Progression, Variation, Precision, Thunderdomes

As loyal readers know, I’ve come to develop an appreciation for many of the tenets of old-timey fitness.

Although I watched it several months ago now, I’m still pondering the implications of this lecture from Physical Culture Historian Dr. Ed Thomas.  Admittedly, part of my enjoyment has to do with the professorial charms of Dr. Thomas; I am forever a student in my heart.  But beyond Dr. Thomas’s unassuming delivery and random fitness fun facts (did you know tug of war was an olympic sport in the early 1900’s?), there are many things of value to take away from this webinar.

One of the things I loved most was Dr. Thomas’s focus on 3 simple principles of proper exercise: progression, variation, and precision.

Progression means things should get harder.  There are many ways of progressing an exercise program: you can add more weight, more reps, more total volume; shorten rest periods; play soft rock during a one rep max… you get the idea.  If you’re not progressing, you’re not giving your body the required stimulus to achieve whatever your fitness goal may be, whether it be either performance or physique related.

Studies show blasting “Hold on to the Night” during a 1 rep max

reduces the rate of force production by up to 37.4%.

Along those lines, you need to use variety in your training.  Not only do you want to progress your program, you want to vary it so that you don’t do the same thing every time you’re in the gym.  You can accomplish this by changing exercises, their order, the weights and rep ranges, or even changing exercise modalities altogether.  For instance, if you ALWAYS do weight training, maybe you’d benefit by taking Bikram Yoga for a month, or trying out pilates, or perhaps building a Mad Max style Thunderdome for your friends where differences of opinion are resolved by a fight to the death.

To be clear, too much variety is as unhelpful as too little: if you never do anything long enough to get good at it, you’re probably going to violate the first principle and find it hard to keep progressing. Just as it doesn’t serve you to do the same thing every time you go to the gym, if you’re doing something different every time, you’ll fail to achieve results.  A program should be systematic: throwing shit against the wall and hoping your biceps get bigger isn’t going to cut it if you actually want results.

The third principle is precision.  While none of these principles are generally employed by the typical gym-goer, this last one seems to be the least appreciated.  Precision means being mindful of technique and being mentally engaged in what you’re doing.  It means being in your body and not checking out during exercise.  This is partly why I’m not a fan of many traditional forms of cardio: if you can read a magazine while exercising, I question the value of what you’re doing.  Sure, there’s a place for some low intensity cardio depending on your goals and conditioning.  But if you can read US Weekly during the majority of the time you spend exercising, I lovingly encourage you to consider making better choices with your gettin’ sexy time.

It’s not easy to worry about Brad and Angelina

when you’re doing technically complicated lifts

At its best, exercise should be a moving meditation: a form of deep mental engagement on what your body is doing.  We don’t traditionally associate western forms of exercise with meditation, but the yogis have much to teach meatheads and low intensity elliptical junkies alike.  Yes, it’s harder than “doing the machines” for thirty minutes.  But we don’t want easy when we exercise.  I promise the return on your investment will be a hundredfold.

So there you have it kids.  Make sure you’re employing progression, variation, and precision in your workouts and you will reap the rewards of health and hotness.

I really want to have a Thunderdome. Seriously.  That’d be sweet.


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