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“Doing Simple Better” The First Priority in Training and Performance

I recently got a message from an athlete telling me that he got his first dunk recently, this being after training for many years.

Many times, we expect to hear that there was some “amazing”, or secretive training program with plenty of twists and turns, as well as a well-thought sequential overloading with intentional overtraining and delayed transformation!

The thing is though, the vast majority of first dunks…. Probably 99% of them, came from a pretty simple and straightforward approach to the “problem” of shoving a ball through a 10-foot hoop, and not a journey for the ultimate training program.

In the case of the athlete I referenced in the opening line, the solution, after likely trying a vast array of training means and methods, was simply playing basketball, running hills, and practicing relaxed jumping.  Boom.  Dunk!

Likewise, several years ago, I had a high-level dunk-athlete get great results by doing a 3-day rotation of dunking, dunking with a weight vest, and then low-rim dunking.

Earth-shattering, I know.

The Secret

Joe Maddon, a prolific baseball general manager is currently with the Chicago Cubs.  One of his well-known “Maddonisms” is as follows:

“Do Simple Better”

I think this is something that I’ve known in the back of my head for years, but my quest for novelty tends to continually and regularly over-ride it.  I’m a high Acetylcholine neuro-type, with a bi-polar memory (can remember a ridiculous amount of facts yet misplace my keys constantly), have a fast-nervous system, and also have a constant desire for learning and experiencing new things.

With this has come training myself, and my athletes with nearly every training program in the book…. Charlie Francis Method, 1×20, Boo Schexnayer, Inno-Sport, Cube Method, Squat Every Day, Pro-Bod-X, Triphasic Training, Triphasic Training Football (French Contrast) Easy Strength, and the list goes on.  In the process of training with these methods and utilizing them on my athletes, I’ve also combined them and turned them inside out.

In looking at many of the programs I’ve written over the years, especially some of what I was writing a few years ago, I started to realize that my work had taken a turn for the complex, and not in the way I had really intended.

As I look at some great programs, coaches and prolific trainers of the last 50 years, such as Yuri Verkhoshanski, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, Michael Yessis, Jim Wendler, Charlie Francis, and the list goes on, a key feature of all these figures was that the core of their program was extremely simple.  Shoot, if you read “Special Strength Training Manual” by Verkhoshansky, the programs are mostly only 2 exercises done each day!  The entire 12-week training program fits on a single page.

So, what is wrong with having a complex program?  We’ll get to that in a minute, and realize that it can be totally fine if you aren’t writing the program yourself (and you are checking off the “PIPES”).  My athletes have gotten great results on some of my more complex works, one of the most effective being a mixture of cluster and triphasic training on a 14-day cycle which yielded +5” VJ in 12 weeks to a trained athlete.

There are some things that have gotten me thinking about the process of going about writing and carrying out a program lately, and they are in no particular order:

  • Dan John’s take on why prison fitness enthusiasts are so jacked; they have very few workout “options” to spend mental willpower on deciding what workout to do on the day
  • Talking and working out with athletes and coaches who have been influenced by Jay Schroeder, learning about the importance of maximal effort, emotion and intent on every exercise in the program
  • Learning the effectiveness of single set training protocols, and how much more you value each exercise when you only have one crack at it in a workout
  • Looking at the times when I achieved my athletic personal bests
  • Looking at the time where I was at my lifetime lowest bodyfat
  • Any of Dan John’s information in general

Let the (Hind)Brain and Body do the Work

Working out and adaptation actually should be complex, but the complexity shouldn’t come so much from the structure of the workout itself, but rather in the simple psychological approach, and complex biological response to it.

In a “simple game of basketball”, there are some of the most complex and integrated movements on the physical and psychological level that you can imagine.  It isn’t for a single play that every movement possibility could be coached into an “optimal technique”.  The body must use its innate problem-solving ability in play, in fact, the brain likes it this way, leading to higher neural activation and drive!

In a simple sports game, there are a multitude of explosive jumps, cuts, and sprints.  Each of these also has the unique benefit of being relatively “compensation free”, since less of the front brain is involved.  There is a reason that animals don’t pull hamstrings, one of which is that they don’t create muscular imbalances through inappropriate strength regimes and create muscular compensations, and two is that they don’t have the outer brain layer that humans do to disrupt their patterning.

In the video above, the idea is very simple, jump off a bench into a sand pit as far as possible.  Although simple, the execution of the movement is complex years beyond our best supercomputers.  It is also pure in the sense of the exact right muscular contribution at the exact right time.  Playing sport takes this and allows for this training ideal over a vast array of joint angles and force vectors… granted that the athlete doesn’t have his or her forebrain on too much.  The more you can get “in the zone” to play… the more like the dog you are.

The bottom line, leave the complexity to the nature of movement itself and our innate wirings.  For the simple psychological approach, let’s refer to the “PIPES”.

The PIPES: Why a Complex Program in the Wrong Hands Fails

In a recent training session with Alex Lee, Alex told me of having a program revolve around the simplest possible workouts, such as isometrics, but perform them with the maximal possible intent to improve.  As soon as I heard this, dozens of loose connections figuratively tied together in my brain.

One aspect of excessive complexity stems from “willpower”, and spending our brain glucose on excess decision making, as Dan John has laid forth.  I have no doubt that this is a significant factor in why athletes not having to make program decisions is a big deal.

I also realize, that in a situation, such as lifting weights in prison… the intent to get big and strong is a massive aspect of the success of the program.  Each exercise, and the time you have to do it has more value.  It demands more emotion and connection to the spirit of strength, if you will.

On Dr. Tommy John’s social media, I noticed a concept called “The PIPES”, which he picked up from Jay Schroeder.  The PIPES mean that in a workout, you are stimulating an athlete’s

Physiology

Intellect

Psychology

Emotion

Spirit

A post shared by Joel Smith (@justflysports) on

If you want to talk intent, and results, you need to look at these factors.  A coach can be a genius programmer, but if only one, maybe two of the PIPES are in effect in a workout, results will be marginal.  When we talk about coaching as an art, we certainly think of relational ability, but there is many times a disconnect between how a relationship could actually enhance athletic performance.

Look also at the commonly referenced Soviet Study, showing how athletes who performed 75% mental and 25% physical training got far better results than those who did 100% physical and no mental training, and even beat out those who did 75/25 or 50/50 mental and physical.  Intent and focus matters!  The brain drives the ship.

Now for an incriminating story…

I made the mistake back as a D3 college track coach of giving some of my lesser athlete’s little attention, while giving my better athletes much more (yes, I’m very ashamed of it, and I’ve grown since then).  What I found was that one athlete in particular literally gained 4 inches on her high jump the day she stopped training with me and switched to another coach on staff.  Working with someone who gave her direct attention, the look on her face was different, and her body was electric out on the high jump apron.  Working with me, she just had the first “P”, but all the other letters were flat-lined.

Practical Applications

One of the first things I started doing was a mental checklist of the PIPES when my teams would walk in the weightroom.  To address this better, you need to learn to read athletes.  Some of this are biochemically suited for this better than others… my neurotype in particular can struggle, but it’s something I realize a huge importance in.

To this end, looking at a workout in the sense of which movements and efforts will allow an athlete to engage their spirit in the workout.  Some athletes are wired to move the heaviest possible weight on the day, so it’s my job to find how we can get a massive effort while keeping things in the context of the overall program.  Some athletes are best wired to feel the workout strongly in their muscles, while others are charged up by the precision of technical coaching (while others are completely repulsed by it).

Having athletes compete in practice is one of the easiest ways to “do simple better”.   Having them play games, or put challenges on basic training, rather than just performing straight-line movements all the time, even better.  Some athletes may be more engaged on a day of high jump practice by doing a tandem high jump (once the basic pieces are there), which I used to have my “Type 1B” athletes do back at Wilmington College.

Tandem High Jump

Adding the simple challenge of jumping over a high jump bar together adds in a rush of complex brain activity, along with dopamine and related neuro-chemicals that helps athletes to exceed

The bottom line is that taking something simple and direct, and adding a competitive twist or challenge to it can be highly intentful and rewarding.  I’d put the “2-minute drill”, of doing as many long or triple jumps as possible in 2 minutes on a short approach into this bucket as well.  This type of work gets the PIPES running.

One of the main things I look at now in training groups, particularly in early stages, is the ability to do less actual “workout” movements, but doing them with a very high intensity and intent.  I can’t think of much better tools to use here than long isometric holds, such as an isometric lunge, or isometric pushup.

Doing Simple Better

Another piece that has changed, at least in many of my collegiate programs, has been to only have 2 main training days, instead of 3.  So often, we look at a weekly workload at lifting Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 60 minutes, because it is symmetrical and an hour seems like a nice slot of time to lift for.  Because of these three days, I used to want to have a different program for each day, but I began to realize that two workouts could easily fulfill the variety needs of the system, and we could get much better at performing those two workouts, rather than the added complexity of a third.  Take this and sprinkle in long isometric holds, and my workouts have been enhanced greatly.  Athlete engagement is up, and execution is better.

By having only two main workouts, you also leave yourself more room for adaptation when switching exercises around each block, but this is moving back into complexity land… so I’ll leave it for another time.

Summary

When we think of athletes who have reached their highest potential, the themes are pretty constant.  Intent to be great is the winning factor, so put the PIPES into every workout, and you’ll come out on the better end.  Simple challenges, less overall complexity, and reading athletes is key, and often forgotten in building the best results and the greatest possible experience for athletes.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Joel, great, great article. It’s so freaking interesting reading this right now. Back in 2011, when I really committed to take my athletic career to the next level as an athlete aiming to make the US Paralympic team, my training was pretty simple and mostly included sprinting with a strong base of isometric holds. Long story short, I made the 2012 Paralympic team in the LJ and 4X100m relay. Afterwards, I started making my training super complex in an attempt to continue increasing performance. Now, I’m 35 in a couple days and have recessed my training to iso holds and band work with sprinting flys on top of this base. I did use the KBox to work on knee drive and hamstrings, but am really enjoying this simple approach. Just doing these workouts have made there less to think about and allowed for greater focus and intent on the simplicity of execution at my highest ability. Thanks so much for the article. I’ll report back as this season goes along for a “seasoned” veteran 🙂 – Tanner

    • Tanner,

      Thank you for the comments and interest in the article. Man, it’s awesome to hear you mention your own training and anecdotes, I look forward to how this philosophy works for you this upcoming season! You being the same age as me, it’ll also be helpful motivation, I’m sure.

      Regards,

      Joel

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