by Steve Bechtel
“True training and conditioning is as much about learning as it is about energy expenditure.” – Gray Cook
Walk into any gym in the world and you’ll see someone doing isolation exercises to focus on building strength or size in one muscle group. Isolation is a good way to build strength in one muscle or small group of them, and it is a preferred method for building mass. It is limited, however, in its transfer to sport performance. Good coaches look to more complex movements that utilize several muscle groups at once to prepare for most sports. By using our bodies in movement patterns rather than aiming for targeting one muscle at a time, the strength and power gained in the gym is more applicable to real-world environments.
Although better in every way than purely trying to tire out one muscle at a time, even compound movement training has some limitations, namely our ability to cheat movement and to create artificial support for ourselves in order to excel in these exercises. In fact, we’ve become so accustomed to the cheats—working around our limitations rather than addressing them—that we don’t even notice that they are cheats anymore.
This is where doing self-limiting exercises becomes crucial to keeping our bodies working as best they can in the gym and on the rock. Self-limiting exercises are exercises where your balance, grip, breath, coordination or core control limit your ability to do the movements. Perhaps you’ve tried a Turkish Get-Up. Doing this exercise with a kettlebell at around half body weight is a standard for strength at our gym. In this exercise at that kind of load, there is nowhere to hide. You’ve got to be stable, concentrate, breathe well, and stay tight for a very long time. There is no way to cheat this with gloves or belts or special footwear.
Contrast this with an athlete exercising on an elliptical trainer. Most often, these people will do anything they can not to think about what they are doing—and hey, who can blame them. Headphones in, book open, TV on in front of them, and slowly in moving the same pattern for thirty or sixty or ninety minutes. Form can be terrible. Pace so slow that the output is barely more than couch-sitting intensity. Nothing about this exercise is self-limiting. You can do it badly and still get it done. You can breathe badly. You can hold on to the handles to keep from falling to the side. You get it, not much is going to transfer over to climbing…or anything else.
Self-limiting movements demand greater concentration. They force us to be present or “associate” with exercise. Sure this is great in strength training, but why would I care about being present for cardio? Strangely enough, there is good evidence to suggest that “associating” with what we are doing physically can improve our exercise economy and prevent injury. By trying to block out the fact that you’re exercising, you’re blocking out a lot of subtle feedback from your body that might signal the need for a change in gait, posture, or breath. It comes down to this: if you absolutely must dissociate with your chosen mode of exercise, perhaps you should change modes.
Strength athletes, and climbers, are not exempt from the problems of avoiding self-limiting movements. We try to cheat some exercises that should be self limiting by always using artificial supports. Look at the lifter who doesn’t think twice about using wrist wraps, knee supports, or lifting belts. Sure, these tools can help us avoid an injury during a high level max lift, but using them regularly in training will only enhance a weakness. If you wear a lifting belt to create intra-abdominal tension, your abs become less capable of the job. If you can’t squat without knee wraps, perhaps you should find some time to figure out a training load that you can do without them. In short, constant external support creates internal weaknesses.
Wearing the new super-cushioned running shoes has allowed many runners to extend their careers or to run longer distances without pain. For people who love the sport, this is great news, but it masks the fact that running causes them excessive trauma. The message here might be to do a few runs each week barefoot or in minimalist shoes because running badly really hurts if you don’t have the Hokas on. Stepping on the treadmill and moving barefoot for just a few minutes will help re-teach the primitive act of running and can correct poor heel strike and bad stride rates.
The same thing shows up in taping for climbing. The trad climber who always wears crack gloves doesn’t ever toughen up the skin on the back of the hand, and dulls the learning of careful jam placement. The climber who always tapes his fingers to support the tendons slows the tendons from getting strong on their own, and might push past the point of sensible loading.
Exercises should be limited by technical correctness, not fatigue or failure. These states should be saved for very rare training maxes and personal best performances in competition or outside. Movement specialist Gray Cook talks about people detaching from the joy of movement in the pursuit of superficial results. I, myself, don’t care how much I can deadlift with lifting straps, wrist wraps, knee wraps, a belt and lifting shoes on. I care how much tension my body can generate in a real-world environment. Sometimes it seems the people in the gym are more interested in being weightlifters than they are in lifting weights.
Self limiting movements require control, mindfulness, balance, and intramuscular coordination. They allow our weakest links to hold us back. In his book Movement, Cook breaks self-limiting exercises down into a few general categories. For climbers, we want to focus on four general categories of movements. Although these movements should be present in our training they need not make up all the exercises we do, and we don’t need to do all of them. The most important aspect of all this is looking for exercises where our movement is poor or breaks down altogether…which is what happens when we get stuck on boulders or route cruxes.
In truth, many activities that causes discomfort or pain when done incorrectly can be useful. A classic in rock climbing is jamming cracks—if you can’t do the movement well, you end up getting torn up. Other activities like this include barefoot walking or running, balance activities such as slackline, and loaded carries. We can build self-limiting exercise into our daily training, using exercises from several categories,
Grip / Core Control
Bottoms Up Presses
Double Overhand Grip Deadlift
Balance or Small Base Control
Single Leg Deadlift
Tall Kneeling KB Halo
Single Leg Box Jump
Posture and Coordination
Single Leg Squats
Random selection of exercise will never yield optimal results, even when performed at a high intensity. If we want to get better, and not just sweaty, practice-heavy training rather than fatigue-focused efforts are the key. This is a battle I fight on a daily basis at our gym. There are many people these days that have experienced the full-body drain of completing a crossfit session and are looking for that level of punishment in each and every session. There is an assumption that the harder we push our bodies in the gym, the quicker or more intensely they’ll respond.
When people come into our classes and see that the session is, yet again, strength-based with lots of rest, many of them feel that they aren’t going to be “worked” hard enough. Our goal is not to destroy them with a bunch of unfamiliar exercises aimed at increasing breathing rate and local muscular fatigue. Our goal is to help them get stronger for next month, next year, and five years from now. Self-limiting exercise is a key to this thought process. The end result of pushing my max on a compound lift like the deadlift or clean or snatch while using knee braces, belts, and wrist wraps is not only a dependence on those aids, but an artificially high assessment of my true strength.
Quality and quantity of exercise are a balance that must be controlled at all times. When trying to improve, at just about anything, keeping the mantra of “Fresh, Frequent, Flawless,” in mind is an excellent habit. Not every exercise we do needs to be self-limiting, but keeping ourselves in check with some “real talk” exercises will keep us progressing for years to come.