“If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.”
This caption for a New Yorker cartoon nails the “FOMO” mentality of a “workout of the day.”
Then why, might you ask, is StrongFirst jumping on the bandwagon and introducing its own “WOD”?
Please read on.
The biological law of accommodation states that the response of an organism to a given stimulus decreases over time. In other words, the longer you repeat an exercise, the less effective it gets. Therefore, training must be varied.
On the other hand, the law of specific adaptations to imposed demands decrees that, in order to get good at an exercise, you must practice that exercise.
So effective training must be different and same! A puzzle for a Zen master. According to Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, the conflict between the need for specificity and variability is one of the main problems in elite athletic training.
The answer comes from the chaos theory. Renown scientist and medical doctor Prof. Stuart Kauffman explains: “…on many fronts, life evolves toward a regime that is poised between order and chaos. The evocative phrase that points to this working hypothesis is this: life exists at the edge of chaos… Networks in the regime near the edge of chaos—this compromise between order and surprise—appear best able to coordinate complex activities and best able to evolve as well.”
A “WOD” throws the organism into a state of total chaos, a randomness in which any gains are purely accidental. The other extreme, rigidly doing exactly the same thing day in and day out does not get the body’s attention and fails to elicit any reaction.
Professional coaches balance “on the edge of chaos” with two tools: waving the loads and specialized variety. The former manipulates the quantity of the training load and the latter its quality.
Waving the loads, the brainchild of Prof. Arkady Vorobyev, refers to aggressively—as opposed to progressively—changing the weights, sets, reps, etc. A forerunner of this tactic may have been a 1920s Soviet study in which rabbit blood vessels did not react to particular doses of certain chemicals—but reacted to an increase or a decrease of the dose.
In a classic series of 8-10 weeks experiments on weightlifters members of Vorobyev’s research team compared the effects of traditional baby step progressive overload and whiplash variability. In the latter the daily and weekly volume jumped up and down by a minimum of 20% and often more. When it was all said and done, the experimental groups made strength gains 61% greater than the control groups. A welcome bonus, athletes in the experimental groups were healthier and felt better.
“Waving the loads” is integral to all StrongFirst programming.
In its simplest version, Kettlebell Simple & Sinister sweeps away the perceived need to have a whole park of kettlebells going up in small increments and takes bold weight jumps when the trainee is ready for them.
At its most sophisticated, Plan Strong™ Custom Designed Strength Plans apply the system that earned gold for the Soviet National Weightlifting Team to the powerlifts, the kettlebell and barbell military presses, and even weighted bodyweight exercises.
Soviet weightlifters and Russian powerlifters have proven that one can stay with the same lifts for years and even decades and keep making progress, as long as the sets, reps, and weights are varied intelligently. The body keeps reacting to the same “medicine,” as long as the dose keeps changing.
Readers familiar with Soviet weightlifting methods might argue that Prof. Alexey Medvedev’s classic textbook listed 100 special assistance exercises for the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.
True. Here are a few from the snatch list:
14. Power snatch from the platform followed by an overhead squat
20. Snatch pull off a deficit
24. Snatch pull from the platform, slow up and slow down
This “variety” reminds of a humorous coffee table book about Scandinavians. The author (a Scandinavian) earnestly states that people from various Nordic countries are very different from each other. He illustrates his commentaries about each country with photos of the same guy wearing sweaters of the same brand with different patterns.
You will not see curls or burpees on Medvedev’s list. His variety is anything but random. This is specialized variety—a second tool for balancing “on the edge of chaos.”
Radically different from what Rif derisively calls the “random acts of variety” popular with the “FOMO” crowd, specialized variety (SV) exercises are “same but different.” They are subtle variations of the same lift.
For instance, in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister the two-arm swing acts as SV for the one-arm swing and a half get-up as SV for the get-up.
A barbell example is bench pressing with different grips. In contrast, parallel bar dips do not qualify as SV because they have a totally different groove. It does not mean that dips would not improve your bench press—they might—but it is a gamble. With specialized variety, such as benching with chains attached to the bar, it is a near certainty.
A bodyweight example is doing pullups with a variety of grips (narrow, medium, wide; over, under, parallel, staggered; thumbs wrapped, thumbs over, false; uneven), timing (explosive, slow, with a 3sec pause on the top of each rep, etc.), equipment (a straight bar, parallel bars, rings, towels), and the placement and the nature of added resistance (kettlebells on the feet, a weight belt, a weight vest; bands; chains; artificial controlling environment). In contrast, rows do not constitute SV for pullups. They might help but I would not put my money on it.
Variety is overrated. Amateurs have been brainwashed by the pop fitness industry that they need to constantly change exercises to keep making progress. In contrast, the pros in the iron sports—powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, kettlebell lifting—keep plugging away at the same handful of key lifts year after year and keep getting stronger. Russian coaches call this the principle of continuity of the training process.
Choose two to three lifts or exercises that you desire to excel at. For instance:
- Kettlebell swing + kettlebell get-up (e.g., the Sinister Challenge)
- Deadlift + barbell military press
- Weighted pullup (eventually one-arm pullup) + handstand pushup (progressively more difficult variations)
- Weighted tactical pullup + kettlebell military press + weighted pistol (the Iron Maiden/Beast Tamer Challenge)
- The three powerlifts
- The “push-pull” (deadlift + bench press)
- The barbell Olympic lifts
- Kettlebell snatch + kettlebell military press
- Tactical Strength Challenge: deadlift + tactical pullup + kettlebell snatch
Dedicate years to master the technique of your chosen lifts. Purposefully train these moves instead of mindlessly “working out.” Stay “on the edge of chaos”—but never fall off the edge into the total chaos that describes the mainstream fitness.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are proud to introduce the StrongFirst WOD: the “workout of the decade.”
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