Friday, June 4, 2010

One less Rep - It's ok NOT to finish a set. Really. Less is hard but can be more

Workouts are about work, about sufficient challenge for adapatation, about getting more perfect in each step of our practice. So why so many overuse injuries? Why so many of us getting jacked up? I wonder if it's at least in part from the reluctance to quit when we need to quit? So let me all fellow workout heads ask this quesiton:

when you workout, if you have 10 reps of a set to do, or 5 sets to do, you WILL DO those reps; you will DO those sets. Even if you don't feel perfectly happy with yourself, entirely, especially if there's only three more reps, you're gonna do those reps. Or one more set, you're gonna do that set. Well are you, punk? your inner voice inquires?

Fave example: you're doing viking warrior conditioning - you have your 8 reps per 15 secs to do - ok wait, that's me, let's just own it: i'm doing VWC, these are my reps and sets, the timer is ticking, i have 3 more sets to do, the blister is forming on my hand - i can feel it - but will i quit? NO, because i HAVE TO FINISH MY SETS.

What's the Value of Having to get That Last Rep? Um, question to self: Why? Is this a competition? does someone have a gun to my head? What do i get out of a big fat crap-technique-showing blister except nearly a week off snatch practice? All i get is wow, i finished my sets. great. So what? i'm now looking at a several day hit to my training?

You know, saying this i'm thinking, this is just so obvious, isn't it? Hand starting to blister: stop.  Duh. But the Duh has not been there, at least for me in the set, while the set is happening.

At the RKC II cert in Feb, Pavel Tsatsouline, frech off the research for his Power to the People Professional,  gave a related lecture on old time strong man training. A big part of that was strong men staying away from 1RM work; staying fresh.  This theme is nothing new to Tsatousline's training approach. Stay fresh, gas in the tank, perfect form.

And yet...

Even when i believe i'm focusing on Pavel Tsatsouline's guidance to "stay fresh" - always end the set feeling fresh rather than ever going to failure, see i'm thinking i'm not - or haven't been. Why? Because i have been recovering from what has been called an "overuse injury" - tendinopathy in the shoulder. Painful arc syndrome. What ever.

There are lots of reasons for overuse injuries: lots of reps being one of them, but usually that's lots of use that is beyond the capacity of that tendon. And what wears into overuse? Form issues? And what happens to form on the weaker side when going with the stronger side? Fatigue? And with fatigue comes injury. We know this. This is basic.

Pain is the Last Warning for Change, not the First. The ugly side of overuse injuries is that they don't show up as pain until there's been some damage. Imagine pain being like an oil gage that only tells you when there's a teaspoon of oil left in the engine: there's no funky needle showing you the oil steadily leaking out of the system. And by the time that needle is in the red, well ya know something has likely been hurt in the engine, too.

Another analogy - this time with the human body, but same "if you feel it, it's gone too far" effect is like thirst. Waiting to hydrate till we're thirsty - especially on a hot day out in the sun - is too late.  By the time we're thirsty symptoms of sun stroke/dehydration have hit our systems.

Pain is really our LAST warning. And as i've written about before, from the pain literature, pain is a warning (or signal) to change. Figuring out what to change can sometimes be an issue, but in working out with weight

And in working out, it seems we need to get better at developing our early warning system. What is that early warning system? Learning to trust ourselves. How might we do that? Let me offer an example.

Test It.  The other day i had a write up to do 10 sets of X for my particular routine that day. By set five i was feeling a bit fatigued. So i thought wow this is too early to quit, surely, but let me test it. So i did a fatigue test (described here) - waited my normal recovery time - and retested. Nope. Not ready. Wait, retest. Good to go. Did the next three sets, and when going to do set 9, i had to own i felt not quite fresh. Like i'd be pushing it. So i didn't push.

What's the difference between 9 sets or 10? Let's see. That's 90% of the workout instead of 100%. 10% less volume. Let's put this in context: 10 fewer reps out of 100. Once in a week. What's the performance difference? My recovering shoulder was not saying the next day "don't do that again," so i was able to go ahead with my next day's plan. Great.

For folks not doing rehab/recovery for an injury, you may be wondering what does this have to do with me? I'm going to push hard. Bien sur. No one is saying don't work hard. We have to work hard for an adaptation. Work smart and hard.

After all, has my body lost anything by those 10 fewer reps in one workout session all week? In terms of absolute total volume, sure, but in terms of adaptation, i *don't* know. My guess is, not likely. Indeed, maybe for me i just optimised my load, doing the best for me at that moment by doing a few less today than what was an arbitrary number on a piece of paper. Ranges are better than absolutes, perhaps; intensional rather than extensional.

Pain is the Last Signal, not the ONLY signal. Every workout since then i've been trying to *listen* to my body to hear the signals that are there before pain happens.  Rather than ignoring them as "nothing" i've been asking "what if?" - what if this tiny tiny bit of lost form, or this teeny weeny bit of fatigue may actual be more than i want to give it credit as being?

The cool thing is (and it took me a long time to put together this simple 2+2 is 4) i have a suite of self-assessments i can use to self-test whether or not this is an "ok, just pause the set here - not even quit; just pause, do some recovery and then continue" kind of issue or a "bag it" one.

Now personally i do not test every set, every exercise, and perhaps i'll learn that that is less than optimal. Right now, what i'm testing is simply that set of question marks i would simply have ignored before and carried on to GET MY NUMBERS complete my workout.

Practicing Less(ness) - towards overuse prevention. What's interesting for me at least is that part of this practice is practicing a different perspective: letting go of the last rep. I have been consciously trying even if i feel fine going for X planned reps, just once in a while - usually at the end of the workout - to do X-1. Or one set in the block (if this is a volume day) to do a set that's half or two-thirds the no. of reps for that set.

Why? because i'm thinking it's kinda stupid to be so obsessed with getting in numbers - i'm pretty sure my "overuse shoulder injury" is not practicing a true focus on perfect quality rather than arbitrary numbers.

I may have thought oh ya i'm still fresh my form is still dandy, but my shoulder has told me something else, like "you blew it." I don't want that to happen anywhere else. So gonna listen - and lessen.

Less is Hard. Right now, i have to say, doing a set of 5 rather than 10 (in ten sets), finishing a set of 100's instead as 99's still causes a twinge in my brain. I still kinda clench my teeth, like somehow that means what? my whole workout is toast? i'm not as great as if i'd done the full count? That somehow without that weary adherence to numbers i'm a loser? can't cut it? oh dear. What would i say to someone i was coaching who was expressing such concern?

I guess i just decided i don't want to be that person anymore - who "has to do it" when there's no good reason why to do so and a potential raft of better reasons not to do so, or at least be flexible.

I'm not there yet - i'm not at a place where that less than planned sits well, but i'm working on it.

Take Aways Pain from overuse injuries shows up after the injury has happened. It may help therefore to learn to listen for other signs in the body to help suggest when actions that may  contribute to overuse are happening.

There are ways to help hone this awareness - self-tests that we can leanr and practice when wanting to reality check how we're doing - lots of them in the essentials of elite performance dvd. BUT in order to hear something at all to trigger a test, speaking at least for myself, comes a willingness to do LESS than was scheduled for a day. And like any other performance skill, less needs to be practiced.

On the plus side, i'm finding that actually practicing less, learning less, has let me do more and in this recovery phase where doing anything has been a bonus, my better self is pleased with that progress.

How you doing with less is hard, but less can be more?

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david said...

I think it's amusing that you do your best to bash Gym Movement at every opportunity...

and yet...

Here you are 4 months later recommending listening to your own feedback and recommending some form of testing, but of course it is Z-based because the ideology is more important than the outcome.

Oh well, keep doing whatever it is that you do - the rest of us who are getting results will be over here.

dr. m.c. said...

David, i don't know who you are, where you're coming from or the basis of your assertion.

I don't think there's anywhere i've dissed GM.

Questions, yes i've had a few, and i've gotten the source material as well as gone directly and openly to the folks i know who put their names on it to ask those questions.

They know me too; it's not an anonymous post. These are folks i consider colleagues, and we read and support each others blogs.

There are loads of ways to skin a cat; if you have an approach you're using for whatever it is you're doing, good for you. that's grand.

over here at b2d, where i talk about what works for me, what i like and what i know about and use with clients, yes, i feel pretty comfortable talking about my own experience, what i do, the resources used, and the lessons learned from that.


Gary Horn said...

This topic hits close to home, and it's important.

At the kettlebell studio where I train, we are continually exhorted to "work until you can't keep form". If you can't snatch, then clean. If you can't clean, then swing. If you can't swing, then plank or do renegade rows. Or pick a lighter weight. Just keep working".

This is so important because it prevents injury and maximizes the benefit of the movement. Yet it is a continual challenge for me to listen to my body, accept what it's telling me, and dial back on the reps when my form is suffering. For me, the problem is pride - what do others think of me? What do I think of myself? I need to continually preach the truth to myself. My VO2 number with a 16k 'bell is NOT going to be 8, and that's OK. Maybe next year it will be, but not if I get hurt!

Thanks for writing about such a practical and important topic.

Steven Rice said...

Another point is that as the use of free weights and full-body exercises grows, versus the discredited but still common use of machines and muscle isolation, lifting within one's ability and capacity that workout becomes even more important.

I was thinking about this recently when increasing my Turkish Get Up weight. "Hmmm, if I lose control and this falls backwards, what happens to my arm?" Now I start by doing a couple reps with a med ball balanced on my fist to practice alignment.

Positive Massage Therapy

Mike T Nelson said...

You hit on a great point.
As we get closer and accumulate more and more we need to step back and prune, cut away what is not needed,

Taking something OUT can have just as great of an effect as putting something IN.

I would recommend testing as much as possilbe initially to inform your intuition better.

The body only cares about overload for a positive adapatation.
This can be in volume, density, or intensity (% of 1 Rep Max)

As long as it was MORE than last time, that is enough for postitive adapation. The number is far less important.

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

zachariah said...

MORE is not needed for adaptation;THAT is often the reason so many get injured and fail to make long term progress. The continue participation has a greater effect than the MORE. Being aware enough to do LESS-taking a break be feel or by plan is often the key to real success. Here the language matters most. Longevity training, your success over your lifetime requires attention to many factors. Simple overload is often touted as THE thing. Its just A thing :) zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


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