Monday, August 26, 2013

On Programming - An Introduction

I want you guys to know something. It's one of the best kept secrets of strength training and fitness in general. Everyone's got the perfect program and the best training split and they've got mountains of reasons why you, too, should be taking advantage of what they're offering. Well, here's the truth.

Programming is BULLSHIT.

Why you ask? Well, it's really pretty simple. To explain, I'm going to hand the mic over to my boy Bruce for a minute. Tell em', Bruce. (We've even got subtitles for our spanish speaking friends!)

So you got that right? No need for further explanation? Ok. Good. See you guys next time.

All jokes aside I hope you see where I'm going with this. "I don't make a plan for fighting, thats a good way to lose your teeth." In our case it would be more like this: I don't make a plan for lifting, that would be a good way to lose your gains.

Before everyone starts losing their heads we need to consider what Mr. Lee is really saying. Bruce Lee is credited as being one of the best martial artists to ever have existed. He fathered a training philosophy that opened the eyes of people in the martial arts world and in my opinion can be applied to quite a bit more than just your kicking technique or your exercise routines. I'm going to use another of Bruce's quotes to elucidate.

"Use no form as form, use no way as way."

Or...something like that. Not sure that's the exact quote but it gets the point across. Eastern philosophy is rife with these kinds of phrases, zen koans that seem to be distinctly contradictory. They're meant to push us to examine them more deeply; to examine ourselves more deeply. Lucky for you, I'm just going to tell you what he meant. 

While these days the training methods employed in martial arts classes are quite diverse, for a long time the most prevalent training style involved having the student perform a series of choreographed motions meant to mimic a fight, called "forms." The problem with this is that the purpose of martial arts is to learn how to fight and fights are not static; they are alive. They move and change and transform. They do not stay the same. As such, repeating the same exact movement thousands of times is not terribly good practice.
Bruce's feeling was that forms "paralyze" the fighter. Examined through the lens of motor control and motor patterning you can see he's right on the money. If you condition yourself to move a certain, predictable way at the exact same speed when you go to utilize that motor program, that's the one you're gonna get. When you're in a fight you need to throw a quick jab that's lightning fast and hits with the force of a ball-peen hammer. Unfortunately, day in day out you've been training those pretty but slow and repetitive punches. When your central operating system (read: nervous system) goes to access the punching program for you, you don't get the fast jab you need; you get the slow one you've developed. This is bad. 

Bruce saw this and said hell to the nah. We're not doing that anymore. We're not going to train "forms," we're going to train different kinds of strikes, as many as we can learn. We're not going to train "styles," we're going to improve our general fitness and flexibility in all areas. We are not going to adhere to only one program or plan, because that stunts our development as a martial artist, as an athlete and as an individual. You can not decide what the solution is before you even have personal knowledge of the problem. This is precisely what training forms is: telling your body you will only ever need to move in these specific patterns because the necessity will never arise for anything else. It shouldn't be too hard to see how silly this is. When Bruce said "use no form as form," he wasn't saying don't use any form, he was saying your form should be adaptable, transferrable and ever changing; just like water. 
The same principle applies to programming. How you feel and how well you can perform is subject to a long list of variables. The idea that you can sit down and write a program for several months that you are going to follow to the T, every weight, every rep, every set; is laughable at best. Eventually you're going to miss a lift. Eventually you're going to fail on a set. What then?

You need to be able to listen to your body. If you can't understand the signals your body's throwing at you then you're never going to Become Invincible. Real fitness is about maintaining a running internal dialogue with your physiology; being able to interpret the signals it's giving you and utilize them efficiently. Maybe today your program had you lifting heavy but your CNS just isn't up to it. You don't need a super strict program that forces you to grit and bear it every time something doesn't feel right. What you need is an adaptable plan that you can apply every day you go into the gym so that you're always going hard and always making progress. Being flexible is not about giving yourself an easy out, "oh well I'll just try again tomorrow." That's just being weak. 
Do you really think that when Bruce Lee said "use no form as form," he meant don't bother with training, forego all discipline and forget about ever mastering martial arts? No. He was saying learn enough that your knowledge and your practice transcends easy categorization. Don't plan for a specific situation and only prepare for that. Plan for every situation and learn to recognize when to do what. Be the cup. Be the glass. Flow. Crash. Be still. Be water, my friends.

So, how do you do that with strength training? It's actually pretty simple once you understand the basics. Coming up in the next entry. Stay tuned.

Until then, good luck and good lifting.


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