As a trainer, I write strength training programs for other folks. I also follow strength training programs written for me by other trainers and coaches. While they vary in format and level of detail, a typical strength training program includes prescribed exercises and their corresponding number of sets and reps per exercise. For example you may see listed:
Goblet Squats 4X8
In this case we are being instructed to do 4 sets of 8 reps of goblet squats. In other words we would do 8 goblet squats followed by a rest, 4 times. Once we understand the notation, following a simple program is fairly straightforward. What is less straightforward is how much rest we should take in between each set of 8 goblet squats. Rest is not always prescribed in a program and even when it is, it often goes ignored.
When I was a Strength Groundwork coach resting was one of the hardest things to teach members to do. The folks who showed up for Strength Groundwork had a variety of goals, but for many of them, getting stronger or bigger as quickly as possible was one of them. This “as quickly as possible” mentality spilled over into the speed with which they moved during their training sessions. If they had four sets they would bang each one out with 10 seconds of rest in between. Either they could not complete the reps and sets well at the prescribed weights, or they were working too light. In both cases they were not doing what it takes to efficiently drive the desired strength adaptation. By investing in a rest of 50-170 more seconds, they would have been able to push harder or move better on their work sets and see greater gains.
I understand how difficult slowing down and pausing can be for some folks. I struggle with this speedy mentality too. While I don’t bring this mindset to the gym, moving like a missile, unstoppable until I crash and burn, is how I often approach any newly adopted skill or reignited passion for an old skill. Take, for example, writing. Throughout my life I have gone through periods of writing. I had a blog in 2000 called Bibliogeek. I had a crafting blog eight years later. I also have loads of personal essays about food and family stashed away for a rewrite on a rainy day. To this day I am often roused by an idea, in the middle of the night. I get up, go to my desk, sit down and write it. I used to sit there for hours on end and write the whole damn thing. Now, I start the same way, groggy but inspired. But now, I get the main idea down and then I walk away. I don’t sit there for hours, hungry, tired, and having to pee. As writing has become a disciplined practice, rather than something I do in fits and starts, I have come to realize I need to take breaks between writing sets. My writing is better when I pause periodically during a writing session, tend to my physical needs, get a glass of water, or go for a very short stroll around my apartment, or a longer one around the block. I believe that I tend to move without pause at times because some part of me is afraid the skill or the idea will go away if I pause and am dormant for a moment. However, I realized that pausing is less like lying dormant, and more like a field lying fallow. While it looks like nothing is happening when a field lies fallow, it is becoming fertile once again. In the gym our bodies’ energy systems are very busy replenishing our fuel-carrying molecules while we sit and rest between sets. When we pause when learning new skills or have new ideas when we pause, we allow for the opportunity for our brain to process and integrate novel stimuli.
The length of your breaks when you strength train vary based on why you are training, what your training history is, and what your work capacity is. I think the same could be said for writing or any other skill you are practicing and turning into a discipline. The path toward mastery needs to be sustainable. When I write I often write about moments that stirred up my feelings. Nobody wants to read my grocery list for ingredients to make ratatouille. But maybe somebody wants to read about the complex mixture of grief and nostalgia I experience when I smell sun soaked tomatoes at the farmer’s market while I shop for ingredients to make ratatouille. Writing grief and nostalgia requires that I go deep into those feelings and capture the sensorial experience of having them. Doing so stirs up my nervous system and therefore, like strength training, demands breaks. If I don’t take breaks when I write the hard stuff, you can tell. The writing is not nearly as good.
Is there a creative or physical practice you are seeking to develop? Do you start full throttle? Maybe you buy all the gear and do it with gusto for a while and then burn out? ( I get it friend.You should see my collection of craft supplies.) If you want to add any new discipline to your life in a sustainable way, remember to take breaks - short ones while you are working and maybe longer ones between projects. You can always come back. Your skills will be there waiting to be honed by you.