Learning the Ish
by Steven M. Ledbetter
5 minute read
My clients ask me a lot of questions. In my quest to be a super-helpful coach, I like to give them the simplest, truest answers to those questions. Here is a common exchange: Edna: “How many should I do?”
Me: “How many do you think you should do?”
Edna: “You’re the coach.”
Me: “Well, let’s start with 5ish.”
Edna: “You mean five?”
Me: “yeah, ish. It might be more; it might be less.”
Edna: “Then say ‘five.’”
Me: “It might not be five.”
Edna: “Then how many should I do?”
Me: “More than not enough, but less than too much.”
Edna: [blank, angry stare]
Obviously, I’m still trying to get better at this conversation. The problem with this exchange is a fundamental disconnect. Between me and Edna, sure, but more importantly between Edna and her body. In order to meet her fitness goals, Edna wants to get stronger. Getting stronger means learning to use your body to develop more torque from stable positions in order to generate movement. She is coming to a coach to help her learn how to get into those positions, generate the movement, and train her body to develop more torque. But I am just the teacher. I cannot literally place her into those positions then perform the movements for her. I can demonstrate, I can cue, and I can encourage, but Edna has to learn how to develop the torque herself. It’s her body. Only she can make it stronger and even if she doesn’t know it yet, only she knows what that is going to take. Just as we all wish our math teachers could have taken our tests for us, Edna wants me to tell her the answer to the question “how much?” But my goal as a coach is for her to learn how to ask her body that question instead of me. In our conversation, Edna was preoccupied with the “five,” but I wanted her to focus on the “ish” In the world of fitness nerds, the skill of learning the “ish” is called “Autoregulation.”
Yikes! But What About Science?!
DeLorme and Watkins were the first kinesiology scientists to study sets and reps in 1950 and all the recommendations since has been derivative of their work. How did they come to their recommended numbers? “The number of contractions per bout is arbitrarily set at ten” (DeLorme & Watkins, 1950, p. 11). They just guessed and then set about testing to see if people would get stronger. And they did (on average) for about six weeks. In fact, people (on average) got stronger with just about every set and rep scheme that DeLorme and Watkins tested… for about six weeks. Most programming is just athletes and coaches going back over training journals and reverse engineering what they think worked. The most famous programs in the world that have worked for the most people are still just averages. And just because something is true for a population doesn’t mean it is true in every context, at every time, and in every situation. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that it was true for every (or even any) individual within that population. This is referred to by logic nerds as the “Ecological Fallacy.”
Autoregulation is simply doing as much as you think you need to that day. And it scares a lot of people, even after Mann et al. (2010) showed that it works better (on average) than being told what to do by a sheet of paper. But autoregulation is a skill that one needs to learn, which can scare even more people. The biggest pushback I get is, “How will I know if I’m doing enough?” It always amuses me that no one ever asks, “How will I know if I’m doing too much?”
Autoregulation is like learning any skill: you start out thinking about it a lot until it just becomes habit. I have long told my athletes what Dan John told me: “Always leave a rep or two in the tank.” Two other coaches that take different approaches to creating this habit are Diane Fu of FuBarbell and San Francisco CrossFit and Dave Dellanave of The Movement Minneapolis.
Diane is an Olympic weightlifting coach, where bar speed matters more than almost anything. She tells her athletes to stop when things slow down or as she says, “when things get grindy.” She teaches this by asking the athlete how many reps they think they have a certain weight before their form suffers, then intervening with a gentle, “I think you’re done” when their form actually does suffer. She does this every day, for as long as it takes until the athlete can perform their own accurate assessment of when “done” is.
Dave teaches autoregualtion through a system he and the founders call, “The Movement.” It uses biofeedback, thorough record-keeping, and good old-fashioned common sense. Dave teaches every one of his athletes to “ask their body” what they should do with simple tests like the toe-touch. This works like an objective, repeatable, predictable test that an athlete can can use to learn autoregulation from their body, rather than blindly guessing. I have been using biofeedback for 6 weeks, and can vouch for the voodoo-like effect it has for telling me what I pretty much should have already known: when in doubt, stop.
Looking at these two approaches, a big commonality is that learning intuition takes very unintuitive behavior. You have to reflect, assess, record, predict, test, and be honest about your results. In Zen parlance, you have to be prepared to chop a lot of wood and carry a lot of water before you learn to chop wood and carry water. If autoregulation seems like a lot of work to learn, remember that it is one skill among many that is required for a lifetime of training. As DeLorme and Watkins showed, everything works for about six weeks. So what happens in week seven? You’re just going to have to ask your body to find out.