Training Temperance Revisited: Novelty Without ADD

I know a few trainees in need of these.
I know a few trainees in need of these.

Last year a wrote a post about making haste slowly, basically about accepting the fact that past the pure newbie stage of any activity, gains slow, which often stifles motivation. While that post was just a short blurb about an idyllic, rational, stoic world, the truth is that trainees have a hard time sticking to a routine for an extended period of time. But that’s really the most important part of the equation for long term gains. Let’s talk about some ways of keeping a program novel without being a 21st century ADD, zero-progress basket case.

The Dilemma (because I love lists)

There is nothing new under the sun and training, no matter how fancy and clever, can be broken down thusly:

  1. Do activity.
  2. Recover from activity.
  3. Repeat a little better/harder/faster/heavier.

The part the people get all fucked up on, and that part that gets newbs so, so badly is the often-not-talked about number 4:

4. Temper yourself and trust the process; none of this happens overnight and that supplement certainly isn’t going to be the magic bullet you’ve been missing.

I’ve been as guilty of number 4 as anyone over the course of my life, so I shout it from the treetops to any trainee curious about results that I meet. However, having been a trainer for nearly a decade, I’ve had to come to grips that trainees are human, I’m not a supreme ruler (and I hate that fact), and in order to keep clients I have to give them what they want while giving them what they need. That’s not saying I’ll compromise my principles, but I know that there must be some entertainment value to keep external motivation high. If you ever become a trainer, and you rely on your income, you’ll have to meet people where they’re at and slowly let them move toward where you’d like them to be.

Variability with Trackability

Once established, a productive routine is usually enough to motivate a trainee early on. Eventually, one will get strong enough to force a change or, typically, a person starts to dread the routine for it’s rote-like quality of work. My first tactic for this is:

  • Same exercises, full order reversal

This is the most productive co-op in trainer responsibility I know. A client comes in wanting to blow up their routine and all I do is flip it. So I typically start with a big compound leg movement to create a sufficient metabolic demand early on in addition to raising core temperature. I typically end a workout with functional ab work and specific mobility work, so I just flip the routine and start with mobility and end with the hard leg work. Now before someone chimes in with something like, “Hey asshole, you just weakened the trainee’s primary spinal stabilizer before the exercise that needs it most!” , there is a quality to having this muscles fatigued when it comes to creating a mind-muscle connection. With the abs sufficiently fatigued, a client is much more aware of their engagement on the big compound movements. I also lower the weight on those movements for this reason and really focus on technique because of their abs being less-strong due to fatigue.Also note that I’m not training powerlifters using near 1 rep maxes; I’m training white-collar types who typically have no idea how to engage their abs like a corset for squats/deads/etc. and this just works. This is also a tool: when a trainee understands that their abs are working on most anything, I ditch the crunches and focus on using the abs as dynamic stabilizers on compound movements.

What if I want to get my bro on with some Intuitive Training?

The notion of intuitive training is steeped in bro lore, with the notion that a trainee should train muscles that feel strongest or not sore, no matter when they were last trained, never mind the fact that soreness is not a reliable indicator of a productive workout.  So now that we know this is college-gym nonsense, let’s put it to use for us.

While I have no problem stating that I don’t agree with much of what Brian D. Johnston has to say, I like his idea of Chaos Training as a novel means of changing a workout. Understanding that early workouts with new exercises or modifiers are the most challenging and going to cause the greatest amount of alarm/trauma/shock/whatever you want to call it. It’s the first stage of GAS and the one most likely to make you one sore mofo. The reaction from the body is typically extreme during new exercises, as evidenced by the repeated bout effect. By protecting against the same stressor, or degree of stress, the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced. One could deload or take an entire week off, or in this case, one could change their workout every time you hit the gym.

“Skyler,” I hear you ask, “what about the ability to gauge our progress?” Well, you’re going to keep certain aspects of the workout consistent. Here’s an example of a shoulder workout, starting with a military press, using Chaos principles:

  • Workout 1: 3 reps (3/3 cadence), 30 seconds rest, 3 reps (5/5 cadence), 30 seconds rest, 1 10/10 repetition followed by 2 strip sets to total fatigue.
  • Workout 2: 3 reps (3/3 cadence), 1 minute rest, 4 reps (3/3 cadence), 0 rest, handstand pushups for 4 negative repetitions.
  • Workout 3: 3 reps (3/3 cadence), 45 seconds rest, max reps (controlled, but not set, cadence), 60 seconds rest, lean-away lateral raises to failure.

Quite varied, but we’re tracking the workouts with the initial 3 repetitions. As long as those are improving, the rest of the shoulder workout can be quite varied to fit the mood or energy level of the trainee.

More of the Same

The one I like doing with clients, and recommend for trainees on occasion, is what I call “More of the Same.” If a client wants variety, I’ll stick them on 3 compound movements (upper push, upper pull, lower press) and flog them in a circuit fashion, no rest, constant movement. Simple, right? By the time you get to your third round (I’ll do anywhere from 5 to 10, depending on the trainee), you’ll be huffing like an victorian steam engine. I have one client who told me that after a variation of this, he went back to his office across the street and took a 40 minute nap. He also told me he’d “never do that” again. He has and done better and better each time.

Ultimately, these are all variations on a theme, a way to satisfy the seeming need for trainees to have some sort of novelty but to have a trackability, to be able to see the numbers going up, to see definite improvement. Without that, you’re dead in the water.

Hey kids, what do YOU do to vary your workouts? If it includes bicep curls in the squat rack, you shouldn’t respond.

5 thoughts on “Training Temperance Revisited: Novelty Without ADD

  1. Good site you have here, I use that sort of a method wrt inuitive training. I set it up to have 1 or 2 ‘money’ exercises per wo which are heavy compounds and the ones i track progress in, then fill in the rest of the wo depending on how im feeling

    1. Stefan,

      Thanks for stopping by. The money exercises are really what matter, but if a person is going to train for life (which they should) there needs to be some mental variety. I think maybe the CPA’s of the world can handle such lack of variety, but the rest of us need a bit of change occasionally!

  2. I like the Chaos principal. I’ve tried to create a workout that changes but can still be tracked by repeating a monthly routine instead of weekly one. I never thought of changing the way I do the workout instead of the changing the actual workout. Also, I think I’m going to try that “More of the same” idea this week, sounds intense. Thanks.

  3. Skyler,

    I appreciate that this post is fast approaching being 5 years old, but it’s one that interests me so I thought I’d comment.

    I’d be curious to know what you don’t agree with when it comes to Brian Johnston’s thinking/writing.

    Here are my thoughts. They link in with what you’ve said.

    I’ve read Brian’s three Zone Training books, and his manual on variation along with his DVD on freestyle bodybuilding.

    From my experience of using Zone Training and variety for a year, I’d say there is definitely something to it. I now get a RenEx level of inroad with the equipment I have access to in the average commercial gym where I train. I achieve this without any alteration to overall workout duration. Equipment and exercises that I once wrote off as being useless because they didn’t suit a 10/10 cadence over a full range of motion are now in regular with Zone Training.

    I can not only get around the shortcomings of the exercises but transform them completely. The humble back extension performed on a hyperextension bench pumps what I would call “the deadlift muscles” to an unbelievable level. I’ve probably lost some deadlifting strength/skill (strength is a skill as you wrote on December 9th 2013) but erectors, glutes and hams look, feel and perform as well as they ever did. I’m using far less weight, so that means less injury potential than attempting to deadlift enormous amounts that tempt me to focus on the assumed objective of exercise, rather than the real one.

    I’ve lost weight, but that’s because I’m eating to lose fat (gradually over time) but my muscles appear more full between workouts and there has definitely been some lean mass gain. Probably no more than 5 pounds in total, but I know my body, and this is definitely more than just a lingering pump.

    I’d wager that the biggest contributions that Zone Training has made are:

    1. I can now use a greater variety of equipment and thus perform a greater variety of exercises which means I can work all my muscles. Previously I neglected many areas as I was when using Rippetoe’s textbook Starting Strength routines (minus power cleans) and then when I switched back to 10/10 many of the tools available to me just didn’t cut it.

    2. Helping to combat these problems/shortcomings encountered when using free weights, bodyweight and mediocre machines for slow cadence stuff.

    Both of these things greatly improve what I would call muscle targeting i.e. I can hit the target musculature with a high number of high quality contractions, inroading them far more deeply and efficiently. This is the big difference and the reason for results.

    Variety however is another matter. I could say that it’s helped loads, but I’d have nothing to back that up. I think the progress is due to the two reasons above. I believe that I’ll still have to stick at this for a long time (just like Hugh Jackman’s 13 year transformation and the 6 year itch). I think where variety has value in the long term is that it prevents you from becoming psychologically stale.

    By not becoming stale, you retain enthusiasm for training. By retaining enthusiasm and indeed passion for training, you want to keep doing it. By wanting to keep doing it, you’ll keep doing it. By keeping doing it over the long term, you get all the lifelong benefits of strength training. That is where I believe variety has a massive part to play in helping people reach their long term goals and be as healthy as they can as they go further and further into old age.

    If someone told me that I had to perform the same routine, at the same frequency, using the same method of repetition performance, the same exercise selection, the same exercise order, the same number of sets per exercise, the same rep ranges, with the same inter-set rest periods etc for the next 40+ years, I don’t think I could. Regardless of what happened to me physically, good or bad, I’d probably go insane within less than a year. If variety can help me to keep a positive mental approach when it comes to training ward off potential mental drudgery, then why shouldn’t I mix things up every now and again?

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