Quality Over Quantity; Process Over Outcome
Julie wants to make the varsity basketball team. Fully motivated and unsure of where to begin, she decides that she will stay late after open gyms and shoot 200 free-throws every day. She finishes all her reps on day one, but it sure was annoying.
The last 100 shots, her mind is anywhere but on the rim. She’s thinking about what is for dinner, what she’s wearing to the football game Friday, and whether Kevin will be there. She rushes through to get home and on with her life. The next day this pattern is only amplified. The shots start fine but quickly dissolve into sloppy, rushed reps. As is often the case, her plan sounded better in theory.
Despite her efforts, Julie is actually getting worse at shooting free-throws. She’d have been far better off, deciding to shoot 50 shots per day and then taking the time to focus, execute, and correct each rep. Instead, she reinforced poor mechanics and actually impeded her own progress.
We do this all the time in training. Rather than focus on quality reps, Julie focused on an impressive sounding, arbitrary number, 200, and determined that by doing more work she was certain to get better.
In my second ever Breaking Muscle piece, I identified the three fallacies driving the More is Always Better myth:
Today, I’ll revisit these and add nuance.
Quality Over Quantity
We often forget that strength and power are skills. Much of our training improvements are neurological. Every movement pattern is a complex concert where many muscles, each having different responsibilities and sequence, contract in symphony to balance and drive against resistance.
Neural pathways become quicker and more efficient from crisp, quality reps. Consistent work is essential for skill development, but only when that work is done well. When form and quality falter, we reinforce poor patterns. When it comes to high intensity or technical work, always prioritize quality over quantity.
There are ways to shift a workout and hit the same number of reps while not sacrificing quality. For example, my soccer team was working at 3x5 on the RDL for a few weeks. They were getting stronger, but I started to see more breakdowns in technique than I liked. Using my autoregulated system, too many had allowed themselves to sacrifice form in the pursuit of higher weights.
Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
My solution was to hold them at the same weights, but shift the plan to 5x3. Athletes were now doing the same number of reps at the same weight, but they were benefitting from those reps because they had the ability to execute.
For an athlete, it is important to remember that, with few exceptions, the weight room is for getting stronger and more powerful. Aerobic or metabolic conditioning should usually be accomplished without weights (we can all think of exceptions, but this holds true for most team sports).
With that in mind, ditch the brutal, gut-busting sets of 20. If you aren’t a bodybuilder, why do a back squat ten times? Even my early year technique progressions are done at lower reps, with longer, controlled tempos. I find I can always get more execution by reducing reps to five or fewer.
Process Over Outcome
Focusing on quantity wasn’t Julie’s only mistake. She determined outcomes ahead of time and lost the process. We see this constantly in sports, training, and life. For example, Billy sets an individual goal, to rush for 1,000 yards this season, and a team goal, to win district. Both are absolutely meaningless.
The 1,000-yard goal is arbitrary. Of course, he’d like to rush for more yards rather than less. It isn’t as if he will just stop running if he reached 1,000 yards. He will run just as hard whether the goal is there or not. Likewise, it is obvious that he’ll want to win as many games as possible. Most importantly, however, he has no control of either goal. The coach might not give him enough carries and the line might not block well enough.
It is good to have a vision of where we’d like to be and to constantly re-imagine where that is based on our most recent feedback, but the focus should always be on process, not outcome. In training, we’ll pick a number and determine that we want to lift that much. In reality, our goal is just to get stronger before we test again in 8 weeks. At that point, we’ll re-evaluate our goals.
So, if the point is to get stronger where do we put our emphasis? Performance keys. Performance keys are the task-conscious cues that help you execute better. For a bench press, that might be: drive heels down and back, fire glutes, bend the bar. For a squat that might be: fill with air, drive elbows forward, and spread the floor.
The point is that our outcomes are always better when we focus on executing in each moment. A process-minded approach requires mindfulness and self-reflection rather blind obsession on arbitrarily defined goals. Create a good plan and set time to re-evaluate. When you are working focus on quality. The rest takes care of itself.
As an ardent meditator, I’ve repeatedly experienced this process. Anyone who begins meditating probably does so for the host of benefits (lower blood pressure, to reduce stress, improved focus, greater patience, etc.).
Yet, what you learn from meditation is that none of those goals can be forced. The more you focus on those outcomes, the less successful you will be. Improvement only comes from letting go of focus on outcomes and learning to experience the sense of flow that drives quality.
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December 6, 2018 at 08:52AM
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