Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Tendency to Over-Complicate

I am guilty of many sins, most of them irrelevant to this blog.  One that is relevant, however, is my tendency to over-complicate things.

I've been reading Mel Siff's classic book Supertraining.  It's a fantastic book, written like a textbook for a post-graduate course in exercise physiology.  It's not the book you give your mom when she wants to lose a few pounds - it's the book you give a strength coach when he wants to compare the physiological adaptions to various exercise programs of elite athletes.  It's full of graphs, technical jargon, and actual math.  Yes, I said it, math.

If you go through the book you'll find countless examples of studies that examine the results of training, done by advanced athletes, and refined to an amazing degree.  What I mean is there's nothing about how to get stronger - but there's a ton on how to increase a very specific aspect of strength, like maximal force output at a particular speed of motion and through a particular joint angle range.

If there's one take-home point to the book (and there are thousands, but I can't remember them all) it's specificity of adaption.  For example, getting very strong at moving a big weight slowly doesn't transfer to creating more force when moving quickly.  Developing long distance endurance doesn't transfer to maximal effort.  You get the idea.

The problem with reading the book this way - and the problem is with the reader trying to get a "take home point" out of a very dense informative text, not with anything Siff actually says - is that it's easy to forget that the research Siff is working with is primarily done with advanced athletes seeking to maximize performance.  It's exactly opposite to the problem with American research, which is primarily done on untrained college students.  Let me explain.

If you take an Olympic sprinter who can squat 400 lbs. and raise their squat to 450 you will very likely not make them any faster a runner.  The squat is too slow - what you need to do is increase their ability to put force into the ground in the incredibly brief contact period of a foot striking the ground during a sprint.  If all that required was a bigger squat then the best pound for pound squatters in the world would be the best sprinters in the world, and that's not true.  Squatting is not specific enough to sprinting.  So we learn that, recognize the truth in it, and take home the idea that squatting won't improve our sprint speed.  And maybe if we want to get faster we do lots of cool stuff but leave squatting heavy out of our routine.

But if you take a 40 year old sedentary person who can't even do a full body weight squat, get them into the gym, and get their squat up to 200 lbs., their sprint speed will probably increase dramatically.  Why?  Because a sedentary person's lack of basic strength is a huge limiting factor in their quest to build up running speed.  Increase that squat to 300 lbs and you'll get an improvement, but not as much.  Get that to 400 lbs and you might not see any further increases to speed at all.

If you want to punch harder and can't do a pushup then building up the strength to do 10 strict pushups will make you a better puncher.  Building up to doing 100 pushups - not so much.  Developing a solid one arm pushup will help also - but maybe not as much as getting good at clapping pushups (which, since they require faster movements, are close to punching in the adaptions they force).

It's easy to read through Supertraining or other higher level works on strength and think that we need to so very complex sports specific exercises to get better - that we need very advanced training with bands, Kaiser air driven resistance machines, and fancy routines to improve.  And we might be right - if we're elite athletes.  Except we're not.  For most of us (and I'm definitely including me), we just need to get stronger, more flexible, and more fit.  Most of us can improve our karate with fairly basic routines that focus on pushups, squats of some kind, chinups or rows, and a handful of plank varieties.  Heck, most of us can get better doing crunches, as long as our backs are in good shape. 

The danger is that getting too hung up on the sports specific mantra can paralyze us.  We can give up on too much - avoiding strength training out of fear that it will slow us down, waiting to develop the most advanced workout possible before doing anything.  And most of us don't need the most advanced workout - we just need a workout. 

So keep learning and keep refining your routines to make them more applicable to karate - to improve your performance in karate and to make you resistant to the injuries incurred during karate.  But while you're figuring out what that routine should look like do something to get stronger, more flexible, and more fit.  It will most likely help more than it will hurt!

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