Thursday, January 30, 2014

Playing By Numbers

I'm at the stage with my Stronglifts program where the weights go up, then down, then up, then down, and I don't mean up and down like a bench press. After a few sessions, I'll finally manage to squeak out 5 sets of 5 reps, which means next session the weight goes up. When I first started out, it might take one or two sessions to build back up to 5 sets of 5 reps, now it takes three sessions, and some times I don't make it in three sessions, which means the weight goes down again. The only exercise where I am continuing to steadily add weight is my deadlift. On all my other exercises I am cycling up and down to gain a few kilograms overall.

 Beautiful Century, Rocky Mountains, AB

Riding home from the gym today, I was thinking about how fixated you get on a number that is essentially fairly meaningless. I'm not sure that there is any really robust scientific reason why 5 sets of 5 reps is the magic target number for strength gains, but once that number is out there, my attention sure gets glued on to it and it becomes to some degree the measure of success or failure.

I know too many climbers who get similarly attached to climbing grades, often to the point of absurdity. They'll thrutch their way up a route in the poorest possible style, dogging on all the gear, simply because the climb is rated a certain number and, once climbed they can “tick off” that grade. This is like completing your reps/sets with poor form, such as not squatting deeply, and calling that level done. It ain't done unless you did it clean and with good form.

Care Aid, Waterline Wall, Selkirks, BC

Years ago I belonged to women's climbing club and I can remember the instructor teaching us about working up through grade pyramids. Essentially, you start the bottom of the pyramid at a grade about one level above what you can climb easily, say a 10a (Ewebank 18) and you aim to redpoint three different 10a climbs, then two different 10b climbs, then one 10c climb. After that, you start the pyramid again with 10c on the bottom. I thought the whole thing seemed quite obvious. Climbing one 10a doesn't make you a 10a climber as there are a whole range of 10a routes out there in the real world. But, this concept was totally lost on the rest of my team-mates all of whom were gym climbers (it's an interesting aside to note that they all quit climbing after a year or two) and the instructor really struggled to get this concept across. 

Functional strength, start of Evolution Ski Traverse, 
Sierra Mountains, CA

You see the same concept in all kinds of recreational endeavours. People think if they nail an eskimo roll they know all there is to know about kayaking, or if they can make some parallel/tele turns they know all there is to know about ski mountaineering, but there is so much more involved in traveling safely and efficiently in the big, wide outside world than simply mastering one fairly minor technical skill. A big part of becoming more proficient is simply getting out as often as you can. My kayaking has got better from more mileage in more varied conditions not because I have simply been banging away at learning to eskimo roll. There's a similar analogy to weight training, if you keep working at it, your form continues to improve and, while there may not be big gains on each end of the bar, you do get better at recruiting all your muscles, stabilizing the trunk under load, and moving through a full range of motion. Hitting a new PR on any particular lift is nice, but a secondary achievement to simply becoming a stronger more functional human being.

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