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Perfect Practice

Practice makes permanent. -- Tommy Kono

I came into the fitness sphere through martial arts. Mindfulness in practice and the idea of 1,000 reps to mastery were concepts I was already familiar with. So much so, that I kinda took them for granted. Didn’t everyone already know this?

Twenty years later I’m certain that they don’t.

I was lucky that I found like minded coaches in the beginning of my career. We talked about strength as a skill and that it was built through intentionality and mindful repetition. Mindful repetition. That bears repeating because so often we think of mindless repetition and how boring it is to do the same things over and over again. But the martial artist knows that skill is built where the mind and body meet.

But what does that look like?

It means going deep into each rep. Slowing it down where possible and feeling the nuance and precision of each aspect of what you are doing. For most of us this is a recipe for safety as well. That’s one of the reasons why I’m critical of programming that focuses on as many reps as possible in as little time as possible. You can’t focus on what you’re doing in any meaningful way. That can lead to being four or five reps into an injury before you’ve realized it happened.

My first martial art was Tai Chi, so I guess it’s no surprise that I see the value in slowing things down. You don’t have to take it to that extreme though. Just pay attention. Feel your way through the whole rep. You’ll find yourself picking up all kinds of valuable information.

Let’s use the Back Squat as an example.

First, the mindless rep. You grab the bar in the rack, not paying to much attention to where your hands are. You duck under the bar, lift it off of the hooks and step back. Next you plummet into the bottom of your squat just letting the weight on the bar drive you down. You bounce out of the bottom of the squat relying more on the elasticity of your tendons and ligaments and drive your way back up to the top. One side may struggle more than the other, but you’re not sure if that’s because of a weakness on one side or you just weren’t balanced under the bar. You see this a lot in gyms. Usually it’s younger guys and the weight on the bar is all the feedback they need to know that this is the way to squat.


The more mindful version. You grab the bar making sure that each hand is equally distant from the power rings indicating that you have a balanced grip. You duck under the bar making sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together, creating a shelf of muscle for the bar to sit on. You place your feet evenly under the bar and take in a big breath bracing your abdomen as you stand the bar out of the rack. You take two even steps back, making sure you are clear of the hooks and the uprights. If necessary, you exhale, take in a new breath, and re-brace. You then sit back and down, actively pulling yourself into the squat in a smooth and controlled manner. Once you’ve hit your desired depth you reverse that pull into a push, driving your legs strongly into the ground, and return to a full standing position. Throughout the entire lift you were fully in control of the weight and fully aware of how your body responded to lowering and raising that weight. If the left side lagged the right there’s no doubt in your mind that the right side felt stronger and that with subsequent reps you need to focus more on pushing harder from the slower side. You also know if some supplemental single legged work is in order to help restore any imbalance.

Yes, this is a slower lift. Yes, you may have to use less weight to get it done. But what you lose in poundage will be more than made up for in “time under tension.” Time under tension is the idea that the more time spent actively engaged in a lift (i.e. the more time you spend performing the lift) the greater muscle activation required. It’s a great way to build real strength with less weight.

Good movement feels good. Slowing your practice down gives your brain time to process the feedback of your body. You can make adjustments based on, “that felt off” and better feel your way back to your optimal alignment. Because if no one ever told you, your ideal squat is different from mine or anyone else’s. Sure, the basic principles are the same, but the length of your femur compared to your shin, the flexibility of your ankle and your hip, your ability to stabilize your joints as they move, all of these factors come together to determine what your ideal squat looks like right now.

You can only find that IF you are paying attention.

P.S. That quote from the beginning of this piece is from Tommy Kono. Tommy remains one of the most decorated weight lifters and bodybuilders in American history. I had the great honor of having met and learned from this very kind and giving man through my friend and mentor, Chip Conrad. If you are interested in learning more Tommy gave a number of talks at Bodytribe over the years. You can find recordings of his talks available for download HERE and HERE.

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