One of the most prevalent ideas in fitness today is that of quality vs. quantity:
The amount of training volume we do and its relation to quality parameters like training form.
Several great studies from recent years have pointed our attention toward the importance of volume for gym progress. In other words, doing more work tends to deliver better results. To a point, of course.
And while I wholeheartedly agree that volume matters a lot, I don't necessarily agree with the methods and habits some folks use to get the work in every week.
What You Ingrain, You Repeat
Humans are creatures of patterns and habits make up a large chunk of our actions, thoughts, and choices. On a day-to-day basis, many of the things we do, think and say happen on autopilot. When I thought about it, I remembered an interesting thing that happened to me a while back:
I was driving my car back home from work one day when I suddenly realized that I hadn't put any thought into it until that point. I could barely recall driving and was instead preoccupied with thoughts about something from earlier.I also realized that I wasn't paying any attention to the driving of the car either. I wasn't thinking about switching gears, using blinkers or watching out for pedestrians, though I did these things. I didn't put any thought into adjusting my AC or music volume. I wasn't directly thinking about any of these things - I was doing everything on autopilot. Plus, the whole process involved over a dozen different actions:
Yes, this list goes for a while, but you get my point. I wasn't putting any thought into the dozen or so small actions that went into driving my car, yet I got myself home. In other words, I did the thing (drove), and I achieved an outcome (arrived back home). It got me thinking about all the things I do automatically and how they impact my bottom line.
Have you ever left your home only to wonder ten minutes later, "Did I lock the front door?"
Now, I've been thinking about how my habits and learned behaviors impact my gym efforts. More importantly, what I can do to improve that.
Mindfulness and Quality vs. Quantity
"Ain't nobody got time fo' dat."
Yes, yes. I understand. We live in a world full of distractions. Most of us find ourselves always thinking of the next thing - the next task, the next place we need to get to, the groceries we have to pick up on the way home.
And if that wasn't enough, there's also that small device in the pocket of everyone that continually asks for attention. Look around your gym the next time you work out, and you'll probably see the majority of people on their phones in-between their sets.
And here's the deal:
Most of us end up in that perpetual state of overwhelm and scattered focus because we tend to favor actions that are easy and spike our dopamine over those that are difficult. For example, checking your Twitter instead of getting to your next squat set. Before you know it, you're not putting nearly as much attention into your workouts, and are instead doing things on autopilot.
The problem is, quantity isn't the only factor for results; the quality of what you do also matters. It's not just about 'getting the work in' - how much effort and focus you put into every single rep matters just as much as how many total reps you do. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Until last year, I had my phone with me while working out, and I remember just how unfocused and unproductive I used to be. So I decided to try an experiment and see if it would do anything for me. I began training without my phone around and instead only had a bottle of water and my workout log with me.
I began purposefully giving all of my attention to the task at hand - pumping that iron. I didn't check my phone, and I didn't (or, at least, tried not to) think about the next thing on the agenda.
Furthermore, I began paying more attention to each repetition I did, and I found that my technique had deteriorated a bit in recent times. I had put the whole training thing on autopilot, including my technique, and it showed.
So, I lowered the weight down a bit, began reminding myself of the cues I once paid so much attention to and made sure to complete every repetition correctly and with intent. Sure, that may not seem all that important, but do you know what? Not only did the quality of my workouts improve drastically, but I also started progressing again. What's more, I started enjoying my training like I used to before.
My point here is, we tend to put things on autopilot, which saves energy and can be beneficial for mindless tasks, but sometimes backfires on us.
Volume Is Important, But Don't Chase it Mindlessly.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that I don't necessarily agree with the methods some folks use to pile on volume, and I've been guilty of it myself. It directly ties in with the previous point on mindfulness and quality vs. quantity. I see it everywhere:
Some people have become so absorbed with the idea of volume that they've been disregarding everything else. In other words, people are so focused on building that damn house that they completely ignore the quality of each material that goes into it.
Allow me to illustrate an example for you:
Take two hypothetical guys who hit the gym regularly - Billy and John. Billy is your typical bro:
He trains regularly and always does his entire workout before leaving. But, he's also scattered - always on the phone in-between sets, his thoughts a thousand miles away from the workout. Sometimes, he's even on his phone for 5-10 minutes between sets. He's never truly mindful of what he's doing in the moment. It almost feels like he's only moving the weight to complete each set, and that's it.
Now John is similar in some ways - he's also consistent with his workouts and never leaves before finishing all of his exercises. But John is focused and mindful. His phone isn't around, and if it is, he's only using it for music. He's diligent with his training, avoids distractions, and focuses on every repetition he does.
Not only am I willing to argue that John will undoubtedly enjoy his workouts more and achieve better results, but I'm also inclined to believe that he could achieve the same results as Billy, but with less volume and less time spent in the gym.
Why? Because of the difference in the quality of training. Sure, a single bad set won't make much of a difference in the long run. But stretch that to 100 or 1000 sets, and we can see significant differences in progress.
The Importance of Quality Repetitions
With all that we've covered today, you might be wondering, "Well, Phil, that's great and all, but what's the lesson here? What can I take away and apply to my next workout?"
There are a couple of ideas I'd like to get across today:
First, there's the idea of being mindful. We are creatures of habit, and our brains continuously search for ways to make our actions automatic and more streamlined. That's great for some tasks which are, in nature, easy. But it's not so good for nuanced tasks that require thought and focus, such as lifting.
What can we do about it? Well, the best thing I've found for myself and the people I work with is to eliminate distractions. By doing so, you'd automatically free up your attention for the task at hand. If that's your phone - leave the damn thing in the locker. If you always find yourself being distracted by people - respectfully tell them that you're trying to get to your next set.
Second, I'd like to bring a bit of attention to the small, repeated actions that together form each workout - repetitions.
And sure, the topic of proper form is something you're probably well aware of, but it bears repeating because we all tend to put it on autopilot - myself included. The next time you're at the gym, try to be more mindful of every repetition and see how you feel by the end of your workout.
I'm sure you can agree that two seemingly identical sets can feel drastically different. And since you're already at the gym, why not make the most of it?
First off, it's essential to know what you are training for. We all have different goals, and thus, we can't use the same training strategies.
If your goal is to get as strong as possible, ask yourself, "How can I make the movement as efficient as possible and put myself in the best possible position to lift the weight?"
If your goal is muscle growth, ask yourself, "Is the training I'm currently doing effective for this? Could I have done that last set any better? Did I truly feel the right muscles working, or was I slacking off a bit and maybe used a bit too much momentum?"
Whatever your goals might be, evaluate your performance regularly - you might be surprised at just how big of a difference small changes can bring.
Cues are also important, particularly for the compound lifts. For example, I've always had a crappy bench. But once I started paying more attention to my set-up and repetitions, that alone helped me put 20 kilos on it, without changing much else.
Now, being mindful of your actions workout after workout is by no means easy. It requires focus and sustained effort to pull off. It's much more comfortable to put things on autopilot and see where your efforts take you than to adjust course constantly.
But mindfulness, especially with your fitness, promises one great benefit - efficiency — the promise of achieving better results without piling on more workouts, sets, and exercises.
The Bottom Line
If it feels like I hate on training volume, I'm not. I'm a firm believer that volume is essential, and, in the words of Greg Nuckols:
"The most reliable way to make progress is to do more."
But, doing more without also putting in the effort to improve its quality won't do you much good. This goes for fitness, work, writing, or anything else you want to put out there or reap benefits from.