by Luke Duncan
A concept that I have put some thought into over the last couple of years is the idea of ambient fitness. Think of it as your absolute base level of physical ability. The philosophy of ambiance says that you should be able to do x-amount of work at any time in any setting. It’s sort of the opposite of what a lot of trainers like to talk about. Most go on and on about how you have to get fired up and “ready for battle” when you go into a training session (subsequently, this tends to manifest through yelling & screaming, heavy metal, occasional shoving & slapping, and an overuse of four letter words). I fully believe in & understand the importance of intensity, but as I’ve written about before, intensity doesn’t get you anything (except injured) if it’s not built on technical proficiency & mental focus.
The role of things like music, hype sessions, & edible stimulants is to help you take your performance up a notch (or 2 at most), but they are not meant to be a part of your foundation
Don’t get me wrong, I like to blast tunes & act barbaric from time to time as much as any other 20-something California boy who lifts weights. Where I take a stand is when people are relying on these things day in and day out to get through their efforts. I’ve heard of more than a few people who just can’t train in an environment without Slayer or Metallica blasting through the speakers, and these people are the ones who need most to remove the external stimuli because they have become crutches.
The role of things like music, hype sessions, & edible stimulants (caffeine, maca, ephedra, etc.) is to help you take your performance up a notch (or 2 at most), but they are not meant to be a part of your foundation.
This is where ambient fitness comes in; the more you can do in a relaxed, low-stimulated frame of mind, the better your performance will be when you pull out all the stops (which should really be limited to competitive events if you’re an athlete or just a few times a year if you’re an average joe). Being relaxed & free from any external stimuli allows you to concentrate on doing an exercise or activity properly instead of just doing as much as you can. It’s much easier to recover from, it limits technical errors, & it’s also much less likely to get you hurt. If you’re an athlete, the last thing you want to do is get injured doing something away from your competitive arena.
Building a Base
Base training is an idea that has permeated the endurance sports for decades. Really the whole concept behind base training is to perform as much high quality work as possible. To ensure high quality, intensity & duration are kept to a minimum, which also allows for a higher frequency of training (more opportunities to practice.)
With the exception of perhaps Olympic lifting, this is something not seen nearly enough in the strength sports. Most are of the attitude that if you don’t lift to the point where you can’t hardly hobble out of the gym on your own 2 feet, you’re wasting your time. Of course, these are the folks who always get hurt & live in anonymity. Their philosophy isn’t wrong so much as it’s misguided. Yes, you should put 100% into your sessions, but it should be directed towards 100% quality, not 100% weight, reps, or time.
I believe that once you reach a certain level of physical development in relation to a certain activity, the maintenance needs of that quality become very minimal. With that in mind, it’s not uncommon to hear of a lot of high level athletes who perform relatively low-level activity with a focus on high-quality, and still be able to hit the gas as good as they ever could when they have to.
If you read my review of Easy Strength, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of this work. One chapter in the book is dedicated to the idea of periodization. Dan John makes an interesting statement by saying that he doesn’t believe in periodization. Rather, he believes in fluctuating levels of neural stimulation. In other words, one’s work capacity doesn’t change throughout a periodization cycle, just how much of it they tap into does. Base training is like the intial 60-70% of the pyramid where most of the material (work) is. More intense training (a.k.a. more stimulated training) are the tiers above, ultimately culminating at the capstone (maximally stimulated activity).
The pyramid analogy works well, because in building a pyramid, the bigger your base, the higher your peak.
If Coach John is correct (and I believe he is, at least, more correct than incorrect), then you could train in base mode all the time without adversely affecting your peak capacity, as long as the work you are doing is high quality. The only thing that might cause a problem is not being used to being stimulated to such a high degree, but in my opinion, this can be accounted for with less sessions than most might think.
Physical performance proceeds in this hierarchy: Skill>G.P.P.>S.P.P.>Neural. Another analogy I like to describe this is a streaming video (I work in video production for a living, so bear with me if you’re not quite sure what that is). When you watch a video online, there’s 3 factors that go into watching it I want to reference. First is the actual length of the video; when you pull up a page on YouTube (or wherever else), the video is encoded into that page, so the 5, 10, or however many minutes worth of data is already there. You could think of this as your genetic makeup; some of us are 10 minute shorts, others are 1 hour features, and still more are 30 second promos. Either way, there’s a limit that can’t be exceeded because that’s the limit of the data (genetic potential).
But, just because the video is encoded doesn’t mean you can watch it straight away. Before you can, it has to be processed (or buffered; most web video players have a buffer bar to visualize this process). The buffer bar is like your base training; the better the skill-set you develop, the further your video has buffered (i.e. the more of your genetic potential is being tapped into). Again, some people have Cable, others DSL, and others are still using dial-up, so progress is not going to be acquired on a uniform basis from person to person. If you’ve ever had to deal with a bad internet connection, you’ll realize that your buffer bar can stop before the entire video has been processed, which is like training improperly or having poor recovery strategies that keep you from tapping into all of your genetic potential.
Finally, once the video has buffered, you can actually watch the video (represented online by the status bar). This part of the process is akin to the neural stimulation you receive. The further your video has buffered, the more of the video you can watch at any single time (the greater your neural stimulation, the more of your capacity you can tap into at any one moment). You can also pause & re-watch parts of the video while your buffer bar is loading or once it has completed, so don’t be afraid to concentrate on a specific quantity for certain periods or to re-visit lesser ones.
It’s important to note that you can watch a video before it has fully buffered (that you can be highly stimulated even though you may not have a very high skill-set). I believe most people are training in this manner. Instead of being smart and letting their video buffer (spending time building their skill-set), they choose to watch the video in real-time as it’s buffering (they remain highly-stimulated to feed their egos). Of course, unless you have incredibly fast internet (i.e. great genes and/or steroids, etc.) you can’t go very fast, and your video keeps stopping to load (you keep hitting sticking points in training). Finally, in frustration of not being able to see the video in full as fast as they would like, they exit the web page (they quit training after having unrealistic expectations).
What I hope this demonstrates is why it’s far less than optimal to be training at 100% of your capacity, when your capacity is only at 10%, 20%, or 30% of your genetic potential like most frustrated amateurs & recreational gym-goers do.
More than anything, ambient fitness relies on an individual’s skill at an activity. Doing something well is always going to give the highest performance potential (as well as the lowest injury potential). So the fitness pyramid starts with an adequate fitness skill-set, and most of your training should be geared towards undertaking activities in a manner that allows you to execute them properly. If technique breaks down because of too much (or too little) load, volume, duration, speed, etc., you are defeating the purpose of your efforts.
A good idea to hang on to while your training in this frame of mind is to make everything look beautiful. Often (if not always), the best looking execution is also the most efficient & the safest. If you’re a fitness geek like me, you know what a great squat, pull, & press looks like, and everyone respects them when they see one, regardless of how heavy the bar is. As always, train smarter before training harder. Until next time… Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
About the Author: Luke Duncan is the author of “Layman’s Strength," a blog site directed towards the aspirations of real world people and their concerns. A Certified Fitness Trainer with the I.S.S.A. and a Los Angeles County certified E.M.T. from 2008-2010, he is a health & fitness enthusiast with a passion for helping people realize their fitness & lifestyle goals in the most efficient, sustainable, & commonsense-way possible. He has ridden motorcycles since the age of 6 and currently produces motocross & other action-sports’ related content for D-Squared Images.
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