The ancient Athenians created democracy, modern philosophical thinking, and even the first great physical education program. A core Athenian concept was picked up by the Romans, who turned it into a proverb: “repetitio mater studiorum,” or “repetition is the mother of all learning.” While I have denounced mindless consumption and superficial understanding, I cannot overstate the importance of repetition for mastery.
Repetition is foundational in strength training. Many approaches avoid substantial repetition for fear of boredom. Others emphasize quantity over quality, believing that more is better, even as quality diminishes with each repetition.
Analogous to repeatedly practicing multiplication tables wrong, or learning only slang dialect in language studies, bad repetitions only bring problems. Improper patterns are only remedied through the practice of quality repetitions.
Repetition Works, For Better or Worse
Repetitions done wrong condition false narratives. Children are indoctrinated into religious cults by learning misguided dogmas and practicing them to mastery. Repetition proves extremely effective, as even the most kind-natured can be conditioned towards evil.
Marketers utilize repetition as a tool for creating associations. Consider the brilliant repetition employed by the Tide Super Bowl ads. They borrowed formulas for other product ads like cars and beer before drawing our attention to the twist—every person’s shirt was exceptionally clean—it was “a Tide ad.”
The repetition took hold, and we noticed that the actors in all commercials wore very clean clothes. As insinuated, every Super Bowl commercial became “a Tide ad.” While hilarious, these commercials serve as a warning to the habit-building power that mindless repetition wields.
Repetitions for Good
While sometimes used against us, we cannot ignore the positive potential of proper repetition. Depth, innovation, and creativity blossom when we learn a set of principles and practice them to mastery.
Educational philosophy has long understood the stages of learning. In 1948, Dorothy Sayers identified three stages of child and adolescent development, beginning with a “Poll-Parrot” stage where youth learn via memorization and repetition. This repetition allows for later contextualization, analytic skills, and creative ability to synthesize new conclusions.
Regurgitation is not the goal, but a necessary initial step to prompt future, actionable learning.
In our fitness training, we must practice and repeat simple, fundamental movements. Dan Gable, famed Olympian, and wrestling coach, described the ticket toward lasting success: “If it is important, do it every day.” Movement is essential, and visiting it only three to four hours each week is not sufficient.
We are Feeding, Not Repeating
In our age of information overload, action and deep learning have grown rare. We have access to a historically unprecedented learning opportunity but rarely integrate our acquired knowledge. Rather than revisit or heed the life-changing guidance available in books, articles, quotes, and podcast conversations, we simply move on and seek more.
In his TED talk, Alain de Botton posits that secular institutions should employ the extremely effective teaching mechanisms of historical religions. His book highlights the abundant use of repetition in all prominent religions.
Muslims must repeat prayers five times a day. Buddhism prescribes several meditations a day, emphasizing focus on repeated breath. Judaism requires followers to revisit specific texts on specific days for mastery of the fundamental precepts. The list goes on.
Most modern education systems view learning as a checklist or a bucket to be filled. Likewise, after we complete an exercise program we consider it done, mastered, a memory of our amateurish past. We move on, considering the program’s utility exhausted.
We should constantly repeat the foundational training principles of a daily push, pull, squat, hinge, and a loaded carry or core exercise. Duration, variety, and intensity are far less important than repetition.
Variety and advanced exercises only progress from practice and repeating the fundamentals.
My core movement training centers on repetition and a daily dose of fundamental movement patterns. I draw inspiration from the “grease the groove” philosophy that considers strength a skill to be practiced, not a headlong quest to exhaustion.
My template below adapts this philosophy to my personal postural and work capacity goals.
Movement Circuit to Start Every Day
Daily Starter Circuit – 3 rounds (I usually play with different variations from round to round)
- Crawl variations (bear walk, bear crawl, leopard crawl, dragon walk, extension press-up alk)
- Hip mobility drill
- Pull variation (inverted rows, kettlebell rows, pull ups, front lever)
- PRI squat drill
Daily Main Event
Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday – 4 rounds:
- 1-arm push-ups – 2/side
- 1-arm kettlebell swings – 10 reps (alternate side each round)
- Airborne lunges or a carry ariation (farmer’s walk; suitcase carry, bottoms up carry, waiters walk, seesaw walk, rack walk, etc.)
- Heavy kettlebell swings (2-arm) – 10 minutes of 30 sec on/30 sec off
Thursday – 4 rounds:
- 1-arm push-ups – 2/side
- 1-arm kettlebell clean – 10 reps (alternate side each round)
- 1-arm kettlebell front squat – 5 reps (alternate side each round)
- 5-minute 1-arm kettlebell swings test (as many reps as possible in 5 minutes)
- Get outside to hike, jog, or play
Daily Repetition for Mental Strength
Your physical work should be complemented by daily mental work. Fulfillment and achievement depend on your ability to delay gratification and persist through discomfort. I use a “daily adversity schedule” to repeatedly practice discomfort to build discipline and willpower.
The benefits of cold showers and intermittent fasting transcend physical health. Until recently, moments of cold and hunger have always permeated the human experience. These practices tap into our biology by forcing us out of our manufactured comfort and serve to highlight the amazing daily luxury that we enjoy. My adversity schedule looks like this:
Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday:
- 3-minute cold shower
Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday:
- Intermittent fasting (no food from 6:00 PM until 12:30 PM the following day)
- 5-minute kettlebell swing test
The essential part of my daily practice is a 20-minute meditation followed by three to four minutes of gratitude practice. Meditation is an essential antidote for 21st-century mindless consumption and constant partial attention.
Focus Your Reps
Meditation, gratitude, and exercise provide phenomenal context to observe the contrast between focused repetition and mindless routine. Do not simply go through the motions.
Focused repetition scours positive experiences to pull out uncommonly clear details that bring richness to your life. I am not just grateful for my father’s love.
I am grateful for how he instilled in me a love of learning, for his history quizzes around the dinner table, and for our family vacations that made me curious about the world.
I am grateful for our discussions of different political and economic theories that taught me to analyze, argue, and appreciate nuance. I could go on, but the lesson remains: focus the repetition in your physical, mental, and gratitude practice.
Make Your Reps Your Own
Ask yourself: What is so essential that it bears repeating daily?
I am certain that many of you find increased fitness success because of your daily Breaking Muscle reading habit. Reading can be a transformative habit. For a book’s full impact though, we cannot just read and moved on. We must repeatedly interact with the concepts.
I have found a method to balance my desire for new information with repeated exposure to past essentials. The first week of each month, I commit to listening to one of my personal essential books. This repeatedly exposes me to these important lessons, while allowing opportunity to read and absorb new information.
My broad plan aims to address my desire for greater impact and fulfillment. It is imperfect and likely not the best fit for your individual life. Use it as a guide and starting point to identify what is most essential in your life.
Practice the essentials repeatedly, rather than constantly consuming more and hoping it all sticks.