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The Concept of Practice: Skill Training to Overcome Plateauing

The word 'practice' has multiple meanings, so what do we mean by 'practice' here? Well, the concept of practice - or skill training - is where you train the muscles and the nervous system together. You train smarter by doing regular and frequent sub-maximal skill training of a given exercise.

I'm aware that you might need to go back and read that last sentence a few times. It's not an easy one. Bear with me, and I will clarify.

Usually, during what most of us would call 'body building', the main training focus is upon the muscles. The nervous system will get very little - if any - stimulus. This is done because the goal of a 'body builder' is to make muscles larger, with strength as a secondary consideration.

Now, look at how a gymnast trains: for strength. A gymnast needs a body that performs. This means that they will primarily be training the nervous system. As a result they are capable of great feats of strength, such as handstand push ups, or the execution of the iron cross on the rings. Their body is 'built' to function.

What most people should look for is a combination of everything. They should aim to have good muscular strength, expect the same of their nervous system - and see a bit of muscle growth for the ego!

The Concept of Practice in Bodyweight Training

OK, so let's define the concept of practice here. Let's say you're doing Calisthenics and training to do pull-ups. Have you ever run across this situation? You're using the classic linear training concept of reps and sets. You're exhausting yourself and you're finding the effort you put in is somehow ineffective. You might well find that your exercise results in injury: strained tendons, aching muscles. But one thing is certain - you have reached a plateau when it comes to the total number of reps that you can achieve. You're stuck, and progress is halted.

Whatever the exercise is, I will bet serious money that most of you have hit the wall. Maybe you got to ten pull-ups but seriously struggle to get any higher. Is there an answer? Luckily for us all there is!

The Concept of Practice is as follows: if ten is your limit, train at a two rep maximum range, but perform ten sets a day on non-training days.

What will this do? If done correctly, it will teach the neuro-muscular system to train smarter by training the nervous system and the muscles together. It will also allow the participant to learn high quality movement patterns which result in better outcomes in terms of quality and the achievement of higher repetitions at a faster rate.

In plain English, if you're doing a set of two pull-ups, then focus on the movement. Take your ego out of the equation and concentrate on performing the movement in the most efficient way you can. 'Listen' to your body. What muscles want to be involved? Can you keep the movement slow and controlled? See if you try to compensate for any weakness in one body area by making another work harder. That way injury lies: something that will hold you back as you try to progress. Of course, if you're really bothered then you should always get a professional to watch and advise on your range of movement. Never be afraid to ask for some tips!

The technique mentioned is often used in bodyweight training and conditioning and particularly for important exercises such as pistol squats, chin ups, pull ups and so on - and is also often used by Olympic athletes. Top atheletes train very frequently, at high quality, yet at sub-maximal levels. They will only ever go to the point of muscle failure during carefully scheduled phases - or for competitions.

The Concept of Practice in Classic Strength Training

The concept of practice can also be used as part of a classic strength training program to improve either strength or performance. The same principle applies; make sure that you never train to failure on any of your sets, by doing more sets but less repetitions of a given weight.

Let's say for example that you can deadlift 100kg for three sets of ten reps but cannot seem to improve upon that weight and those repetitions. To apply the concept of practise, increase the sets to six sets and decrease the weight by 40% - down to 60kg - and make sure that every rep that you do is perfect.

Here's another way to do it - keep 100Kg as the weight and go for six sets again, but this time decease the reps by four and only do six reps. This should also produce a positive outcome.

After three weeks of doing this three times a week (or alternating between both systems) go back and see how you perform on the classic linear patterns of three sets of ten reps at 100kg. I would bet my house that you will achieve at least twelve reps on each set and feel very confident to lift even more weight!

Jeff says: If you want to see how well you're performing your exercises, then why not come in for a consultation? We have many years' experience helping people at all levels get the most from their workouts.

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