Monday, October 9, 2017

Consistency Vs. Change: Cycling and Chaos for Comprehensive Adaptation

The best workout is the one you're not doing.

Someone who chases two rabbits at once catches neither.

Programming - which just means how you design your training over time - is one of the most interesting and least talked about aspects of martial arts training.

I have never seen a traditional martial arts school that implemented any formal programming. People who compete in professional sports, especially ones with big peaking requirements (like professional fighting or Olympic sports, where you have to be awesome for a brief period of time) have training programs where they work on specific qualities at different times of  the year - maybe a a few weeks to work endurance, then a few weeks to specialize in strength, a few weeks in power, a few weeks in skill, etc. I've never seen a karate dojo where there are blocks like that - building aerobic endurance for 6 weeks, then 6 weeks of alactic training, then 6 weeks of hypertrophy, 6 weeks of power development, with deloads in between.

There are good business reasons not to structure karate classes like that, including the fact that it would seem weird, and you'd have to spend a lot of time explaining it to people. However, it's probably a good idea to have this kind of structured programming for yourself, so your out-of-class workouts are focused on building different physical qualities at different times.


Martial arts ability depends on many different physical qualities - strength, endurance, power, flexibility, balance - in addition to skill. If YOU want to get better at martial arts, you should become more skilled (skill is just a catchall phrase for your nervous system - your brain is better at making the right muscles fire at the right time with the right force to execute the right move), but you should ALSO add some muscle, get stronger, increase your aerobic capacity, increase your alactic anaerobic capacity, increase lactic capacity, increase power, increase rate of force development, and lose bodyfat. Obviously not EVERY reader will need or benefit from an increase in every single one of these qualities - maybe you are already as lean as you should be, or as muscular, or as aerobically fit, and for you, increasing that particular quality won't translate into an improvement in martial arts ability, but EVERY reader could benefit from increasing some of them (no person is so strong, aerobically and anaerobically fit, muscular, lean, and flexible that there is no point in improving ANY of those qualities).

Great, you're probably thinking. That sounds like a lot of work.

And it is!

Maybe at this point you're trying to figure out how to cram your week full of workouts that will build all of those qualities optimally. And that's a wonderful idea, except it won't work.

Your body simply can't do all of these things at once. Unless you're an absolute beginner (if you're completely untrained, you can probably improve all of these things at the same time, because beginners are lucky like that) you can't build muscle and endurance simultaneously. You can kind of train for all of these qualities all of the time, and you will improve, but you'll improve faster if you focus on each of them for short periods of time.

I don't mean you should take 3 months off from karate and just lift heavy weights. I do mean that your training should place extra emphasis on one or two qualities, hit those qualities extra hard, and then switch what quality you focus on after 4-12 weeks.

There are better and worse ways to organize these cycles of training, and if you're a professional athlete you should pursue that more carefully. But if you're a martial arts hobbyist, it's not critical. Focus on some physical quality for a while. When you get bored, or stop seeing progress, switch! You really don't have to make it more complicated than that.

So for example:

Suppose you take 2 martial arts classes a week, and train on your own for a solid hour on 2 other days, and maybe have 2, 15 minute blocks of time a week to do easy stuff.

Here's what you do:

1. The classes, I presume, you don't control. You'll do whatever your instructor tells you to.
2. In your 2 hourlong workouts, pick a quality. Say you decide to build some muscle. For those workouts, lift heavy weights, for 5-8 reps per set, with big multijoint movements (squat, deadlift, overhead press, row, chinup/pulldowns, bench press, maybe some curls and tricep pushdowns for the guns). Or, say you decide to build up your aerobic system. Do an hour on the elliptical trainer, with your heart rate at a constant rate between 130 and 150 bpm, or do some running, or do HIIT, whatever. Or say you decide to build up your power. Do medicine ball throws, sprints, depth jumps, and so forth.
3. In the 15 minute blocks, do some mobility work (stretching). Stretching is always good - not necessarily right before your workout, but stretching on your off days will not, as far as I know, interfere with progress in any other physical quality. If you are in a muscle building  phase, maybe do 10 minutes of intervals to keep your heart going. If you are in an endurance phase, use those 15 minutes to do a  little heavy lifting (one arm pushups and single leg squats, for 5 sets, will give you a whole body strength workout in 10 minutes).
4. When you get bored, or stop getting better at whatever you're working in your 'phase,' switch!

Now the fear people have is that the qualities they build up during the 'phase' are lost when you switch to a new phase. To a certain extent, that is true: after a muscle building phase, if you do 6 weeks of intervals you might lose some muscle. But you're not doing NO strength training - you'll do a little during those 15 minute workouts, and some during the martial arts classes. So you'll likely retain a lot of the muscle you've built, even if you don't keep adding more.

The same is true of endurance. If you increase your aerobic fitness, then move on to specialize in other qualities, you're still working the aerobic system in class and while doing your other workouts. So it's not like running two hours a week, then sitting on the couch for 6 weeks.

Imagine the simplest breakdown: you need to develop 2 incompatible qualities (how many qualities there are, and how specific we get in our blocks, will vary depending on how detailed you want to be) - let's stay super simple and just say strength and endurance (strength can be broken down into several different types, as can endurance, but we don't have to). Spend 6 weeks really focusing on strength, but doing just enough endurance work that you don't lose any, or much, of your aerobic conditioning.  Then switch, and for 6 weeks hit the aerobic work hard and do just enough strength work to hold onto your strength gains. And remember that that just enough work is very likely to be getting done in your formal classes, so you might not need to devote any extra time to that.

Rinse and repeat. Depending on your stress levels and how close you are to overtraining, take a deload week (maybe skip the extra 2 independent workouts) in between phases.

If 6 weeks seems too long, and you get bored, do 4 weeks. If you're still making gains at 6 weeks, and want to push it harder, go for 8.

There are a couple of big advantages to this style of training:

  • You'll make better long term gains doing this than trying to work every quality at once.
  • You will likely be motivated to tackle each new phase. Every six weeks you're getting a whole new set of goals, and making rapid progress. And a whole new set of workouts.
  • By rotating movements and exercises you're less likely to get repetitive motion injuries. Doing the same movements for high reps day in and day out for years is hard on your  joints.
You can plan these shifts or just switch your focus whenever you get bored or stale or feel like a change. It's your training!

One last point: if you have a promotion or a big competition, you might want to plan your training around that. Make sure you have a deload week coming into the competition (ease off just before the promotion or the competition). Depending on your personal strengths and weaknesses, and the way promotions are handled in your style, you might want to be sure to hit that promotion right at the tail end of an endurance phase, for example. 

If you'd like, let me know how your training is going in comments.