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Maintenance vs. Progress

As a coach, my job is to develop my athletes. If I am training a young boxer, I want him to improve from fight to fight. Each time that he enters the ring is an opportunity to advance. Yet despite our goals to learn and improve, I am cognizant of the fact that we cannot improve everything at once. While certain attributes are targeted, others will naturally receive less attention. Maintenance is not necessarily a bad thing however. In many ways, maintenance can be viewed as progress. For instance, if I can improve a fighter’s strength while maintaining his current level of conditioning, I view that as progress. Our ability to keep what he had while enhancing another area is a clear sign of improvement.

Unfortunately, maintenance is not always viewed as positively in the fitness industry. Many mistakenly relate maintenance to plateaus or the inability to improve. In their eyes, if you cannot progress beyond what you are doing, something must be wrong. For example, I recently had a trainer write to me questioning the potential of hill sprints and jump rope training. His comments were in response to my video below.

A summarized version of his critique was that hill sprints and jump rope training are limited in terms of progressions. He mentioned that he only had access to one hill in his area so there was no way to progress beyond it. He had similar thoughts about rope skipping. He basically said that there are only so many ways to skip the rope. What should an athlete do once he is proficient? He jokingly questioned whether athletes should progress to skipping two ropes at a time.

My response to the man was quite simple. While there are many ways to enhance hill and jump rope workouts, complex progressions are rarely necessary. I have jumped rope and run hills for most of my life and both activities remain challenging and beneficial. I will never outgrow either. Simply performing these activities with true effort and intensity is all that is necessary.

As a busy father in my late thirties, I view my ability to run hills and skip rope like I did ten years ago as progress. I do not need numeric data to conclude that I am benefiting from these activities. My ability to still go out and perform at the same level is all the proof that I need.

maintenance

One of my favorite examples of the maintenance = progress concept was described in Bill Pearl’s classic Getting Stronger text. Within the book, Bill Pearl shared a story of a man who had been lifting in his gym for ten years. At age 50, the man was discouraged that he was not progressing. He wanted to be lifting more weight.

Bill’s response to the man was as follows,

You started when you were 40 and now you’re 50 and you’re in the same shape. That’s wonderful. In ten years you haven’t lost any of your physique or any conditioning. You’ve turned back the clock ten years. That isn’t progress?

Ten or fifteen years ago, I may not have understood Bill’s comments. The competitor in me always wants to do bigger and better things. As I have grown older and wiser, I now realize that drastic improvements are not always possible or necessary. If I never run faster than I can today, I am okay with that. There are still plenty of new challenges that I will attempt in my life. Yet, if I continue trying to improve everything I already have, I will never progress with any new or different goals. Trying to improve everything at once often leads to no progress at all. Therefore, it is important that we have primary as well as secondary goals. Maintaining a previous attribute while improving another is a clear sign of progress.

In summary, I am certainly not here to suggest that you shouldn’t strive to improve. Just be aware that it isn’t always possible to make leaps and bounds in multiple directions. Beginners may make rapid gains, but as you reach higher levels, it becomes much more difficult to continually advance. Do not confuse maintenance with the inability to improve however. Intentional maintenance can be as beneficial as any of your gains.

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The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings. – Kakuzo Okakaura

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17 comments

17 Comments so far

  1. Eric April 7th, 2014 8:28 am

    Don’t know how steep of a hill the guy was running but he could always try to improve on his time. He could sprint or run backwards which is definitely even more intense. Carry a weighted load in the form of a vest, belt, or a person up the hill. Sprint up the hill and then immediately perform burpees. No one is going to “outgrow” hill sprints. The guy probably hasn’t spent much time rope skipping either because as you stated you supply your own maximum intensity. The guy should look at some folks like Buddy Lee or Roberto Duran in his prime skipping rope. Unless he’s that advanced with the rope, he should keep skipping.

  2. John Kais April 7th, 2014 10:36 am

    Do you think that people who train must first hit maintenance before they can make progress? I believe that somebody who is training, must be able to be consistent with their workouts, and then they can take the next step. For instance, if you cannot bench press 150lbs, how can you expect to bench 225lbs? Here is an article that gives advice about training http://www.muscleandfitness.com/workouts/workout-tips/5-ways-progress-your-workouts. Let me know what you think.

  3. Jason April 7th, 2014 2:37 pm

    There are so many answers to this question. The guy does not know what he is talking about, well…just uneducated on the subject. Reminds of me of HIT old school jones training talk. You cannot progress on everything all the time if one is advanced. Some aspects need to be maintained, well others will progress.

    Cycling is the main importantance. The so called “maintence” is still working the CNS, so in the long run will continue to get the muscle strong. One will be surprised while working hard on say deadlifts while doing “maintence” workouts for other parts, then after a while, bang! one’s curls or other part got stronger..:))))…

    Since he brought up the “cardio ” aspect of training from hills/jump rope, one has to take in account that one will loose around 90 percent of VO2 from not training their cardio in average 3 weeks. So it will be lost quick if one does not stick with it, unlike strength which lasts a lot longer. HIT with hills even just once per week can go a long way in keeping up one’s anaeorbic endurance.

    As one gets older those maintence workouts ever come so important, since maintence can be “recovery” workouts which one does yoga/swim/walk or other forms of lower intensity to help replensih one’s system from the HIT forms of training, thus keep one’s training going strong through the years…..Did I forget something?? probably..LOL…

  4. Zane baker April 7th, 2014 5:00 pm

    great article ross! I have been practicing this theory for a while and it works great for me I use my hit circuits as a maintenance session twice a week to keep general fitness strength cardio up at a high level as I had trouble recovering trying to gain every inch of progression week in week out. I used 2 other days to work on cardio hill sprints, rowing machine sprints airdyne work etc and the other two days for strength, speed strength and power strength which was my weakness I think its fine to have maintenance workouts if kept to a high level you must be true and honest to yourself these maintenance workouts also help also on time restraints you might have on certain days of the week.everyone’s goals are different you might like to have a cardio, or strength maintenance days to improve on other weaknesses or goals on a physical and psychological level

  5. 1-O April 7th, 2014 6:02 pm

    This is a great reminder! Very well put!

  6. Dan April 7th, 2014 8:01 pm

    There are only so many ways to wear your pants, when you eventually run out of ways to progress in pants wearing have you demonstrated the pointless futility of wearing pants?

  7. Eric April 8th, 2014 12:59 am

    Being in my late thirties myself, this is something I needed to hear. Thanks for all the great work.

  8. brad April 8th, 2014 5:17 am

    I’m 45 years old and i started out last year doing the magic 50 and i am now doing the magic 150. thats right i snatch and swing and perform 15 burpees each round. i will be moving on to the magic 200 soon and upping my dumbell weight by 5 lbs. my idea of progression is just digging a little deeper and wanting it a little more each time. like the other fellow said, if the hill becomes not so challenging anymore then shoulder a sandbag, swing a heavy dumbell and preform 15 burpees at the top each time before walking back down. now your running up mount everest. thanks for all you do Ross!!

  9. Mark April 8th, 2014 4:28 pm

    whats the song playing in the video? thanks

  10. admin April 9th, 2014 3:37 am

    @Mark – Warrior’s Code by stic.man

  11. Smurf April 9th, 2014 10:19 pm

    You gave him a great response! Im sort of on a concurrent type periodization! Where i am working on my strength, power, and anaerobic endurance! Im really focusing on my strength while i maintain or slightly improve my anaerobic endurance, and really just maintain my power! When i get my strength numbers where i want them i will focus more on increasing my anearobic endurance and power while i maintain my strenght!

  12. peter yates April 12th, 2014 11:00 am

    HI ROSS, ONCE AGAIN RIGHT ON THE MONEY. THE CONCEPT OF MAINTENANCE BECOMES MORE IMPORTANT AS ONE BECOMES OLDER.AT 63 I AM STILL DOING THINGS I DID AS A TEEN JUST BECAUSE I HAVE ALWAYS DONE THEM. MANY THINGS IMPROVED THROUGHOUT THE YEARS BUT THEN PROGRESS CAME TO A HALT ON DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES AT DIFFERENT TIMES. HOWEVER I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO MAINTAIN THE SAME LEVEL OR VASTLY SLOW THE DECLINE ON ALMOST EVERYTHING. MEAN WHILE I FOUND OTHER AREAS TO CONQUER. I AM SPARRING WITH GUYS HALF MY AGE AND MY STRENGTH ON THE BIG LIFTS IS STILL MOVING UP.THIS TRAINING STUFF IS FOR LIFE.
    REGARDS, PETER.

  13. Jasmyne Teoma April 14th, 2014 7:00 pm

    Thanks Ross! This is a great reminder, the internet is a wonderful tool. To paraphrase Ray Lewis, with access to everything that we easily have access to in this day and age we have absolutely NO excuses. But one thing I have to be careful with is comparison. Now, I’d like to say that I’m pretty confident in who I am. But sometimes I can find myself comparing my fitness goals to someone else’ s but I’ve found that when I do that it completely ruins my workout (all because some person in some far away country did better). Same thing goes when I try to quantify reps on a continual basis or log my miles. It takes the purpose out of it for me. For me,the whole point of running and working out is that pain feeling, that point in your workout where you can’t focus on anything else in your life except for the pain of trying to complete the next rep. Sounds crazy, I know. But I agree with you, this training doesn’t have to be just about the numbers you can write down with pen and paper. It’s a way of life.

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  17. Geoff Nelson November 4th, 2014 5:33 am

    Magic happens in the plateaus. They aren’t stagnation; they are just progress at an incredibly slow rate. Plateaus are like picking at a knot: just because it’s tedious doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress. It just means that the progress is on a scale that’s difficult to appreciate or assess.

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