Strategies to Combat Technique Repetition Boredom
“The difference between an advanced action and a simple action is that an advanced action is a simple action done very, very well.”
A student and colleague of mine reminded me of this quote recently. I very much enjoy its sentiment every time I’m exposed to it. It reminds me of how much of my energy is best served in honing and conditioning the building blocks of swordplay instead of getting caught up in what’s sexy and new (though, there is a place for that too).
In a recent interview I listened to with US Gymnastics Coach Christopher Sommer, he commented that a key difference between Chinese gymnasts and American ones is that Chinese gymnasts tend to have a much higher tolerance for the repetition of skills that are already in their repertoire. American gymnasts, he said, are often harder to keep on task to repeat something that isn’t a new challenge. The Chinese gymnasts are then, in his view, able to perform those core skills at a higher level in competition, especially high pressure competition. This level of competence, through repetition, is also a core ingredient in feeling confident in your ability to perform, thus helping you psychologically as well as physically.
There is certainly something ingrained in our culture to get bored easily with repetition (I see this in myself and my students). Our minds are hungry for variation, new challenge, and distraction. Activating the willpower to keep on task is often a losing battle; there is only so much will in the will-bank to activate in a given period of time. I’ve found that automating a part of my mental process, so I just “do”, instead of thinking, can have a tremendous impact on my ability to stay on task. Here are a few of the techniques I use to do that:
Use a Timer App
I use both UltraTimer and Seconds (available for both iOS and Android) to run simple and complex training timers. Most simply, I will put on a series of one minute intervals, separated by ten second breaks, that I will use for practicing a given skill (solo and partnered). During that minute I am repeating that practice without pause. That might repeat 20 times, and during that time I will only focus on the one skill, or perhaps cycle between two or three related skills.
I also use timer apps to manage a more complex training plan where the timer itself instructs me to move through a series of target skills I want to keep conditioning. What is powerful about the timers is that I only need to use my willpower once: to get me to the training session. Then, I just follow the timer instructions and do my thing and avoid much potential procrastination.
Make Repetition Objectives
I have found this particularly useful when I’ve been working on perfecting choreographed assaults or stage combat routines. Once I have the routine memorized, I can more deeply embed its movements in my muscle memory and develop greater physical conditioning in its performance by getting in a lot of reps. I just decide that I’m going to do X number of reps in a row before stopping. I’ve found this little bit of explicit planning can help me get in significantly more reps than if I merely make a time to practice.
Beyond setting yourself a number of reps to perform, you can set daily objectives for reps, increase the number of reps you do each day, or do a variation of the playing card workout to make the way you approach your reps more random.
Listen to Music or Podcasts
I certainly have a highly distractible mind. Putting on a bit of music or even listening to a podcast can be a helpful way to keep this distractible part engaged while I do something more repetitive with my body. I use this type of trick only when I’m working on a fine motor program skill that I know well. If what I’m listening to is engaging me highly, and the skill I’m practicing requires a lot of mental focus, I risk lowering the quality of my practice. You want to make sure you have a high number of reps done with high quality.
Sometimes, all you really need to remain engaged is to make things more challenging while staying within the target skill. This can accomplished by simply adding speed, which requires a higher level of mental presence and physical precision to maintain. You can also add timing challenges (cues from a partner given at random) or add prelude techniques (techniques that are executed ahead of the target technique, such as a disengage before a lunge). The important thing is to not add so much complexity that you significantly reduce your repetitions or overwhelm your ability to mentally focus on improving the target skill.
Getting to your training session itself might still require some work, but through techniques like these you can make those training sessions you do get to significantly more valuable.
If you’re stuck in a boring workout rut or have hit a fitness plateau, it’s time for a change. Try these five tips to help beat boredom at the gym and get more out of every workout
1. “Superset” your exercises
A superset is best described as two exercises performed back to back with no rest. Supersets are great because they keep your heart rate up during a workout, challenge your body and help you break out of a boring fitness routine. Performing supersets will also decrease the amount of time you need to spend at the gym.
While traditional resistance programs involve resting for 30 seconds to two minutes between sets, in a superset you only rest at the end of the set. This allows you to complete a more challenging workout in less time.
If you’re new to working out, try to superset an upper-body exercise with a lower-body exercise. For example, do 15 push-ups and then 15 bent-over rows, back to back. Complete three sets. If you’re a more advanced exerciser, superset two exercises for the same muscle group in order to fully exhaust those muscles. For example, do 15 squats followed by 10 squat jumps. Complete three sets.
2. Circuit training with bursts of high-intensity cardio
Circuit training involves performing three or more exercises back to back, without a break. Like supersets, you rest at the end of the circuit. To fully maximize your workout time, you should include both resistance exercises and bursts of intense cardio together in one circuit. This is a great technique to help you burn more calories.
For your cardio bursts, try skipping rope, doing burpies, running up and down on a BOSU, or running on a treadmill for two minutes.
Not sure how to set up your circuit? Try this one
1. Push-ups on the floor (10-15 reps).
2. Bent-over rows (12-15 reps).
3. Cardio burst: Run up and down on the spot for one minute. Try to lift your knees as high as you can.
4. Squats (10-15 reps).
5. Standing shoulder press (12-15 reps).
6. Cardio burst: burpies for one minute.
7. Lunges (10 reps each leg).
8. Standing bicep curls (12-15 reps).
9. Tricep dips with your hands on a bench (10-15 reps).
10. Cardio burst: jump rope for two minutes (if you don’t have a rope, just imagine that you do and mimic the motion).
11. Rest for one minute and then repeat for a total of three circuits.
Tip: if you have access to a BOSU ball, do your standing exercises on it, dome side up. Standing on the BOSU will challenge your balance and help you engage your core.
3. Mix up your cardio
Cardio routines can become particularly boring after a while, especially if you just head to the gym and do the same thing every time. When you repeat the same cardio workout over and over again, your body begins to know what to expect and stops responding to the exercise. In other words, your body becomes more efficient. So you’ll use fewer calories to perform that 30-minute elliptical workout today than you did two months ago. To make your cardio workouts more interesting, more intense and more effective, you need to mix up your routine and keep your body guessing. Try working these cardio tips into your weekly workouts:
• Spend 10 minutes on three different machines, back to back. For example, run for 10 minutes, bike for 10 minutes and then get on the stair climber for 10 minutes.
• Alternate skipping and running. Run for 10 minutes and then skip for five. Repeat two to four times.
• Interval train. Alternate one to three minutes of high-intensity cardio with two to five minutes of recovery cardio. Repeat for 20 minutes to one hour.
4. Try pyramid sets
Pyramid sets are designed so that the reps and/or weight change with each set. If you always do three sets of 12-15 reps, this will challenge your body and help you push past your workout plateau. A pyramid set can be done in a number of different ways.
Example A: Pyramid so that your reps decrease and your weight increases. Complete your first set with a weight you can lift for 12-15 reps, your second set with a weight you can lift for eight to 10 reps, and your third set with a weight you can lift for six to eight reps. End with a set of 20 reps with a lighter weight.
Example B: Complete a superset where the reps and weight for one exercise stay constant, but you pyramid the second exercise. Your sets might look something like this:
Set 1: 10 push-ups and 15 overhead tricep extensions.
Set 2: 10 push-ups and10 overhead tricep extensions, with weight increased.
Set 3. 10 push-ups and 8 overhead tricep extensions, with weight increased again.
Set 4. 10 push-ups and 15 overhead tricep extensions, at your original weight.
5. Remember the number 11
Choose two different exercises and complete them in such a way that the total number of reps always equals 11. A good set of 11s could be done with push-ups and hanging rows, which would look something like this:
• 10 push-ups, one row
• Nine push-ups, two rows
• Eight push-ups, three rows
• Seven push-ups, four rows
And so on, until you reach one push-up, 10 rows.