Insightful practice in the pursuit of meaningful results
Updated: May 12
As I write this, the UK is currently in roughly week 6 of a soft lockdown due to COVID-19. I say roughly, as i'm not too concerned with exactly how long its been. In terms of days and weeks measured, the whole thing has started to become one long experience similar to that weird week between Christmas and New year, where days lose meaning and blend into one.
I've been very curious about why results from my training, and indeed my whole experience in the pursuit of getting stronger with my bodyweight whilst being lean and muscular, all seem to have gone up a considerable notch.
This "notch" remains hard to precisely quantify, though I will fumble around it, and as ever try to give you the best take away's that i can. The purpose of this blog is as much to consolidate and journal on my own insights as well as provide you with what practical advice I can from this learning experience.
First, a general description of the results i have seen over the last 6 weeks or so. Namely, my strength has gone up considerably from what it was before (we'll get to all manners of the "before" later). My goals specifically have been for a while, the straddle planche on floor and one arm chin-up on rings.
I have moved up a progression from a shaky 15 second tuck planche to a solid and comfortable 10 second advanced tuck planche. Hardly gold medal material i'm sure you'll agree, but what matters is context, and in this context, I have been stuck on tuck planche for some 2 years.
Secondly, the one arm chin-up. I had been using pulley assisted reps of 20kgs for 5-8 reps 6 weeks prior, with perhaps a shaky eccentric first if I was feeling strong that day. Now, i'm onto multiple reps of controlled eccentrics, and a pulley assisted rep of 5kgs.
Some secondary results, are a 2.5kg reduction in weight, and some much more clearly defined abs. Nutrition has always been the hurdle I fall on, maintaining an "upper abs" look, but never quite being shredded. I dare say that I am on a gradual and continuous path to minimum viable body fat (we are as calisthenic practitioners after all punished for every bit of unnecessary fat we carry).
Alright, so we've got a picture of the results and the context behind them, whats exactly has changed? As i mentioned previously, its hard to quantify all aspects of this, my life for the last 6 weeks has not been a strict controlled environment. And yet, through insights of my training journal, and my intuition from past experience of jumps in results, I am going to offer the following.
Isolation, which has provided the time for uninterrupted deep practice, has lead to increased time in a "flow" state, which has lead to a more insightful process, and therefore, an improvement in results which seems drastic when compared to the distracted process before
There is nothing not obvious about this statement, and yet, in times not so far from the past, I find myself fumbling around for ways to be less distracted. Note that i did not say "more productive". From insights into my own practice, I do feel that I can look you in the eye and say that deep practice was not particularly hard to come by, its the "staying in" that's the kicker.
Small talk in the gym, social media, emails, youtube, there are always distractions available. I offer most of if not all of my success over the last 6 weeks, not to my otherworldly ability to focus, but from the focus and absence from distraction that isolation has gifted upon me, in the form of insightful practice.
Whats also interested to note, is that this is not the first time that this has happened in my training. In January of 2016, I set out to achieve my first bar muscle up. My training ground was my local park, where they had a pull-up and dip station in the playground.
I would end my day job at 4pm, and be in the park for 5. In January, it was already dark and getting towards finger numbingly cold by this time, and the playground was deserted of the local children who got out of school around 3. This left me with two hours of uninterrupted training time.
My gym bag was light. A training journal, my phone as a metronome for counting rep tempo, a timer, and a bottle of liquid chalk.
I had armed myself with a workout plan I had designed after reading Christopher Sommers book "Building the Gymnastic Body" (read for the second time - the first time i read it around 2012 and tried to start my first session with straddle L sits was not a success).
I still have the training journals from that time, and i can tell you that the devil was not in the plan itself, but much more in the process. After each set, I would write down one or two insights I had learned, and should consciously look to apply going forward.
Some sets were only one rep, which allowed me to really concentrate on what exactly was going on. I'd be resting at least 3 minutes between each set, which, when in the freezing dark, really puts you in the mentality to concentrate fully on what you're doing, and consciously look to make the most of your time.
Through this process of insight, I managed to go from barely getting the full neck over the bar in an explosive pull up, to my first bar muscle up, in 8 weeks.
This also resulted in unlocking straight bar Russian dips as a byproduct.
Again, I am not here to sell you the idea that the workout program I used is superior , I am fully convinced that the essence of this success lies in the uninterrupted period of which i could provide myself with deep insight into my own training, which allowed me to do away with the unnecessary, and create an efficient process.
These insights also lead me to taking stronger action towards my goals in the kitchen. I was giving my body clear instructions to remove unnecessary baggage, and add horsepower where possible.
If we look at these two periods in my training career, and see that they had similar spikes, we can look first to the simplest of explanations
Both involved periods of isolation, where i was able to focus and provide myself with deep insight
We can understand then, that an environment which promotes deep insight, is the most productive for training progress, at least, that's what i've found for myself.
But what about training with a partner? Doesn.t having someone scream "one more" when you quite possibly would have cut the set short without giving your all, promote progress?
I'm going to do my best to dance with this question, though I may trip over my own feet.
In this instance, I would say your greatest ally is your conscience. I mean this on two levels.
The first, is that when training alone, you always have your conscience on hand, who will tell you if you are capable of one more rep. Should you ignore it and come down, you will be hit with a feeling of guilt and inadequacy. This is an insight. Insights are quite possibly your greatest tool. When you have the thought of "I cant do another rep", ask your conscience "is that true?" and you will get a fast response. I highly suggest you listen to this response, and act on it.
(For further reading on this, i recommend looking into Socrates and his thought on the conscience. He was known as the wisest man in Greece because he listened to and acted on it. Imagine if when your conscience said "stop doing this" you acted on it for the next year. Yep... get reading!)
Secondly, there is the task of asking your conscience if training with your partner helps your process, or hinders it. A partner that corrects form, knows exactly when to push you (and when to tell you to cut the set due to technical failure too) can be worth their weight in gold. However, a partner that ads to distractions, seems absent minded, and is looking for you to babysit them through a session, is not insightful.
If you chose to train with a partner, its helpful to constantly review this process. I don't mind telling you that i once started an attendance sheet for a training partner who had a string of days where he showed up late, or cancelled. I marked his time keeping for a month before showing him. After seeing a few blocks of red grouped together on this chart, he soon got his arse in gear.
Insight is a beautiful thing, protect it like your results depend on it, because they do
So, i would like to leave you with some takeaways so you have a sense of what to do next, should you chose. The most important of all, is to promote a training state where you can provide yourself with deep insight. This naturally leads to us to promoting a training environment that is as distraction free as possible. I've found that the getting to the state of deep practice is often damage control. Insight is not an offensive measure to attack distraction. Rather, deep practice needs its own suit of armour to shield against the distractions of the world. With that, here are some steps and measures I would recommend.
A suit of armour goes around the hours in which you wish to train. Inside those hours, the following are helpful
A pen and paper
Anything else that's absolutely necessary, your water and equipment etc.
Again, the key here is not that solitude provides the answer, but that insight does. Therefore, our goal is to promote deep practice, for meaningful insight.
Thank you for reading. I'm going to continue to develop my own deep practice, sharpen the tools, and improve the process where i can.
For further reading, I highly recommend "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. A special thank you to Cal for providing me with deeper insight into why these training periods in my life have been so successful.