The Map Is Not the Territory: Plan Less, Lift More
Back in my bodybuilding days, before I saw the light and switched over to strength sports, I used to train with a couple of buddies: Adam and Justin. All three of us worked part-time as personal trainers to help fund our drinking on the weekends, dates with girls, and our obsession with putting on muscle. Typical young college guys!
The difference between us was Justin hadn't been lifting as long as Adam and I. He still had "new guy" syndrome - an evangelical belief that you know the secret truth to everything and that it is up to you to set the world straight.
Adam and I had been lifting weights for a good five years by this point. Justin had only been lifting for one. What Justin lacked was the knowledge of the basics that is hard to internalize until you've been in it for a number of years.
The most important issue was this:
Justin would write up highly detailed routines for his clients and make sure they followed them to the letter. No deviation! He had a fanatical faith that if people would do precisely what he had planned, no matter what, that they would see the best results. Adam, by contrast was pretty lax. He took a very intuitive approach, changing things on the fly. He wrote up programs, but his clients almost never did them as written.
To Justin's dismay, Adam's clients made MUCH faster progress than his did. Boy did that anger Justin! What was written on paper looked almost identical. The results were not. How could that be? Justin couldn't understand how being seemingly LESS interested in details worked better than a hyper focus on them.
Determining What the Basics ARE Is Step One
We all know you are supposed to focus your energies on the basics. However it isn't always easy to figure out what the basics are.
No matter what the field is, when you first jump into it you end up overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there. You haven't yet set up a categorization scheme, a way of organizing all of it and deciding what is most important in your mind. This causes us to focus on the silly stuff at the expense of the true basics. We choose wrong. We think that because one thing looks so detailed or complex that it must be the SECRET.
It is very unsatisfying to realize that in most areas the basics are truly basic - there is no secret at all!
In that vein, I've got two lessons for you that Justin finally had to learn. (When he did, he became a MUCH better trainer!)
Lesson 1: Sets and Reps Are Not THAT Important
Sometimes I'll get lifters in the gym who look at me cock-eyed when they ask, "How many reps should I do?" And I answer, "I don't care … one, two … maybe three. Just keep them low."
My cavalier attitude toward something that appears to them to be so pivotal makes them uncomfortable. Just how serious of a coach can I possibly be if I can't even decide on how many reps a person should be doing?
This situation gets worse when we're about 40 minutes in on snatch practice and they ask, "How many sets am I *supposed* to be doing today?"
"I don't know. Keep going until you start to look crappy."
What the heck are they paying me for?! Isn't it the job of a coach to proscribe a detailed plan to follow, a step-by-step plan of action to take you from point A to point B?
Yes and No.
The problem is what an experienced coach knows to be important rarely jives with what the beginner believes to be important. This can cause a fair amount of confusion.
Let's say you're driving a car driving while staring down at a map the whole time. If you hit a dude on a bicycle, how much sense does it make to say, "Why wasn't the bicyclist on the map! How was I supposed to know to stop?"
Remember: If you don't watch the road, you're going to do something stupid.
A good coach knows that what is written on paper is a loose blueprint at best. It is there to simply guide you in the direction we want you to go. But what happens in real life in the gym is going to take on a life of its own - and that is a GOOD thing.
It is the reason people with coaches make faster progress than people without them. The coach can watch the road with an objective eye and make all the course corrections needed to keep you flying along with the fewest hold ups.
It doesn't matter what the map says, at some point you have to watch the road or you're going to hit someone!
Lesson 2: Hard Work + Consistency Is the ONLY Combo that Works
Without a combination of hard work and consistency nothing else matters. You can have the most detailed, well thought out plan in the history of humanity, but if you don't hit the gym consistently and perform each and every set with serious effort, then you will never get there.
On the other end, someone without a detailed plan at all but who works hard and is consistent will get amazing results. Sure, they'd get even better results with a plan. But, they have the most important stuff down.
Without a doubt, the lifters I see the most make the fastest progress. Similarly, the lifters who try the hardest do better than those who don't. It seems obvious, but you'd be shocked by how few people put these principles into practice.
Conclusion: Plan Less, Lift More
I have a plan for every lifter in my gym. But they probably wouldn't know it. Every day we try to do the best we can with what we've got. The routine might call for a heavy day, but if the lifter is sick or only slept for three hours the night before, they may not get very far. Conversely, if they are lifting really well then I'll probably take them higher.
I don't deviate completely from the plan ever - that would be like going south when the map says go north. But, I have no problem choosing a different road than the original one we chose if traffic is an issue.
Strength athletes must focus on lower reps and technique. Olympic lifters have to snatch a lot - a whole lot. Endurance athletes need to do endurance work. Some rules must be followed. But at some point, you have to take your face off the map and look at the road.
Be consistent. Work hard. Have a plan, but don't obsess over it. In that order.