Science is observational, and as such – the task is to try to interpret the essence of a thing. What we learn from observation then needs to be communicated – this may happen via scientific journalism, or it may trickle down through various levels of social media and rumour.
Much of modern gym training comes watered down from bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other sports. Sometimes also from studies, from research in the field of sports science.
But there is much that occurs in the lab, in experiments, and in sports that cannot be easily measured or clearly communicated.
The essence of training and development, I think, cannot easily be captured through the language of sets and reps.
I’ve been watching a range of clips featuring various bodybuilders and strength athletes recently, and their anecdotal reports align with my own experiences: you can track weights and reps, but if you become too fixated on the numbers, it detracts from the essence of the training experience. The training experience itself – often it is based more simply on that: the experience. The sensation in your body, in your muscles, which dictates what you do and how you exert yourself, and then you look back, and you can see the numbers as they are revealed in your records.
It is easy to argue about the details, the number of sets and reps, concepts such as intensity or loading, duration and volume, and we use these stats to help us emulate the training methods that worked for another individual or group of people, assuming of course that our objectives are aligned with theirs.
But to step back a bit, what we want to achieve is not to train in the same way as other people, but to be able to achieve the same results as the athletes we admire, or instead to be able to achieve the results that are unique to our own desires and needs. It is not that we want to practice the same methods, instead what we want is the results.
Probably it’s good to restate that I don’t believe in results above all else. I believe in developing a relationship with your body, in discovering new things, and not in training simply for the achievement of rigid or preconceived goals. But the fitness culture of which I have become a part, this modern culture is preoccupied with measurable change, rather than experienced relationships, so this is what I’m discussing today – training in the context of athletic progression, the measurable aspects of that progression, and the gap between what we can measure and what might really be of substance.
So in the end, what is the essence of the training experience? What key aspect, if any, determines success or progression? We can measure the numbers, but are the numbers what determine success, or are they simply the easiest part of the process to track?
I think in the end, the numbers don’t mean much. You can go to the gym, and bench press for five sets of eight reps, you can lift a weight that is 75% of your one rep max, and you can work at 60% of your cardiovascular capacity according to the graph on the treadmill.
But what experience have you had? When practicing your bench, did you feel any sensation in your muscles? Were the muscles you intended to work – were they actually stimulated? What about your perception? Your concentration? If you’re squatting because you want to build your strength, and you cannot effectively feel how you apply leverage, does it matter how many reps you practiced? How many sets?
Progressive overload is important for the development of strength, but that’s only possible if you are working the muscles in the way you want them to work. If you’re benching because you want to build your chest, and you cannot feel the contraction in the muscles, how can you overload them?
If you’re on the treadmill, what of your experience of the exercise? Did it feel productive? Can you feel obvious weaknesses, strengths, tendencies? Any pain? Significant or insignificant? When you run, do you feel free and dynamic, or obliged and resentful?
I suspect the following: one set practiced with awareness, where you can feel your own body moving with intention, regardless of the degree effort, is worth a hundred sets practiced absent-mindedly.
I think ultimately, athletes seek out the thing that feels productive, and then you look back and you try to discover what it is you can track, to try to reproduce the result, hence the preoccupation with numbers. Yet it’s very easy to mimic that, to do x numbers of blah, and think that you have captured the essence of the training – but it comes down to more than numbers in the end.
And my experience with programming these days – if someone is going to train by themselves, and they have little experience in weightlifting, I might give them a program and ask them to do a few sets of several reps of a range of exercises – but the numbers don’t matter. They only serve as guides. What I’m hoping will happen is more or less this: they’ll go to the gym, have an experience of training, and stimulate their body in some way. The thing that’s important is not that they hit the prescribed numbers – the numbers just give them structure, something to do – but that they spend time with their body, working on stuff, developing skills and having stimulating experiences.
So these days I will tell people not to think about the numbers too much, not even to worry about concepts such as intensity or effort, or getting sweaty, or staying at the gym for a given period of time – all these concepts, they skirt around the central issue. We try to pin a thing down that remains elusive. Especially for my new clients, the point I want to emphasise is usually this: don’t worry about the usual concepts we are told to value – the effort, the calories, the intensity or time spent in the gym, instead treat your training simply as practice, for that is what it is: come down, practice the movements until you are satisfied, then we’ll touch base again and you can tell me about your experiences. This is the way to progress. When we look back, we’ll be able to see what numbers you did, but the numbers won’t be the reason you had an experience, they won’t have captured the essence of your training. The numbers won’t reveal the feeling in your muscles, your body, your mind.
And if someone is training with me personally at the gym, the numbers start to matter even less. The sets don’t matter. The advantage to working with a personal trainer is that it’s personal. It’s kinda not about programming any more, it’s not about emulating what worked for somebody else and trying to make Arnold’s program work for Janine – we absolutely do use our knowledge to guide us, but with the knowledge that all people have differing needs and temperaments. Some things may apply well, and some may not. It’s not my job to make a person go through a standardized program they could practice by themselves, instead I can see if they’re working at an appropriate degree of intensity, if they’re developing skills, if they need to do more mobility work, or more strength work, or more cardiovascular conditioning, or less of any of the above, I can see if they need to stretch or take care of their tissues in some way, and then you try to address the thing that actually needs addressing. The numbers, the programming should help us move ever towards that point, the point that needs addressing, but it’s easy to mistake the programming for being that key point. But it’s not, it’s just the tool we use to move us in the right direction.
And often, people can perceive these things clearly for themselves, if they can gain a little distance, a little perspective, and separate themselves from their concept for programming. You know if you’re training hard, or if you’re training with fluidity, you know if it’s a good day for work or a bad day, and you know your own context. You know your own history. Other people do not share your experience of life, and will be capable of more or less, but that is irrelevant.
This is not easy to write about. But what is meaningful is not the way we track the experience, it’s the experience itself that has meaning. This is why we develop. It is very easy to miss out on the experience itself if all you consider are the sets and reps and percentages and minutes. Science doesn’t have to be about predicting the future – it’s not if you do this, then that will happen, instead it’s an observational method – we observed this in the past, when someone did this, that was the result. Then we hope to emulate that, to repeat that, at the gym. But what’s visible is often different to what has substance.
So when you go to the gym, use the numbers, the programming as a guide but remember it’s not the program that has substance, it’s you that has substance, it’s your experience that has meaning, and concentrating on that, paying attention to that, whatever it might be, that is what will help you to learn and develop. Three heavy reps are not superior to eight lighter reps, they’re just different. They reveal a method, but they may not dictate one.
And the reps scheme you employ now may not be better than the one you employed in the past, the old one may have been appropriate then, and a new one may be appropriate now. And one that did not work for you in the past may yet be useful in the future. You may have good days and bad days, and you may feel confused on days when you are not capable of hitting the numbers you know are within your capacity. And then what feels like a bad day might actually present an opportunity to train for proprioception, for awareness, for improved coordination and that may prepare you well for future good days. And when you look back, you may have recorded the numbers, and they may reveal certain things to you, certain key insights, but it will have been the experiences that you remember, and the accumulation of singular, unique experiences that led to your progress over time.
Numbers don’t guarantee much. There is no singular superior scheme, but having a program will give you something to do when you’re training, something to work at and then – it might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s the training itself that matters, the experience and the respectful and mature relationship you build with your own body over time. How do you itemise that? Last Friday I did seven sets of chest press, each set with anywhere from four to eleven reps. But that does not capture the essence of my training.