Sunday, December 02, 2007

How to improve.

Arnold in perhaps the best arm shot ever. He was the King of improvement and proper training planning.

Being an competitive athlete for so long really spoiled me in some senses.Training was always coupled with competitions where progress, or the lack of it, was immediately apparent. One knew pretty regularly if one's training, and the plan behind it, was working or not.There really was no training without a purpose,without a goal and a deadline.This made things much easier in many ways. It's easier to get somewhere if you know where you are going and when you have to be there.

Now that I am retired from competition training is much more difficult in many ways as there is much more of an opportunity to just "float" during workouts and do what feels good that day.Of course, in my book ,this is not training but exercising, as training always has a goal in mind. No matter how small or how far off it's really not training to me if there is no real goal.Deadlines, as in competitions make it even easier as there is nothing like looming competition platforms with witnesses and spectators to get one in the gym and doing what one should be doing.

Powerlifting was by far the most direct of these sports as when one is training for such you usually start from the meet day and work backwards. You also start with what your last personal best was and plan for a small but reasonably improvement to that.

The idea that one is going to make huge gains on a regular basis is quickly quelled by the realities of heavy iron and vagaries of real competitions on someone elses time schedule. So it's shooting for small personal bests after a period of specific training for such.Adding up those small personal bests over a regular period of time and lifters realize huge gains to their totals can be had with steady and serious dedication to small improvements.

So how does one improve?

The most important concept to any and all improvement is the idea of the S.A.I.D principle or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.This basic principle simply says you get what you train for; what you Specifically train for.And while there might be some carryover from your squat to your deadlift or from your running to your cycling the bottom line is :specificity rules.

That's why the best cyclist in the world, Lance Armstrong, ran a very mediocre marathon despite legs of steel and an oxygen uptake that is perhaps the highest in the world.So you have to train for what you want. And while you can have it all( perhaps) you cannot have it all similtaneously.Of course ,many are happy being decent at a lot of things but not great in any and that's fine. But many need to really bust their butts just to be mediocre at ONE thing.

Which brings us to the next important concept for improving: Overload. You simply must ask the body to do more than it did the last time or it simply will not get better. Form follows function. Change what the body is capable of doing( function) and it's form will change. And conversely if you are capable of doing 'X' amount of work and regularly do 'X-10' in your workout you will NOT improve but slowly lose ability.

This is the basis of Hans Seyles General Theory of Adaptation which is where S.A.I.D comes from.

Take a ten horsepower body and give it a twelve horsepower load and, after it adapts from the stress of the load, it BECOMES a twelve horsepower body. So the training is a stress,a negative actually, which depletes certain( specific) substances signally the body to restore them, to rebuild them bigger and stronger so the same stress will not deplete the body the next time.

Of course if you give that ten HP body a twenty HP load you just break it.SO the overload has to be appropriate. Just enough stimulates, too much, annihilates or if it's not specific enough of an overload just misses the mark entirely.

So you have a specific overload which is targeting a specific quality one wants to improve.This is intensity. The training stress is a negative which depletes the body from which it must RECOVER from. Repeated overload just tears down the body,even if it's the correct target area that is hit.Too much intensity or too much intensity too often or just too much work in total can just break one down so much they can't get back up. Much less improve capacity from it.So recovery is also a key component to progress.

In fact, it is THE key component to progress because you can only get as good as the load you are capable of handling. Say you want to be a 600 pound squatter. That means you must be capable of handling 70-85% loads in the gym.70% of 600 is 420 lbs.To be able to do regular workouts with 420 to 510 lbs is no joke and puts mucho stress not just on the muscles and tendons but the CNS and the system as a whole.Trying to squat those loads in addition to other sports and activities will be too much for everyone but the most gifted athletes to recover from.

This is is why you don't see top level lifters also competing in other sports or vice versa. Specificity rules and recovery tops everything.And it doesnt matter if the goal is a 5 minute mile instead of a big squat. Or 200 snatches or whatever.The closer one gets to the bodies absolute limits the much tougher the stress is on it.A 600 pound squat is not just 300 pounds harder than 300. It's exponentially harder.Same with a 48 second 400 meters. Not in the same galaxy as 58 seconds, as hard as that may be to many. And the system can only take so much.

This is why taking your recovery seriously is CRITICAL to all who aspire to improvement at any level.The intensity changes as you go up the ladder but the rules apply across the board.

Active recovery methods range from simple rest( WAAAAAY overlooked) to massage( both professional and by yourself),nutrition, water therapy, visualization techniques, meditation,active rest( light training)vibration therapy,stretching,etc.

This is also why so many elite athletes choose to use anabolic and androgenic steroids,perhaps the most efficient recovery agent outs there. And why so many try to find and use legal versions of anabolics(supplements) to accomplish the same results but within legal parameters. You can only get better if you can handle more and heavier workloads. And you can only handle those loads that you can recover from and adapt to.

It may seem that all this only applies to hard training elites but that is not the case. The regular person training for basic improvement in strength, endurance or any other physical quality has to play by the same rules.Whether you are limited in your exercise selection( as I am) or can do it all you must use the same concepts.When I push my swing or snatch workloads up I am doing so because I know if I don't try to do more than I was capable the last time I won't get better.ANd the more I adapt the more I will have to do in the future.
Of course there are diminishing returns but that can only be decided by the trainee themselves. Having done 600 swings with the 24 kg I know I don't want to do more if it means training longer, so I will now try to overload by doing the same work in less time.Over the course of a training cycle of course. I know I am adapting because it wasnt long ago that half that workload would make my legs sore the next day. Now I can do double what I used to and have no soreness the next day. Adaptation. One critical key to progess.

But the real key is KNOWING that whatever you are doing you MUST make yourself do more in some way shape or form in order to create the next level of adaptation. To MAKE yourself what you want to be. What you choose to be.SO that means having a plan of where you are going, knowing what you did last so you can scale the increase appropriately( whether that means more sets,reps, weight or a faster workout) and developing the will to make yourself do it.
That last part is no mean feat and everybit as important as anything else you will train.Because when it all comes down to it, it's that little battle between the weak you and the you that wants to be stronger that is the first overload. Choose wrong and you will get weaker and less; choose correctly and you at least have a chance of being better.

And preparing for those workouts is vital. If you go into the gym not knowing what you did last workout, or what the plan is for this workout there is a very good chance you wont do enough to stimulate a real adaptation or you will overshoot and do too much.One must take lots of variables into consideration during the workout in order to ensure safety as well as overload but if you plan correctly most workouts can be accomplished and get you that closer to your goals.
Assuming you have some.


Howie Brewer said...

Fantastic breakdown of the basics. I for one saw my greatest improvements in the gym after years of messing around with the typical bodybuilder type workouts once I decided to stick to a few basic multi-joint exercises and wrote everything down. I was amazed how I never saw anyone else with a pad and pen in hand. But then again, I didn't see too many others squatting over 300lbs while weighing 165. Ahhh, the good ol' days... =)

Mark Reifkind said...

exactly. just like with diet, when you write things down the stark reality of what you are, or are not doing stares you directly in the face.
thats what this blog is to me, my online training log.
Funny story. Kid asked me how to get bigger one day at my World gym.I told him squats. He aske me for sets and reps.
I told him 3 sets of 10.When he could do a weight for3x10 then increase and start over.
He asked what else, I said it didnt matter.
he asked why? I told him when he grew his 135 for 3x10 into 405 for 3x10 he would be as big as he wanted.It's all easy til it's heavy and you've got to keep your eye on the goal.

Joe said...

WOW! Just puts everything in full perspective. See you tomorrow for a heavy snatch and Squat day!

Keats Snideman said...

Great post Rif! It really does come down to repeated consistent efforts towards a specific goal.

Without goals most people are just like hikers lost in the forest without a compass; they'll just have a tendency to walk in circles and end up getting nowhere.

You were bang on about the tendency to "take it easy" or just "float around" during workouts when one is training just to train. It's so much better to have something (shit, just make some goal up if you have to) to shoot for. If you reach that goal and aren't satifsfied or realize you wanted something different, it doesn't really matter too much; at least you learned what you REALLY want. Once you can figure this out, even if just for a short while, go for it!

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks keats.I agree that it doesnt even matter what the goal is or how far off actualizing it is; just as long as their is one and you are taking steps forwards to it.Even at the smallest level.I am just really happy I can train relatively hard again and not get broken. It's such joy to be able to move.

Aaron Friday said...

You just gotta keep track of shit and keep improving in some way. Even if you don't, the act of trying should keep you out of jail.

Howie, no more 300-lb squats? You getting soft? I never did that myself, but if I did you'd hear about it.

Mark, you are an intense man. The essays you publish on a regular basis are formidable and full of useful information.

Mark Reifkind said...


I do tend towards the 'bit too serious' but I've been this way since I was a kid. thanks though and glad you get something out of my essays.

Rannoch Donald RKC said...


Fantastic clarity. Fundamentals & consistency for sustainable, measurable results.

"You don't quantify, you wont qualify!"


Howie Brewer said...

Hey Aaron, I'd hate to think that I might be getting soft already. I hope that's not the case. My situation has changed recently. I used to be able to get to the gym on my lunch hour and squeeze in a workout, but in the last few months things at work haven't allowed that anymore. That's why I now wake up at 5am to squeeze in the kb workouts. Something is better than nothing. At the time I was also deadlifting 275 for 3 sets of 8. Never did try to do singles.

Tom Furman said...

Nugget this somewhere. Nice work,.. and Happy Holidays.

Mark Reifkind said...


thanks man and I like that saying as well" if you dont' quantify you wont qualify" so true.


thanks man; it's nice about the blog that way. this stuff sticks around forever.

Royce said...

Awesome dude, love this post.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks royce. appreciated as always.

Taikei Matsushita said...

"A 600 pound squat is not just 300 pounds harder than 300. It's exponentially harder."

I'm gonna steal this concept. So that I can explain why heavy weights are difficult, and cannot be calculated.

Your book will be alot better and hotter than Staley's and Cosgrove's. And don't tell them I said that.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks Takei for the confidence. That is assuming that the book actually GETS written,lol. A big IF in reality.
and yes, as weights or intensity approach absolute human body levels the load is so much more intense it cannot be construed as the same thing.
For instance a 20 inch arm going to complete failure in a simple bicep curl impacts the system on another level thana 12 inch arm doing the same.
Imagine the difference in muscle involvment and contraction on these heavy powerlifts.
takes way more out of you and way more recovery.Ask Brett,lol.

fawn said...


This kind of prospective is what sets you apart from other trainers... I can only hope to be half the coach you are. It is an honor to have you as a resource!

Mark Reifkind said...


thats so nice of you to say and very nice to hear.You are on such a great trajectory as an athlete and a coach. I only wish I knew what you know now at your age. I would have save myself a lot of grief,lol.
But I think the real key thing is the passion to find a way to get what you want, no matter what it is.To figure it out, regardless of what "it" is.I just wouldn't quit trying, so here I am,lol.One thing Arnold wrote and talked about that has always stayed at the front of mind; and what I instinctively knew to be true: Its all created first in the mind.
You have to SEE it first, then it gets accomplished.And the more you see it the easier it is to get it.I was lucky in that I was into intense visualization training from the get.
With gymnastics' incredible biomechanical complexities you literally have to.But it really helped on so many levels.Passion and vision.Cool stuff.
Can't wait to see you guys again!

AikiBudo said...

This will be a major chapter in your upcoming book. Very well put! As simple as possible but not simpler.

What Arnold could do with his body is as amazing as what Lance Armstrong did with his - in their own fields: Genetic gift married with the will to do and the brains to do it right. A rare combination indeed.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks jim,simple is good.and the older I get the better it gets as well.everything has so many layers to it that one go inwards for a long time before one has to go out again.

Mike T Nelson said...

Excellent post! Those basic principals should be required reading for everyone, period. Unfortunately they seem to be lost of most.
Excellent job
Rock on
Mike N

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks mike,

its amazing how much people search for complex for solutions without examining the basic and simple.