Monday, December 1, 2008

The Perfect Rep - and the role of volume with form.

This post is a reflection on one aspect that contributes to the experience of the perfect rep: high volume. It's only one part, but i'd like to unpack a bit of why that part, at least for myself, and a rather new understanding of "volume" is becoming such a key part of "perfect."

One of the first things that struck me in reading Pavel's work like Enter the Kettlebell is the emphasis on "the perfect rep." Don't go to failure; don't do so many reps that form goes to hell. Stay fresh. Make every rep perfect.

But what is the "perfect rep"? And how do we know if we have one?

This may not be your experience, but i've interpreted this "perfect rep" thing as getting the form right mechanically, and executing with the correct weight for the correct sets and moving on, eg doing the ladders for ETK's ROP. Upon reflection, though, that progression doesn't sound much like an experience of "perfection," does it? Sure one feels good after doing the workouts, and yes progress most emphatically occurs. But is it "perfection?" And why is experiencing perfection so important? would i know it if i did encounter it?

Some time ago i wrote about how seeing Will Williams doing the kettlebell front squat - in particular the breathing to go with that move - stopped me in my tracks as seeming effortless and perfect. I'd described it as what i'd understood art to be about, when a move goes from the mechanistic to the graceful.

The parts of perfection. Last week or so, looking at the kettlebell front squat, i came back to the front squat, going over how zhealth breaks down the concept of efficient movement into four parts that seems to be a recipe for the perfect rep:
  1. perfect form - hitting the target
  2. dynamic postural alignment.
  3. synchronized respiration
  4. balance tension and relaxation
These points are described more fully in that front squat post.

What's been hitting me of late as a key feature of even getting into step one - hitting the target/perfect form - is volume by repetition. In other words, tons of reps. Which means lighter weights.

What's a Rep, really? Generally speaking, i've thought of reps as simply reps within a set, and that volume is just whatever you get from the total reps x mass for a particular workout. Increasing reps, especially when focusing on strength, has seemed just the wrong way to think about it, too: loads of reps is endurance strength, not power strength, heh we want POWER to PRESS. And it seems many protocols for strength reinforce this. For instance, in Charles Staley's excellent Escalating Density Training, in your 15 min. blocks, once you get 70reps inside a set, pretty much time to up the weight. What more is there to volume than that? Over the weekend, talking with Suleiman Al-Sabah about our mutual pressing goals, Al encouraged me again to think about doing "lots of reps" and reminded me of Kenneth Jay's part of the RKC manual on building strength. So i went to have a bit of a re-read.

The rationale for volume by rep: Kenneth talks about the need to do lots and lots of reps at a weight that can be readily sustained for lots and lots of reps to build up the neurological patterns of what that move is. The caveat to this volume, of course, is that you have to know what the correct form is to be repeated. See that RKC instructor.

Assuming that instruction has taken place, the rationale here for upping volume as half the strategy to strength is that this repetition neurologically groves the pattern of performance for building up the weight. To this end, Kenneth has Low Volume and High Volume days: lost of reps at lighter weight for grooving the pattern vs fewer (perfect) reps at higher weights to develop load.

Patterning is important. I've been focusing on the importance of patterning within z health practice - in terms of healing movement patterns, and taking those patterns from the level of conscious effort to unconscious habit. Over the weekend, i'd decided to focus just on my suitcase dead-lift form with KB's, using the EDT 15 min approach: the sDL's for the first exercise; floor presses for the second. For the sDL's I used a weight about half of what i usually use for such sets, just to focus on rep quality. The main points of concern, like that front squat for hitting the target meant correct head and eye position throughout the move, correct knee position, correct hip hinge, correct butt backness, and doing all this with bone ryhthmn. That's a lot to do. The cool thing that happened was that when everything was firing together, the rep simply felt better: more effective, more efficient, like all the parts working as one thing rather than as a bunch of joints and muscles trying to achieve something. Sadly by the time i was actually finished the 15 mins, and the sets of 5 reps were starting to really connect, (a) the time was up but (b) i was just starting to feel fatigued. Good time to stop, right? And keen desire to do it again. Oh, and i felt that workout the next day, too.

It's funny how when you need to hear something, you keep hearing it over and over, eh? At least i find this. It's like the opposite of a nightmare where you keep having the same monster, only bigger, until you stop turn around and look at the monster and say "can i help you?"

An Example of Rep Volume in Action. The Sneaky sneaky Way of the RKC. It was in the afternoon, after this morning workout, that i had the meet with Al and his recommendation of "lots of reps" and a reread of Kenneth Jay. And in rereading that section, i recollected one of the most profound experiences of the RKC cert: connecting with the swing. Indeed, i had a revelation of what the hardstyle swing form was, compared to how i'd interpreted and executed previous instruction. I felt i *got it* from "firing the lats" to getting the energy down into the ground. it was ah ha, ah ha, ah ha. I left the cert feeling pretty good about that swing, and could hardly wait to share these refinements with others.

How did that happen? Repeated instruction i'd thought and such attention on form over several days, but - i see it all now - the other key ingredient: lots and lost of reps. LOTS. Sneaky sneaky. Every 20mins over three days a timer went off and we were doing swings. And those were just the regularly scheduled ones. Any opportunity for pause was filled with swings, using a bell weight that enabled a perfect rep from first to last. So combine that volume with constant supervision to tweak and correct form, yes we'd better leave with a dang good sense of the swing. The other day i was quietly delighted when i was demo'ing a swing, the trainee laughed. I asked why. He said "well it's so right - the swing - that's what it's supposed to look like." With the instruction, it's the reps, isn't it.

Putting it together: More Reps Are Alright, Jack.
It's taken me till today to put it together that it's just this type of volume with focus on form that, ya, does embed the move in the body. And more, it does provide the basis for increasing the load, just as KJ and Pavel have said. As proof positive, half way through the cert, with the encouragement of team assistant instructor Lynda Angeles, i was double swinging 24s with proper form. That effort with that load would not have been possible - it was certainly not imaginable - prior to this halfway point in the three days of swings marvelous swings.

The take away at least for this first step towards a perfect rep, of Hitting the Target, is indeed doing what it takes to get in the volume of reps. This is not using a sissy weight. Pavel would not have let us get away with this during the RKC, but as KJ says in the RKC manual talking about presses: using a weight you can do for 5-15 reps, and if you're doing 15 reps, your high volume day better be 200/side.

I used to think of light days as just a way to keep effort alive and not burn out from higher work volume. Ho hum. I now find myself energized and looking forward to these high volume lighter weight days as an opportunity to have that form *click* in those moves where i've had instruction, and can monitor myself to feel that connection.

Hope if you've had questions about the role of volume of reps, these reflections might help you too experience where the path to the perfect rep, after instruction and knowledge of proper form, is aided immensely by rep volume.

Note: do look at Mike's comments below on fascial adaptation - and the recommendation to change up trunk positions for HIGH volume (thanks Mike).

Book Plug: Kenneth Jay in the New Year.
Now if you don't have an RKC certification manual to read up on Kenneth's approach to the press, fear not. A book is coming in the new year to focus says Kenneth on, perhaps not surprisingly, the perfection of the press, the pistol and the pull up. In the meantime, happy repping.

update: the quest for the perfect strength rep through volume continues, charting the course here.


Mike T Nelson said...

Hey there MC! Thanks for all the great info and nice work on getting an article published at DD. Whoooo ha!
The KB press is a great exercise for sure and perfect reps are huge! Most do too many "junk" reps--do less and do a higher quality!

I tend to think of it as 3 components
1) move the weight from point A (start) to point B (end).
2) appropriate tension--a heavier load will require more tension of course
3) play with eye movement to facilitate the exercise

Do many many reps in the same plane may have long term consequences in the form of fascial adaptations, so an option is to change your foot and/or trunk position for some presses. Try them from a lunge position, or a lunge with trunk rotation. Again, make sure any exercise works to improve your overall movement.

Rock on
Mike N

Ron Ipock said...

this information is quite serendipitous. I was having some issues with a certain aspect of the jerk. I was advised to take six months, do 60000 reps, and see if I still had the problem. Different context but still perfection through repetition.

dr. m.c. said...

Mike, like the notion of changing trunk position - cool. keep it moving.

(channeling "i like to move it move it" from madagascar)

Ron, you know, i've had this hinky shoulder that hasn't let me get heavy in ages. combined with some z health to work it, and going to Up the Reps, it's amazing how this has been bringing the shoulder back to something approaching norm.

Now it feels more like the left is just weaker than the right - which can be addressed - rather than too f** to be able to do any kind of work.

What is still a mystery to me is why i can do ONE heavy press on that side ONLY when it seems the moon and stars are aligned. WIll go with more volume and see if there's a break through, a la Al's council.

Nice to see you both, gents.


Mike T Nelson said...

When you can a heavy press well, pay close attention to your overall movement quality on that day. My guess is that it is better than normal, thus allowing you to perform at a higher level of performance.

Do you test your exercises?

Rock on!!
Mike N

dr. m.c. said...

all exercises seeking work with me must meet a series of tests before they will be employed.

but seriously - what do you mean? if you mean the density test, yes. but more detail, please!


dr. m.c. said...

ps, Mike, love the suit with the KB. classy

Mike T Nelson said...

My bad, I should have said test your movement.
As you know, that can be done by gait, muscle test, or ROM.

I personally use ROM if I am training by myself. Each exercise should improve and at min not degrade your ROM.

Does that help?
Rock on
Mike N

dr. m.c. said...

Good reminder, Mike. No i have not done that ROM pre/post. Good one.

thanks again. y'all c'mon back now, ya hear?


Ron Ipock said...

mc, your last comment seemed to be a sign off. so I do not know if you will revisit this thread. But if you do, I thought that I would add an irrelevant point: since I took your dietary suggestion, I have lost three inches off my waist.

I know all you brainiacs on the DD forum are debating cardio. I have not taken part because for me it seems like being too clever by half. I do not know if I am doing steady state, aerobics with oxygen, aerobics without oxygen, vo2, 1 or 3...but I know if I eat right and do stuff with my girya I lose fat.

so keep up the good work. It is working for me and it will undoubtably work for your other clients

dr. m.c. said...

Hi Ron, thank you for coming back. That's such good news about your progress! way to go, sir. And what a way to head towards the holiday season. Congratulations.
super duper.



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