Strength training is hard. You want to be sure that every minute on the gym floor pays dividends, every drop of sweat is worth it - especially when being in the gym means you’re not out kayaking! To that end, here are 5 tips to make sure your strength training is as effective as humanly possible:
1. Turn up
I think I might be developing a habit for stating the obvious, but this point has to be number one. If you’re not in, you can’t win. Does life get in the way sometimes? Yes. However, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his pre-eminent book Flow, “the Universe was not created to answer our needs”. Try to anticipate the awkward days when you can, plan for them and get the job done anyway. Sometimes this will mean you’ll need to get up a little earlier, maybe a lot earlier. Ultimately, it’s a choice. What will you choose?
2. Progressive overload
This is a close second to the first point. Progressive overload means that each and every time you train a movement, you make it slightly harder than the last time. This can take the form of any one, or a combination of, the following:
• Increase the load
• Reduce the rest time
• Increase the reps
• Slow down the eccentric
• Speed up the concentric
• Improve form
To progressively overload well, you need data. How many reps and sets did you do? What load did you move? How long was your rest time between sets? How did the reps feel? Did you struggle or were they super smooth? You need to know what you were doing the last time to know what you should aim for this time. So, write it down - keep a gym diary!
Getting really familiar with progressive overload as a concept is not only beneficial for your strength training but also for your kayak training. You could consider it a parallel to stetch goals. Stretch goals were descried by Anders Ericsson as an integral part of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the Rolls-Royce of practice. It’s what we want to be doing for rapid progress in our kayak (or in any field for that matter). Bottom line, in every training session, gym or kayak, attempting something very slightly more difficult than what we did the last time is key.
3. Be consistent
How regularly should we train? We can learn more about the answer to this question using a popular model called Supercompensation Theory. While this model is perhaps over-simplified in ways, it highlights some important points regarding training intervals.
Each time we train in the gym, the goal is to create tiny micro-tears in the muscle tissue. Initially, this stimulus causes what we experience as fatigue. This is represented by a drop in ‘physical capacity’ in the graph above. However, give it some time and our body recovers. But it doesn’t just recover to where it started; it recovers to a higher level. This response is called supercompensation and can be seen on the graph as an increase in ‘physical capacity’. At this point, our muscles are literally stronger than they were before. This is why progressive overload is possible. In theory, this is the ideal time to train again. If there is no additional training stimulus, the extra capacity is lost, and our muscles return to baseline (involution)
Training too regularly (overtraining) means that we do not allow for adequate recovery over a period of time. It could be represented on a graph like this:
In this scenario, we provide the body with an additional training stimulus before complete recovery and supercompensation has occurred. Progressive overload is unlikely here. Played out over weeks and months, training like this would lead to reduced performance and an increased risk of injury.
Does this mean that to take advantage of supercompensation you must be fully recovered before each and every training session? Not necessarily. As I mentioned before, this model is somewhat contrived. It provides an easy way to explain the risks of overtraining and the benefits of full recovery. The key message here is to be wary of training too regularly in any given period of time.
Training inconsistently could be illustrated in the graphic below:
Training in this way, gives the body ample time to recover. However, the next training stimulus comes too late to take advantage of supercompensation. Wait too long between sessions and the body will return to baseline. Notice how the net change of ‘physical capacity’ in the figure above, is zero. It remains the same. The additional capacity created as part of supercompensation is lost. As the old adage goes, “Use it or Lose it.”
The Supercompensation Theory nicely depicts the impact that the timing and frequency of our gym sessions can have. Get it right, and we progress in a nice upward trend. Get it wrong and we fail to improve, or worse, even lose capacity. So how do we know if we are overtraining, undertraining or getting the balance right? My advice is, whatever approach you decide to take, be consistent in its application. Create a plan and stick to it. Monitor trends in training data and recovery metrics (recovery metrics are cool – I’ll definitely write more about this). If things are progressing in the right direction, you’re on the right track so keep ‘er lit. If you’re plateauing or your performance is decreasing, something needs to change.
4. Get off your phone
This ties in nicely to the training theory outlined above. The stages of fatigue, recovery and supercompensation can only happen if the training stimulus is high enough to actually damage the muscle tissue in the first place. Ipso facto, when you go to the gym, you need to work! If it doesn’t challenge you, you’re wasting your time.
So, stay off your socials. You’d be amazed how much time you can waste flicking through Instagram between sets. Suddenly, a 90 second rest has turned into 5 minutes, your heart rate has returned to normal and the intensity of the workout has dropped like a stone. Stay focused. Spend your rest periods doing some mindful breathing instead.
5. Don’t use straps
This is not an absolute rule. Straps can be super useful. In the past, I have used them to overcome some elbow/wrist mobility issues for front squats. They could be a valuable tool if you wanted to really focus on the strength of your posterior chain for a while. However, as kayakers, in many circumstances, the strength that we have is only useful if we can transfer it from the muscle to the paddle via our grip. If you lose your grip on your paddle, it doesn’t really matter how much power you’ve got in your latissimus dorsi, it isn’t going anywhere. Lifting without straps places a greater emphasis on our grip strength.
So there you have it - 5 tips to make sure you're getting the most out of your time in the gym. This marks the end of the current 5 part series on strength training for freestyle. I hope you have learned something useful. The areas I have covered have featured centrally in my own training over the last few years and, anecdotally at least, I can attest to their value.
Next week, I'll be dealing with an issue that affects many of us kayakers and should never be overlooked. You can subscribe below to get an update when the article goes live. You won't want to miss this one as I will be giving away an awesome prize as part of it!