Thursday, April 1, 2010

Going Light - a lot - to get Heavy - a few thoughts on why focused higher volume works

Why does doing lots of volume at lighter loads translate into big strength gains? What's going on? This post explores a possible model for why based on motor learning, the nervous system and threat reduction. The bottom line? Load of reps getting technique means how to lift heavy is the only thing the nervous system has to worry about when actually going heavy. I'll be keen to hear what you think.

One of the constantly surprising ways to lift heavier is to lift lighter - a lot. And of course with perfect form. This is not new knowledge. Pavel Tsatsouline is famous for espousing this technique as "greasing the groove" in his book Naked Warrior.  Kenneth Jay's program for succeeding in the beast challenge (pistol, pull up, press with 48kg bell) is to mix high volume days with heavy load days. Dan John in talking with me about pressing has been preaching volume and regular pressing.

And yet, it's still kind of hard to believe, isn't it? Pick a load where one can do 100 or more reps of whatever, and do it. However one paces that over a period, keep getting in those reps. But today, i got my first weighted pistol ever (something previously that felt impossible), and all i've been doing is PARTIAL body weight pistols, but lots of 'em. That got me thinking, how can lifting frequently for many reps at a load light enough to support that volume translate into big lift gains?

Fawn Friday, a keen practitioner of sheiko high vol/lower load and Matt Gary's
training with Prilipen high volume,  demo'ing a smooth 24kg press

Practice does make Perfect(er) Part of the answer is about motor learning and the nervous system; part of the answer is about technique, and practicing technique. They're both rather related concepts.

Motor Learning. Back in the late 60's Fitts and Posner first posed the concept of motor learning and thinking about learning a physical skill. They proposed going through three stages of learning, and that rep ranges have become associated with those ranges. For instance, the first few hundred reps of something is conscious effort. We need to think about what we're doing. The next phase into thousands of reps can be about still focusing on the move, but having the knowledge to self-correct the move. The last phase, thousands of reps is when the action can be carried out reflexively.We are no longer havng to bring attention to it; we can rely on those neurological patterns to carry out the action.

Muscle Firing Pattern Refinement. It seems that when we learn something new with our bodies, our brains and nervous systems don't have the maps to carry out those moves with any kind of grace. They send lots of muscle action to the load as with each rep, a process of elimination and refinement goes on to figure out just how much muscle fiber is needed, when and where. This is where reeasrch shows for instance that a newbie doing a marial arts kick is firing muscles throughout the whole kick, whereas an experienced practitioner has some firing at initiation, relaxation through the kick and then more firing at the end. Extremely economical, refined and focused.

Technique as threat reduction.  Combining skill development with muscle firing refinement, it seems that we have sufficient experience with a movement such that when we add load, that is the only new parameter our bodies need to address. That's way easier than trying to figure out everything from scratch.

In a model that considers our nervous system as fundamentally determining whether we are under threat or not, and making adjustments to the whole system based on that assessment, this "only one new thing" idea makes sense, too. If the nervous system is coping with putting the body into a new position for a less familiar move that doesn't feel that stable and then load is added on top of it, all that may add up to some kind of threat perception. As i've written about many times before in this sensory-motor model, perceived threat has the immediate effect of shutting down performance.

So perhaps what we can see from the value of repping loads of volume and doable (not sissy) loads for that volume is that we are teaching our nervous systems to see these moves as well under our control. From that the system is willing to let us turn on those additional parameters like balance, extra muscle fiber etc, because everything else is well known to be well in hand.

SAID and the importance of the Perfect Rep. The SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) is another reason for attention for form for everyone of those higher volume reps. Each rep teaches the nervous system how to map performance to handle this movement. Each rep teaches us how to prepare well for greater load.

This practicing volume with lighter loads but treating the performance like their heavy loads is another process for the nervous system's sense of security. If we practice appropriate bracing and breathing every rep if our mind is on going for bigger loads then again, once we hit the heavy load, we will have that breathing pattern primed, the hips ready, because we will have mapped it, practiced it, adapted to it.

A story of Practice to Strength: Getting my first weighted pistol.
For some time i have struggled with weighted pistols. It seemed impossible to me. That's not an ideal place to be for someone who wants to do the gal's version of the Beast Challenge: pistol, press and pull up a 24kg KB. So for the past couple weeks i've thought, well, let's go back to scratch and start ramping up volume. Dan John's been telling me to press heavy gals have to get volume up on the press; maybe that applies to the pistol. Ok. Let's amp it up.

So i've been practicing the perfect rep in my pistol a bunch of ways: one day i'll do 10 sets of 5 a side going to a hassock and back up - just touch not sit. Another day it's to a lower thing. Another day it's using bands in front of me to get to rock bottom and back up. Another day it's with the 12 to the hassock, then more bodyweight ones.  And really, every rep is focused: how's my form?

So today, after my 5*5*10's a side to the hassock, i thought. "hmm" (yes i did really think "hmm") and i went to grab a 12.  Why? because this is the size that gal's Beast Tamer Asha Wagner said she used for her grease the groove work to get to do the 24 on the day of the challenge, never having done a 24 ever - the heaviest weight she'd pistoled was a 16. So that's why i grabbed a 12.

And i did it. Rock bottom. It looked ugly. But i did it. First time ever. But there it was. And boy was i pouring on everything i'd learned about tension and squeezing the handles to get up, et voila. And it was not with a 12 held out as a counter weight. it was up close and personal, the way i want to do this. It worked. It actually worked. Once. But it's a start.

Give the nervous system a break. Practice more with less weight?
So, for me, this is once again the lesson of volume. I thought because i could do a couple bodyweight pistols that since folks said i was strong enough, i should be able to do a weighted pistol. What today demonstrated - just on how i felt stuff turn on in my body to make the attempt work - is that my body really did not know how to pistol - confidently, comfortably, reflexively. It still doesn't. I'm only just getting to that partially with the touch butt to hassock pistols. Each couple times as one thing gets stronger, something else comes in for focus. First it's smooth getting down and up. Recently it's knee position.

All of this equates to practice. I guess because actually so MUCH is going on in a move. That practice is important to build up a reflexive response around all the stuff we CAN get hundreds of reps in when we back off the load, like form and technique and related muscle patterns. What my own experience is drilling into me is that it seems we need this kind of practice to make it possible to do load.

Getting strong through technique focused volume sounds pretty cool, eh? almost like it's cheating: why will doing all this light stuff let me do the big heavy stuff?

Probably it won't if the volume is sloppy - but that's just a guess - but i guess that because the technique for load isn't being practiced so that prep would be missing and so when load is added one more thing has to be balanced at a higher level by the nervous system.  But in just walking through all that's involved in picking up something heavy on demand, all the awareness and skill, this volume practice doesn't seem like getting away with something. It seems essential.

I guess i've been thinking about heavy stuff lifting as too much about the muscles. And yes that's pretty important. Duh. But i didn't get stronger overnight that i can suddenly lift 12kg more with one leg today that i couldn't lift yesterday. I'm going with what's changed is that my nervous system is feeling better about managing the load challenge cuz the pattern challenge feels better.

That's cool. That's two new technique wins this week: ugly hanging leg raises and now an ugly weighted pistol. Two things that have felt entirely beyond me have gone bang bang down down. All with focus on technique and practicing that focus a lot. Not enough, but it's a start. That ugliness in form will also get worked out with practice as my bod learns more about handling these loads, and gets to rep in a few more new patterns.

I hope that maybe if you've been shying away from volume practice focusing on perfect reps this may give you a bit of a boost to give focused volume a try. You'll be glad you did.

Next challenge - seeing how long focused volume takes to get from pressing the 20 to the 24. That's where my oh ye of little faith boundry is right now.

Your mileage may vary, so please let me know what you find.

ps that's RKC II Instructor KC Reiter at the beast challenge, pistoling a 48.

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Gary Berenbroick, RKC II said...

I like "only one new thing". Well said mc.

High volume with light to medium intensity has been very effective for me. That's how I trained for my 24kg pullup for RKCII, increased my deadlift and rack pull and I've been able to do get-ups with 75% of my bodyweight without using more than 16kg.

As you said "Give the nervous system a break". I have narcolepsy and I get fried quickly. High intensity training has a cumulitive negative effect on me if I do it too long.

I wouldn't say it's the answer to everything for everybody, but it's been working well for me.

Darryl Lardizabal said...

Zach shared with me thoughts on lighter load similar to natural circumstances - we developed to be able to do a bunch of submaximal things really well, not to pick up one heavy thing once, kinda thing.

So far working for me as well.

Anonymous said...

"technique as threat reduction" ... I like this very much!

VERY applicable for fight related training.

Thank you.


dr. m.c. said...

Thanks all for chiming in.
Really great to hear there's some resonances happening. Way cool.
Gary, thank you for the personal insights. way to go on your improvements with this kind of approach.
Darryl zach as interesting as ever
Kira thanks for dropping by b2d. Cool to know you think there's a fighting application too. that's awesome.


Mike T Nelson said...

Yes, I agree that lighter lifting can help (must be tested to know 100% for sure though).

Doing the opposite many times is beneficial.

MC, on this line
"This practicing volume with lighter loads but treating the performance like their heavy loads is another process for the nervous system's sense of security. "

Are you advocating adding more tension to a lighter load to attempt to simulate a heavier load?

Not trying to put words in your mouth, so just checking.

rock on
Mike T Nelson PhD(c)
Extreme Human Performance

dr. m.c. said...

Mike, yes both are important - practice light; practice heavy - i just don't think i'd quite seen the power of light before.

And as for tension - advocating is rather strong. I'm suggesting it seems there's value on praciticing tension - focusing on tension with the light loads to prep to brace for the heavier ones.

Now for my pistols, i don't have to work too hard on the practice tension part as it can take quite a bit to do them - but when i can do them both ways bodyweight - just efficient, and adding tension.

I personally find that practicing tension with bodyweight is a great mental prep to grabbing the load.

what about you?


Mike T Nelson said...

I don’t advocate practicing a lighter load with more tension than is needed to execuite the lift. Anything extract is not efficient. If I want to use overload, I will play with volume, density or use a heavier load.

If I wanted to get more tension (movement is stil the goal though) I would just pick a heavier kettlebell and practice with that.

Think of it another way.
Adding tension to a load that I can lift for multiple reps is teaching my body that it is hard.

If my brain thinks the 16kg is hard for a press, why would it let me press the 32 kg?

Rock on
Mike T Nelson PhD (c)

dr. m.c. said...

Well Mike,
i guess i haven't had the experience of practicing tension as teaching my body something is hard.

i'm not sure why practicing that has an emotional affect like "oo that's hard" rather than say tensing - feeling the muscles brace here - is part of the form when adding load.

In my own experience, above, from practicing attention to where tension was coming on in the pistol, when i added the 12, the only new thing it felt like i was tuning was *where* that additional tension was operating.

This does not mean that i am squeezing for all get out on the pistol - super over tensing - tho that might be interesting in itself - or perhaps the military press is more interesting - where pressing a lighter weight is easier to adjust more or less tension - it seems it's an awareness practice.

as more practice occurs, the degree to which tension needs to be practiced explicitly also seems to change. dominata? i think? that may be the concept.

anyway, this is just what i'm playing with now - and it seems to me more about awareness and prep, and seems to be doing good things.

mixining up practicing tension with just practicing the move, that is.

and maybe you're right - a more efficient way to practice tension is to practice the groove of the move and then just add practicing tension with adding load.

will see. test and reassess, eh?

Roland Fisher said...

For me I've see great improvements with fighters who backed off the intensity and upped the volume, almost every time. Hit a bag as hard as it is fun, for three times as much volume, and you get way better results than hitting as hard as one can.

To mc and Mike's conversation, I wonder what the difference is between getting more tension with more load and getting tension with conscious effort?

If I want to keep going with a bit of anthropomorphism, what is the load saying to the brain that is different than what happens with creating extra tension voluntarily?

It may be simple to assume the effect would be similar, so why not just use load, but perhaps the fact that the tension is voluntary, it is less threatening?


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