Look, it's not your fault— I've been there too. I've had the experience of discovering some unique program in the latest muscle magazine that some super stud athlete supposedly used to transform himself from nothing to something. Even today, when I run across a unique training concept or program, I still salivate at the discovery...anticipating the workouts, the novelty of a new program. Problem is, you have to clarify your objective: is your passion in life intellectual masturbation, or breaking through long-standing plateaus to new PR's? If you answered the latter, read on.
It's pretty much this simple: if you want your chain to lift heavier weights, you've got to inspect that chain link by link, and identify the weakest segment in that chain. Then you've got to find a way to make that segment as strong, if not stronger than the others. Then you've got to find the second weakest link and repeat the process, which, incidentally, never ends.
NOTE: Aside from avoiding habituation (the body's ever-decreasing reaction to repetitive, unchanging stimuli), the most important reason for altering training programs is to account for the continuous introduction of "new" primary weak links).
In the logging industry, professional loggers have a very effective way to figure out how to clear huge log-jams as they attempt to send large numbers of trees down the river. What they do is to go downstream and find the "kingpin:" this is the single log which, if re-positioned ever so slightly, will restore the flow of logs down the river. In much the same way, you'll need to find your own personal kingpins if you ever expect to accelerate your own rate of progress.
Some theorists suggest that one should ignore weaknesses and instead, focus on strengths. However, from my experience, a strength overused becomes a weakness. In assessing your own situation, determine whether or not the weak link is CORRECTABLE. If not, don't worry about it. If so, make it the number one priority until it is no longer your weakest correctable link.
This is a strategy that I developed from my work with Olympic and professional athletes, as well as members of my private coaching group. In essence, the rule states that one should prioritize training elements (which could refer to habits, behaviors, muscle groups, motor qualities, etc) which are:
- Highly trainable
- Foundational to other elements
- Given available resources
As a brief explanation, let's look at the motor quality of maximal strength. For many athletes, it is needed AND underdeveloped. It is also quite easily improvable compared to some other motor qualities (such as speed, which has significant genetic constraints). Maximal strength creates a base for the development of speed strength, hypertrophy, strength-endurance, and can also help athletes avoid injuries. Finally, maximal strength can be developed using very rudimentary equipment such as barbells and dumbbells. So, it's clear that for many trainees, maximal strength should be prioritized according to the Q2 Prioritization Rule.
Most people, when examining their own training experiences, will notice that they have made acceptable levels of progress using all manner of training systems and approaches. Most will attribute this phenomenon to the fact that ANY new program will provoke an adaptive response (at least temporarily), simply due to it's novelty. However, I do not believe the novelty of a new training stimulus is sufficient to explain this observation. Instead, I propose that whether or not someone is successful during any given training program has less to do with the program per se, and more to do with the PERSON (and specifically, his or her behavior) as the program is carried out. Now, of course, I'm not saying that intelligently-designed training programs aren't important— after all, I've created a career out of designing programs and teaching program design. I'm simply saying that for many people, developing better behaviors will have a greater payoff than looking for better programs (activities).
There are many behaviors which lend themselves to successful training outcomes. For the purposes of this column however, I'll focus on seven behaviors which I believe are tantamount for unprecedented levels of success:
Delayed Gratification. It has been said that the pain of self-discipline weighs ounces; while the pain of neglect weighs tons. Maturity is defined by the willingness to sacrifice now in order to experience a greater outcome in the future. This applies especially to nutrition and supplementation, since the positive outcomes of a sound nutritional program take weeks, if not months, to experience.
2) Consistency. Training is a form of motor learning, and learning requires repetition. Training consistency can be dramatically enhanced through a variety of techniques, but one of the most powerful methods is also the simplest: scheduling.
There is a VAST difference between thinking "Tomorrow I'm going to work out." and "My workout is between 7-8am tomorrow morning." In the first case, you might have a vague time-frame in mind, say 8:00am. However, by 7:30, you're behind schedule, so you reason to yourself that you'll train after work. Then, by the time you leave work, you realize that you didn't bring your gym clothes with you, so you think "I'll just train after dinner." And of course, after dinner, you're tired and distracted by the television, and guess what? You missed your workout! Now, you might rationalize that you'll just do the workout tomorrow instead.
This leads you to the incorrect assumption that you simply rescheduled your workout rather than skipping it, which is exactly what you did. On the other hand, knowing that you have a workout (or a meal) scheduled at an exact time, you'll be much more likely to prepare for and keep your appointment. If you DO fail to keep to the schedule, you'll be much more likely to feel a sense of consequence for your decision.
Goal-Directedness. The failure to develop goal-directed behavior accounts for more failure than all other causes combined. Most people understand that goals much be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-referenced (S.M.A.R.T.), however, many people fail to carefully weigh the benefits of achieving the goal versus what must be sacrificed. If, upon careful inspection, you are deeply convinced that the benefits justify the sacrifices, you'll create the psychic and emotional fuel necessary to sustain your motivation when the going gets rough (as it inevitably does!).
4) The Autotellic Mindset. Autotellic people do things primarily for their own intrinsic value, whereas exotellic people do things primarily for the secondary, external reward. In my experience, autotellic athletes are far better able to sustain their motivation. The take home lesson is this: people who just LOVE to train go much further than those who just want to look better.
5) Open-Mindedness. Closed-mindedness is, in my opinion, a genetically-ingrained survival trait. Thousands of years ago, a Neanderthal man looked under a rock and found some grubs to eat. The technique obviously had value, and it made more sense to look under more rocks than it did to look up in the trees. But for this Neanderthal to go beyond mere survival, he should in fact look up in the trees, for if he did, he might find better food choices. In many ways, athletes are the same way. At some point in their athletic careers, they are convinced to train in a certain way, and because this way lead to a certain degree of success, they now pronounce this "way" as the "only way." So remain receptive to new ideas, because usually, the thing you're looking for is where you aren't looking!
6) Fatigue Management. We LOVE to feel fragged after a workout, so much so that subconsciously, we tend to actually modify the workout to produce more post-workout fatigue, rather than to permit a better training performance. When you're trying to do gradually more and more work from session to session, fatigue-management skills are essential. I'll address several unique Q2 fatigue management strategies for an upcoming column.
7) Lifestyle. Many athletes spend untold hours examining and re-examining their training, nutrition, and supplement schedule, while at the same time completely ignoring the fact that their life is antagonistic to their training efforts, rather than supportive of them. Late night partying, exhausting job schedules (I know what you're thinking here, but jobs CAN be changed if you have a good-enough reason), and general inefficiency can wreak havoc on the best laid plans.
Here's my suggestion to anyone who's serious about optimizing their training-related behaviors is to do a simple self-evaluation inventory. After giving it some careful thought, make a list of your 3 most destructive behaviors. Rank them from best to worst. Next, consider the root causes and possible remedies for these behaviors. Can you develop substitutes or alternatives?
That's your homework for now. In future articles, I'll share more Q2 (pronounced "Q-squared) principles and strategies that I've used with unprecedented results with my athletes.
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Charles Staley is a sports conditioning specialist and director of Integrated Sport Solutions in Las Vegas, Nevada. A former martial arts competitor and trainer, Staley is also an Olympic weightlifting coach, as well as a master's level track and field competitor (discus event). He has coached elite athletes from many sports, including martial arts, luge, boxing, track & field, bobsled, football, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding. Staley has written hundreds of published articles, and has lectured extensively on the topics of human performance and sport training.