By Justin Farina
Originally published in two parts on July 29th, 2015 and August 12th, 2015
What do you think is the BEST way to approach the following workout?
Tabata Intervals ( 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest repeated 8 times) is applied in turn to the Squat, Rower, Pullups, Sit-ups, and Push-ups with a one minute rotation break between exercises. Each exercise is scored by the weakest number of reps (calories on the rower) in each of the eight intervals. During the one minute rotation time allowed the clock is not stopped but kept running. The score is the total of the scores from the five stations.
A total score of 53 (Execllent score, BTW) is determined by adding up the lowest number of reps in any set of each exercise.
12 row (use the calorie counter and call each calorie a rep)
This score is a 53.
Most athletes will approach this in one of two ways:
1. Try and hit the same number consistently, never pushing a round to failure. They may even break reps into “clusters” of smaller rep counts to accumulate more volume while taking very short “rests” in between efforts. For example, instead of performing 9 pushups in a row, the athlete would break the reps up into sets of 4-3-2. They still get a score of 9 for that round, but the short rests may allow them to have consistent output over more rounds. It’s a conservative approach, but it may give you a better score in the end because you never quite develop localized muscular fatigue, or your energy systems don’t get overly taxed.
2. Go out hard and try and hang on. The only way to get a really big score is to push your pace and try and match it over the remaining intervals for each exercise. It’s a risky gamble with a huge reward. The downside is it will hurt. A lot. And you may end up scoring lower than you would want or expect to simply because you can’t complete anymore reps in the later rounds.
To answer the question of “what is the better approach”, the answer is, of course, BOTH.
But I would argue that until you try the second approach, the first approach will never bring out your absolute best.
Coach Glassman once said that “we fail at the margins of our experiences.” When taken into the context of “approach”, I will always encourage my athletes to push their pace and get our of their comfort zones. Most people don’t know what they are capable of because they are simply unwilling to explore the true depths of their capacity. It shouldn’t take a life-or-death situation to bring out the physical best in people. In fact, without challenging, physical experiences in a controlled setting like a workout, you MAY not BE your best in those life-or-death scenarios.
Let’s look at the first approach in the example above. “Pacing” is a proven way to conserve energy for continuous output. The old saying, “slow and steady wins the race” comes to mind. Is it likely that the individual will put up a good score? Certainly. Will it be their BEST possible score? I am inclined to say no, unless the athlete KNOWS their limits and decides to pace so they do not reach failure, but that individual knowledge comes from the experience of flirting with disaster (or actually reaching failure).
In the second approach, pacing is thrown out the window. It’s basically sprint and survive. Steve Prefontaine famously stated that “the best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.” Now I do not, in any way, condone his choice of wording, but I can understand the point he is trying to make. To perform at your absolute best, you need to be willing to sacrifice yourself.…within reason of course, as we are talking about the gym, not the Olympics.
How will you ever know what you are capable of in a workout if you don’t go for broke? You will likely surprise yourself. And seriously, if you happen to fail in round 6, so what. It’s how you learn your limits. You need to train with an approach that allows you to experience the places beyond your perceived boundaries. Only from that experience can you truly know your limits, and be able to “pace” appropriately.
When you allow yourself to let go of comfort, and let go of expectation, you start to reveal your true potential. That is when real progress begins. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Extend the margins of your experiences.
The vast majority of beginners are limited in their ability to “push the pace”. It is a combination of a lack of movement understanding, motor control, experience, and psychological tolerance. It is important for these athletes to become well-versed in their training vocabulary and build some capacity before really testing themselves. Their use of pacing won’t necessarily be a pre-planned strategy or a mid-workout tactic. Pacing for the beginner is the result of the individual’s focus on technique and working hard to maintain recently learned positions under slight fatigue. It’s also the result of limited cardiovascular/respiratory capacity and stamina, where early “rests” and broken sets are the only option…and the safest.
As a coach, it is important to have a discussion with new athletes so they understand why focusing on movement is more important at this point than moving fast. We don’t need new athletes to PUSH hard and forgo basic technique because for them, moving well and breathing harder will be stimulus enough to see quick improvement. Most of their efficiency will come from nervous system adaptation as movement patterns are developed. We can simultaneously build energy systems up with Assault Bike intervals, rowing and running practice, and jumping rope.
For the experienced fitness athlete, however, some more specific approaches need to be considered to see continued improvement in fitness.
The majority of experienced exercisers have enough data/results (whether it be from strength training or benchmark workouts) that they can plan their approach for any given workout that comes up. Here’s an example of a classic one:
Complete as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of:
15 air squats
When an individual has completed this particular workout on several occasions, they have an immediate “goal” to try and set a personal best. If they completed 15 rounds 3 months ago, they may aim to complete 16 or more next time.
Planning Your Strategy
To take things even further, if an athlete has a deeper understanding of how their body will react to the specific movement requirements and time domain, then they can decide on a particular strategy or approach to maximize their output. Personally, for this particular workout, I know my push-ups will begin to fail earlier than I would like, so I need to consider breaking up the sets before I hit failure.
Before starting, I would try and map out how fast I would need to go to hit a certain number of rounds. I would use my warm-up to determine how quickly a round could be unbroken, then try a full round with broken push-up sets (like 6 and 4, or 5 and 5). The warm-up is your best chance to implement, adjust, and decide on a pacing strategy. Once I have an idea about timing, I’ll take a break and get mentally prepared. To achieve a score of 20 rounds, I would need to complete one full round every minute. If I want to push for 22 rounds, my plan would be to finish 4 full rounds, completely unbroken, in the first two minutes, then slow to a 1 round/minute pace until I finished. More than likely, I would stay unbroken on the pull-ups, split the push-ups up with minimal rest, and be steady and unbroken on the squats. My push-ups would remain in unbroken sets of 10 until I started to notice the 8, 9, and reps getting more difficult. At that point, I’d likely split into 6-4 sets, or even 4-3-3. The key would be to maintain the pace based on the clock, as a round per minute is the goal. That may mean going faster on the squats to make up for push-up breaks, not stopping for chalk, or minimizing movement transition times.
Even the best strategies don’t go as planned. Even though you started out feeling good and maintaining your pace, sometimes you start to feel tired or certain movements fatigue quicker than expected. At this point, being able to assess your current situation and make adjustments as you go becomes critical to your success.
Maybe your hand rips during pull-ups. Or perhaps you are still tired from heavy squats two days ago and the high volume air squats are proving more difficult than expected. Regardless of the reason, you need to change your strategy mid-workout. A lot of athletes will break their sets into smaller clusters (for example, the 10 push-ups could become 4-3-3, or 5-3-2, or even 3-2-2-1-1-1). In some cases, well-timed singles can be quicker than hitting failure and needing a longer recovery time between reps. A good coach will see an athlete struggling and help them set a manageable pace. Sometimes an athlete needs a simple reminder to “breathe” to help them get out of panic mode and re-focus.
Understand the Limits of Your Skills
Experience does not necessarily equal competence. Even the most seasoned athletes need to continually refine their skills by focusing on the basics. Further, they need to regularly identify and develop their weaknesses, as there will be certain workouts and movement combinations that present a real challenge. Consider the following workout:
21-15-9 rep rounds for time of:
The workout in question should be completed rather quickly. If the loading and standards are appropriate, your best athletes will rip through this workout taking little or no breaks in each movement. Rest comes during transitions only.
Let’s assume our hypothetical athlete can complete the deadlifts unbroken (or with minimal rest)., but finds high rep gymnastics work challenging. They can complete a full handstand push-up with good technique, but may not have the capacity to complete higher rep sets. What should be their approach? As a coach, what should you be considering? Is it okay to let an athlete take a chance and attempt the workout as prescribed? Sometimes, an athlete has to experience failure to inform their future training strategies. I am okay if an athlete chooses to try a workout like this, even if its a grind. They will learn from it. As long as they are capable movers, all that will get hurt is their ego.
An athlete’s weaknesses are often exposed and challenged, and those experiences should be what drives the athlete to improve. Failure should be considered a challenge to get better. If you are someone who struggles with pull-ups, then you need to be working on increasing your pull-ups or improving your technique. If you have difficulty on the rower, a well-structured row-specific program should be utilized in your training. Maybe you just need to get stronger. Keep attacking the heavy days! Regardless of your specific weaknesses, work at them.
Knowledge is Key
In Fitness, there are too many movements, workout combinations, time domains, loading percentages, and variations to simply try and remember your personal bests, let alone your individual strategies and results. If an athlete is truly interested in improving themselves, they need to keep a detailed training journal.
A athlete’s journal needs to go beyond workout descriptions and results, sets, and reps. It needs to also be an account of the entire day’s training, strategies, adjustments, and outcomes. Make sure you note your failure points, round times, feelings, ideas for next time, etc. I would go so far as to suggest writing down food intake and meal timing, hours of sleep, and training times. All of that qualitative data can really help an athlete take their performance to the next level. You may realize that on the days you struggle it is directly related to what time you went to sleep the night before. You may notice that you perform better when you eat a small carbohydrate-dense meal an hour before conditioning-focused training. You might even begin uncover things about your lifestyle that are negatively impacting your mood, motivation, and ultimately, your output in the gym.