Sunday, April 15, 2012

When is MORE more? - exploring the value of more reps and more time in physical practice.

A few weeks ago, i wrote about exploring change by committing to change one thing - by doing one thing more; one thing less.

Over the past month i've been exploring a change in my physical practice in the MORE category - something i haven't really done before across the board. VOLUME - getting in the reps.

For the past 6 -9 months i've been mainly doing workouts of the Easy Strength variety (written about here over three posts). In easy strength there's 3-5 movements with max of ten reps per movement, usually 5 sets of two reps. Surprisingly effective.  So i kept up with that.

So why change to volume work? And by volume, for me we're only talking about 100 reps per movement in sets of ten reps (where 12 would be failure). The following explores the benefits of MORE'ing up

More reps with intent - that's what quality is all about.

Form Practice; Balance; Hypertrophy/Endurance; Time

To learn a move, we must practice the move. That practice takes reps. I've had good experience swapping high reps with a movement for practice one day a week, and then few, heavy reps in that movement another day of the week. I've also seen folks like Asha Wagner do very well on a consistent diet of high reps at middle loads.

Rehab takes Reps. My right shoulder has been giving me a hard time since december. Right after a significant bout of easy strength, i went back to RTK (for example) and heck if i didn't push it and not listen and well, thar ya go. My rehab progress was feeling very slow and limited. I had an interesting chat with shiatsu instructor and z-health coach Noel Norwick. He spoke of his own rehab being around doing lots of reps - not adding real load to his particular rehab issue until he had 10k of perfect pain free reps. He spoke about the body rebuilding trust, and that taking reps. He also cautioned to balance all the pressing work with similar pulling work - something i had not consciously done before.

So, as part of my MORE change, i have two rehab sessions a week where i'm just pressing 1000 reps with a very light load using bands on one day, and then pulling for 1000 reps with bands on another. It takes about 90 mins to get through in sets of 1000. I now have 3k of pulls and presses. And my shoulder seems to be really liking this work. It is quieter at other times. It's very much a form focus. It's also an interesting discipline to focus that long on that practice.

Noel cautioned about not jumping into that amount of volume without building up to it.  The idea here is to reduce a threat response from the body - to help it relax and love the movement pattern rather than flinch with it. Very interesting.

Reps and Hypertrophy and Endurance - A core part of strength training is to build up some mass. While how to build muscle is still a bit of a mystery, one thing seems consistent: it takes reps with meaningful load and without full recovery between sets. Many folks will recognise 100 reps in sets of ten with limited recovery as German Volume Training (here's one version). I'm not doing this at a gym with typical kit. I'm doing this work with bodyweight and kettlebells. Why? because that's what i have.  And actually, it's what i like.

My focus is rehab and strength building with balance, and a question mark around mass.
I am likely one of the least muscular looking people you will come across, so i am always dubious about any focus on hypertrophy for me. But strength is strength, and practice is practice, and if some kind of mass comes out of this, well, i'm ok with that. 

Also, as has been noted by anyone looking at their load/recovery ratios, there's a very fine line between hypertrophy training and endurance training. Both kinds of strength contribute to stamina. In most sports programs, hypertrophy and endurance are the base platforms for more focussed strength work or more focused athletic pursuits.

Right now, where i'm at with rehab, and my own bodyweight practice, MORE reps seems quite alright. As i am keen as weel just to build More.

Time. Many of us often see getting a work out in as quickly as possible as a plus. Over the past few months i've been refocusing on spending more time working out - a minimum of five hours a week.

There are a bunch of reasons for the five minimum, and keeping daily count of minutes spend focused on physical practice, but one of these is fundamentally that i have an otherwise pretty sedentary life. Being an academic is not about heavy lifting; using a standing desk is about as physically demanding as it gets - with lighter laptops even carrying a computer to work isn't the workout it used to be. So getting in as much movement as i can seems a good thing. Plugging away for 30 - 90 mins of effort per day seems a good commitment to myself. Tracking that, seems worthwhile. This focus right now on MORE reps certainly lends itself to getting in the time.

If i find that i'm finished a main workout before an hour is up, well, there's alway ab work - one can always get another ten sets of ten of something and at that point in a workout lying on my back feels pretty good.  In the MORE focus, everything counts that can be counted. It's easy to find something to do that is still work, and appropriate for the energy i have remaining.

Conversation with Kenneth Jay

It's funny how things cycle.

My first exploration of more was focusing on a variant of Kenneth Jay's beast protocol to develop my kettlebell press in particular. That effort became part of a series called "the perfect rep quest".

This most recent exploration of MORE in terms of overall reps, was also inspired by Kenneth Jay, this time from a conversation talking about hypertrophy as a foundation for strength, and looking at what he'd been doing as part of his workouts - and it came around to this version of german volume training.

Kenneth has some interesting ways to get into load for the press in particular (a personal bete noir) - his Perfecting the Press is well worth exploring. 

Take Aways

The two big take aways here for improvement are
  • - reps reps reps - the inescapable value of reps to learn more about the shape and form of a movement.
  • - time spend with mid-challenging load does good things for what ails ya. 


One of the supposed biggies of 10 by 10 for 100 GVT is hypertrophy, but i have so little to go by, i'm really not a fair sample.  I've only been doing this a month and a bit and it does seem that my arms are a wee bit larger, and my butt is a wee bit smaller.

The main things i'm looking for, tho, is strength/rehab changes.

As said, my shoulder is liking the mega reps of rehab day and seemingly the one arm push up work. In terms of strength my main adaptations so far are going from my pursuit of a one arm push up from knees-based one arm with the other arm/hand at my hip, to this same position for my 100 push ups from the full plank. Now that is fricking work to do ten sets of ten of those. Other stuff, like squats and rows it's speed and recovery. soon it will be moving up on load. so progress.

In terms of stamina, my 16kg snatch is feeling more relaxed. There, i'm doing ten / ten a side, then a pause. My goal there is to get to 100 going ten ten as effortlessly as 10/10 with the pause feels. Funny thing, the snatch feels really good on the shoulder. That's a surprise. 

I'm also easily getting my time in for the workouts. For recovery between sets, for the past week and a bit, i'm doing eye work: reading charts at ten feet away as per this previous post. Speed is picking up there, too, it seems.

Weight One thing that is a bit of a surprise and that may mean i am putting on a bit of mass is that my weight has kinda stabilised up a bit, despite not really changing my diet. I'm not sure what to think about that. I've only been using the scale and a tape measure of late. Perhaps i'll pull out the callipers anon and really see what's what there.

Will that be sarcoplasmic or myofibrillar hypertrophy? You'll note i haven't spoken at all about hypertophy is mainly sarcroplasmic muscle and therefore useless because it's not increasing myofibrillar muscle tissue? Because a big part of me just wants to say "oh please - what a problem to have!" For one thing, we really can't get one type of muscle building without the other. Really - it seems the sarcoplasm will also increase even with "strength" focused work. Please consider the interview with Triple double beast presser Ken Froese. Trees. They are the circumference of mature hardwoods. A cross section of Ken's biceps would show good ratios of sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar tissue.

Dan John will talk in easy strength about hypertrophy as the Elephant in the Room when talking about strength, and yet how important it is as part of "building armour". Indeed, Dan has an interesting take on German Volume Training himself - by playing with set/rep schemes. Why? because getting some of the goodness of hypertrophy is a good thing.  One might also find his "high rep squat" program for mass interesting

Tendon Time And just to make a key note about GVT, German Volume Training focuses on compound (multi-joint) lifts. *I* focus on multi-joint lifts. Whether i'm getting bigger or not, I am getting stronger. I am getting well-er in my shoulder (again), and so whatever may also be happening with my connective tissues could be a good thing.

Indeed, one of the things we need to note about connective tissue is that it SEEMS to grow slower than muscle. Perhaps that's why injury can happen - it's easy to muscle the reps; less easy to build the supporting tissue. Perhaps GVT type approaches let us have the side effect of tendon time. And that's a good thing, too.

Summary: Explore More; more can be good

For my latest one MORE thing, i've committed to exploring volume - if that means lesser loads but more of them, that's cool. If that means getting up a bit earlier for a longer workout, that seems to be cool, too. the best part right now is my shoulder seems to be liking this, and my very SLOW progress towards my one arm push up seems to be proceeding.

Volume is OK
I seem to recall reading somewhere at some point that it's not good to spend more than 45 mins in the weight room. Have you ever seen that? I used to believe that. Right, light three groups of EDT for instance, for 45 and you're fried. check.  And yup when i've done protocols like RTK, that are 45 mins long, yup, i feel cooked at that point too. RTK can be quite volume-ish, as well, with five ladders being 15 reps - for five sets - but i digress

The thing is - at leaset it seems to be - that it is also quite possible and reasonable to put time into working out for an hour; that one can workout for an hour every day, and still recover, and still gain changes we seek by picking the right stuff to do for that hour that challenges for adaptation and allows for recovery.

This alls sounds so basic, doesn't it? Perhaps some of you are going there is nothing new here; this is how i train all the time. That's cool. Good for you. I suppose i'm coming from a place of oooo intervals are more beneficial than steady; heavier loads for fewer reps for strength etc. Yes sure, but maybe not always. Some times exploring the more endurance side of adaptation is rewarding. I'm finding it so right now. Can i do those last couple of sets? Do i have the *mental* game to bring to thirty more reps (my wall seems to be set 7). Every time i do, it's like, well, that was cool.

I'm not sure if there'll be a greater lessen than this, but just that MORE is possible; we won't break, done sanely, and it can take us in new ways to new places - like improving vision while improving strength.

Please let me know if you explore this one thing more of volume.

While this post has looked at change one thing to MORE, the next episode of this series will look at doing one thing LESS in the change one thing approach to performance and behaviour change, in particular the experience with eating less - less food, less frequently - and not breaking. 

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Amy Phillips said...

I'm exploring volume a bit myself, mostly as an antidote to aging and injury. Body part split workouts are just too tough on my body now, it seems, but everything stays in good working order if I keep up the reps. My strength has decreased a bit, size about the same or greater.

Though I'm not going at it as purposefully as you, I pick up a lot from your posts. Thanks so much.

dr. m.c. said...

Thank you Amy, for your thoughts and reply. Do you think you'll keep up with volume or see this as a transition practice?
Best with your mission - reading your blog - hope your fight went well


Roland Fisher said...

Each time I trade easy reps, lots of them, for heavier, fewer of them, I get more beat up. When I've accepted the lighter loads progress in strength improved.

Sure heavy works too, for a bit. Volume works for a lot longer enabling better progress for my beat up joints.

dr. m.c. said...

thanks for the insight, Roland.

whatwhey said...

I always go for heavy weights, apart from bigger risk of injury I cannot see any downside of this approach.


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