So you’ve been training for a few months, your squat looks much improved, and you’re beginning to lift some pretty heavy weight. What now?
Strip it back and get better.
The basics are both timeless and essential. They are infinitely refine-able. They are the Pareto-distributed minority that gives you the majority of your results.
You’ve got better at your squat, no doubt. But there are probably some things you’re doing that aren’t ideal, and you should take the time to go back to bodyweight and rebuild from the ground up.
Thought you’d moved on?
The truth is that you are never too good for the basics. Don’t believe me? Just watch the best athletes in any sport. They drill their skills till they kill their opposition. They drill the basics.
Every great weightlifter or powerlifter spends time working with the empty bar. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But they treat the light weights the same as they treat the heavy weights because it’s all practice.
Strength is a skill and the more you practice a skill the better you become. Mastery when viewed this way is simply unbelievable dedication – and resultant competency – to the basics.
The basics begin before you even get to the bar. American baseball coach John Wooden would begin by teaching his new recruits how to put their socks on. Think that’s a bit silly? Well not wearing your socks properly means blisters, and blisters affect performance. Think it’s overkill? His team won the championship for 10 years out of 12 and it started by paying big attention to small details.
Small things become big things, and the basics are the small things.
Viewed a certain way, the squat is the simplest thing imaginable; sit your bum between your heels. Begin analysing it, and the complexities can seem endless; knees out, chest up, elbows down, back tight, screw the floor, drive with your hips, drive with your chest, brace your lats, and on and on.
Get someone who knows what they’re doing to watch you squat and give you one to three things to focus on at a time. If your really suck, just focusing on one thing at a time is fine. If you’re pretty good already you may be able to handle three things.
I am obviously not just talking about the squat. This applies to every lift you ever perform. Some lifts are the basic lifts. Some lifts are not basic, but they have their own basics. Put another way; what are the one to three things you should be focusing on when you are doing what you are doing, in order to do it well?
You can apply this to doing the dishes as much to strength training.
And whenever you feel like you’re getting pretty good – like you’ve got this thing figured out – then that is exactly when you should strip things back and refocus on the basics.
In programming terminology you might call this planned regression. In minimalism you would call it simplification.
It is really the natural ebb and flow of life. You accumulate stuff. Experience. Things. Skills. Then you whittle and discard them down to the bare bones and begin again with something more refined. In this way you daisy chain your way up the ladder of mastery and in twenty years time you are really pretty damn good.
Take the time to go backwards. One step back, two steps forward.
You are never to good for the basics.
One of the things that you absolutely must keep in mind during every rep of every set of this programme is developing mastery.
Coach talks of virtuosity – when a person reaches a level of accomplishment that becomes seemingly effortless, and artistic. But mastery contains within it virtuosity – it is broader and deeper.
Ultimately we are developing mastery of self. And through mastery of self, the ability to project that skill outwards – in this instance, on game day. During Open WODs, the Regionals, and even the Games.
The most fundamental step in pursuing mastery is a relentless devotion to perfecting the basics of your craft.
In functional fitness this refers to mastering your own personal technique for each of the basic lifts. Developing them as skills. You must be single minded in your devotion to every rep. This is why we will not be going all out on most met cons. All out is saved for game day – once you have developed mastery.
Practice is where your skills are forged. Practice must be a hot fire – but it must not destroy your mettle. RPEs of 8s and 9s will be your bread and butter so that you can develop the ability to deliver a perfect rep time after time after time.
The perfect rep has been described by others and for different purposes.
A perfect rep for us can be many things. For a one rep max deadlift it is smooth, consistent in form, with a powerful lockout and no weak links. For a one rep max snatch it is consistency of form delivered as fast and as precisely as possible. For a 50 rep chipper, it is efficient, consistent reps that are as unconscious as breathing.
When you can produce the basics perfectly, without thinking, every time, then you can play to win.
You are probably familiar with four steps to learning something:
The first stage is where you don’t even know that you suck. The second stage is where you realise you suck. But you still suck. And you’re very aware of it. The third stage is where you no longer suck, but you have to concentrate pretty hard. This is the stage when people are learning to drive where they end up in a cold sweat from concentrating for half an hour.
The fourth stage, finally, is where you don’t even need to think about what you are doing. You’re good. To continue with the theme of driving – you’re now at a stage where you will drive for half an hour and then think, oh shit, I don’t remember driving.
But there is in fact a subsequent stage and this is where mastery comes in. When you have drilled the basics to the point of unconscious competence you are able to selectively utilise your conscious brain to add to and improve your unconscious movements.
5. Supra-conscious competence
This is a level of consciousness over and above what is normally achieved, where you can focus on incredibly tiny and subtle details of your sport or art. Details that no-one else even knows exist.
This develops because over time you can further increase the amount of work which you can do unconsciously – and further refine the moments to which you can bring your conscious brain to bear.
Lets give an example.
Most proficient lifters can perform squats without thinking too much about the technique. More complicated movements like thrusters are performed with aplomb. Yet as fatigue sets in the limits of their unconscious are exposed. They must expend more and more conscious effort on simply retaining the basics. They have not yet attained the highest levels of mastery.
In the depths of competition this is a severe weakness.
But watch what happens when a master is on the field – the most obvious one being Rich Froning in this particular field. I would argue that his conditioning is not significantly better than his peers. Yet he is noticeably the most consistent and present athlete on the field as the workouts and days wear on.
Indeed, it seems that his ability to not drop off as much as the other athletes is what contributes to his third-day dominance.
But what is really happening?
Early on, he sets his internal metronome. He sticks to it. He works at a pace where his unconscious handles the basics flawlessly, leaving his conscious free to make subtle, split-second decisions. These happened very obviously on a few occasions.
One such occasion was in a race to the finish against Scott Panchik at regionals during Nasty Girls V2. Scott moved faster through the final set of hang power cleans. But Froning moved with more presence, and instead of dropping the bar pushed it up and backwards over his head. Not having to navigate a bouncing bar meant he finished in first by just a second.
Watching the video you can even see that Froning has time to think about what his next move is, even during the final, very tight few seconds of the event.
He has time because his subconscious brain is still executing his movement pattern flawlessly, and his conscious brain can therefore work completely independently.
All great athletes have this quality of being able to look like they are moving in slow motion, while making everyone else look frantic and desperate. That’s because in those heightened states, they feel like time has slowed. Their conscious brain is capable of taking in all the extra things that can give them the winning edge.
This is not voodoo or magic. It is a real, achievable state of being. You achieve it through a relentless pursuit of perfecting the basics.
Every rep, every single time, is a chance to increase your mastery.