Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some thoughts on steady state training

In his book “Building the Gymnastic Body” Coach Chris Sommer states that steady state training is one of his favorite training protocols for developing high level gymnastic abilities. In essence the protocol involves selecting a few skills you would like to master and then training these for extended periods of time; anything from a few weeks to a few months. Rather than constantly trying to increase the volume, intensity or density you simply stick to an exercise in exactly the same format for weeks on end. This process continues until you are totally comfortable with your performance. In fact, the exercise or skill must feel almost too easy before anything is added.

Given the ADD suffered by most modern people this approach seems almost ludicrous. Who would want to do the same thing day in and day out without adding any variety? Also, a lot of the fitness programs buyable on the web these days are all about high intensity and endless variety. The fact that so many of these programs exist is a testimony to people’s willingness to buy them. Essentially the search for variety leads to something like the following scenario:

I did three weeks of method X and it rocked. Now my body needs some bulking up so I’ll focus on a four week hypertrophy program. Thereafter I need to do six weeks of power yoga to sweat out toxins and get supple. Then I need to…etc.

When I first started training with kettlebells I had a similar attitude and approach. I did a bit of ETK, then AOS, then some EDT and eventually even a tad of GS. The main thing that happened to me was that I got injured and didn’t build any kind of really useful skills with the bells. Every day had to be a PR, had to be more intense, had to make me feel more blasted than the previous day. Yea, if you don’t feel like puking you haven’t achieved anything!!!

For some reason in the last few months my approach has shifted. I don’t know if the fact that I recently turned 40 played a role but for some reason I started thinking more in terms of the long view. I would like to be able to train and be healthy until I eventually leave this planet (I mean by dropping dead, not in a spaceship). In order to achieve this long term goal I have come to the conclusion that I need to slow down, way down! This is exactly where steady state training comes in. At the moment I’m not pushing myself hard very often. I’m perfectly happy to do the same sets with the bells day in and day out up to the point where the process just becomes too ridiculously easy. Since I’ve adopted this approach I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon occurring. For a while I stay steady at a certain set length and then suddenly a little leap takes place that takes me to another level. This little quantum leap is usually quite unexpected and spontaneous. It is as if the more I slow down the faster I move. Go figure! 

What does this mean for kettlebell training? Let me give a practical example. Let’s say you are a pretty de-conditioned individual aspiring to get fit and develop some skill in kettlebell lifting. You decide that your avenue towards achieving your goal will be based on Girevoy sport, specifically the biathlon. In terms of a steady state model this might mean that you do the following in your first session:

2x16kg Jerk: 2 minutes @ 6 rpm

16kg Snatch: 4 minutes @ 12rpm

16kg Swing: 10/10

Now, just keep doing this. You managed to do it once so try and do it 4 – 6 times per week. At some point this will feel too easy. For some people who adapt quickly this may mean after 1 week of training, for others it might be a month. Once you reach that point add 1 minute (or even 30 seconds) per set. Do this until it becomes too easy yet again (and then stick to it for another week or so). Once you achieve this level of patience progress will seem to happen almost automatically.

In my mind the steady state model can be effectively married to the various protocols of the AKC/WKC. One example would be to apply the steady state model to the AKC/WKC’s approach to GS. First and foremost you need to start with a light bell (or bells) and decide on the length of a set (2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.). Keep working your sets for this timeframe for quite a while. At some point this WILL get easy. Once it does the next step would be to either do slightly more reps in the same timeframe or to extend the length of the set. If you stay with this process long enough 10 minute sets will eventually become too easy. At that point you might be ready to grab a slightly heavier bell.  Just don’t ever rush ahead. The slower you move, the faster you will progress!

OK, I guess that it is time to end my ramblings. The essence of the steady state approach in my mind is the idea that you don’t need to constantly bust out of your comfort zone. Rather allow yourself to get totally immersed in your comfort zone (it is comfortable after all). If you keep doing this you will notice that your comfort zone expands. Wit every passing week your comfort zone will get bigger until, eventually, you will be pretty much comfortable with anything.

Perhaps you may find what I’ve said to be too theoretical. What about the practicalities. Well, I can assure you that my comfort zone has been expanding in terms of what I’m capable of with the bells. More importantly, I’m feeling a hell of a lot better. For almost two years I’ve been using all kinds of methods to try and get over some old injuries. I’ve tried joint mobility, stretching, trigger point work, a chiropractor, blah, blah, blah! Now that I’ve slowed down I don’t even warm up before my training. I just do Jerks, Snatches and Swings and am usually done in 30 minutes or so. Weirdly enough a LOT of my old aches and pains are dissolving without any apparent reason. For me, that’s enough!

Enjoy your training!!!


Howie Brewer said...

Very nice point of view!

One thing that might be added is that while one works inside their current comfort zone, that although you might not be adding time or reps that it doesn't mean you are just on cruise control. During that time one starts to work and refine other, non-quantifiable things, such as breathing, alignment, timing and coordination. These are very valuable qualities that sometimes get looked over when one is just working out for the sake of burning calories or getting "fit".

Therefore one's training becomes not solely physical, but a very strong mental aspect comes into play.

Good thoughts! Keep 'em up!!

Prof. Moises said...

Hi, I once read about a similar approach for running.
You kept running slowly, trying to keep a stablishd heart rate (60%, for example).
It might seem boring, but after a while, you'll be running longer and faster at 60% than you did before on higher rates.