by Thomas Kurz
In this article you will learn about the main part of a workout—its exercises and their intensity. The content of the main part determines the selection of exercises in the warm-up, the duration of the warm-up, and the content and duration of the cool-down.
Tasks and Workouts
Workouts are divided into types depending on their tasks, and so workouts can focus on technique, speed, speed-endurance, strength, strength-endurance, endurance, or active rest. This division is not absolute—a technical workout, for instance, may include a conditioning segment, such as strength or endurance exercises done after the work on technique.
Workouts can be dedicated to a single task or to multiple tasks. Single tasks can be realized by means of a single exercise or by a variety of exercises. Multiple tasks too can be realized by means of a single exercise or by a variety of exercises.
- Example of a single task realized by a single exercise: developing speed in a technique by punching a sheet of paper or extinguishing a candle with a punch.
- Example of a single task realized by a variety of exercises: learning to apply a new footwork pattern in pairs, practicing striking or kicking a focus mitt while employing the just-learned footwork, light sparring with the task of using the just-learned footwork pattern, practicing striking or kicking a bag while employing the just-learned footwork.
- Example of multiple tasks realized by a single exercise: perfection of a punch-kick combination—positioning and distancing, reaction time, speed of movement, and possibly sport-specific endurance—by practicing the combination against the trainer with focus mitts.
- Example of multiple tasks realized by various exercises: learning a new technique in pairs, developing speed in that technique by practicing it on a light bag or crazy ball, developing strength or endurance using known exercises.
Often workouts are dedicated to only one task (for example, sparring) or even one type of movement (for example, running). The high demands of sports training usually call for full concentration of effort on each one of the training tasks. For this reason top quality athletes do several workouts per day.
Single-task workouts are better for the development of a particular technique or ability because in such workouts the exercises, from the beginning of a warm-up to the end of cool-down, can be arranged for smooth transition from one exercise to the next, keeping the proper sequence of types of effort during the workout.
Athletes’ form improves most with workouts in which a single task is realized by a variety of exercises and methods. In such workouts athletes show a greater capacity for work than if a single task is realized with one exercise. Least effective are workouts when the same exercises (even though effective in another arrangement) are done for most of the duration of the workout. In the case of frequent repetition of such workouts, athletes adapt quickly to the training load, and this leads to slowing down and eventual cessation of improvement in their form (Platonov 1997).
Workouts consisting of one type of movement (one exercise) still have a place in training as a means of developing economy of movement and mental toughness by withstanding a monotonous and heavy effort—qualities important for athletes of long-duration events (Platonov 1997).
Workouts to accomplish more than one task predominate in technically complex sports. The changing character of work in such a workout makes precise control difficult, but on the other hand, the workouts are less monotonous. The proportion of single-task to multitask workouts depends on the particular sport. Single-task workouts are most frequently used in speed-strength sports such as weightlifting and in cyclic sports such as running, swimming, bicycling, and rowing. Sports with combined events such as decathlon or gymnastics, as well as individual contact sports (combat sports) and games have a greater number of multitask workouts than the single event sports.
There are two ways of structuring multitask workouts: either the different tasks are realized in a sequence or they are realized at the same time by means of the same exercise. In the second case usually two tasks are realized—for example, perfection of both technical and tactical skills, technical skills and speed or speed-endurance, technical skills and endurance. When tasks are done in turns, they are usually arranged in the sequence given and explained in the book Science of Sports Training (Kurz 2001)—new technique before speed drills, both new technique or speed before strength, and strength before endurance. For example, learning new technique or tactics is done right after a warm-up, but well-mastered technical skills can be drilled at the end of the main part of the workout, after other exercises, to prepare the athlete for dealing with the fatigue encountered during competition.
Apart from regular workouts, athletes usually participate in auxiliary workouts. Their purpose is to improve the athlete’s weaknesses. Typically, auxiliary workouts are dedicated to improving aerobic endurance, strength (overall or of specific muscle groups), or flexibility. They most often consist of exercises of one type, as for example, dynamic flexibility exercises in the case of an athlete who needs to improve it or running—the traditional road work—in the case of boxers. Auxiliary workouts are often done early in the morning, before breakfast, and athletes may do them on their own, without supervision. If the duration of such a workout is to be more than 30 minutes, a light snack can precede it.
Intensity of Exercises in the Main Part of a Workout
As you know from articles A Well-Run Workout: The Warm-Up and How to Select Exercises for the Warm-Up, at first, the intensity of exercises during a workout rises, then oscillates around a certain optimal level, and eventually declines at the end of the workout. These changes in the intensity of exercises are conditioned by the changes in the athlete’s work capability when exercising. As the athletes’ work capability during a workout rises and eventually falls, so does the intensity of exercises. At the end of a warm-up, the intensity of exercise should reach the level of intensity planned for the beginning of the main part of the workout. During the main part, the average intensity may climb until it peaks for a short time or it may reach a plateau. The plateau of intensity may result from exercising at a constant intensity or it may be an average of many consecutive “peaks” and “valleys,” such as when the intense exercises are interspaced by intervals of low intensity activity.
The average intensity of the main part reaches different values during different workouts—the lowest during technical workouts and the highest during speed-endurance and endurance workouts.
The main part of the workout may also consist of several segments of exercises of varying intensity. Generally, during the main part, these segments should be sequenced in the order of a decreasing degree of control or difficulty and increasing intensity, so the technical exercises are done before the less complex but intensive conditioning exercises. Eventually the intensity of work during the main part must decrease to blend with the cool-down that follows it. The main part of the workout should end with conditioning exercises of decreasing intensity and requiring least control.
If there is a drastic drop of intensity during the main part that allows athletes to cool off and calm down, followed by intense exercise, it will be difficult for the athletes to mobilize for work again. Their performance will be impaired and they may get injured as they jump back into the intensive exercises.
Practical experience dictates gives this rule regarding intensity of work and the number of tasks in a workout (Naglak 1979): The more intensive the workout, the fewer should be the athlete’s tasks. During a workout of maximal intensity, more time is dedicated to warm-up and cool-down. With a lower intensity of the training load, an athlete may take on two or even three tasks, such as perfecting technique and working on speed in this technique. Naglak (1979) states, however, that even in such cases dedicating one workout to one training task is more beneficial.
Learning and a Workout
In martial arts most workouts are dedicated to learning new techniques (this includes combinations and patterns of techniques) or perfecting known ones, stressing to various degrees the precision, speed, strength, or strength-endurance needed to reliably perform these techniques.
Learning new, or perfecting known techniques demands total concentration. Most often proper execution of a technique requires a high level of strength or speed or both. For this reason, technical exercises should be done at the beginning of the main part of a workout, right after the warm-up.
The effectiveness of the exercises developing the technique is determined by the correctness of the movements learned and not by the amount or quality of fatigue. This decides the length of rest intervals between exercises and the number of repetitions of technical exercises in a workout. If, at the initial stages of learning a technique, athletes are allowed to get tired, their fatigue will alter the technique and the incorrect technique will be learned, perhaps permanently.
In a single workout only one new technical skill should be taught. (This applies to a sport’s techniques or other complex skills and not to simple calisthenics.) Evidence from recent neurological research proves the soundness of limiting teaching skills to one new skill per workout.
Until now the reasons for doing so were only the practical experience of coaches and guesses about what happens in an athlete’s mind during and after a workout in the course of learning.
Many of these reasons are explained by Józef Drabik (1996), in Children and Sports Training. This book has a lot of information on methods of technical and tactical training because laying a good foundation of essential skills must happen at the beginning of a sports career. Here are some reasons for teaching one skill per workout:
- It allows for arranging warm-up exercises so the athletes warm up just right for this one skill.
- It gives athletes time to grasp the skill and digest the information and then apply the results of their deliberations in their next workout.
- It keeps the athletes practicing rather than standing and listening.
Apart from these obvious reasons, research now reveals one more: It takes several hours after learning a new skill for the neurological changes needed to move it to permanent memory. If during that time another new skill is taught, then the first skill might be erased.
Research by R. Shadmehr and H. H. Holcomb (1997) shows that it takes six hours after completion of practice for the changes in the brain needed to make the learning permanent. Those subjects who learned one new skill and immediately began learning another skill lost proficiency when tested on the first skill.
Earlier research by T. Brashers-Krug, R. Shadmehr, and E. Bizzi (Brashers-Krug et al. 1996) shows that four hours must elapse between learning two skills to prevent disruption of the first skill.
So, to keep a skill from being disrupted after learning or practicing it, have athletes do exercises that they are thoroughly familiar with—skills that they have mastered or conditioning exercises. After learning a new footwork pattern, for example, boxers can spar, work on the timing ball or speed bag or heavy bag, jump rope, or run—as long they can do it “habitually” so that none of these activities involves learning any new skills.
What about teaching (or learning) two similar skills? It is a bad idea! Not only can learning be slowed down but also the skills can get mixed up.
Limiting instruction to one technique or variation at a time helps retain the skill. Although it may seem to slow down the pace of learning, this measured rate of instruction actually facilitates progress because each skill is learned more reliably.
In the next article you will learn about the cool-down.
Brashers-Krug, T., R. Shadmehr, and E. Bizzi.1996. Consolidation in human motor memory. Nature vol. 382, no. 6588 (July 18), pp. 252-5.
Drabik, J. 1996. Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit, and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Naglak, Z. 1979. Trening sportowy: teoria i praktyka. Warsaw: PWN.
Platonov, V. N. 1997. Obshchaya teoriya podgotovki sportsmenov v olimpiyskom sporte. Kiev: Olimpiyskaya Literatura.
Shadmehr, R. and H. H. Holcomb. 1997. Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation. Science vol. 277, no. 5327 (August 8), pp. 821-5.
This article shows how to apply principles of training explained in Stadion books Science of Sports Training and Children and Sports Training. Get them now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!
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