Advanced Methods for Strongman Athletes: Instinctive Training

I had about 20 years of training and coaching under my belt when I turned professional in strongman. By then I had done thousands of presses, pulls and squats. I had also taught and observed 10 times as many as I had performed myself. This accumulation of experience has given me a deep understanding of the human bodies reaction to stress and stimulus. I was in my mid 30’s at the time and made the decision to drop all formalized training and attempt to train by feel; A.K.A. Instinctive training. I made my biggest gains during that time and I also worked harder than I ever had. This seemingly simple method is inherently complex and should only be attempted by those with a deep understanding of themselves and the sport. I will lay out some parameters for those interested in attempting it.

[Read the author’s take on training grip for strongman and other strength sports!]

The secret in instinctive training lies inside the ability to properly answer the question: “What am I capable of today and how will it affect me tomorrow?”. You must know without a doubt the answer to this inquiry. If you are guessing at the outcomes you will cost yourself plenty of progress by either over or under training.  You must also possess the following characteristics:

Self Honesty: It is imperative you answer the following questions without your ego getting involved or practicing self-deception.

  • Am I being lazy today or avoiding work? Can I overcome it?
  • Will this next set stimulate or incapacitate?
  • Why did I miss the lift and was it technical or emotional?
  • Was that last make a fluke or true good lift?

Discipline: Instinct doesn’t mean training what you want, it is training what you need.

Clarity and focus: Since the program isn’t traditionally structured the need to keep accurate numbers and interpret them is key. While you may feel like you are making progress the numbers do not lie. The best instinctive trainers know (without a doubt) what movements will work for them and how their time is best spent. Without out this capacity the athlete is just experimenting and that phase should be long past.

To be effective, one should have a long term game plan in place for their training even when going by  instinct. I maintained my Eastern European style of high intensity, low volume training by doing four sessions per week of weights and two additional cardio only days. I knew that I made my best strength gains on two to three reps and gain endurance in the ten rep range. I didn’t need more mass, but had to train to maintain composition. My maximum lifts were comparable to other pro athletes and I am predisposed to cardio events so I chose to focus on improving them.

Each time I took a platform I listened to my body. How was my rest the night before? Is there something I need to clear from my mind before beginning? Do I have issues from the previous session? Once i felt warmed up and comfortable with my answers I would begin work sets. After each one I would begin the next set of questions. Do I need another set? Should it be heavier? Should I cut a rep or add one?

This process would go on during the session until I was satisfied that I had done the correct amount of each exercise for the day that would stimulate growth and allow me to train the next day. I became less focused on what numbers did I hit today but on how effective was the weight I lifted at the long term goal. As long as I made progress every few weeks of even just a few more pounds lifted I knew I was on track. After all, when you are near the limit of what your body is allowing you to accomplish, anything closer to that absolute ceiling is progress.

Training on instinct gives the athlete the ability to increase workload when they are capable and back off when they are stressed and still make progress. I personally trained much harder this way because I knew what I had left in the tank and would manage my ability much better.  I never went through the motions on a set or exercise because if something wasn’t clicking I had the freedom to change it or move on to the next movement. I developed the ability to get in to immediate flow (a great book for athletes is Flow in Sports by Csikszentmihalyi) and train unhindered by a rigid structure. If you feel that it may be time for you to experiment with this concept give it a short eight weeks to see if you can handle the demands of training without programming.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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