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.
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.