Recently, I came across an interesting quote by Dan John. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dan John, he is well known in the fitness industry for his matter-of-fact approach to fitness and movement and his ability to teach complex concepts in a way that is easy to understand and digest. When he speaks, I listen. You can learn more about him at danjohn.net.
What he said that caught my attention is this:
“It’s not really the exercises or the training methods that cause the most injuries, it’s the attempt to chase too many qualities, which are those things like strength, endurance, power, speed, agility, mobility, flexibility, and on and on.”
When I put my strength coach hat on and think through this statement, I think it makes a lot of sense. I am the guy who tends to write super complex strength and conditioning programs in an effort to make the most well rounded athletes on the face of the Earth. The goal is noble, but the reality is, it just isn’t that practical, nor is it scientific.
The body really only likes to do 1 or 2 things at once. Meaning, if you are trying to develop maximum strength, going for a 4 mile run is going to be counter productive. Not only does it hinder performance, as Dan John says, it can expose you to increased injuries.
Most of us have limited training time, so we work hard to cover all of our bases in a limited amount of time. The problem is that when you do this, you don’t ever master any specific aspect of athletic movement. You never get strong enough to stay in optimal positions. You don’t optimize power. You can’t spend enough time learning to accept load appropriately. Corrective exercises never have enough time to be perfected. And so on…
From an injury risk perspective, chasing a lot of qualities at once doesn’t allow you to perfect any athletic qualities well enough to prevent injury.
Chasing qualities also leads to fatigue both metabolically and neurologically. We know that fatigue increases injury risk. When you try to train strength, power, stability, mobility, endurance, etc all at once, it is easy to fatigue the nervous system and loss of control will ensue. When neurological control is lost, catastrophic results will occur.
Chasing a lot of qualities is definitely a a problem when it comes to performance. Training speed, power, endurance, strength, stability, mobility and motor control at the same time just doesn’t work. We have to remember that performance training is basically a simple form of evolution. When you give the body stimulus, it will react and give you an adaptation. If you give it the right stimulus, you will get the adaptation that you want. If you give it the wrong stimulus, you’ll get something you don’t want. Giving the body tons of stimulus will result in a confused and overloaded nervous system. An overloaded nervous system tends to shut down.
We use this quality to our advantage for mobility training when someone is tight and hyper stimulated. Because mobility is largely a nervous system response, when we overload it with exercise, IASTM, or other stimulus, it shuts down and ultimately mobility improves as tone decreases. This might be great for improving mobility, but it is bad for other areas of performance training.
The other issue that arises over time with chasing a lot of qualities is neurological fatigue. I recall years ago hearing Mike Boyle speak about this and it really made me rethink my programming. If you train college or older athletes who have trained for a number of years, you almost always see a plateau in their performance in years 3 and 4. Some people theorize that this is due to the fact that they are beginning to bump up against their genetic potential. The problem with that theory is that oftentimes when you change their training stimulus, they improve again.
The reason they plateau is likely due to neurological fatigue and not due to a lack of potential. When we strip down their training to less neurologically demanding and feed the system in a simpler way, we see improvements in well trained athletes. Thus, you are better served to not create the neurological fatigue to start with. Keeping training stimulus more focused and not trying to be all things to all people will help prevent neurological fatigue.
What’s the Solution?
I’m going to do my best to give you some great strategies to solve this issue. But, as I said before, this is a constant struggle for me and my programming. I want to see my athletes, patients and clients doing everything possible to be a very well rounded in everything that they do. But, I have also seen too many times that when I try to do too many things, it ends up hurting my athletes.
What I have learned over the years is there are 3 easy strategies that seem to work well to help keep me from chasing too many qualities:
- Stay focused. This can mean a lot of things. It means picking a primary and secondary goal for each training block and even each workout. Each large block (usually 4-6 weeks in length) should have a major goal or focus. Most, if not all of the training programs within that block should be aimed at achieving that goal. Within the block, you can integrate a secondary goal or two to make sure that you are creating a well rounded athlete. But, the major focus is always on the higher goal. The same is true of each workout. You may, for example, perform a different set and rep scheme for some accessory or secondary lifts or movement, but the main goal of that workout should be established early and always keep your eyes on that prize.
- Split workouts. When the need arises to focus on several different goals (often the case as offseason training gets compressed more and more), split up your workouts to focus on different goals on different days or times. For example, if you need to work on power, strength, and endurance with the same athlete, don’t try to do all 3 of those things in the same workout. Split them up into 3 different workouts in the same week. Or, you can even split them up and perform a couple of workouts in the same day, separated by several hours of recovery to maximize the nervous system response.
- Facilitate recovery. As I said early in this post, as much as I would like to say that I’m able to do a lot of these things, oftentimes it just isn’t practical or possible given all of the restraints that both myself and my athletes/patients are under. Sometimes we have to try to do all things with all of our athletes. I actually think that this happens less than people like to admit because most of our patients just need basic movement and strength fundamentals more than anything, but there are instances where I need to try to develop a lot of areas at once. In that situation, split the workouts up as much as you can and then help them recover. Keep volume to a minimal effective dose and do everything possible to help their body recover.
Overall, whether you’re in a rehab, performance, or fitness setting, trying to do too many things at once is a common pitfall that most of us fall into at some point in our career. Recognize it and minimize it for the benefit of those who we work with.