The SAT: Seemingly Arbitrary Test
by Steven M. Ledbetter
4 minute read
Everyone wants to get from Point A to Point B. But one of the great problems on the journey towards health and/or fitness is knowing if you’re making progress. How does a sprinter know he is improving? He runs faster on race day. But between races, he might have no idea where he is on his journey. How does a casual exerciser know if she is improving? There’s no race day for her, but every day she looks at herself and sees fat, soft, weak, lazy, out of shape, etc. Dan John says athletes know Point B really well (the Olympics, the Super Bowl, etc.) but have no idea where Point A is (I need to be working on my squat). Most regular people have no idea where they want to go with their body (Point B) but sure as hell know they aren’t happy with it at the moment (Point A). Both of these people are lost, albeit for different reasons and it’s my job to help both of these types of client on their journey. But the danger that faces both of these clients is becoming a Runaway Trainee.
Some people who know only Point B and some people who know only Point A run the risk of treating every training session as a test of their improvement. They don’t know where they are or where they want to go, but dammit, they are going to get there first! A lot of trainers reward this die-hard mentality because they think it makes their job easier. Some gyms even select for it and shame those who don’t have it. But a Runaway Trainee needs just as much coaching as an unmotivated trainee because as Rif will tell you, “consistency trumps intensity.” 200 easy workouts plus a handful of well-timed hard workouts are always better than 10-20 random balls-to-the-wall workouts plus an injury. Everything the human body learns, it learns slowly. And frankly, with all due respect to Mr. Ferriss, you can’t hack mastery. But as a coach, I can help keep you motivated to stay on the path to mastery with a simple tool I call the SAT: “Seemingly Arbitrary Test.”
Most of the year, training should be pretty easy because there is rarely a time when training is going to be the highest priority in a client’s life. But simple, daily programs like Easy Strength, Easy Fat Loss, the 40-Day program, and even Feigned Retreat are not “maintenance programs.” They are slow cooking. You will get stronger; you will get leaner; you will get hotter; you will improve. The issue for the Runaway Trainee is that they can’t see the improvement in the training sessions. “2 sets of 5 at 70-80%? Where’s the kicker? Don’t I need to do an AMRAP?” The key is to separate training from testing, and testing from performance.
For an athlete, performance is on the field on game day. Training and testing should both improve performance. But if you take a sprinter out to run a 100m for time the week before a meet, she is either going to do well and be cooked or do poorly and lose confidence. One elite sprint coach’s solution? He has a spreadsheet with times in really odd distances that he has shown usually correlate to improvement in races. No sprinter knows what a fast 67m time is. But this coach can test without freaking out or wearing out his athletes. And if the athlete needs a confidence boost, the coach can tell them how they are improving by showing them the spreadsheet. Dan John tests football players in the weightroom with “The Eagle.” To make the Big Blue Club, you need to farmer carry two 24kg kettlebells between 8 sets of 8 double kettlebell front squats. It’s not a workout; it’s a test. You pass? You make Big Blue, think you’re stronger than Thor, and crush your opponents on the field. You fail? The test is so seemingly arbitrary that the athlete’s performance will unlikely be affected on game day and he has a new goal in the weightroom. Win-Win. The coach knows Point A, and the athlete can stay focused on Point B.
For the casual exerciser, performance is usually when a co-worker she hates comments on how good she looks. Training and testing should both boost confidence (which is what people notice more than hotness). But just like sprinters think they know how fast they need to run 100m, people think they know what the number on the scale or tape should be and they think they know what the pictures should look like (sadly, they actually don’t thanks to years of brainwashing from magazine covers). Another solution? Seemingly arbitrary tests of strength or stamina. My friends Antonio and Annie have “Strength Day” at their gym every 6 weeks. Their clients show up with friends and family and they all perform tests of pull ups, snatches, swings, etc. and track their improvement. Then they eat meat and kale. The atmosphere is light, the work is hard, and the confidence boost is absolute. Most importantly, this set up allows Antonio and Annie to tweak the training sessions lighter or harder based on the immediate needs of the client without them freaking out because they aren’t “seeing results.” In the absence of Point B, Antonio and Annie have given them Point A+.