Saturday, December 29, 2012

In strength, the most reps with the best volume/intensity wins?

In strength work, there are so many ways to skin a cat. There are so many ways to get to be able to move more load. But when it comes to skills (and strength is a ....), it seems that over and over what is required is to perform the thing over and over.

In strength training this over and over-ness is celebrated in what might be term the Fundamental Unit of Strength Practice: the Rep - as in the REP-etition. How many reps are in a set, how many sets for total reps. And more:
Total reps * load = Volume (mass)
(Total reps * load)  / time = Density (load/min)

everything in strength practice is factored around the rep (etition). 

Likewise In learning a motor skill (and strength is a....) there is no way around number of reps. Before we can get to a point where we can effectively correct ourselves, to have enough awareness in ourselves about a movement, we need 1000's of reps. Actually, tens of thousands. For that skill to become as basic as walking - hundreds of thousands.

Note that getting reps says nothing about load - just to learn a skill, we need reps.

In strength work, we're trying to induce a particular change: to get stronger. How 'bout that. Getting stronger requires the body being made to adapt to new loads (as best as we understand it - that requirement to grow/change/adapt is crucial to nudging strength).

In this case, where strength is a skill and we need reps to build a skill, and we need load change to nudge strength development, it seems we have a bit of a conundrum: how to blend reps (lots of reps) and load with appropriate recovery to gain skill/strength.
Total reps * load = Volume
(Total reps * load) / time = Density
Here are some of the ways i've been exploring ratios of reps with load/time for strength skills practice: looking at how to get 1000s, 100s, 10's and 1's.

1000s: rehabbing from injury; rebuilding a movement map. 

When i was doing literally thousands of reps with a band for my shoulder, i was both strengthening it, repairing it and relearning the movement of the press (and the pull - do 1000s of presses, gotta do an equal and opposite movement: thousands of pulls).

i hypothesize i was also reteaching my spirit that my shoulder WAS getting better, and that i will press again. and again and again. The adaptation here is for re-modelling everything from tissue to movement patterns. A sufficient load for a challenge in each rep, but also to enable sets of (for me) 50 to 75 to 100 at a go, with short breaks of 1-3 minutes before diving in again.

SO many reps - so many form-perfect reps. I'm trying to remodel pain free firing patterns, too. Part of the problem of an injury is that it can literally cause proper muscle patterns to get fouled up, so that the coordination of the movement is off to compensate around where pain is/has been (there is research here but i do not have the papers to hand. dang. i'll fill this in anon).

I suspect that re-injuries occur once someone says they feel better often because the feeling better is of an out-of-balance firing pattern - or a pattern where part of the muscle itself may not be firing. Re-patterning the whole movement without pain, over and over again i'm guessing in no small part is telling the body/brain that the right pattern is safe. This is a hypothesis on my part, based on my own experience and in working with folks where there muscles are in part "off" post injury and post rehab, and where cuing them to come back on contributes almost immediately to getting out of pain.

My own pain forced me to explore mega reps: it's all i could do, and colleagues i'd trusted said then do that - lots and lots and lots. They were right. Perfect form, burning it in. That's a great foundation for re-building even better strength than ever before. Really (example story).

My coaching thoughts at this point would be: if someone is learning a movement in strength and they care about it and want to excel at it then make this band work a volume day for one's training to get to the 10k point in reps. I'd also recommend working with a coach to make sure the movement getting repped in is a good one, then do the 10k. At one volume session a week, that's 2.5 months. Taking the long view for a life time of lifting, that 2.5 months for bullet proofing doesn't sound like much does it?

Think Karate Kid: Wax on; wax off - it pays off, no?

100s: Exploring a Movement with greater Load; Hypertrophy

This past year, Kenneth Jay introduced me to German Volume Training - a well known protocol for hypertrophy. Alas, i don't do hypertrophy it seems. But i do like volume training this way. For KJ, it's sets of ten with a load where the 11th or 12th rep would be failure, and not allowing full recovery between sets (30-60sec). So ten sets of ten.

I find this a very satisfying way to train for light-ish days - though that's a bit of a misnomer. Anyone who's ever done 10 sets of ten pistols per leg, bodyweight, will tell you - i'm guessing - that that's not nothing. At least that's my story and i'm sticking with it.

Ken Froese calls such 100 kinds of days "play" days - as in explore a movement - get to know it - use a weight that enables a challenge and fatigue at post 10. This kind of practice is about getting stronger, but also building up knowledge of a movement. If we want to get in 10,000 such reps to build up expertise. that's 100 days of 100 reps - that's likely 2 years for once a week volume limited to 100 reps.

From a motor learning perspective, we actually need hundreds of thousands of reps to get to a place where they are as unconscious in their performance as a skill like walking. If we think about sports like tennis where someone is swinging swinging swinging with the raquet, forehand, backhand, slicing, dicing - they may have an advantage of getting to those high reps sooner, eh to "own" that movement?

Now there is *some* suggestion/hypothesizing that load *may* cut down some of the number of reps required in terms of learning - why? because more muscle fibers and so more nerves will get involved in learning that movement, and so movement learning *may* be slightly accelerated. But what's the ratio? 2reps at 90% is worth 5 at 85%? - not quite ready to go there.

 What does seem clear is that adding load/challenge can accelerate a learning insight, but that we still need to rep that insight in for the patterns to become autonomic.

10's: Getting to the Heavy Stuff

I have found in my own practice that i value volume like crazy but that i also require time for heavier loads in my strength practice. This is why my particular approach - what i really enjoy - is a volume day and a load day when working on progressing a lift. The heavy days mean usually three rung ladders and some singles work. I may end a 90min session with 25 reps total.

Now that is not a lot of reps. But it's in the zone of Prilepin's table (and how to use it) for a heavy practice in the 80% zone. Prilepin is something power lifter Fawn Friday turned me on to (pointing to this youtube summary in particular). It's been very good - the table - for generating some two dozen world records, apparently.

Prilepin's Table
So, if the volume days let my nervous system get used to the movement, then the load days let my body figure out how to add one more element to the practice: load.  The body has to fire up more muscle fibers; there may be in fact different firing patterns with load; different timings; different balance. So getting experience with a heavier load - and getting reps in - means a different kind of training. If we want volume, we need more recovery.

Distributing the load across time is where the protocol known as Grease the Groove can be handy - grabbing those challenging reps whenever the opportunitiy presents itself.

What i have found however, is that when i'm initially working up to a new load, i need that full workout before hand - it's a warm up or something - that initially i cannot just step in and get a rep with a 20 or with a 24. I need time for it to become familiar (or perhaps you're saying that's me just becoming stronger. strength is a .... )

1's: singles - the beauty of the One in Ten Thousand. The Goal. 

In the workouts with the 10s of reps rather than the 100's i also value the singles. I'm not sure if that means i do a kind of double Prilipen: sets of 1-3 reps (usually three rung ladders), then heavier singles. Sometimes the first rep of a ladder is the heavier load, that i can do for a single, then loads i can do for triples.

For instance, today it was: first rep of three rung ladder (which is effectively a single) was 22kg, then the second and third rungs (2 and 3 reps each, or double followed by triple) were with a 20kg.

Then at the end of the work out, i did a few singles just with the 24. These 22's and definitely 24s are the ones of which i can only do after getting in ladders of 20s - so far.

Of course when we get to singles we add in another version of the Rep - the One Rep Max, or Intensity.
( Current Lift / One Rep Max ) * 100 = % of 1RM 
The "% of 1 rep max" is what's used in the Prilepin table, above.

Double Prilepin Workout? What's surprising to me is that my heaviest lifts -at or approaching a 1RM -will come at the end of a long workout - an hour or so in like with that 24kg press. I may only get one rep here. or a few. They're exciting.

These singles suggest that all the previous working sets are a kind of warm up?  I dunno - as said - it seems like a kind of double Prilipen - the 80% workout followed by a 90%+ - does that make sense?

I have tested this repeatedly where i have tried a new load earlier in the practice session and not gotten it; tried again much latter, and voila. Beautiful.

What is happening here? Shouldn't i be more fatigued by this point? it's not like i've been pulling any punches with the work done to that point? Fascinating. But i enjoy it and it seems to be working.

Reps: Beyond the Lift - keeping mobile

At some point, we can talk about Reps, in terms of building movement, and being more than just about strength. there we might discuss other aspects of our practice where we need reps - for energy systems, different planes of movement than the forever sagital.

But for today,
this article started with the observation there are so many ways to skin a cat - to get a lift - easy strength; waving loads; german volume training; periodization etc etc.

There are more programs than sense, are there not? 
How decide?  

So, a question: if in music, chess, sport (like soccer or tennis), programming, the most reps leads to the best results,

In strength training - does the person with the most reps, the best volume, simply win?  Follow up question: win not just for now, but consecutively?

Even if there is no best plan, best program, might optimising for most reps have particular fringe benefits that go beyond the success/goal of the moment? 


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1 comment:

Richard Collins said...

Brilliant article MC, Prilipens, GVT and GTG all in one article. Pure genius, and hope to see more in the new year. Thanks Richard

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