How To Find Balance in Training
“Optimize between efficiency and resilience.” -John Vervaeke
In physical training, we can’t do it all. If we want to get good at something, we can’t train for every quality at the same time. How then, do we prioritize and make good planning decisions?
Our programming decisions exist on multiple spectrums. Some important examples include:
Specific v General
Performance v Durabiity
Work v Recovery
Strength v Endurance
Choosing to emphasize a quality on one end of the spectrum means not choosing another. Every decision that we make involves trade-offs. In light of this, how do we figure out where on the spectrum to situate our training?
In this piece I will focus on the polarity of efficiency versus resilience. I will focus on strength training, while emphasizing principles which can apply to a broad range of learning and training. I will use an imaginary powerlifter, Brenda, to illustrate our examples.
On the efficiency end of this spectrum we have highly specific training which is focused on improving a particular set of abilities or qualities. Brenda focuses almost all of her training efforts on performing the back squat, bench press, and deadlift, which as a powerlifter are her three competition lifts. Along with her very specific exercise selection, she trains the movements themselves in an efficient manner. She practices and finds the most optimal movement pattern for each of her three lifts, which makes her extremely proficient and strong. She develops a level of deep refinement. Brenda has the chance to hit high levels of performance. Specialization allows for potential mastery of her skillset.
However, in order to achieve mastery she must get through the training and remain physically intact. She will be at an elevated risk of injury and burnout, both of which she must avoid or ride through in order to find success. Her strength will be within narrow movement patterns, she will likely have physical imbalances, and she may see negative impacts on her health. The drawbacks of specialization include fragility and a lower level of general athletic capability.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a strong emphasis on resilience. In this scenario, Brenda occasionally practices her three competition lifts. However, she spends the vast majority of her time on a wide-ranging selection of movements and practices. This might include accessory work for high reps, cardio, mobility, foam rolling, daily cold immersion, lifting and carrying odd objects, and hitting some anaerobic conditioning to round out her training. She has balanced development and stability in her joints, she is highly injury resistant, her athleticism is broad, and she has put a lot of effort into being a healthy athlete. She is pretty good at a lot of things, while excelling at none. The benefits of training for resilience include physical and mental durability, a wider ranging athletic development and capability, career longevity, and health.
The drawbacks of generalism include limited refinement, a lack of mastery, and a lower performance level within the competitive domain.
The Extremes or Balance?
When, if at all, do you want to be on one end of the training spectrum or the other? What does the appropriate balance look like and how do you plan for it?
You will want to ask yourself questions. The following would make for good starting points:
What are your short, medium, and long term athletic goals?
Are you making a livelihood from your sport?
How injury prone are you?
How broad are the set of capabilities that you want or need to have for your profession, sport, or aspirations?
Where do you want to be, in terms of physical capability and health, when you get older?
How old are you now?
Now for some thoughts:
If you are preparing to enter a competition, and the date is not far off, it would be a good time for more specificity.
If you are not a competitor, or if competition is far off, then a more balanced approach ought to be considered.
The younger you are, the more built-in durability you probably have. Therefore, the older you are the more you ought to be considering issues like durability and health.
The Argument for Balance & How to Achieve It
Ultimately, it becomes risky and self-limiting to focus on efficiency for too long. If you do not compete in a sport nor have specific physical requirements for your profession then shifting towards resilience or spending most of your training time somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum makes sense.
How do you go about having a balanced approach? You can either train in a balanced way year round or you can reposition yourself on the spectrum throughout the year. We will continue with strength training for our examples.
There are several approaches to training in a balanced way year round:
Make every session balanced. This is the most simple approach. Here’s one way to do it:
Thorough warmup which includes calisthenics, mobility, unilateral and midsection exercises. The warmup can change frequently
One big strength lift for low reps. Rotate through your main movements from session to session
Followed by a handful of accessory exercises or conditioning work for higher reps. These exercises are changed frequently as well
Make every week balanced by using different types of sessions in rotation. You might use a specific session, followed by a balanced session later in the week, and end the week with a very general session. This could look something like:
Monday - two big lifts
Wednesday - one big lift & two or three accessory exercises
Friday - accessory exercises and conditioning
Or, you could train different qualities at different points in the year. Balance in your training can be achieved over a much longer time frame by using training phases. Long training phases lasting weeks or months can be used where your training stays in one mode, but eventually changes phases between specificity, balance, and resilience. This approach is well-suited to those with a competition schedule as it allows for enough specificity to sharpen up technique and performance before an important event.
General Thoughts for the Generalist
For those lifters who decide to pursue a more generalist approach, here are some additional thoughts to keep in mind when deciding what to include in your resilience training.
You can’t just keep adding to the number of exercises you do, especially not in a constrained training-time window. When you add something you usually need to subtract something else.
Focus on injury prevention. Consider how you might train your strength at the end range of motion. Think about balance in the joints. Build muscle tissue with repetition work and the appropriate nutrition to support it. Open up the chest, hip flexors, and other areas that tend to get tight.
Hit specific neglected areas such as the neck or the wrists. This will depend upon your sport and your lifestyle.
Train your abs and low back. Your midsection cannot be too strong.
Make unilateral work a regular part of your training. Especially with your warmups and your accessory exercises, include dumbbell or kettlebell work and other exercises where each arm or leg is working independently from the other.
Be strong and healthy. Do cardiovascular work regularly. This is especially important as you get older.
Train your mind and your will. Long duration, unpleasant training can have a beneficial effect on your mental toughness.
With some thought this analysis could be applied to any sport or, more than that, to any skill acquisition. Think through the spectrum between deep specialization and broad generalism. Determine what serves your needs. Position your preparation carefully along the spectrum. Re-assess and then make adjustments on a regular basis. Most importantly, keep asking yourself questions to make sure that you are making the right decisions.