Progress: The Bigger Picture

Greg Glassman famously told us that “...the needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents, vary by degree and not kind.” On the face of it, this is a very simple statement, which may appear too obvious to mention, to some. Think about it a little more contextually though, and I think we really are onto something.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve met people who are intimidated by the prospect of advanced athletes. Put this into a normal gym setting, and it can be positively terrifying because, without guidance, one might feel even more inadequate than they already do. So for the masses who cannot justify paying for one to one coaching, the answer must be group fitness classes, right? Well, yes, but not any group fitness class. You see, one of the takeaways from Coach Glassman’s quote is that we all have needs from our fitness. For the Olympic athlete, they include competing and being successful at the highest level. For our grandparents, there’s far more interest in maintaining independence, and far less in competing. Both, though, seek progress from their current standing. How much progress, and toward what goal, is the degree to which those needs vary.

So why not any fitness class? Any class I have visited, runs a one size fits all class, expecting the individual to mould to the movements, and being ill-prepared to adapt any movements to the individual. Strip back the layers, and there’s a lack of a deeper understanding of the intended stimulus for a workout, and how to ensure each person gets the most from it. It is at this point we separate ourselves. We plan a movement, a weight (if applicable), and a number of repetitions. This will be part (usually) of a larger workout, with other movements and weights. Taking an appreciation for what each movement is looking to achieve, and combining this with knowledge of what the workout as a whole should be achieving, and we’re partway there. Couple this understanding with the skills to observe movement, and best alter range of motion, intensity, weight or entire movements to preserve the intended stimulus, is where the magic happens. This is what your coach will draw on to provide YOU with the right workout. In a class of ten people, with one workout written on the board, it’s not uncommon to see 10 different versions of the workout being performed. At the extremes, this is pushing the limits of the Olympic athlete, whilst allowing our grandparents to safely progress towards maintaining independence.

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The reality is, the vast majority of us fall somewhere between the two highlighted extremes. How then do we make the fine adjustments to tailor the workout to suit? Here are my top 5 tips:

1. Lose the ego

We’ve all got one. It can be very helpful, helping us lift big weights, or perform new skills, based on confidence and self-belief. It can far more often be very damaging though. When we teach with a PVC pipe, or an empty bar, that’s for everyone. Olympic athletes start here, so does your grandma. These are the bits we ALL do the same. We never outgrow the basics, and our need to revisit them.

2. Take baby steps

If I had a pound for every time I’ve watched people just about make a big lift, then slap 10kg on for the next attempt. Progress is made one or two kilos at a time. If the prescribed weight on the board is 60kg for cleans, the 55, or even 57.5kg are viable options. Those few kilos could be the difference between you benefiting greatly from the workout and leaving dejected having not realised your potential.

3. Lose the labels associated with movements

We’re great fans of using varied scales for movements when we plan sessions, but you need to take ownership of your own progress. We are here to guide and advise you, but ultimately, it’s on you! Forget the “I do push-ups on a 30” box” mentality and learn when to adapt that. If it’s only a few push-ups per round, and there’s a lot of other stuff in between sets, then challenge yourself, try a 20” box. If the workout calls for 100 push-ups in a row, then a 30” box, or even the wall, will allow you to achieve what we’re looking for. Try to fit the scale to the workout.

4. You do you

Friendly competition is great. It drives us to do better and gives us comparisons by which to assess our own progress. It has its pitfalls too though. Even if you consider somebody the same standard as you, there will be movements or types of workout where you will each outperform the other. This will either result in you pushing the scale too hard in a futile, and ultimately dissatisfying, attempt to keep pace, or you’ll go too easy on yourself, cruising through the workout and not getting the full effect. If your closest rival hits a new record on their back squat, it doesn’t in any way reduce the value of your squat. Focus on your own progress, using people as benchmarks when it is suitable.

5. Be consistent

The best mental attitude and physical approach to each class can only do so much. If you only show up twice per week, you WILL NOT achieve what you could with 4 or 5 sessions on a regular basis. We all get ill, need holidays and lead busy lives, but it’s a question of priorities. Having other priorities is absolutely fine, as long as you can accept where that leaves you. You will still progress, but you might be doing push-ups on that 30” box for longer than your peers!