Stagnation: Too Much of a Good (?) Thing
Martial arts are often marketed and practiced as if they are a finished product with set training and methods. The entrenchment of this idea varies from circle to circle, but it is quite common. It’s very appealing to both new students and long-term students alike. Predictability and stability are things that we tend to gravitate towards in our choices of recreational activities, as can be seen by the guy who goes to the gym and does the exact same workout every visit, or the karate sensei who plans each class to be a further exposition on the basic techniques that the last year’s worth of classes were based on. Stagnation of training activities can take the form of:
- repetition of specific skill-based activities: techniques or drills, especially elementary techniques
- repetition of physical conditioning exercises past the point of useful adaptation
For new students the appeal of a set training format is very strong, as it minimizes the new material that they have to learn on a given night, which reduces anxieties and confusion in front of more experienced students. A handful of things can be learned, whether that be a drill, technique or conditioning exercise, and then repeated reliably in each successive class. This is a comfortable routine, and if it is tied to claims of efficacy or magical thinking, the new student may place an inflated value on whatever he or she has done the most, regardless of ability.
For the long term student, stagnation may be appealing due to one of two factors:
- the activities of training are part of what “sold” the student on the particular school or style, and he or she has invested a lot of time into believing these ideas, and probably attributes improvement in some other area of their life to it
- routine is simply more comfortable than being challenged by new material, especially if the material is something that the student might not be good at, or will have to develop into being good at.
And for instructors the appeal of a canned routine is great. Most of us are not professional or full-time instructors in our given art or sport. Jobs, family and personal needs all place demands on our time, and I am sure I’m not alone in admitting that when it comes to planning a class, sometimes it’s just easier to trot out a familiar routine or stick to the things that I tend to like/be good at. This is something to avoid. Even well-meaning instructors may:
- Continue to repeat the same training content because it represents the sum total of their knowledge of either the goals of training, the methods of training, or sound physical training knowledge
- Repeat the same content due to an organization’s demands, which do not necessarily have anything more to do with training needs than preserving power structures and a marketed image, especially in recreationally-oriented dojos
Both can lead to a variety of issues, such as :
- degradation of movement quality
- skill development plateau or degradation
- chronic injuries
- acute injuries
- over-training syndrome
- boredom and eventual disinterest in training
- inflated value placed upon elementary or contraindicated training methods, by both students and instructors
- confusion as to the practical goals of the school and of training
- a lower level of ability than the instructor may lead students to believe that they have developed, or that the student has developed from their success at a limited range of activities
As with many other things, too much of a good thing can lead to problems. In the same way that weight training can become counter-productive or injurious if the same exercises, weights, intensities and frequencies remain unchanged for weeks or months, all other realms of training can become counter-productive if the demands of the training stay the same. As a rule of thumb, the body takes 4-6 weeks to adapt to specific demands (adaptation). Learning new skills or reacquiring them after long disuse requires sleep and recovery as well as training. The body will only adapt to what we demand of it (SAID- Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), and by changing things up in a measured progression we can make the most of both principles while avoiding overload and injuries. The elements that we might change from class to class or training phase to phase are known as acute variables. For our purposes, the following discussion of these variables will be expanded some to reflect the challenges of both skill-based training and physical conditioning for a fighting art or sport. All may be varied individually, or in combination for more dynamic training. For example, resistance may change in step with balance and stability as a student alters the demands of lifting the same weight by lifting it in a less stable condition, and eventually begins to throw a partner in free conditions in an analogous manner.
Sets– how many bouts of the training activity are being performed. This is closely related to intensity and repetitions, especially for anaerobic-intensive activities like Randori, wrestling, and striking over a timed duration. The number of sets of an activity or exercise should be proportional to both the intensity and repetitions planned for an activity or exercise.
Repetitions– how many times the activity is performed per set. This varies according to what specific adaptations are being trained for. Again, this is specific to what you want the body to adapt to. Excessive repetitions of a speed and power activity will decrease your ability to produce the same quality of movement and force by the last rep. Too few repetitions of a strength endurance activity will not elicit that adaptation. Punching until the students’ arms are rubbery and or sliding off of the pad promotes degraded movement patterns, in turn reinforcing a less efficient technique or skill performance.
Tempo– the speed at which an activity, or phases of an activity are performed. Some adaptations respond best to slower tempos (isometric or eccentric loading) while others require faster tempos (reactivity/power). Some skill-based activities need to be introduced at lower tempos, while others might need to be quicker.
Intensity– how close performance of a training activity is to your maximal effort in that activity, and how much recovery time is given between each repetition or set. This might be related to speed, strength or the ability to maintain high levels of coordination. Starting out training with maximal “endurance march” sets of push ups or the like degrades a student’s performance later in class, degrading learning. Intense levels of performance that are appropriate for advanced students, especially in potentially risky activities, are not appropriate for beginners or students who are new to a skill or activity. Don’t make this a character or “spirit” issue.
Volume– how much of a training activity are you doing, how many times a class or days per week? How many different activities target the same skill set or muscle groups? Give heavily targeted skill areas a break to avoid pattern overload and injury, provide intervals of complementary training for opposing muscular groups.
Frequency– how often is a training activity being performed? Every class, once per week, once per month? Space things out or cluster them according to the goals of a specific training need but avoid overloading. When in doubt, err on the side of recovery as opposed to overload.
Duration– how long does a training activity, session or phase last? Are you over-doing any one training activity? The body takes 4-6 weeks to adapt to a demand, and the other side of that coin is that too much of something will begin to work counter to the goal of that training. Figure out what your demands are and train accordingly.
Recovery– how much time is given to recover from the demands of a skill-based activity or conditioning exercise. This will change according to the requirements for specific adaptations. In general, recovery time per set will be in proportion to the intensity of the activity. Forget the romantic nonsense about “I’ll do this x1000 times a day until death.” It’s only when resting from activities that the body can devote the resources to adapt to them. The higher the quality of training in a given activity, the better the learning that results.
Resistance– both amount and type. Are you primarily pushing or pulling? Working movements in the frontal or sagittal plane? Neglecting the transverse plane? Is one aspect (strength endurance) lacking over another (reactivity or maximal)? Are you doing primarily isometric training for isotonic demands? Are people lifting the same amount of weight in the same way each class? Do you always pair up for Randori or rolling with the same partner who is a similar or smaller size? How much are people resisting the attempts of partners to apply a technique?
Balance and Stability– this is an odd one out on this list of variables, but bears inclusion since balance is highly specific. Motor learning and control research identifies 14 basic variations on this ability with many sub varieties (Magill, 2007), and skill in one does not necessarily create skill in others. The ability to establish balance and maintain stability under static, dynamic and asymmetrically loaded conditions bears heavily on fighting arts training- train for each.
Although it may seem daunting to consider adding more to the challenges that an instructor faces when programming a class or a few month’s worth of classes, the benefits of altering the variables of training are invaluable to both the skills and attributes being targeted. It may take some research and trial and error to find the right combinations, but creative, motivated instructors can rise to the challenge and provide better instruction.
For more information, programming ideas of to host a workshop on any of the topics above, contact:
Robert Miller– St. Louis/Midwest USA. RJmiller42@ att dot net
Randy Simpson– Virginia/East Coast USA. REMSimpson@ gmail dot com
or visit our growing Fitness for the Fighting Arts website