Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Strength as skill

"Strength is a skill". 

That has almost become a cliche, particularly around the kettlebell community, but there is much truth in this simple sentence. 

I first same across this idea when Clarence Bass introduce Pavel's idea of synaptic facilitation, that so much of strength is neurological, an idea that Pavel expounded in his article Greasing the Groove (pdf)

Of course this is related to the ideas of Z health too (check out the material here) and Todd Hargrove had a great post the other day on the brain's impact on strength. 

Linked to all of this I received a fascinating email this morning from Bill who often comments on the blog.  It explains his experience of how practice makes him stronger.  I'll post it all here and would be really interested in your comments of thoughts:

Your recent articles on Z-Health and other neurological aspects of improving performance reminded me of an experiment I did about 6 months ago.  First a little background.

I'm building an experimental airplane, and was fastening parts with a rivet squeezer and noticed something strange.  The rivet hand squeezer is setup to squeeze a solid aluminum rivet to a specific size, and once setup correctly the force required to set each rivet in a row of rivets is identical.  Squeezing them is relatively difficult.  First the squeezer handles (about 18" long) are squeezed with one hand to start setting the rivet, then the other hand is added above that (further out on the handles where there is more leverage) and the rivet begins to compress.  As it compresses, it becomes more difficult and the hand closes to the pivot point of the handles is then moved to the end of the handles and both hands are used to squeeze until the handles touch.

So each rivet requires identical force, and an identical amount of work is done each time.  Long lead in, but here's the thing I discovered:  After riveting for approximately 10 minutes at the rate of 3-5 rivets/minute I noticed it suddenly became easier to squeeze the handles to completion.  The first time it happened I feared the settings on the squeezer had gotten bumped and I was no longer squeezing the rivet to the same depth, but a quick check showed that not to be the case.  For some reason, it suddenly became easier or my perception of the difficult changed.

The rest of the rivets set during that session all felt easy.  The effect was profound enough that I watched for it the next time I riveted, and between 10 and 15 minutes in I suddenly noticed the change again.  The change is SUDDEN.  40-60 rivets are drive with difficulty, and then suddenly the next rivet is easy and all subsequent rivets feel easy.  There is no change to the squeezer, it's as simple as a pair of pliers.

So I began to wonder if there was something chemical (ATP, mitochondrial, etc.) or neurological that was happening to change the real or perceived level of difficulty.  I decided to experiment with a larger movement, and went into my CrossFit gym early to play.

My one rep max deadlift at that time was 405, so I picked just over 60% as my starting point and loaded up a bar with 255 and grabbed a stopwatch.  I decided to do a deadlift every 15 seconds for 15 minutes or until I noticed the change I noticed when riveting.  Talk about a boring workout! 

For the next 12 minutes I pulled 255 off the ground every 15 seconds and dropped it.  I had just about given up, when the pull at 12:30 suddenly felt easier.  It was just as sudden and just as profound as what I had experienced riveting.  So much so that I took at break at 14:00 and started adding weight to the bar.  I added weight every 2-4 pulls and spent minutes 17-19 doing a deadlift every 15 seconds at 365. 

I was shocked and googled to see if anyone had research in this area but came up empty.  I mentioned it to a fellow CrossFitter, who thought it sounded very weird.  But I talked him into doing it with me the following week so we committed to doing deadlifts every 15 seconds with 265 for 15 minutes.  I noticed the sudden shift on the rep at 12:15 this time.  I didn't say anything, and my workout partner suddenly looked up in shock when he did his rep at 13:30.  He said he thought I was full of crap, but he agreed it suddenly got easier.  We just kept going until 15 minutes and he agreed all the deadlifts for him after that point felt easier than all of the reps leading up to it.

Since then I have done it a few more times with additional weight and have also tested it with everything from strict presses to front squats to weighted pullups.  The effect occurs for me between 10 and 12 minutes consistently.  I've also gone from a 1 rep 405 to triples at 415 on the deadlift.  FWIW, my 405 max was at a bodyweight of 205.  My 415 triple is at a current bodyweight of 190.

So, I keep looking for some Z-Health type of approach to understanding what causes this to happen, and how it could be leveraged for greater performance.  Since you're clearly enjoying your research in this area I figured I would send it your way.  It's an easy thing to play with if you're curious, though I don't know if it has any value beyond an interesting observation.

Take care, and let me know if you have any thoughts on this or decide to experiment with it.


Steven Sashen said...

I noticed something similar during a recent deadlift workout.

I normally do 3-5 sets at 90-95% 1RM (my 1RM is 470 at 145 pounds). For some reason, though, I was curious about doing some 60-70% work, so I decided to alternate between weighted dips and deadlifts for 15 minutes

When I hit the point of feeling REALLY tired, and thinking I needed to add more rest, (about 12 minutes in) I got the idea to keep going, regardless of how hard I was breathing and how much I wanted to stop...

... and the next 5 sets felt easier than ever.

What I thought happened was that, because of the fatigue, I was sort of forced to use the best form that I could muster and be more efficient.

Maybe that's what happened. Maybe it was something else.


Sam Knox said...

This is common in my experience. I've always attributed it to the "warm-up effect".

In any physical activity in which I engage, whether it's hiking, basketball, weight training, or anything else, there's always a transition between a beginning period of perceived weakness or even exhaustion and period of less fatigue and higher performance that gradually falls off to "real" exhaustion.

John Sifferman said...

Bill has stumbled on the neuro-immuno-endocrine response, also known as second wind. This usually happens after a sustained period of continuous physical intensity, and usually strikes between 10-15 minutes, depending on the type of activity and the individual.

The NIE response is the gateway to what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow. It has been given many names that describe the same phenomenon. Runners call it runner's high. Other athletes call it "being in the zone." But it's the same basic process at a neurological level, and it isn't limited to physical recreation either.

John Sifferman said...

Here's an article that describes it in laymen terms:

Stuart Buck said...

I tried this yesterday with front squats: 185 pounds, 1 rep every 20 seconds for 15 minutes (45 total reps). My experience though was that the easiest minutes were around 2 to 3. The last 3 minutes definitely did not get easier, and my quads are nice and sore today.

Ben Edwards said...

Very interesting experiment regarding the 15 minutes of pulls every 15 seconds! What time period was involved in the 405 max to a 415 triple at a lower bodyweight?

The only workout I've done that's comparable is the one I've seen attributed to Kevin Fulton (certified COC 6 years before I did)where a single is done every minute for 40 minutes.

I like the idea of the smaller load being done for 4 reps every minute though and will give this a shot with my grip strength training and let you know what results I get if you'd like.

Ben Edwards

Jason said...

Two self observations.

Doing a kettlebell routine the other day that included a lot of presses. Having completed the routine, I thought I might as well do my 30 day challenge while I am at it.
Current challenge = 5 heavy KB presses L+R every day. (grease the groove)
So having just done a lot of presses I decided to go for the 20kg rather than the 24kg I have been using, expecting to be fatigued and have less than ideal form. Turns out, banged them out with ease. Surprised, pleased but surprised.

Have for a long time had this idea that there is reserve spare capacity within the lung and it is only activated when you have pushed to your max or within 5% or so of it. (steep hill run) However once activated the rest of the run feels like I am barely working at all.
This may be "neuro-immuno-endocrine" as mentioned above, I do not know. But observed on more than one occasion.