I would love to be able to just do what I do and let others do what they do. Problem is, what others do often requires me to patiently explain to a trainee why a certain thing is not appropriate and why I am not going to “coach” them on some program or other that they are convinced they should be doing for no other reason than it is very popular on the internet. If you’re a trainer then you’ve been there and you know what I am talking about. Start a strength training forum and see how much worse it gets. What do you think of this? What do you think of that?
People are always wondering how to pick out wannabes from the real deal. That is, how can you find resources that will actually help you get stronger faster and safer and avoid the people just talking out of their derrieres? Not all sources can be trusted. When I say, “cannot be trusted” I mean they cannot be trusted as a valid source of information. But sometimes, too, they cannot be trusted to give a darn whether their advice really helps you or not and whether it gets you injured or not. One of the main ways to tell is that usable info is almost always concrete in some way. That is, it is not vague and muddy. No matter how abstract it may get, there is something you can apply almost immediately. Most of the common statements that I really have learned to hate are vague statements that usually involve subjective measures.
Training By Feel
So, that being said, it is inevitable that some people who read this will know about Mike Tuchscherer and his “Reactive Training Systems.” So I need to say a few things about that. One, from what I have read of Mike’s, I agree with most of it. Or, if I don’t agree outright, I see no problem with it. Many of his viewpoints on training coincide perfectly with my own. As far as knowing anything in-depth about his methods, well, I don’t. What I’ve seen; I’ve liked. This article is NOT a critique of Reactive Training Systems. There are many other methods out there that fall loosely under the umbrella of reactive training, or “training by feel.” This is what I am critiquing, in general, with this article. This is training that follows almost no plan, and all training is done by the seat of the pants by “reacting” to how you feel or what happens on the day.
Of course, reacting to what happens on the gym floor is an integral part of successful training. But there must be some type of structure to your training. It can be loose but you must have a system. Heck, if you’re going to react, how do you do that? You have to have a system for that as well! Otherwise, it’s chaos. Now, I know that for some reason tough guys love the word chaos, but smart guys understand the word for what it is. Chaos is disorder. Chaos is confusion. Chaos doesn’t make sense. Cat’s sleeping with dogs. Children eating children! We don’t use chaos, we prepare for it.
No, really, the problem with purely reactive training is that much of the time you are over-reacting or under-reacting; and reacting to unreliable information. This kind of training results in random inputs and the body does not adapt to random and haphazard stimulus.
It Felt Good
As you go about your strength training, you will have to use some subjective measures. That is what reactive training is about and as I’ve said before, all good strength training is a little reactive. But you cannot hang your training completely on that hook. Subjective, for instance, is when you say that a certain lift “felt good.” Hey, it felt alright. It was a good lift.THAT is subjective. This doesn’t mean it’s never useful. How something feels, is, after all, what the kinesthetic sense is about. Problem is, when we talk about how a lift feels, we could be talking about almost any aspect that we have a “feeling” about. It felt good could simply mean that the bar had five more pounds on it than last time so it felt good to lift that much. Well, of course, it did. So what? It’s not the point of strength training to be unhappy.
With all this in mind, here are some vague statements that ‘experts’ use but which rely on subjective thinking from you, the trainee. Before we begin, remember that we all view information through a particular lens. That lens colors and distorts how we perceive and interpret that information. The same exact piece of information will mean something different to different people.
Train with Intensity
Usually, when people say to train with intensity, they mean to train with intensity of effort. Most of us know that the word intensity can have twenty different definitions, all used in the same conversation. When we talk about intensity of effort, it’s just fancy talk for “work hard.” There is nothing more subjective than hard work! I know guys who would think that sitting in front of a computer and writing this here blog post was hard work. I’m not one of them. It’s difficult work, but it’s not what I’d call hard. Yet, on the other hand, I consider any math past second-grade level to be hard work, so, as I said, it’s subjective.
Very few people, whether strength training or engaged in any specific fitness pursuit, go around thinking they are not working hard. I always laugh first when I see these statements. Before I get pissed, that is, I laugh. I laugh because I am imagining some young lifter who reads “train with intensity” and pops up with a light bulb over his head shouting EUREKA! I have to stop training with no intensity, he says, how could I not have known this?
Of course, you think you are training with intensity. Telling yourself to train with intensity, even if you actually mean something concrete, like higher intensity in terms of percentage of maximum load, it is not specific enough for you come up with a new plan or approach. And usually it is not a statement about the percentage of maximum load, but just a statement about working hard. What you have to realize, and what the experts have to realize, is that hard work is a psychological consideration, when it comes to training. If that is the only thing you are considering, then one day you will be training with half the actual intensity of the day before, but both days feeling you have worked hard. So, this is one possible problem with purely reactive training.
And yes, there is a school of thought that says this is exactly what you should be doing. In other words, your training should always be a “reaction” to how you feel. This way, the theory goes, you will always work just the right amount because training based on perceived effort keeps you from over-doing it but at the same time, your perception of what is hard now changes as you progress so that the same amount of work will not seem as hard later on.
A nice theory if it worked. But it does not work because your perception of effort is based on too many variables which can be permanent, semi-permanent, or transitory. How the training feels tells us something, but it does not tell us everything! And honestly, even how you feel afterward, after similar inputs, can vary. To relate this to something more easily understood, consider pain.
All of us have different thresholds for pain. If we, for instance, are all pricked with a needle in the exact same spot and asked to rate the resulting pain on a scale of one to ten, we will all give a different rating, up and down the scale. Some people react to pain much more strongly, and thus will give a rating closer to ten, like say eight. Others will shrug it off and give a much lower rating, like two.
Now, most people will always give a higher or lower rating based on their innate pain tolerance. But that does not mean that they will always give the exact same rating for the same input. A high rater may give anywhere from six to ten and a low rater anywhere from four to one, depending on other factors present at that time. So we are consistent in terms of range of tolerance but we are not absolutely reliable pain raters. Perceived exertion works much the same way. Too many things can affect your tolerance for work, and thus your reaction to it. And remember, how you rate how hard you are working is NOT how hard you are working, but your reaction to how hard you are working. Your very mood can affect this. If you are in a more positive mood, you will give a more positive rating, which could mean that you feel the work is easy.
So we do need certain benchmarks from which to gauge our training “intensity” other than subjective measures. We need to step outside of our perceptions (what we feel) and view our performance with a clinical eye.
You know, every once in a while, it is possible for a trainee to make a huge apparent jump in progress in the form of a huge new PR. Purely reactive training would have that trainee go hog wild and expect a new PR around the corner. But often, such huge leaps are a flash in the pan and it takes a while, and a lot of work, to ever get that lift again. Why?
Why I Use the Word Apparent
The reason that such leaps occur, followed by periods of seeming stagnation, is because some things only appear to be progress. So, when I use the word “apparent” I use it in this sense. “It appears that the trainee has progressed but it has not been confirmed.” Look at it the same way that science progresses. Someone does an experiment and gets X result. Well, until that experiment is repeated and X results again occur, the data is suspect.
What we have to understand about reactive training is that it is like pulling out an umbrella because you see a cloud in the sky. Sometimes there are clouds, but it never rains. Or maybe a better analogy is the smoke and fire one. People say that when there is smoke, there is fire. Well, that’s a myth! Smoke doesn’t always mean fire and if you’ve ever burned some food on the stove and smoked up your house, you know this. Training is the same way, and it means that you have to wait until the smoke clears until you can actually see if there is fire or not.
Remember Regression to the Mean
Here is where we get into the more technical nuts and bolts of why reactive training, used alone, is problematic.
The word fitness is also problematic. It’s a problem in a lot of ways but one of the main problems is that people think fitness only applies to the fit! Your fitness describes your ability to perform tasks. This means, for instance, if you walk to work every day – let’s say about 20 blocks – this relates to your state of fitness to walk, even if you don’t walk for the purpose of the exercise, and even if you never run, etc.
You would probably accept, without question, that the morning walk to work won’t always be the same. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it will be routine and not particularly tiring, because you’ve done it so many times before. Once you get to work, you won’t be exhausted, but you’ll be happy to take a breather. Then, there will be mornings where you are just lagging. Your legs feel like rubber and the walk feels like a hundred miles. You get to work and you are sweaty and exhausted. Other mornings, it’s just the opposite, and you feel on top of the world; like you could have walked across the state and back again. You’re just full of energy and your feet just glide down the sidewalk.
Now, remember, you walk to work everyday. Shouldn’t it feel the same every day since you are “in shape” for it? Fitness is fitness, right? How could your fitness change from day to day like that?
It didn’t. Fitness doesn’t change drastically in the short term. So how can the walk feel different on different days? If your fitness doesn’t change, it should always feel the same.
All you have to do, to see things differently, is separate the word feel from the word outcome. No matter what the walk “feels” like, you get to where you’re going. Furthermore, you tend to return to the state in the middle where the walk is mundane and boring, not particularly memorable. Your underlying preparedness only changed a little and your state of fitness did not really change at all. What changed is a host of external factors that you cannot always perfectly control.
Maybe you aren’t getting enough sleep. Maybe you have a bug you are fighting off. Maybe you have been skipping some meals, etc. Maybe it was hot as hell outside, and you weren’t well hydrated. The same way that your preparedness can go down a little, it can go up a little. These fluctuations are normal, over the short term, without meaning a big change in your baseline fitness. However, we cannot discount our perception of the walk, which, regardless of what happens in your mind during the walk, is formed from our memories of it. And this is unreliable, at best. On a hot sweltering August day, your perception will differ greatly, and not only because the heat affects your actual performance.
Reacting to a Bad Day in the Gym
How many times have you went into a lifting session and the weights just weren’t moving like they should? You’re having a bad day. You’re sluggish and everything feels heavier than it should. You just can’t muster up the same enthusiasm you usually have.
For the first ten minutes. Then, hmmm, okay, maybe you’ll get a good lift out of this session. And half an hour later you’re firing on all cylinders and you pull off a new PR. This happens often enough that we can see that you should hold off on any initial “reaction” to what happens when you hit the weights. So, sometimes, the body can be like on old International Harvester pickup. Depending on the “weather” you may have to warm it up for a long time, but once it’s ready, it’ll get the job done and then some. Therefore, a better reaction to a bad start in a strength training session may be to be patient and take your time, giving your body a chance to rise to the occasion, rather than to just give up and do a minimum.