If you don’t know who Steve Maxwell is, I implore you to look at his site and find out. He’s an amazing man.
I met Steve in 2003 at Dragon Door’s Russian Kettlebell Certification. I travelled out to Philadelphia in 2006 and took a one hour training session from him. Later, in 2010, I started a two year journey of online training. During this time he visited Wisconsin and taught three seminars which I attended.
I’ve learned a ton from Steve Maxwell. Here are three lessons I want to share:
Lesson 1: The virtue of doing the same thing over and over
Variety for variety’s sake is foolish. Steve had me doing the same program over and over while making subtle modifications, progressions as they are called.
The benefits of doing the same thing over and over were huge. The first benefit is that we are an overly stimulated culture. We crave variety and lack the gumption to dig into the nitty-gritty. Many of us can’t even stand in a grocery store line without whipping out our smartphones and distracting ourselves. Doing the same thing over and over (and making slow but steady progress) requires tenacity and discipline–the same tenacity and discipline which is required to navigate a very complex set of requirements in daily life.
There is a popular program called P90x which extols the virtues of muscle confusion. Muscle confusion is a way of fooling yourself into believing you are making progress. Muscle confusion is a misnomer. Muscles would always be confused without the nervous system which guides and controls them. When you are confusing your muscles, all you are doing is making your nervous system learn new movements. The nervous system adapts quickly and you experience the illusion of progress. Sorry, Tony, but muscle confusion is bunk.
Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s place in a training program is limited. Excellence in a few big exercises like squats, pistol squats, pull ups, deadlifts, swings, and presses, transcends the need for variety.
There is a huge mental benefit to being able to approach the same workout with a beginner’s mind. It’s Zen-like. It’s mental, physical, and spiritual combined into one. It’s totally unlike the frenetic convulsions of P90x and other programs that rely on stimulation (i.e. constant change) to maintain interest.
Reliance on stimulation and variety for variety is weak-minded, Steve taught me. I agree.
Lesson 2: Observe the Following 10-Point Scales
These are subjective scales that you can incorporate into your training to make non-emotional decisions.
If you’re doing an exercise and experience pain, it should not be above a 4. If it is, you are probably doing something wrong or you might have some type of injury. If you push it, whatever problem you’re experiencing, you’re going to make it worse. So, don’t push it, avoid the exercise, correct your form, and find out what is going on with the pain.
To produce a training effect, you need to go to a level 6. Training between 6-8 is the best—you can occasionally push to 9 or 10. This is a perceived level of exertion. You’ll be better at interpreting this the more you exercise. Breathing through the nose will help develop the skill of intuiting how hard you are exercising. (By restricting to yourself to only nasal breathing, you have a natural barometer that keeps you from pushing too hard.)
Form is one of the most important factors in training. Don’t allow your technique to go below a level 8. It’s totally irrational to compromise form for the sake of getting more reps. If you sacrifice form, you can no longer measure your progress because you’ve skewed your baseline. Besides, poor form can cause injury or otherwise debilitate you.
Lesson 3: Take Ownership of Mental Mistakes
Steve was quick to point out flaws in my thinking. Steve taught me to be constantly vigilant. I have struggled a lot with addiction in my past and vigilance is required to ensure I don’t get snared again. By being vigilant, I catch the first thought which carries the risk of leading to behavior I don’t want.
It’s painful to face our inadequacies and failures. With inconsistencies and irrationalities exposed by Steve I gained awareness. Awareness is something we can quasi run away from. We can drink, watch excessive television, complain about others, and engage in all manner of stimulation to avoid looking within and correcting our transgressions. But we will never be content until we face our inadequacies and failures and the thoughts which lead to them.
Steve was ruthlessly consistent in pointing out my inconsistencies, which helped me deal with them effectively, consciously.
It’s all mental Steve would say. This is definitely true. As a physical example, I recall a set of embedded static squats where I was suffering, breathing hard and somewhat miserable. I embraced it and suddenly my breathing was calm and my mind was calm too. It was incredible. The same is true in daily life. If there are aspects of life you don’t enjoy, resisting them only makes them worse.
It is said that Jesus was the same no matter what the circumstances. That is something to strive for–to be so deep in consciousness that outer events have no power over you. It is possible. But it takes work. And our bad habits and unconscious thoughts prevent us from this attainment. It is all mental, and sometimes it takes hard physical work to realize that. Steve’s method of training helped me begin to realize these deep truths, and begin to work towards attaining them.
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Of course, I learned many other things from Steve’s training. This only scratches the surface. I wanted to put this out there because we struggle with seeking variety for variety’s sake, we push ourselves too hard in training (or not hard enough), and we make mental mistakes that we need to own up to and correct. I hope this article has made you reflect and think, much the way my two years of training with Steve did the same for me.