Written by: Sarah Strange
Randomization is all the rage these days, with people making millions off of concepts like muscle confusion, and other equally profitable outfits promising that all you need to be the fittest citizen of the universe is a functional exercise magic 8 ball. I’m not going to lie, there are some serious fitness beasts in fighter shorts with big shiny traps and abs being cranked out of these machines, but I guarantee you that the key to their success lies in a little, if not a lot, of the old tried and true concepts of specificity and periodization.
The ideas behind exercise randomization come from a good place, but often lead us swiftly into plateausville. There’s the concept that randomization of both movements and metabolic pathways keep a sapien prepared for whatever random circumstances life may throw at us. Running around the block with a 40# sandbag might help you get that 4 year old with a broken arm to the Emergency room doorstep faster when all usable motor vehicles are temporarily out of order. And if you can sprint like the dickens with that 40# sandbag, you might be able to outrun a fat, fat rottweiler with that same helpless 4 year old. I’m not sure what 150 wall balls helps you out with, but I’m pretty sure it has its real life application in Hades.
The origins of GPP, or general physical preparedness, come out of the belief that having a base support of general athleticism would benefit the specialist athlete. It was intended to be used in conjunction to the athlete’s sport, and as a background enhancing the foreground, not really as a goal in and of itself. In Europe, an athlete went to a sport high school where perhaps their main sport was hockey, but they trained gymnastics, tennis, and weightlifting as supplemental athletic skill development.
At the very least, randomization has the power to keep people that can barely stand to work out at all engaged in a fitness program. The promise that they won’t see that dreaded exercise again for at least a month keeps them showing up at the gym. If your only goal is to keep showing up and be able to facebook that you made it through yet another WOD, or just not blow out of your size 2‘s, then 100% randomization, 100% of the time works just fine. Go about your business, success is yours!
Most of us though, at some point, would like to see some boast-worthy fruits of our efforts to validate all the hard work we’re putting in at the gym, and where randomization starts to fail us is the specific goal attainment department. A lot of us don’t really see the wool that’s being pulled over our eyes- we went from helpless waifs to we-can-do-it in fairly short order, but now we’re stuck on the mediocrity train and don’t know why.
I would wager that all dedicated or talented athletes intuitively step away from the magic 8 ball programming, even if only in spurts, when they begin to work towards achieving their goals. You may think, they may think, and it may even seem that they’re still working just as randomly as you are, but their consistent PR’s, disgustingly unbroken double unders, and mastery of the tricky third pull speak otherwise. I guarantee that by-otch has a rope at home!
In my experience, the hallmark of a successful athlete is a slightly obsessive approach to their practice, whether conscious of it or not. Obsession necessitates sidelining randomization to specify long enough to master something. “Long enough” is a relative concept, specific to that person, very often having to do with prior athletic experience. If you throw something at an athlete that they cannot yet do, they will work at it at home, after class, in the supplies closet at work, in their dreams, burden their co-workers with odd terminology, demand tips from their coach with complete disregard for anyone else in class that may be trapped under a barbell, and youtube the shit out of it- until they get it. Remember when you were a kid and logged 25 hours a day in the backyard trying to nail a handstand and pitched a fit when your mother suggested you eat? Same concept. Kids are natural learners.
Goals that need specific, highly repetitive practice should include, but not be limited to, things like better positions, strength, conditioning, and skill acquisition. Most of us have some holes in our respective games, no matter how awesome we think we are. Even if your main goal is to be a generalist, if you want to be good at it, you’re going to have to get specific with the components that need work.
When I say better position, I’m referring to tight parts, like atrocious shoulder flexion, or loose parts and the inability to properly stabilize a joint or limit Jim Carrey ranges of motion. Most tricky perhaps are the wacky or bizarre and out-to-lunch motor recruitment patterns- like are your glutes totally checked out, and you use your quads for everything including pull-ups? Your form might look pretty, but there’s a storm a-brewin’.
Better movement quality and Jedi-like body awareness should be everybody’s goal. Why? Because it means that the likelihood of your arms falling off when you flail a barbell overhead goes down, and that you will likely be able to still move around unassisted when you are 90. It means that you move a load with more efficiency, and your power is going to the right places, not sharting out your spine every time you dump forward in your front squat recovery. Plus when you become an expert mover, you learn new skills much faster… like any Jedi, of course. This goal should really be top priority because it’s what will keep you as un-injured as possible, and ward off bad habits that hold back your performance.
Strength is another goal that demands specific, repetitive, and programmed attention. Can you ever really be too strong? And strong does not equal big, but that’s a whole other topic. 95% of the people that first walk in to our gym need to get stronger. A lot stronger. I still need to get a lot stronger. Everything is easier when you are stronger. The benefits of strength training are too long to list here, but I’d like to mention a highlight: being able to get out of a chair by yourself when you are really old seems like a big one. If you don’t start putting on some muscle to buffer the sarcopenia (muscle wasting) of old age, you’ll wind up being one of those poor old folks that looks like one good fart could shatter their pelvis. Now who wants to squat?
Strength will plateau very quickly in a truly randomized program. Barbell aerobics are not going to cut it. Even if you can do those barbell aerobics faster than you did the last time, it doesn’t necessarily mean you got stronger, it means your engine is better and it’s now better-adapted to jumping around the room with 65#’s. If you have weak quads, you have to squat heavy, regularly, and throwing the same amount of weight on the bar for the same amount of reps or random rep schemes is largely a waste of time. I’m not going to wipe my nose with program detail in a paragraph here, buy Greg Everett’s books and do as the man says. Following a program, in cycles, lets your body know that you mean business, that this type of increased-load-moving will from now on be a regular occurrence, so go ahead and allocate some metabolic funds for some new architecture down below. This isn’t random squatting of random weights and objects, it’s time to put on your business socks and get to work.
Next up on the goal front, conditioning! Now oddly, this is where it seems that the randomization of programs fail us by NOT BEING TRULY RANDOM. Hah. So you’re mixing 2 and 3 different exercises together using different equipment, different loads, sometimes you go outside, sometimes you stay inside, but your time domain reigns mainly in the plains. Do you not see what’s wrong with this? Are you doing 15-25 minute chronic cardio sessions disguised as high-intensity functional movement, day in, day out? Be honest. Didn’t we all pledge to put the chronic cardio down? Just because you write “sprint” on the whiteboard next to the 400 meters in X number of rounds, does not actually make it a true sprint. When’s the last time you did any actual interval training? If you see a workout that says 6 intervals of 30 seconds of work, 2 minutes of rest, do you then try to sneak in another cardio session? Stop calling it a metcon, it’s cardio, Broseph. You’re doing aerobics.
Running like your feet are on fire, or like that fat rottweiler is actually chasing you, is a whole other story. Very few people in the world can keep it up for 30 seconds before that metabolic pathway we mostly skip over shuts our muscles down with spit strings trailing in our ponytails. I hate to say it, because I hate to do it, but how often do we run a 10K? It’s the worst thing anyone could do in my book, and should only be done as terms of severe punishment during the blue moon, but it is the other side of the coin if you truly desire a broadband engine.
And lastly, but not leastly, skills. The tricky stuff. Ninjas, Jedi, general badasses, all have one thing in common- mad skills. Nunchaku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills all take lots of practice. If you haven’t read the book, The Talent Code yet, then please do so immediately. Your admiration of randomization will shrivel in its wake.
Skill acquisition requires your nervous system to program you, and programming you takes- you guessed it, VERY specific and highly repetitious efforts. Any highly technical sport takes constant repetition, even of these programmed or automated (muscle memory) skills, to stay on top of your game. I can attest to this, I was a ballet dancer in a former life. At the top of your game, it’s a constant battle between exercise and starvation derived fatigue to be able to train enough to get a whiff of perfection. That’s a lot of motor neuron pyrotechnics and 3 to 6 hours a day from the ripe age of 3 seems to be the price of acquisition and upkeep. We pass 30 and just cannot whatsoever keep up with the twinkle-toeing… at all. It’s sad. It’s just that demanding. Baryshnikov did not pick up a wicked drinking habit, he just simply turned 35.
Ponder this for some insight into your nervous system: do you ever notice that there is a small lag time between contacting the hot surface and picking up on the fact that you just burned yourself? That’s because the communication is novel. It is an uninsulated neural circuit, so the information travels slowly, about 2 miles an hour. When you practice a skill over and over and over, your nervous system adapts, just like muscles to strength training, but it does so by insulating neural circuits with a substance called myelin. This insulation speeds the signal and responds to urgent repetition. It responds best to operating at the margins of failure, dancing back and forth over the knife’s edge of perfection until you get it, then you repeat it, obsessively until it’s well insulated- learning like a child. A well insulated skill can produce circuits that fire at speeds closer to 200 miles an hour.
Not only does the speed of the signal increase, but the refractory time decreases (the lag time between one signal and the next) by a factor of 30. The increased speed and decreased refractory time accomplished with highly dedicated practice can accelerate information processing capacity 3,000 times. So skill acquisition is all about increasing your bandwidth. Randomization gets a major fail in the skill acquisition category, I’m afraid. Go read The Talent Code, it will make you smarter.
One more thing worth mentioning, the smart folks that study this stuff suppose that it takes roughly 10 years of this type of dedicated, borderline personality disorder practice to attain expert level at something. I wanted to slip that in before anyone cracks their knuckles and decides on becoming a world champion in 28 days, or turns around and blames their gym for not getting them to the Games this year. Most of the people that stand out to you as super heroes have been working at becoming super heroes since they were in high school or earlier. Strength and skill take TIME INVESTED. Just make sure you are investing it wisely. If you can measure a reasonable amount of progress to match what you put into it, then things are good.
Take a moment to assess your abilities- what do you still suck at? I’d be willing to bet that if you still suck at it, you hardly do it, or if it’s difficult enough, that you just aren’t visiting it enough. See what happens if you focus in a little more on training to eliminate your weaknesses. Unless you are doing personal training, you are going to have to take a little initiative in this process.
Now after all this trash-talking, I’d like to mention where I see randomization to be the most helpful, and that’s breaking up the drudgery of routine. Even a randomized routine can become a rut. Randomization might just mean a de-load week for some of you. Actually, I bet that a lot of you need to get better with backing off and cycling in some lowered volume. If you eat food through a hole in your face and poop through a hole between your legs, I have news for you: you’re human! This means that you can’t expect yourself to run like a machine at its peak 365 days a year. Be nice to yourself, for Pete’s sake.
If your snatch is stuck, try putting down the marching drum for a while and follow a strength/technique cycle. Visit another gym or competition with some inspiring athletes for motivation. If you’re the biggest fish in your pond and there’s no one left to race, I guarantee that you can find someone out there, probably even on Facebook lingering amongst your 617 neglected friends, that can hand your ass to you in any workout, 7 days a week. Go chase them around for an hour. Take a gymnastics class, or sign up for a tennis lesson. Staying motivated enough, to remain passionate enough, to keep working as hard as you have to to truly get better and bear some brag-a-docious fruits, often means mixing it up.
Sarah is a resident of Denver, Colorado and co-owner of a gym where she coaches, heads up the nutrition seminars and counseling, and organizes the local foodshares program. Her athletic background includes 13 years as a ballet dancer, martial arts, yoga, Pilates, triathlon, and currently focuses on Olympic weightlifting.