Why Most of You are Doing Mindless Reps

Written by: Kevin Cann

I think that most coaches will agree that repetitions in training should be focused and that mindless repetitions are not too beneficial beyond a certain point.  There is only so far that “checking a box” will get you.

However, I do not believe that most understand what focused reps are.  When I ask people what that means I get responses like “Not checking my phone”, or “I think about the things that I need to do to execute the lift.”

I have made this mistake as a coach, and still make this mistake.  I will give lifters 1 to 2 things to focus on in each lift.  However, instead of hearing the feedback from them and guiding them to self-discovery, I tell them whether they are executing what I asked better than before.

This can hurt in 2 areas; for one, it means that if they were not doing better, that they are not getting better.  I did not say this, but their minds can easily interpret it that way.  This can lead to lack of learning and a lack of progress.

The other negative that was happening was their ego would turn on and have the conversations with themselves.  I am not talking about the ego that thinks we can just do anything, but instead the area of the brain that is responsible for our conscious existence and making sense of that consciousness.

The problem with the ego is it is not the part of the brain that takes in and interprets the experiences of the world, it only narrates.  In this sense it is not connected to our bodies.  Our body was built with mechanisms to take in information from our environment and to use this information to get better.  

One of these avenues to receive information is known as proprioception.  We receive sensory information from moving through the environment.  This exists so that we can learn to dominate that environment.  Our subconscious brain is also always taking in information and more powerful than any supercomputer while our conscious brain can process only about 7 bits of information.

When we try to use our conscious brain to execute a movement, we are in essence trying too hard and trying to force that movement.  Because of the low processing speed of this area of the brain, we are not receptive to the feedback we are receiving through movement.

We then use our conscious brain to watch the video of our previous set and wonder why it is not getting better, or only slightly better.  This can carry on for eternity.  IN the beginning this can be very helpful as we begin to learn the lifts.  This learning can last longer than many people think.  However, after a few years we can see a stagnation in this development of skills.

At this point we need to trust our body to know what it is doing and trust our body and unconscious mind to supply us with the feedback that we need to dominate our environment.  This is in our genes.  

The coach can be a tool that acts as an extension of the ego.  This is the coach that talks too much as the lifter is attempting to execute the lifts.  We have all been this coach at one time or another.  This is the equivalent to being a helicopter parent.  We need to let our kids fall and get back up to learn to walk, the same is true for developing any skill.

So how do we get the lifter to use their more powerful unconscious mind and make them more receptive to proprioceptive feedback?  For one, there is a difference between sensation and perceptions.  Sensations are always there, but the ones we pay attention to are what we perceive.

I want you to feel the floor through your feet as you read this.  That sensation was there the whole time, but now that you are more aware of it, you are perceiving it.  We need to get lifters to develop that awareness under the barbell.

This has been the tricky part for me for years.  The balance of telling lifters what they need to improve, but then telling them to stop overthinking.  I finally had a light bulb moment yesterday when I was training.

I usually use my breath to focus my attention in the current moment.  I have been shifting to the left in my deadlift, and I decided to just pay attention to how my weight shifts on my feet when I walk and when I was standing between sets.  The goal was not to change anything, but to just observe.

The steps and my weight on my feet were happening in the current moment and my thinking was that this would help me perceive my shift of balance in the lift.  I believe that doing it between reps really warmed up this awareness muscle and I was able to feel my weight on my feet throughout the whole rep and my execution improved immensely right on the spot.

When I reflected on past training days, I was telling myself to drive my feet out, but when I was pulling, I was only aware of pulling my chest up and the setup.  Both of which I execute well, obviously if I am giving my attention there.

When I was talking to a lifter last night, I wanted to try something from a coaching angle.  I told her not to film the next set, but to instead tell me a story of that squat that paints those images in my brain.  I told her I needed her to be very detailed about her thoughts, emotions, and actions.  

Her description began with her telling me she was thinking about the lift, and then her brain went to “The cure is a very underrated band.”  This is important information as we need to know when our mind is wandering and only then can we bring it back judgment free to the current moment.

As she was going through the lift and I was asking questions, she realized that she lost the awareness of her feet on the ground at a given point in the lift.  The next set, she could put more of her awareness there and see what happens.  The key is to do this judgment free and to just allow it to happen.  The second we begin to force it to happen, we will not move as fluidly, and performance will suffer.  This is usually seen from a lifter slowing down as they try to pay attention.  Trust your body and just let it happen.

My ability as a coach to get lifters to get to these places is a skill that I am going to have to work hard to develop as this is not easy.  Meditation every day is critical to develop awareness and tools to refocus our wandering minds, and self-reflection is necessary to learn from experiences.  The more we do these exercises the greater our strengths in these areas become and the greater our performance becomes on and off the platform.

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