On Elegance and Single Workout


Elegance is [achieved by] selectiveness or restraint in the use of means—a good selection gets to the point with just the right means.

In my opinion, the crucial element of a training program is a workout. Not an exercise and not a microcycle but a single workout.

Why not an exercise—the basic building block of training? Because exercises are like words of a language. Speaking or writing words is not enough to be understood well—just as doing exercises correctly is not enough to get the desired training effect. One has to put them together into sentences (workouts) that make sense.

Even marginally competent instructors know hundreds of exercises and the correct form and purpose of each. It would take gross incompetence to teach an exercise incorrectly or to order an athlete to do an inappropriate exercise. (Say, beyond the athlete’s ability or that accentuates the athlete’s liabilities, such as posture defects.) So, proficiency in selecting and teaching exercises I consider a given.

Many believe the microcycle is the most important building block of a training program. But the microcycle is made of workouts (as a paragraph is made of sentences), and if those are composed poorly then the whole microcycle doesn’t work.

In the U.S.A., in various courses, instructors and trainers are taught how to do exercises and how to screen athletes for exercises. Hardly ever are they  taught how to compose a workout with those exercises for an optimal effect.

Composing and conducting a good workout is not difficult. One has to consider the athlete or athletes and the purpose of the workout, then select exercises that match both and make it all flow.

A good, purposeful, flowing workout leaves athletes happy, confident, and looking forward to the next workout. Athletes should feel so confident in the skills acquired or improved that they do not do on their own more than the instructor ordered them. When athletes linger after a workout and do more, it means that

— they have not done what they wanted;

— they don’t trust their skill; and

— the workout has not given them confidence that they have made sufficient progress.

After a well-run workout, athletes feel that all they need to do is rest before the next great workout. If they don’t feel that way and do more on their own, their readiness for the next workout suffers, and so the whole microcycle unravels.

So, that is why I believe the workout is the element that makes or breaks the training program.

Back to elegance. . . .

A good workout is like a good speech—compact, getting to the point without needless digressions—in a word, elegant in its economy of means and thus effective and memorable. Like a good speech (or writing), all its elements flow and build upon each other, leading to the aimed-for outcome.

9 Responses to “On Elegance and Single Workout”

  1. 1 elskbrev

    “Gross incompetence!?” Is that what it is when an instructor of an “all-belts” class (white through black) orders everyone to do 10 pushups with their feet supported on a 15 inch block? I saw it happen.

    In a small class of seven students, one student so ordered immediately raised her hand and said, “That’s a bit much for me. May I do regular push ups on the floor?” The instructor responded, quietly and sharply, as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard, “What?!” The student stood her ground, “Push ups with my feet on the block are too difficult for me. May I do regular pushups?” “Sure,” he replied, rolling his eyes as she hit the floor to pump out 20 or so, on her knees, while he muttered under his breath, “…even just one!…”

    All it takes is one repetition of an exercise that is beyond a student’s ability to cause them injury.

    (For the quantitative, the difference between a knee pushup and a raised feet pushup is about 55% vs. 75% of body weight, more or less depending on how your body weight is distributed. I am guessing this woman was between 115-120# at the time, so he was asking her to press around 85#, ten (10) times. She didn’t look like a body builder.)

    Our instructors occasionally direct the same student group to practice other advanced level exercises, such as plyometrics or V-sit ups, without explaining what the beginning or intermediate students should do differently in order that they won’t get hurt. (Platter of shin splints, anyone, or a lower back strain or perhaps a pulled groin, today, for you?)

    On another occasion, a black belt and a high yellow belt of that same group, walked out of the dojang with hip flexor strain. Both women were in pretty decent shape, the black belt in peak condition, having spent the past year preparing for her first dan test. In this case, it wasn’t a matter of difficulty level, but apparently of bad sequence of exercises.

    So, why do otherwise excellent martial arts instructors do things like that? Our instructors aim to challenge students. They usually succeed, and they are masters of their art. If only they would study and apply logical progression and sequence of conditioning for their art.

    Thanks for listening to me rant.

    Best regards,

  2. 2 mtrowley

    Cindy – From my personal experience what you are describing is very common in some Martial Arts – I saw many terrible things in Shotokan Karate classes (Stamping on people while in a split position to force them further into a split, getting obviously weak beginners to do fireman carries with the rest of the class etc.). But I always saw people vote with their feet. These classes became unpopular quickly and people left and these instructors were often left with very few members, either because they realised that what was going on was stupid, or they got injured from doing the stupid things.

    I would suggest you vote with your feet and find an instructor that is qualified to instruct.

  3. 3 leelando

    Recognizing that this entire thread is a bit off topic:
    After taking martial arts for about 2 years from a competent instructor, I visited the dojo of a close friend. While doing the static stretches that constituted the warm up, I was sitting in a butterfly position when the instructor snuck up behind me and, putting his knee on my back, forced my face to the ground. I felt something in my left groin tear, and to this day 22 years later I still have decreased mobility and pain in that area. Of course I never returned, but at that point, the damage was done… Only a moment of gross incompetence on his part has cost me a lifetime injury.

    More on topic:
    I have been amazed at how many Crossfit affiliates (http://crossfit.com/) seem to pride themselves in picking “totally random” workouts. The main site seems to give thought when combining things for individual workouts, but *many* of the affiliates seem to buy into the methodology of “completely random keeps the body guessing and therefore yields the best results”. To their credit, I have very rarely completed their workout of the day (WOD) and wanted to “linger and do more”. However, most new Crossfitter’s leave the majority of workouts feeling completely overwhelmed.

  4. 4 taichigirl

    I look forward to Mr. Kurz designing a video that will teach instructors how to teach and design a great workout. Better yet, I look forward to him coming to my town to teach me and others how to do it better personally. Where do I sign up?

  5. 5 CSta

    taichigirl, go to stadion.com and read all of the articles in the columns section. Read also, the Science of Sports Training. That’ll be a good start.

  6. An interesting idea making such a video. It looks like a challenging project—more difficult than it seems at first. But now that the Fall is here, and sunshine is scarce so I stay indoors more, I will look into my video collection to see if I have a suitable footage. Teaching personally will have to wait a long time—I am fully occupied rehabbing my arthritic shoulder.

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