At the risk of being overly controversial and letting you in on a little secret that you may not want to hear, fitness development at a high level requires very basic, rudimentary work. To develop any specific task with skill and precision requires that you perform the specific task you are trying to improve. In a country in which we believe more is better, we easily get distracted. Often, serious exercisers can’t stick to any one program for more than a few weeks before the grass on the other side of the fence needs mowing. Some of us change careers and cars every few years and somehow feel that this will miraculously make us happy and complete. We do the same thing with our workout routines. For example, we ditch cycling after a few months of boredom and go to the gym instead thinking this will replace cycling in preparation for the Colorado River Ride.
PRINCIPLES OF EXERCISE SCIENCE
There is a very fundamental principle in exercise science that dictates that the human body adapts specifically to the stressors we impose on our system. The SAID principle is an acronym for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands; for example, if you spend any time riding a bike, your body puts adaptive processes in place that enable you to become better at riding a bike. This is precisely why marathon runners look and perform on the opposite end of the performance continuum from that of a sprinter. If you perform random acts of exercise with different intensities and movement selections, you become OK at performing random acts of exercise, but not really good at anything.
If the runner varies the exercise along a continuum (runs fast short distances and runs slow long distances in the same training cycle), our body doesn’t know what to do, and it morphs into a compromise of the two extremes. The ultimate end product is an adaptation that is compromised; it is fairly competent at running fast for short distances and slow for long distances. Unfortunately, this runner will not be great at either. This isn’t necessarily a problem because on one hand, the average person doesn’t necessarily need to be great at anything in the gym environment. On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather be excellent at the few very specific exercises that pertain to your goal(s)?
FOCUS ON ONE DISCIPLINE
This past August marked the 15th anniversary since I had an 18-hour surgery in which Pernendu Gupta fused my spine from T2-L2. He is a soft spoken gentlemen that was very convinced that surgery was eminent or dire consequences during middle age were unavoidable. By the third appointment, my mother wasn’t convinced this was the right thing to do. I was frankly hoping to see some form of arrogance from him to ease my lack of confidence as well. I was only partially sold until he looked at my mother and said, “Mrs. Richards, I don’t do ankles, knees, hips or shoulders. My specialty is spines, and I am darn good at it.” This turned out to be quite an understatement. He was the quintessential “specialist” that I needed.
Exercise is no different folks. You become very good at what you practice. Yes, you need to change the exercise variables to continue to adapt, but changing the exercise itself isn’t necessarily the answer. Change the volume, intensity, rest period, joint angle, foot placement, etc. But if you want to increase your bench press, push-ups and cable crossovers aren’t going to get you there. Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, and Ted Ligety didn’t get to where they are today by playing golf.
The take home message is to figure out what your goals are, pick the best exercises that will help you get to those goals. I recommend spending at least a couple of years programming a few key exercises and really get a strong understanding of the mechanics. If you like variety, pick one day per week in which you intuitively do whatever you want to reduce boredom. Exercise, like anything else, is about dedication and excellence. In a country in which we all strive to be great at everything, true masters are in short supply.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.