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.