This past year, I set sail trying to pick apart Olympic weightlifting training and gymnastics training with the eye to steal the best and most applicable of each to piece together for my own hybrid training philosophy. It's been surprisingly successful to this point. (Who doesn't want to be a combination of those two athletes, really?)
One thing I struggled to understand for a long time was how to train at a higher frequency. I was clueless, and had no idea how anyone could make predictable progress (see the end of this article on chaos in training) while doing something like squatting every day.
But, by a mishap, I found my answer — something I call the Stoic Single. It not only hinted at how to train at a higher frequency, but also made me stronger.
On hating medium, and how I approach training
For those that don’t know me, I’m a fan of going either (a) heavy or (b) light. Or, as I wrote about it on my Antifragile post, either (a) do something more than you’re used to or (b) doing something light enough so that you’re ready for (a) when the time comes. As Charlie Francis once said: our highs are too low; our lows too high.
I’ll blame Dan John: I hate medium.
There’s a lot that goes on under the hood of this though. For one, I’m not a huge fan of maximal effort training to failure. Save for mishaps, I never train to failure. Doing more doesn’t always end in more, as no one gets stronger ad infinitum. My body, on any given day, decides whether or not to go for broke, but one thing is sure: my light days always facilitate my heavy days, otherwise, they wouldn’t be very “light” now would they?
Another way phrase this light day facilitation: light days make heavy days easier by not impeding with recovery. Most people have an artificial perception of what “light” means in their mind, likely because we reduce the totality of stress down to weight on the bar.
This is a problem.
The skill of maxing
At some point, everyone that trains with a barbell begins notices that handling a heavy weight is fundamentally different than handling a lighter weight. More often than not, there's a cusp — a weight goes from tolerable to hrmpphhuuuggggghhhh. My personal example: front squats with 275 pounds. For whatever reason, that was the point where things got dicey (even though my max was above 275).
In Squat Every Day, Matt Perryman talks about how handling near-max weights requires a different skill set than handling light weights, and I think that's a fantastic way to put things.
The best analogy for this, in my opinion, is of throwing a baseball accurately. You can do a lob toss or you can throw the ball as fast as possible. In each case, the mechanics are the same, but the mechanics are just one part of the equation. The intensity, in some manner, dictates your ability to perform. You might be able to kill the Cat Rack with the lob toss, but what about throwing as fast as possible?
Just get stronger, right…?
For many people, the answer to getting more comfortable at 275 would be to increase your absolute max. The stronger you are, the easier everything else underneath becomes. While I agree with this to some extent, a noteworthy experience in the past made me go another direction.
Anytime I see strength under the guise of skill, I think back to my 40 Day + PLP experiments. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III.) They taught me that strength was more than weight on the bar, and that perception and “amp” could also predict strength. In other words, if you have to snap an ammonia cap, punch yourself in the face, and listen to Mercenary to lift something, you're not as strong as someone that can lift that same weight yawning.
And so when you combine the three buckets of consideration in
- Making a light day . . . light
- Practicing heavy lifting as a skill
- Tracking emotional arousal
the Stoic Single flew out of the womb.
Psychophysiological arousal and lifting
We are, for the most part, told to go heavy or go home. Pain is weakness leaving the body.
You might be familiar with Westside and their three ways of achieving maximal muscle fiber recruitment:
- (ME) Maximal Effort: lifting a weight over 90%1RM (it’s worth noting that ME lifts aren’t always taken to failure)
- (RE) Repeated Effort: lifting a light(er) weight to failure
- (DE) Dynamic Effort: lifting a lighter(er) weight as fast as possible
There’s also the (SE) submaximal effort method which is generally lifting 70-85% 1RM within a certain range without being taken to failure—this was the method primarily used by the coaches I interned under, and they got great results with their athletes.
Now, I'm not a huge fan of training to failure or the dynamic effort method for non-powerlifters (just go trick or something), but that's not the point here. I'm breaking these down to show this:
- ME – high psychophysiological arousal, heavy weight (trying to break max)
- RE – high psychophysiological arousal, lighter weight (taking to failure)
- DE – high psychophysiological arousal, lighter weight (maximal acceleration)
- SE – medium-high psychophysiological arousal, lighter-medium weight
We're never really handling a heavy weight unless we mean business. In other words, every time we train with a heavy weight, we're also training under the influence of ammonia (if you're into that sorta thing), punching ourselves in the face, and listening to Mercenary. In other words, we're not really getting a lot of “practice” in with handling heavy weights.
More importantly, we never learn how to perform at a high level without it also being very physically and mentally draining.
Of course, you can't train frequently if you're always destroying yourself mentally and physically. But what if you shifted your focus to lifting a heavy weight without much investment? What if you practiced your way to handling near-maximal weights with a stone face?
What if we learn how to perform at a high level without it being very physically and mentally draining?
The benefits of the Stoic Single
As if you couldn't have guessed, the Stoic Single is all about crushing a heavy weight with zero emotional investment. Volume is kept low to save the body extra stress. Going back to my front squat example @ 275:
So warm-up to a weight you’d never miss, but one that’s still rather heavy. Lift it crisply with next to zero emotional arousal. If you’re yawning and texting in between sets, you’re doing it right. Don't listen to music.
The benefits of the Stoic Single include solving problems that only creep up with heavy weights. For instance, the upper back usually rounds over in some in a heavy front squat, but not in a light front squat. This is just one example, but a lot of lifts have “heavy” problems that aren't present with “light” weights. You get more work on these problems because you're training heavy.
You might be wondering how the Stoic Single classifies as a “light” day, and I go back to my original classification: the light day makes for an easier heavier day. One of the benefits of Stoic Singles: your emotional investment drops even when handling a heavy weight.
So, in my case, I learned how to lift 275 without trying, which made everything else above it seem easier. This is the 40 Day + PLP effect in a nutshell.
More practice = more frequency
After toying around with the Stoic Single on my light days, I began to test it out as a means of increasing frequency. I slowly crept front squats in on my traditional rest days, gradually working up to a heavier and heavier weight over time. I always kept the training fresh and emotionless. I never listened to my body until I got a few reps into my system. More often than not, I found myself stopping at 275 even though I had more in the tank. Occasionally, I crept up to 315 without much issue.
As you can imagine, when I did actually go heavy on front squats, they didn’t feel as heavy because 275 became so mundane.
The case and philosophy of higher frequency training
To bring things full circle here, this illuminated my philosophy of high frequency training. You have some sort of pinnacle of your abilities. High frequency training isn't overtly meant to push this pinnacle. Instead, it's about learning how to perform at a level closer to this pinnacle with less emotional investment.
So with tricking, for instance, say you can do a jacknife. You might have a few sessions where you do your jacknife balls to the wall, maybe even going for a more advanced variation. But the other sessions, if you wanted to train often, would be all about learning how to do the 540 with less emotional investment. When you can do them amazing while yawning, move into the jacknife. Do the same. Then when you can jacknife when yawning, just imagine what you can do when you actually put forth the energy to kill.
If there's one thing people are missing…
…it's the ability to own a heavy weight. There's really nothing like getting under a bar, not really trying, and putting up something that was previously seen as difficult.
We all have a ceiling that we can't lose sight of. But that doesn't mean we can't also work on our ability to perform under the confines of said ceiling. Sometimes being able to perform at a relatively high level 24/7 is more important than being able to perform at an absolutely high level two or three days per week.
If you want to experiment with the former, give the Stoic Single a try. As crazy at it sounds, I don't care about much of anything these days save for emotional arousal. I squat or deadlift every training session. I train my upper body every day. From what I've found, as long as you keep your cool, your body will also keep its cool.