencing of programming phases to increase the potential of subsequent phases and to increase long term adaptive potential. Theoretically, using this concept, peak performance occurs in a controlled way as the phases are stacked on top of each other.
When examining the success of classical periodization concepts they fail to convince of their superiority over more concurrent approaches to the planning of training.
Not only are these long detailed and rigid plans vulnerable to unplanned periods of non-training – what do we do when the athlete gets ill? – but also that we just miss our mark, either on the resources available for training, or the speed of progress we ended up with. As we are working under either of the two false assumptions that averaged group-based trends accurately reflect likely individual responses, or that the individual response can be extrapolated to work for a group – our plan will only provide a false sense of security.
These methods with long cycles of mostly general work are also quite time consuming. For most sports disciplines, the packed competition schedule makes it difficult for coaches to adopt them, as there is simply not enough time during the season to improve poor form.
However, the most important drawback is their very low rates of effectiveness. When scientists have looked at the amount of athletes who are achieving the season’s best result at the seasons most important events, like World championships and Olympic games, the results are disheartening. Seldom if ever more than 1/4th of the athletes manage to deliver their top results for that season.
The theoretical and speculative “delayed training effect” concept assumes that training basic capacities at earlier phases of the training plan has positive effects on actual performance long after they are taken out of the training programs, replaced by more sport specific exercises. They also produce unwanted adaptations, such as significant decreases in power and speed abilities. Coaches might ask themselves whether basic training is a real basis for competitive performance, or whether it is a loss of precious time to athletes.
To be fair, basic training is not only done for peak performance but also for the sake of injury prevention. There is also plenty of evidence suggesting that what is likely responsible for a large proportion of non-contact, soft-tissue injuries is not training load as such, but rather excessive and rapid increases of them.
It is likely that the positive adaptations in muscles and tendons provided by longer periods of basic training may also be obtained by typical strength and power exercises. Exercises which can be implemented with little to no negative effects during the course of the season.
The stakes of unsuccessful performance at key competitions are high, with evidence suggesting that more severe psychological consequences are a distinct possibility. Failure to meet performance expectations include anxiety, interpersonal hypersensitivity and coach-athlete relationships falling apart.
“Speed is the most precious thing in swimming. It is what it is all about. I do not understand why you would spend weeks and months not training speed, then hoping it will come back when you taper and race. I believe you must always be within one second of your personal best time at all times of the year. That you must train for speed all year round. That your sprinters must sprint often and race regularly throughout the year.”
In the 90s the “Speed through Endurance” philosophy that reigned supreme in Australian swimming was challenged by the Russian coach Gennadi Touretski. This “more is more” philosophy was to work hard to first develop an aerobic base for 10 to 16 weeks (or even longer!), then to significantly reduce training volume close to the competition. The idea was that the more you swim, the more efficient you become and the more efficient you are the faster you can swim.
Touretski, the coach of one of the sports all time greats, Alexander Popov, was recruited to rejuvenate Australian swimming after a poor Olympic result and he did so by removing the (imaginary) certainty of linear adaptations provided by a base training phase.
He warned to assume speed will return once it is lost, and was wise doing so. The “delayed training effect” is not completely supported either by science or practice and its use as a tool to improve actual results are very unpredictable. There is simply not much basis to sustain the idea that the body is ordered into basic and specific capacities and that the overloading of a given basic capacity will suddenly “supercompensate” later in the training cycle.
When you have a capacity, you can certainly lose it (and haven’t we all experienced that). But that risk is way lower than the hope for you to gain a completely new capacity at a later point in time. For that reason he included speed training at all times of the training program, throughout all of the year.
“I think coaches do too many drills. Drills do not improve technique. They teach the basic movements of the stroke. To improve technique you must work with the individual swimmer, over a range of speeds, from slow to race speed and give them constant feedback about their technique, talk to them about how it feels and help them to develop their own technique. Every swimmer is different – every technique is different.”
Instead of general drills he believed that technique is a personal thing, and that training prescription should not be about doing a lot of general drills. Rather it should be about optimizing the technical efficiency of the stroke of the individual swimmer. Start with what you see, and practice what you see is needed for that particular athlete.
He would walk with his swimmers continuously throughout the session, ask them to swim initially at a slow speed, then have them progressively increase speed until he would notice a technique inefficiency. He would then describe rather thanexplain what happened and then figure out a cue to address the inefficiency he had seen.
There is plenty of evidence to support that increasing the physical load of training in the form of exercise intensity, volume or duration can be successful in order to enhance training adaptations.
When looking for the optimal adaptation found at the upper limit of tolerance, we expose ourselves to very small safety-margins of error. The presence of deep uncertainties linked to working with human beings challenges decision making by questioning the robustness of all purportedly optimal solutions. Knowledge about historical adaptation yields little to no information about how our “optimal” solution performs if the future surprises us, and they do not guide us to solutions that might work well if the predicted future does not come to pass.
Physical load can only be increased so much, and often this “progressively do more, do harder”-philosophy eventually pushes athletes into injury. And regardless of the progress made before this, injuries put and end to all progress.
Traditional methods for decision making require agreement about the current and future conditions and only then to analyze our decision options.
In a paper published by the World Bank on developing new processes for decision making under deep uncertainty, the research group suggested that alternative methodologies can help in managing uncertainty. These methods start the other way around by stress-testing options under a wide range of plausible conditions. All without requiring us to agree on which conditions are more or less likely, and against a set of objectives.
In the context of sports performance the traditional methodology would be to construct a training plan by starting out estimating the future capacity, form and other factors. For example to predict how much a specific squat cycle would increase squat numbers, and how much that in turn would affect sport performance in specific numbers. Only after these predictions are made we would evaluate the possible upside and downside under these assumptions.
This is problematic on two levels. First, many important assumptions are buried in models, rather than in front of decision makers and therefore vulnerable to bias. Second, many factors are difficult, if not impossible, to predict and risk to cause a gridlock in the decision process.
As an alternative, we could identify the plan that is robust, working well across all the scenarios by “stress-testing” our options under a wide range of plausible conditions. All without requiring us to decide or agree upon which conditions are more or less likely.
This means to imagine different outcomes from many possible methods. Squat numbers increasing by 15kg, 10kg, 5kg, staying the same or even regressing. Which methods end up with the highest satisfaction and lowest regret under all possible outcomes, including high or low transfer to sport performance?
When faced with the possibility of multiple outcomes we will end up choosing “no-regret” or “low-regret” decisions. Decisions on reduced time horizons that have high utility no matter what the future brings. They will be more reversible and flexible, and have larger safety-margins.
In order to learn a skill, like the strict muscle-up as shown in the video above for example, do we really have to increase the physical training load? Or could we limit explanation and predictions in order to concentrate on when our athletes strugglenow in the skill.
Continuously challenging the individual participant by progressively increasing task difficulty during long-term motor practice enhances motor learning and optimizes performance. Such progressive long-term adaptation to individual skill level not only enhances learning, but does so without necessarily increasing either the volume or the intensity of training.
Simplicity is key both for scalability and to see what is actually driving the trend without the distraction of too many variables. Managing a program of only slight changes and frequent evaluations allows for it to be data driven (as trend analysis is time-sensitive and time-powered).
All of this seems to suggest to use different, not more and often but little-approaches rather than to speculate on theoretical basic capacities, then build a base and to expect linear adaptations.
The old “more is more” approach is still very much ingrained in our way of thinking and planning. That is quite obvious when one looks at and listen to coaches who would subscribe to these theories of learning, but often still feel obliged to offer a progression of physical overload throughout their athletes cycles. Change is quite hard.
Is this the perfect progression to learn or strengthen a skill? Certainly not!
If anything should be clear by now it is that there will always be cases that are different from all other cases. Every method has its place.
I can also picture you thinking that, well, “those examples you have given are too easy. Sure, in strength sports you can get away with performing the specific skill, not something more basic or different, but simply overloaded at the level that the athlete is, but what about other sports not practiced with a barbell or a set of rings?”. Well, stay tuned for more examples of practical implementations of these principles in part 3.
I’ll leave you with the words of the great Touretski, who may have passed on last year, but whose actions and words hopefully will live on for long.
Dare to be different. Doing the same thing as everyone else is a doomed strategy and a flawed philosophy.
“In early life I thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult!”
In order to optimize performance, training theory has followed it’s fellow scientific endeavors looking deeper and deeper into details of their fields of study in a search for more detailed models of the world. These models are thought to provide more insight into underlying factors of performance. By uncovering them we can then design more meaningful training interventions. This manifests itself in metaphors like “the man as a machine”.
Similar to what Sigmund Freud did in psychology, when he presented the idea that thoughts and emotions outside of our awareness continue to exert an influence on our behavior. Even though we are unconscious of these underlying influences, physiology too has focused on hidden thresholds and reduced causal models of explanation for performance. The hope is to create better and more stable athletes built “from the ground up” and upon more basic conditions for performance than what can be seen with the eye alone.
While this project certainly has merits, it can also obscure the vision from what is “hidden in plain sight”. When searching for what is within and by looking deeper behind what is apparent, you will lose sight of how a scientific area is connected to other scientific areas: how things “just work” in the common world. When one has dug a deep enough hole, he can no longer see over the edge.
Complex biological systems (nature, humans…) are characterized by the fact that they consist of lots of interconnected dependencies in the different parts of its whole. A system constantly exposed to both sensitivity and noise, and a system of constant change.
It’s also quite easy to get stuck in a loop of trying to uncover more and more of these underlying factors, rather than to carry on with whatever knowledge we already have at the moment.
Better than using a detailed map to navigate an ever-changing landscape, like a glacier, would be to routinely triangulate your position and endure living with the degree of inaccuracy and uncertainty that comes with not knowing exactly where you are. Even though the belief in the perfect map gives a sense of security, it is a false feeling that risks leaving us blind to what is actually happening.
Simply observing what we have in front of us is often hard to do.
In order to be able to compare efforts and athletes we usually take the leap from qualitative observation to quantitative data collection, and by doing so removing them further away from the context where they were observed. How do you quantify “fast” or “slow” or “hard” or “easy” without delimiting them by turning them into numbers? Numbers fit so much better in spreadsheets for statistical analysis.
Not only are we by doing so removing the effort out of its context, we are also risking to try to affect these new numbers rather than the situation they emerged in.
You don’t want your planes to get shot down by enemy fighters, so you armor them. More armor makes a plane heavier and heavier planes are less maneuverable. They also use more fuel. Armoring planes too much is a problem; armoring planes not enough is also a problem.
During the second world war the American army was studying the planes returning from battle and kept reinforcing the areas of the planes that had the highest number of bullet holes. However, more and more planes were lost despite their added protection.
This continued until the statistician Abraham Wald noted that the military only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions. Since they didn’t, or couldn’t, look at the specific battle situations where shots were fired, they failed to see the planes now rendered unavailable from assessment. Wald instead asked: where are there no bullet holes at all?
As aiming at moving planes is not that easy, especially in those times, he figured that the damage would have been spread quite equally all over the plane. Since this did not adhere to the observations, he was fairly sure he knew where the missing bullets were: on the missing planes.
The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back. The armor, he said, shouldn’t go where the bullet holes are, but quite the opposite, where the bullet holes aren’t.
At the end they managed to logically figure out a way of protecting their planes. But all of this would have been quite clear if they had not only looked at the data, but also kept an eye on the actual action.
“Mathematics is the source of a wicked intellect that, while making man the lord of the earth, also makes him the slave of the machine.”
The technology to measure oxygen consumption first arose in the early 1920’s. Using that ability Hill and Lupton found that there appeared to be a maximum limit to oxygen consumption, when despite increases in speed, their VO2 consumption did not also increase any more.
After this most studies in exercise science have been evaluated on the resulting change in VO2max rather than actual performance (such as ability to stay with a breakout, handling of different sections of a race, movement form or even something simple as average speed over a distance). VO2max is less variable and more tolerant to changing conditions. It also happens to fit well into columns of spreadsheets.
As outcomes are increasingly measured by a specific construct, they start to shape the outcomes themselves. Researching training interventions using this or that variable as the standard of success, will slowly shift the training interventions to strengthen just that variable rather than something else. They become self-reinforcing as you will always find more of what you are looking for, and less of what you don’t. Even though that variable might have a very poor transfer on actual sports performance (or health for that matter).
Several new ways of taking measurements of biological processes have had similar impact. With the ability to portably test lactate, research was centered on ways to improve lactate threshold. With the ability to measure force, other variables came into the limelight, such as Functional threshold power or Critical power.
If we all agreed on what math problem we were trying to solve, then we can sit down together and say, hey let’s calculate! But sport and life is messy. We might not agree on what we’re trying to optimize and we also have a lot of uncertainty about what the consequences of our actions will be.
Even with access to great data, not everything’s an optimization problem. Ultimately it is crucial that we understand the limits of the technology we leveraged to help us to navigate our complex world and the values that often invisibly determine how we use it.
“For years we have seen study after study attempting to compartmentalize intensity domains based on an assumption that there is some physiological decompensation point. However we reach no clear consensus on this. First it was MLSS. Then VO2 kinetics. Then FTP and CP, but none are conclusive. Perhaps we are looking for something that isn’t there.”
Dr. Jeroen Swart
We are starting to see why Max Planck, awarded the Nobel Prize, once said that he saw economics as a harder discipline than his own field of theoretical physics: due to the inherent need for subjective judgments. Dealing with humans, is dealing with unpredictability. This could certainly be said about exercise science too.
We often think of these measurable physiological variables as clear cut, defined markers. We use them to train at different thresholds and to classify our training as such. We assume that the transition is clear and that these parameters represent some sort of boundary line, and that improving them leads to better performance.
All of the above mentioned concepts can be helpful, and used to organize and guide training but we need to understand that they do not by themselves represent increased performance. That they do not represent a clearly defined transition. Physiology is complex and messy.
There is no sport of highest VO2max, Critical Power or peak wattage. We should not be so in love with a measurement so that we forget to look at how an athlete handles specific situations of their sports.
”I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Roy Batty, “Blade Runner”
When you put a pot of liquid water on the stove it is in a steady state. All of the collective molecules exist in liquid form. As soon as you begin applying heat and pressure the state begins to change. At any given point in time we are unable to predict which molecules will make the transition. They exist at the edge of chaos. Provide enough heat and pressure and over time and they will eventually turn into a gas.
Complex systems, such as humans, have interesting properties. Strong interactions between their parts, feedback, emergence, self-organisation, adaptation, growth, change. None of these are a simple linear process. Large interventions in a variable does not necessarily have a large effect on the expected variable of interest. Similarly, a small intervention can have large and unexpected outcomes. Just like a “perfect storm” – a combination of circumstances drastically aggravates the event.
At first this unpredictability is hard to reconcile with. But maybe it’s not necessary to know exactly how a specific performance in such a system emerges?
Continuing with the “perfect storm” analogy, it might be important to provide individuals with periodic interventions that are delivered under varying “atmospheric” (i.e., psychological or life states) conditions. This means providing repeated opportunities to practice this self-organization under realistic conditions.
Consider “Chinese water torture” – a drop of water continuously hitting the same spot on your head for a long time would not bother you at all, but eventually it would change your behavior completely (driving you mad, so don’t use the analogy literally with your athletes).
“We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place [..] The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known“
Start with what you see. When do athletes struggle in racing or during competition? Describe those situations without explaining why they happen. Separate these situations in the training program and practice them with some variation.
The level of difficulty and overload should not be too high. This might push the system into interpreting the situation as something altogether different from the game-day skill. But not so little that the athlete can complete every repetition with a 100% accuracy (how could a system operating perfectly be pushed into change?).
To practice “what you see the need for” has a few advantages over to base training prescription on hidden underlying qualities
By doing so you will measure its success by exactly the outcome which you want to improve. This prevents you from getting lured in a separate direction by confusing some other variable with performance on the field. Every improvement will have a large transfer from training to performance, making small increases in capacity highly valuable.
You will move into a territory of training which your athletes are familiar with. This helps communication between the two of you. Communication should not be under-valued. When coaches speak the language of science only, how can athletes be expected to understand the drills they are given? You are more likely to get success telling your athlete to “sprint out of that corner as if you would like to get a gap on your opponent” rather than something along the lines of what percentage of VO2 or speed to hit.
It will also help you to get relevant discussions on how to tweak the drills. Although athletes might be lacking in scientific knowledge, they tend to know a fair bit about their sports, and these discussions easily extend into how to use the skills you have been working on when discussing tactics.
The downside is of course that you will have to be open with the fact that all you can offer is educated and well-founded guesses. That there is no magic pill. That all the certainty there is to find is that continually doing the things you wish to improve at over time, with some variance and with some overload is what might increase your capacity (mostly by ways of a sudden phase-transition).
If I could have gotten one dollar every time someone asked me for an assistance exercise for a problem – let’s take the execution of the weightlifting movement of the snatch for instance – and seen the disappointment in their eyes when my first choice of exercise was to do exercises not completely different from with is done in that movement. I’d rather pick an exercise to emphasize or correct the point of the lift where I felt the problematic outcome initially did arise.
This places a lot of demand on the coaches communication skills in order to get the buy-in from the athlete. A buy-in which you could have gotten by dangling a mathematical carrot on a stick in front of the athlete. It will also in my experience bring about more compliance and less injuries when you get the athletes involved in the actual process.
I started working with this young and gifted athlete from Portugal a few years back. He had made the transition from Volleyball into CrossFit where he now had some success, qualifying and performing well at the 2018 Regionals. He also struggled with some of the integral movements of the sport, such as the weightlifting movements – most noticeably the snatch.
He was catching most of his Snatches in front of him, forcing him out of balance. Unfortunately we live at quite some distance and cannot do better than to have close contact over the internet. After a lot of questions and answers and sending videos back and forth we agreed that he had trouble already at the starting position, struggling to find initial balance against the floor. This in turn leads to his position being too upright when the bar passes the knee. His joints then are not properly set up to allow him to hit what in weightlifting is often referred to as thePower position.
Without going into too much detail, the Power position allows for rapid extension of the knee and hip along with plantar flexion, in a sequence called the proximal-to-distal sequence, where extension on the joints one by one allows at least one joint to have a favorable translation relationship throughout the full extension. The failure to hit this position can force the barbells necessary vertical movement slightly forward, getting the lifter into all kinds of problems catching it.
Over the coming period we did quite a lot of
Snatches from power position, with clear instructions on what would constitute a “good rep”, having him to learn and discover on how to generate force from that position. If he could not move from this position without a slight “swinging motion” or if he had to jump forward in the catch he would know that he did not find his Power position properly.
Snatch deadlifts, playing with and learning how balance felt. (Balance is tough, as it is really the absence of feeling. Athletes sometimes tend to seek out more distinctive tension, something they feel, as you would find when you are more on your heels or on your toes)
From knee to power position and from floor to power position.
Full snatches involving the feeling for positions he learned by the above exercises.
Slower, faster… Mixing it up with some fatigue and eventually hitting the positions and moving between them became more second nature for him.
Not once did we do any movement that was fundamentally different from the movement that he struggled with, hoping to increase some “underlying quality” possibly holding him back. Surely, we still trained those underlying qualities, if they existed, by overloading and stressing the movement that involved them. With the added benefit of a more direct transfer and possibly better understanding and feedback of his process.
We also did not measure the performance of the assistance exercises, more than if they successfully challenged the positions where we thought we saw a lack of efficiency and balance. They were always viewed in the light of the performance of the full snatch.
João has gotten more proficient with this movement: here he is, at the end of a 30 minute workout, hitting a 110kg Snatch, rowing 500m in 1 minute and 40 seconds (something not done without breathing hard), then hitting another 110kg snatch just after coming off the rower something that he could not do in isolation before.
Is this the best way to conduct training? Certainly not always! There will always be cases that are different from all other cases. Every method has its place.
It is a simple process helping you not to get completely lost in the “data” jungle, or if you are, to find your way back onto the field, where the actual athletes live.
Stay tuned for more examples of practical implementations of these principles in part 2.
“Science gives direction to the forward movement; while art causes the actual progression. Thus a false activity of science inevitably causes a correspondingly false activity of art.”
Complementary strength and power training has been shown to be beneficial not only in power sports (throwing, jumping, sprinting, etc) but also in virtually all other sports as well, including team sports (football, rugby, ice hockey etc) and endurance sports (running, cycling, skiing, climbing, etc).
When developing strength training protocols for both team sports and endurance sports the emphasis is rightfully placed upon heavy and/or explosive lifting, because of the inherent potentially high neural drive of this type of training. Bodybuilding type exercises and repetition schemes are stressful on a molecular level, meaning that it might both stimulate undesired hypertrophy and that recovery is long and makes it difficult to combine with sport specific training.
This choice of emphasis often has the effect that coaches do not feel the need to address the exercise selection for their athletes more than to make sure that it provides a high mechanical tension in order to provide a general and abstract high neural drive.
While endurance and team sport athletes are not power sport athletes, and while strength training for them should be treated as general rather than specific, we still should seek to keep exercises somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli while providing as large overload as possible. Large loads and heavy weights leads to larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited, but heavy weights also contribute to change in sensory and intentional qualities and might therefor “unlock” less force production to use in the field of the sport.
When people are overwhelmed by choice and when they are anxious about it, they often turn to denial, ignorance and willful blindness.
Often when discussing strength training with endurance or field-sport trainers I am told that “we train deadlifts, because they triggers neural drive”. When I ask if, while being a great exercise, there could possibly be an even better one available for their athletes they usually point to the fact that deadlifts (or whichever other exercise is their catch-all solution) provides neural drive (which implicitly is enough) and that there simply is no need to overthink exercise selection in the weight-room.
With that same reasoning one could advocate to perform only biceps curls, if they would be heavy enough to stimulate increased central motor drive and elevated motoneuron excitability. The response to this is (of course) that, in isolation, “that would not be a great base exercise for cyclists or runners or football players, since it does not involve using the legs”.
My point exactly.
Apparently there are things to consider outside of only the amount of neural drive of an exercise. When taking this too lightly we miss out on the opportunities that might lie buried underneath an attitude of indifference.
In science the expert opinion and the case study is regarded as the lowest type of evidence, as it can only tell you what worked or didn’t work for that one person, in that specific case. In order to say more general things we value science that includes data from more people, as this takes a specific context out of the equation. The more people, the better the prediction of a general average. When such studies also comply to certain standards (randomized and controlled, peer reviewed, published in high impact journals) they represent predictability which is highly regarded in the scientific community.
Systematic reviews and meta-analysis are considered to be the highest-level of evidence available. These types of reports consist of methods for systematically combining study data from several selected studies to develop a single conclusion that has greater statistical power, due to increased numbers of subjects, greater diversity among subjects, or accumulated effects and results.
It would be easy to interpret the results from such studies as the advances toward more and more exact knowledge, when they are in fact the opposite: more broad and general. They are great for predicting the average response in a certain situations, and if you want to be an average coach then you should only base your decisions on studies like these.
But I believe that being a coach should be about trying to beat the average, to be able to provide expert knowledge.
In the real world outside economic theory, every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.
When we accept that our selection of exercises matters, that we can do more than average, we face the risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of choices we have to make and therefore risk being “paralyzed by analysis”.
Not only that, but we also face the radical uncertainty of the large world: that we do not even know all the possible outcomes. It’s a world that cannot be described in the probabilistic terms of a game of chance because it’s not just that we do not know what will happen, we don’t even know the kinds of things that might happen.
I once read an anecdote about a decision theorist from Columbia University who was struggling whether to accept an offer from a rival university or to stay in his current position. Upon being urged by his colleague to apply his own models of rational decision-making in order to maximize his expected utility he responded with exasperation, “Come on, this is serious”.
To make statements about probability in the real world it is necessary to take into consideration not only the probability derived from the model, but also the probability that the model itself is true. And this we have no way of knowing. We are left to live in a world of unimaginable futures and unpredictable consequences that continue to call for necessary speculation and inevitable disagreement which often never will be resolved.
So when one has lifted ones gaze from the mechanical systems of the average, and now commit to adapt their actions to the situations they have before them, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options and the impossibility of knowing where the consequences end.
In these cases it seems that we have to remember that the consequences of an action are not everything that follows it forever (any more than the cause of a event is not everything that preceded it). These concepts are made to be used in actual cases where we converse about taking particular actions in our lives. We need to speak about particular circumstances and particular individuals, we need to not only use knowledge about the general (the knowledge we find in systematic reviews and meta-analysis) but also move back to the anecdotal, actual, world.
I do not know – if it matters I will try to find out
Mervyn King, John Kay
It seems we could get some guidelines on how to design complementary training exercises from looking at what principles that apply and what we can say is relevant to the particular situation and person at hand.
if we begin to look at the structure of movement we find that this motor dimension includes characteristics of movement within muscles, between muscles as well as force landscapes and external body posture and joint positions.
Within the muscles there seems to be very little positive transfer between shortening and lengthening of the muscle (concentric and eccentric muscle contractions) and reactivity (using pre-tensioning and energy storage and returning through stiffness). Also, if we are dealing with high intensity sports, the muscle needs to operate at optimal muscle-length and this too limits the possible transfer if training outside of this length when training in the gym (it could actually provide negative transfer if this optimal length is stimulated to change).
When looking at the level of cooperation between muscles the biggest concern should be if our sport carries with it the demand to co-contract in order to be efficient when going from slack to tense. This is usually the case in high speed sports, and if so merely adding load to a movement with the use of barbells or dumbbells should be questioned, simply because of it’s potential to reduce muscle slack as it may not challenge the body to learn to develop proper pre-tension with the use of co-contracting muscles.
Note that adding load likely has benefits, such as forcing the adaption to longer fascicles (able to contract faster than shorter), but we might do well to balance them with ballistic movements from a standstill, and perform some of our heavy lifting from a dead start if this is the case.
There are more ways to waltz, than to sprint
In his new book Frans Bosch “Anatomy of agility” discusses, amongst many other things, whether similarity in outward posture is the result of constraints from underlying levels or if it is a separate characteristics of specificity.
He argues strongly that posture is formed out of necessity from the inside rather than that posture shapes the internal movement landscape: given the pressure of time of high intensity movement and the ever-changing environmental influences the body is exposed to, it has to reside to as general principles as possible to be able to adapt. As information from internal force landscapes is more general, it may therefore be more suitable for this than information from posture.
If we look at “what is used in the field”, this is also a strongly rooted approach with expert coaches, who would consider it a bad strategy to first use only soft contacts when striking a boxing bag, hitting a ball or sprinting on the track and only later use forceful technique.
We might do well to no longer proceed our complementary training (or rehabilitation for that matter) from low-intensity to high-intensity, but rather choose to advance from large forces (with few degrees of freedom in movement) to large forces (with increasing degrees of freedom in movement).
Train muscles predominantly similar to the demands of the sport (concentric/eccentric or elastic)
If the demands of the sports is high speed and quick reactions do choose to limit the use of the stretch-shortening reflex.
Do not mimic body positions, mimic force landscapes.
The endurance and field-sport coaches are right when they say that everything we do in the weight-room is by nature unspecific from what their athletes are doing “in the field”. But if we would consider these few points when designing exercises we would likely do better than average. Given that “we do not know what we do not know” I will always advice to do some, but not much, of the things we filter away as well – a smart contingency plan is a staple of good generals.
Do a some very general things as well.
However this is only the physical perspective, we are still dealing with humans. Ask the person in front of you what they consider fun, and make sure to include some of that as well. A program of fantastic and smart exercises, is merely mediocre and stupid if you cannot get anyone to do it.
If someone really enjoy doing something not following from the above list of principles, it is a smart idea to include some of that too.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown
To stop the outbreak of the Corona virus we have radically changed almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health and educate our kids.
We all want things to go back to normal. But what most of us have probably not yet realized is that it won’t go back to how it used to be in a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will be like they were at all.
Technology has been used quite extensively and successfully in some areas in order to work and to attend schools without gathering in numbers anymore, but the exercise industry has not been able to counter the sheer amount of loss of daily movement that the strategy of social distancing cause.
There’ll be some adaptation, of course: gyms could start selling home equipment and online training sessions, which is better than nothing, but will in no way be good enough to keep exercise efficient enough to carry the slack of the situation.
So, if not home or online training is the answer, what is? How can training be modified and used to handle this “new normal” in order to maintain physical and mental health and build healthy habits to keep us strong?
When it comes to the response to training there are clear individual variations in adaptations. While something works well to increase capacity for one person, someone else generally exhibit no meaningful improvements from the same training. An outcome that conventionally leads to them being labeled as “non-responders” to this particular type of training.
This use of language is problematic. First is the risk of promoting the general perception that exercise is not universally beneficial, and hence negatively affecting motivation for exercise. And something that is well established in science is that exercise has positive effects on health over a vast number of areas including reducing obesity, enhancing cardiac functions, reducing a large variety of disease states, improving function in life and improving mental health.
Secondly it could cause people to give up on specific modes of exercise prematurely, for instance thinking that “aerobic exercise does not work for me” or “strength training does not work for me”, when possibly it is exactly that type of training that should be carried out. However there is evidence that the number of non-responders is reduced when increasing exercise intensity and/or duration. This seems to be a useful strategy for lowering, or possibly even eliminating, non-response to training. In short: if you do it either hard or a lot, exercise seem to cause measurable adaptations in everyone.
A study in 2017 by Stanford University researchers using smartphone step-tracking data to map how active people in different parts of the world are analyzed data from 111 different countries found that Swedes took 6,000 steps per day on average while Brits took around 5,500 and Americans less than 5,000. Since walking is to be considered a very low intensity physical activity it will not have the same adaptations as more intense training, but it still form the backdrop of regular motion that forms the base of all movement that we do. More intense training adds upon that foundation.
Social distancing or all out quarantine radically decreases the amount of movement performed during normal daily routines. Most of the daily movement was done going to work and various social activities. Even if one was taking the car or the bus to work, rather than walking or biking, the vast amount of small movements within a day in society, as walking to the vehicle of choice, going for lunch with your colleagues and just to fetch “that cup of coffee” added more movement than is reasonable to replace at home for most people.
With large variations my best guess would be that something like 75% of regular movement have disappeared from most peoples lives. It’s not about that number – we can say it’s 50% – it is still likely to affect general well-being negatively when not doing a large chunk of the usual physical activity.
The body adapts to the environment it is exposed to, which is a good thing and something we use to cause adaptations to training. It means that we can become stronger and healthier! The opposite is also true, that without sufficient stimuli we can become weaker, sicker and more fragile. When we remove a large portion of our movement we expose ourselves to that risk.
The negative adaptation to that loss of movement won’t be something that we notice, but instead it will sneak up upon us. And with the realization that things won’t go back to normal for a long while we also must realize that this is something we need to tackle now, not later.
What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.
Society has evolved over thousands of years, so as to minimize the cognitive burden on individuals. And we call that minimization ‘habit formation’. We have developed rules of thumb that allow us to “just do” things that in our environment have been more or less constant. But when that environment changes, those habits no longer fit, and we cannot use the same rules of thumbs anymore.
So when normality changes it is also the time for us to rethink habit. It’s almost as if all these years you’ve been playing chess, and now someone comes along and says “Oh, now your queen moves like a pawn and the rook moves diagonally only”. Things that used to be almost automated now has to be cognitively decided. Those changes are difficult to process and confront.
Everyone wants to be healthier, but it’s very difficult to change habits. When doing so we are more likely to succeed if we impose gradual change that we can build upon, rather than a Draconian change of a large magnitude. It’s also about being able to decide to succeed: consider the difference between deciding to cut the caloric intake in half and to go to the gym three times a week. Restricting eating is something that has to be done all the time, continually throughout the whole week, whereas going to the gym is something that you just has to succeed with those few times. That’s why adding a few bouts of training are more likely to become habitual in the long run.
But like we established before, training has to be either high in load or high in volume and if we are replacing that vast amount of movement with just a few short sessions at the gym every week then it has to be rather intense. Intense here obviously means relative to the individual but “going for the heavier weights” when lifting or for the “intense and short efforts” when doing fitness. Rather than ending up doing 3 times 20 very sub-maximal reps to “get some burn”, instead opt for 4-6 reps where the last one is really, really hard. Ducking the “non-response” with 30 second sprints, with some longer rest in between them rather than going for that one longer slower interval (which could be an option if one would train more often and move more in the daily life)..
This is where home training, by yourself, through an app in your phone or with some kind ofonline sessions just won’t suffice in the long run. High intensity and high load training is very hard to maintain or frightening to start with on your own for most people. Social interaction and good coaching is often necessary in order to make training hard enough, in order not to be a “non-responder”.
My main point here is that people should, especially in this new normality, seek out a training facility, possibly where training is conducted in smaller groups managed by responsible and well educated coaches.
Doing so makes the step to get started minimal, and the possibility of success maximal: two things that largely benefit the habituation of training. I would suggest it to be some kind of “micro-gym”, since those have fewer members, minimizing risk of contagion while still offer social belonging and a multitude of social factors enabling you to train hard, while feeling safe and having fun!
Social distancing might be necessary in order to save lives, but they are also likely have consequences on mental health. In research conducted in China and Canada during the SARS-epidemic in 2003 found that a very large number of people that was quarantined came down with psychiatric diagnoses, especially post traumatic stress disorder. This risk was especially elevated for those with low incomes or at risk for unemployment.
Physical health benefits of exercise may take some time to happen, but where training seem to have benefits acutely is improving mental health, possible through providing some sense of control which could help to manage anxiety. A very important reason to not hesitate to keep training.
But is training reasonable during times of epidemic outbreak, or would it increase the risk of being infected, and if so, to participate in spreading the virus? Training has been shown to increase markers of inflammation, could this not be considered harmful and possibly irresponsible?
It is true that studies have shown that high intensity, intermittent exercise for relatively brief overall exercise time elicits a small inflammatory response. However physical exercise also promotes increases in the immunological function principally through anti-inflammatory response, so given a few weeks time the exposure to training have likely lowered the risk of getting sick, and with this you would be actively and successfully hindering further transmission.
Additionally, it seems that we can choose training intensity in order to mitigate the risk even from the beginning. Prolonged aerobic exercise induces a much more exaggerated inflammatory response than that of short duration high intensity interval training. So given the choice between lifting weights/doing a few sprints and adding mileage running track or road bike we might lean toward the former.
Another argument for seeking out that training facility with responsible and well educated coaches able to provide intensive training possibly conducted in small groups, because, and I repeat myself, doing intense training on your own is way harder than in a social setting guided by knowledgeable coaches.
The time to start to develop those habits for the new normal is now, not later. Things that we took for granted in society, things that are extraordinarily important for us, as human beings, human proximity and conversation and group living have been challenged. Hopefully, we will return to that again, but we might not.
A society more empirical, more analytical, more cooperative, more prosocial is something we should focus our attention towards today, maybe starting that process with a set of back squats at the gym or an all out sprint on the track?
Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory
On a course for trainers that I teach, we quite early in the course teach how to teach the squat. Since I have taught this for many many years now, I know exactly how it almost always plays out.
It starts, after the initial greetings and a short warmup, with me asking the group to do some squats. I take the opportunity to look at how the group I have this week moves and acts while doing this. Then I ask the question: “How deep should you squat?” and wait for the usual answers:
– “Below parallel”, “Hip crease below the top of the knee”, “You should not get to where you butt wink”, etc
But then, after awhile, from somewhere in the room someone will say the magical two words…
– “It depends.”
The whole class will give out an “oooohh”, and possible an “aaaaaah” and look to the philosopher of the group that just stepped out of the shadows. Of course, how could we have used such simple methods when of course it depends! The philosopher has a confident smile on his face, knowing that he not just shown that he is ahead of the pack but also that he did good to push them off the peak of Mount Stupid into the unavoidable Valley of despair. And on top of that he had let the group know that he for one had left the simple answers behind, and ventured forth into the land of the gurus.
Then I ask our friend the philosopher the question that is usually left unasked: “Sure, but of what does it depend”? Here your guess is as good as mine of what I will get back, but some usual ones are “the length of the femur”, “the client’s mobility”, “the skill level of the client”, “on what he needto do“… The theme being, again, that it depends. Very seldom do I get anything that I can actually use to say how deep the person ahead of me should be asked to squat, and when I follow up with “sure, ok, how deep should I squat?” there is almost never any distinct answers given.
In some ways the first answers was more usable, even while they were less fulfilling.
Then of course, we proceed to give an answer to that question, on what it actually depends, so that we can give clear advice on how to squat no matter femur length, mobility or skill-levels.
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision
I had a lunch recently with my friend Johan, where we, among a myriad of other things *, talked about coaching blogs. Johan voiced his opinion that this type of blogs are so full of platitudes that he bet he could internet-troll the whole genre with a blog containing absolutely no actual advice but cliches, truisms and common banality. Add in some links to the latest craze and no one would be able to separate his fake blog from most of the other (which, presumably, is not trolling the coaching world).
* I am lying of course, we pretty much only talked about sprint training
Well, he makes a good point: not much actual usable advice is given on the internet. And even when that is done the situation where it should be applied is seldom spoken about in any depth. It’s similar to if IKEA would deliver furniture, but leave out the instruction manual. How on earth would anyone get any furniture assembled then!?
With every method spoken about in broad terms, with every problem described, at least one case or anecdotal story on what was actually done in that situation should be delivered. This would make it possible for other coaches to think about how that situation differs from the one he or she has at hand, and to decide if they should try this method too.
With case stories we get a structured way to disseminate practical application and relevant localized approaches that bridge theory and situated practice, in a reciprocal process. This is the thing I love the most about trainer summits, that it’s common that the speakers describe real life scenarios, without the need to say that this would work as a universal principle.
Well, I am certainly guilty of speaking in broad terms, but I will also try to hold myself accountable to think on, and to try to present, practical applications for the concepts I put forward.
What we call the beginning is often the end // And to make an end is to make a beginning. // The end is where we start from.
Skills can be enormously complex, such as playing a musical instrument, making a lay-up in basketball or performing a weightlifting exercise. In such situations the trainer might have a hard time to present all aspects of the skill at once or the student might get overwhelmed by the size of the task. A frequent approach is to divide the task into several units to be practiced in isolation. This approach is often called parts practice, and the idea is to master and then integrate the parts into the whole skill at a later time.
However, some claim that practicing parts of a task in isolation transfers little if at all to the whole task, especially if the task is rapid and ballistic. They would argue for the practice to be structured as whole practice, where the full exercise is done regardless of it’s complexity.
This is reminiscent of the Holism that was summarized in one of the principal works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. The idea is that the reduction of the whole to its constitutive elements eliminates some factors. Some sort of synergy that is lost if we separate them. The holistic perspective is seen in diverse intellectual, religious, cultural traditions and diverse disciplines throughout history.
True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is.
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Irish Potato Famine has gone down in history as one of the worst tragedies in modern history. In 1845, a fungal infestation, Phytophtthor infestans, made half of the potato crop in a single year inedible and then the blight lasted for another seven years. When the hunger ended in 1852 about one million Irish had died from starvation and a culture had been destroyed.
While the fungal infestation might be technically to blame, what made the situation so severe was the lack of bio-diversity. The idea at the time was to optimize the food production and thus mostly all farming was switched to growing the same variety of potato, a variety that had recently been shown to be very efficient to grow. Had a greater variety been planted the blight would not have hit Ireland as hard as it did, for other strains would have had different exposure to the infestation.
The take away is that reducing and overloading parts (regardless in agriculture or training) means to reduce variety that could protect from downside. And that something is inherently lost in the process of reduction, which will reduce the transfer of training. Both which directs us to make the constraints of practice as loose as possible.
Traditionally cognitive science has viewed high levels of movement variability as a problem for humans when learning a movement. Repetitive practice is often conceived of as gradually reducing the amount of movement pattern variability viewed as noise and the magnitude of variability in performance has been viewed as the foremost way for assessing the quality of control.
But movement scientists have often struggled to come to terms with the complexity humans must overcome to produce even simple movements. The infinite redundancy, yet flexibility needed to navigate the world. There are such a vast number of ways for humans to perform a movement in order to achieve the same goal, that it is hard to understand how the nervous system is not overwhelmed by all those degrees of freedom.
According to Bernstein, who initially formulated the problem, the coordination patterns for complex tasks such as playing that instrument, making that lay-up or performing that snatch begin as fixed, rigid linkages between body parts. This early learning strategy helps people cope with the extreme abundance of degrees of freedom. If the task is beyond the learner’s capacity the problem of controlling the movement system is managed by dysfunctionally constraining the available freedom of movement.
One obvious example of this in the world of weightlifting would be to “lock up the hip” in the snatch turning the exercise into something looking more like a starfish than a flexible weightlifter.
This has lead scientist to think that sometimes less variation would mean not to imply quality of control, but quite the opposite. It seems learning would be maximized when finding the optimum amount of stochastic perturbations in a movement for more, but not too many, degrees of freedom to open up. Too little “noise” and no new information is provided to the learner to gradually unfix the initially strong couplings between muscles and joints. Too much and the movement becomes to rigid to be performed in a constructive way.
This phenomenon is well researched and called the contextual interference effect. Adding some variability, or “noise”, in the form of irrelevant movement components or difficulty when practicing movement can lead to better learning than when practicing simple movement patterns alone. This amount of exploration for the correct response to a changing landscape of performance forces learners to adapt their movement patterns regularly, increasing long-term learning benefits.
We would be better as trainers if we would define ourselves from the problems we wish to solve or the advancements we wish to make rather than what is too common: from the methods we use. For every exercise prescription we make we should always have an specific outcome in mind. Is it to synchronize the catching of the bar with stability into the ground? Is it direction of force? Amount of force? Bar control or body control?
If we think along these lines the method we use become secondary. And with purposeful movement constraints we are more likely to direct learners to the external consequences of their movement patterns rather than the internal processes of producing that movement. Shifting the attention towards the desired outcome of a movement, rather than on how it is accomplished has been shown to both enhance performance and skill acquisition. But to allow for this external focus of attention we need to always think backwards, from the end-result of a movement typical to display behavior we would like to reinforce. Then adjust the complexity of the movement pattern so that the learner can succeed, but not simple enough to beperformed perfectly. The key is finding that sweet spot of learning, while still anchor it intentionally, at the end result.
We could do this with any skill in any sport but let’s take the barbell snatch as an example. If the behavior we would like to reinforce is to be able to catch the bar with slightly bent knees and hip, rather than to mimic a starfish, then the end position we should start to design our exercise for this is exactly that position. Then we need to gradually include more complexity to the skill, finding where the athlete becomes so overwhelmed with “noise” that he or she cannot intelligently handle the abundance of choices, forcing, for instance, the dysfunctional freezing of the hip and knee.
This is done by gradually adding distance of the movement, in the example of the snatch that would mean distance traveled by the bar, and then, while maintaining that distance add speed of the bar. For every increase of complexity we assess if the movement is now trained at desired difficulty, if we are still are able to catch the bar the way we want us to, but that doing so is not easy.
When working with external objects we have the option to add to complexity at each position by decreasing the time available to react by increasing the weight of that object, but there are drawbacks to this strategy as it is something that also tend to alter the intermuscular strategies used to perform the movement, and this might limit the contextual transfer of the skill.
Depending on where we first see this happening we can purposely construct a constraint forming “the optimal whole” to reinforce specific outcomes and address specific problems. This would be likely to transfer more to better movement than working with parts smaller, or larger for that matter.
Just another short intermission before finishing up my series on Coaching tips. Because the Swedish national championship in track cycling (where I was set to compete in the Masters category) was postponed a few of us riders decided to make a meet of our own, challenging last years performance.
Preparation for the competition begins with the basics. For nothing can replace and nothing gives as big gains as to consistently over time do smart training, avoiding excessive stress, getting good sleep, eating good food and interacting with people you care for. Only after that should we focus on the little things, the things that give you “the marginal gains”.
I’ve found most people actually do respond well to training pretty close to their competition. Some even on the same day as the competition, the other the day before and I don’t think I have ever met anyone who performs his or her best when coming in completely from rest.
This “potentiation” should create minimal fatigue and maximum stimulation of the nervous system in order to help providing the best results in the upcoming performance. For this maximum isometric lifting, weightlifting power movements, jumping and throwing are suitable, as all of these movements activate a lot of muscle mass, but for a very short time. We should probably also include some sport-specific technical exercise or power movement, but be careful of it causing excessive fatigue. For cycling, short sprints is suitable (maybe on rollers).
And oh, yeah we should want more: those last couple of sessions should be similar to the feeling of sexual frustration.
During the last years annual trainer summit “helping the best get better” dutch sprint trainer Henk Kraaijenhof presented on peaking for competition. He told the story about when he, at the European Indoor Championships in 1987, had an increasingly frustrated Nelli cooman sit out her warm-up only to watch the opposition do theirs for the 60m sprint. And then she went out and set a stunning new world record of 7.00.
From my experience I’ve seen the same, and it extends back to the last couple of sessions leading up to the competition where I think too many do to much aerobic or anaerobic work. Some athletes think they cannot do without that, fearing they will loose their capacity, but I do not think there is much truth in that fear. The pressure of competing is better handled by learning to cope in other ways without resorting to the comfort of getting tired.
Like Henk says “in nature there not a lot of warming-up before sprinting”. And while athletes performing in longer events might do with a little more endurance in the last couple of session and slightly more for warm-up than a couple squat jumps or a few seconds of isometrics, I think it’s safe to say that most still overdo it by a landslide. ”You might pull a muscle… or you set a new world record”.
And after the basics are taken care of, just fill up with all the other little things that can tip the result over that last centimeter: swallow down the caffeine tablets with the the beta alanine and beet concentrate and pray to the sprint gods! ?
One other thing from Bondarchuk I have been inspired by is his exercise classification because it resonates well with the idea of the systems produced through these processes of self-organization that cannot be understood solely through an analysis of their components. Really, when it comes to training as much as we have seen that it was in war for General Clausewitz, it could be the stimulation of the smallest thing within the system that brings about precisely the change needed for that phase-shift. So while obviously never forgetting to train ”the whole” a method for also doing ”the less” seemed useful.
The now classic “invisible gorilla” test had volunteers watching a video and counting the passes between basketball players. Half of the volunteers then missed a woman in a gorilla suit slowly crossing the entire scene. When one develops “inattentional blindness,” as this effect is called, it becomes easy to miss details when one is not looking out for them. And this is not the only predicational bias we are exposed of: path-dependence is the phenomenon of how the possible decisions for the future is limited by the decisions we have made in the past or events that we have experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.
“The light of reason is refracted in a manner quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation” is a beautiful quote from Clausewitz meaning that the innate ideas of seemingly self-evident truths, or pure logic, does not help in a complex environment where we need an appropriate responsiveness to the ever-fluctuating conditions that emerge. While we see a limitation in long-term predictions of a system we could instead replace this with a qualitative understanding of the same. Trying to identify its overall behavior, and using what you see but also staying observant to patterns and regularities in its dynamics and open to that these patterns might change. In short: have a plan to evaluate your plan.
In order to never miss to stimulate any part, regardless of attentional deficit, path-dependance or logical fallacies I find it beneficial to do all of Bondarchuks categories of exercises each training session. Those categories include the competitive exercise (”the whole”), Specific developmental exercises (parts of the whole), Specific preparatory exercises (not part of the competitive exercise, but using the same muscles) and lastly General preparatory exercises which would be all-purpose exercises for general coordination and recovery.
This holds me accountable for always including ”the specific” in my sessions, while also overloading certain parts that I guess to be more important for me, but still to touch on things that I – truth be told – would not think matter for my performance (but still might). Every three weeks I look at the collected data and the collection of thoughts and ideas I’ve pinned to paper during the last block of training, usually ending up making slight changes of my plan for the next one.
Using only slight changes and frequent evaluations allow for a data driven program (as trend analysis is time-sensitive and time-powered) and simplicity is key both for scalability and to see what is actually driving the trend without the distraction of too many variables.
One could argue that the research seems conclusive that variation is a necessary component of effective training programs, and that this type of program while having a large variation within sessions has little between them. I would agree with the general statement but one should remember that the training input is always overlaid on the current bio-chemical state of the person doing the training, and as that the emotional state of that person is ever-changing there is always some, albeit little, variation taking place.
However: lack of variation have been strongly linked with training monotony, which in turn seems to increase the risk of overtraining syndromes, poor performance and banal infections. Obviously something to consider. Therefor I also very slightly shift the categorical emphasis throughout each training sessions within a block of training, so that while I always do a little of all categories every session, I also always do a little more of one. And thus provide a little more variation than the regular ”noise” from everyday life, but not too much to be too distracting when it comes to evaluation of it’s efficacy.
The take away is that you might not be able to predict why and when a new attractor might emerge, so do a little ”hit” on every part of the system you are targeting, relatively often and consistently over time. Dripping water pierces a stone; a saw made of rope cuts through wood.