Guest Blog by Anthony Mychal: Mastering Practice and Simplicity for Solid Gains
Mastering Practice and Simplicity for Solid Gains
By Anthony Mychal
The story is always the same. You’re on an Indiana Jones inspired quest to find the holy grail of training programs. You abandon time proven routines in favor of flashy new ones. When you’re struggling, you add special exercises like they’re some kind of Tylenol. But I’ll be the bearer of bad news: your squat sucks because you squat sucks, not because you haven’t done zercherfrontsafetybarbuffalobarspiderbarsplitgobletsissy squats.
Trust me, I know how it goes. You program hop after seeing fancy new gidgets and gadgets. A few months later, you realize that your original program was likely the way to go. You ditch your new one. It takes one month to get back to where you were before you switched. And by that time, four months of your training life have been wasted, making you impatient and—ironically enough—more likely to program hop because you’re now looking for a program that’s so good it can make up for the results you didn’t get over the past four months. You don’t need a new program. You need a mindset. A mindset that embraces minimalism, because “basic” and “simple” is what paves the road to solid gains.
A CASE FOR MINIMALISM
A guy named Vilfredo Pareto, a turn of the century Italian economist, realized that eighty percent of the land was owned by twenty percent of the people, and that twenty percent of his pea pods produced eighty percent of his peas. Since then, this eighty-twenty distribution is used to explain a number of phenomena.
Perhaps the prime Pareto example in the training world is the philosophy of legendary Bulgarian weightlifting coach, Ivan Abadjiev. Abadjiev’s original training programs consisted of nineteen exercises that eventually narrowed down to five: the snatch, the power snatch, the clean and jerk, the power clean, and the front squat.
Other coaches operate under a minimalist mindset. “… People do too damn many exercises,” Glenn Pendlay said in Too Much Muscle, “and they don’t concentrate on the ones they do correctly. Take just about any college strength program for football. You’d be better off if you randomly crossed out half the exercises, then spent your time doing the ones that are left correctly and with focus.”
Making a big splash in the weightlifting world, John Broz and his Broz Method also gets more from less by using Abadjiev’s five exercises with the inclusion on back squats. And Pavel and Dan John are among a new wave classifying strength as skill, not ability. Fancy that. You learn how to become strong.
Just like throwing a javelin, hitting opposite field, and putting top spin on a ping pong ball, skills require practice. That’s all. Long hours of deliberate practice. So when you see high level athletes doing remarkable things, you know they practiced for years. Yet when your squat stalls for two weeks, you seek answers everywhere. Maybe it’s weak quadriceps? So you start front squatting. Maybe you’re weak out of the hole? So you add bottom up squats. Maybe it’s your lower back? So you add good mornings.
Sooner or later you’re focusing on everything but squats. Struggling baseball players don’t start swinging golf clubs, cricket bats, and tennis rackets to get their swing back. They stick with the baseball bat. And they practice. For days and days.
So when you see people training often, but not to failure, it’s just amassing hours of practice. (The 40 Day Program, for example.) And the more you practice, the better sportsman you become. Of course, this seems fine and dandy for a sport like Olympic Weightlifting, but it also transcends into Bodybuilding. If you know the incline press stimulates the upper chest, and you’re looking for a big upper chest, simply practice the incline press with some semblance of frequency, respecting the intensity and subsequent recovery. Notice I said “practice.” It doesn’t always have to be gut wrenching, adrenal busting intensity. But you have to put in the hours and learn how to become strong.
Continuing with the incli
ne press, if twice every week you walked into the gym, warmed up to 225, approached the bar with the practice mentality, and hit reps as they came, are you telling me that one-two-three months down the line that 225 would never start to feel lighter?
SIMPLE, NOT EASY
Dan John is famous for saying that keeping things simple is best. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Ask any Bulgarian Weightlifter how easy his training was. Or ask Broz how easy it is to muster the motivation to squat every single day. Simple isn’t easy.
Restricting choices forces you to seek answers in yourself, rather than elsewhere. Accessory work doesn’t balance incompetence. A stalled bench press likely isn’t from skipping out on that third set of decline swiss ball presses. Rather, something is amiss with stress or recovery, which will be naturally controlled by seeing training sessions as practice. Allen Iverson wouldn’t be happy.
Now, I don’t trust you to go minimal without direction. Here are some ideas:
1. Ditch the Equipment
No treadmills. No dumbbells. No power rack. (You’re gasping after that last one, I know.) Limit yourself to a barbell and gymnastics rings. If you don’t have rings, then stick with a chin-up and dipping platform.
That leaves overhead pressing (and variations), barbell rowing (and variations), deadlifting (and variations), front squatting, hip thrusting, and Olympic lifting (and variations). With the rings, focus on dips and chin-ups. But don’t neglect other gymnastics movements (planches, levers, etc.) and simply “having fun.” By the way, everyone needs to be practicing front levers. They are the best “core” exercise in existence and it won’t be long before they are recognized as a staple. For the guys that like to huff and puff? Hill sprints. And being forced to clean the bar for every set of front squats and overhead presses is just one of those added benefits of this kind of “program.”
2. Stick to Arnold’s Big Six
Getting more restrictive, stick to Arnold’s big six exercises: squat, deadlift, bentover row, pull-up, curl, and bench press. Sure, you can add more. But these six exercises are your babies. No assistance exercise should interfere with their progress.
3. Go Dan John
Why not follow the advice of the man that pioneered the “simple, not easy” motto? His programs are just that: 40 Day Program, Two Times a Week for Twice the Gains, Mass Made Simple, and The Southwood Program. Or perhaps you can extract a good philosophy from The More You Lift the Worse You Look?
Most times progress comes from proficiency in a handful of lifts, which isn’t the same as neglecting body parts. Guys wanting guns should do chin-ups and curls. But most times they will be best served picking one variation, sticking with it, and getting good at it by practicing it over time.
And since I know I’m going to hear about Westside, special exercises, and the rotation of max effort lifts, I’ll say this: variation isn’t bad if used properly. But that’s rarely the case. As Coach Stevo said, “Variation when it’s necessary, not when it’s possible.”
Once individual sessions are seen as practice, all of the cool, important, and eye popping stuff takes precedence like motivation, health, consistency, taking fish oil, reducing inflammation, flossing your teeth, getting quality sleep, and eliminating unnecessary stress.
For a long time we’ve known that being a jack of all trades makes a master of none. But it’s about time to return to mastery. Don’t you think?
Anthony Mychal is a writer appearing on the likes of T-Nation, EliteFTS, STACK, and Greatist. He is also a trainer that works primarily through online relationships. His ideas are splattered on the wall a few times every week at his blog.