Proper Purposeful Practice Prevents P!ss Poor Performance
Before I get started let us first define what Purposeful Practice is. In the book Bounce former British Number-one table tennis player Mathew Syed defines Purposeful Practice as
“….practice sessions of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and ones body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacities, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session literally a changed person”.
The best athletes in the world practice, people that are already the best at their games practice. Tennis players practice every shot despite playing games regularly; cricketers bat and/or bowl in the nets despite playing regularly and Grand Prix drivers accumulate hundreds of laps in simulators and practice laps of circuits they have won at before. Why? To be the best they possibly can.
Should people training in the gym be any different to this? Does the fact that many gym goers do not compete in any sport also mean they should not take part in purposeful practice? I believe it should not, purposeful practice is vital for all and the mark of champions. Why should we not all train like champions?
Most people understand the benefits of a warm-up, or ‘pulse raiser’ as it is sometimes known. This is purely to get the blood flowing, the joints warm and the heart raised. You should then stretch the relevant muscles. Stretching alone is not purposeful practice, but if we only stretch the muscle just beyond the Range of Motion (ROM) we intend to use it is. Why stretch your hamstrings so much you can put your head against your knee if you will not be doing any exercise that replicate that ROM?
Next, your chance to extend the warm up and practice purposefully simultaneously. Lets assume your first exercise of the day is the squat. Your first task should be to mobilise the hips in a manor that is similar to how they will move in the squat. Many people make a basic, but important mistake here by doing things like lunges or bodyweight squats that do not mimic how they will later squat. The Mobility WOD website is full of different mobility exercises for the whole body and something like this would be far more purposeful:
Mobility should be quick, 60-90 seconds as you are in the gym to exercise.
The next stage is another that is frequently skipped. You first should squat with an empty bar, not a loaded bar (20kg). The empty bar allows you to get your feet, hip, bar and depth prefect before you add weight. If you can’t do a perfect squat with an empty bar there is little, or no, chance you can do it with a loaded bar. Every aspect of the warm up squats should be exactly as you will perform the squat with a fully loaded bar. You should do at least one set of 10, perhaps 2 sets if you make any adjustments. From then on you load that bar in blocks up to the desired weight. Again, each warm up set is purposeful practice, which will drill the technique into you and set motor patterns.
Far too many people go from straight a weight that is approx. 60-70% of their maximum, then straight to 90-95% and then onto max effort and never perform a single squat with good form in the entire session. Yes, you may progress doing this but it is only a matter of time until injury and/or a plateau that will take weeks/months to overcome.
If you have worked up to then attempted a max effort it is likely your form will not be perfect as you are at your limits (if you can max effort squat with perfect form your are simply not max efforting!). It is then often wise to drop the weight by approx 30% and perform a set of 6-8 more squats with perfect form in order reset the motor patterns back to best and add some volume for muscle building. If the last thing you body remembers form the last session is bad form, it is likely to start the next session with bad form. The Central Nervous System remembers these things.
The system described above should be used for all the compound lifts, squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press.
It does not have to end there as with the compound lifts sooner or later we will all have times when our form goes to pot and we struggle. That is when you should come into the gym with the sole purpose to practice that lift. Warm-up, mobilise for as long as it takes then practice the relevant lift with lighter weights and re-drill that form into your mind. Do not get tempted to go heavy, your purpose is to practice not to max effort.
Practice makes perfect.