Too many times, I’ve seen people try to increase their ability in a given skill or movement by simply doing more metcons. While this may work for the elite 1%, for most of us, it’s better to take a systematic approach.
Special thanks to OPEX and TTT–much of my exploration on this topic was inspired and guided by the content they put out.
Every discussion on improving movements needs to start with the context of why you or your client wants to improve that movement. Performance goals are very different from health goals, so health goals may simply focus on skill improvement, and stop there. This discussion is based in a performance mindset.
This order is a general framework–some of you may have acquired levels of skill and volume in a movement that allow you to start at a later step–but remember that skill development never stops. Every warmup should make you better at the movements you have that day.
Note: this progression is for a given volume. For example, if you currently can successfully do 30 toes to bar in a workout (say 5 rounds of 6) without form breakdown or power output dropping substantially, you will need to go back up the ladder if you want to do 60 toes to bar in a workout.
We will use that example (taking someone from 30 to 60 toes to bar for comfortable volume) as a case study.
- Volume with full recovery
- Volume with minimal recovery
- Volume+aerobic prefatigue
- Volume with non-interfering prefatigue
- Volume with interfering prefatigue
- Volume with Anaerobic prefatigue
- Mixed workouts
The most important gatekeeper of any volume or movement acquisition is the ability to perform the movement more skillfully. If you can muscle your way through a few toes to bar, but your rhythm, positions, and breathing suck; you’re wasting time and effort trying to improve endurance before you improve your skill. Skill practice should be frequent, very low volume, and very low intensity. An example in this case: 10:00 of: 1 kip swing+1 kipping knee to chest+1 toes to bar. Rest to full recovery. This would allow you to practice the rhythm and skill of a kipping toes to bar without allowing any breakdown of form. Skill should always be reinforced in the workout.
Volume with full recovery
This is where we build the ability to do the volume of the movement. We start at our old volume (in our example: 30 toes to bar) and build to our new desired volume (60 toes to bar). Two important things to remember here
- Movement speed is king still. Don’t bother building volume of a movement if you’re moving at ⅔ the speed of what you’ll need for the performance goal you’re chasing.
- A slower build will always be safer and more effective than a fast build. It’s easy to think we can go from a 10:00 EMOM of 3 to a 10:00 EMOM of 6 in 4 weeks, but it’s rarely that simple. Prioritize recovery and skill/speed over adding volume week over week.
After keeping those two points in mind, progress using programming that allows for full rest in between sets. For example:
Week 1. 10:00 EMOM 3 toes to bar
Week 2: 10:00 EMOM 4 toes to bar
Week 3: 8 sets of 5 toes to bar, rest 1:00 in between sets
Week 4 9 sets of 5 toes to bar, rest 1:00 in between sets
Week 5 12:00 EMOM 4 toes to bar
Week 6 10 sets of 5 toes to bar, rest 1:00 in between sets
Week 7 9 sets of 6 toes to bar, rest to recovery in between sets.
Week 8 10 sets of 6 toes to bar, rest to recovery in between sets.
This build would allow plenty of time for plateaus and setbacks, while varying the setup enough to not be the same exact thing each week. Remember–if your athlete is competing in the sport of fitness, you may not have the ability to focus on one movement like this for 8 weeks. In that case, take a smaller goal (perhaps 30-40 toes to bar) and do a 3-4 week build, then rotate movements.
Volume with minimal recovery
This is sometimes called “density work” and is the ability to cycle more reps with less rest. This is important to do before adding any prefatigue, as it will allow you to eliminate any interference between movements while you still dial in skill. A good example for a progression directly after 10 sets of 6 toes to bar with full recovery would be:
20 sets of 3 unbroken toes to bar for time: rest as little as possible to keep movements unbroken and crisp.
Remember– you cannot simply start at the set volume they finished full recovery at. You may need to give some athletes who struggle to self regulate directed recovery targets like:
20 sets of
3 unbroken toes to bar
:30 rest in between sets (that then progresses to :25, :20, etc)
You can also progress by keeping rest static and adding reps to the sets. For example:
4 unbroken toes to bar
Volume with aerobic prefatigue
Now we start to add in some prefatigue to our skill and volume. The important thing to remember here is that it can be counter productive to have athletes ride/row/run/ski/double under much slower than the sport dictates before hopping off and doing our movement. It is better to have longer recovery, and keep paces sport specific, than to sacrifice speed to add volume. A good example of a workout:
1:00 bike at 10:00 test pace
6 unbroken toes to bar
Rest to full recovery.
Then progress by either adding set volume or reducing rest.
This step is where we often see breathing patterns rear their heads. If you (or your athlete) has an issue breathing while they’re in positions throughout the movement, they will struggle to perform with a higher heart rate. Focus on having them go through breathwork in those positions during their warmups until it gets better.
Volume with non-interfering prefatigue
This is where we really start to see movement combination choice become important. This is the idea of performing movements that do not directly interfere with our chosen movements. In the case of toes to bar, that means we want to avoid movements which directly tax the grip, midline, or lats. Note–it is nearly impossible to truly avoid interference. We mean the difference between pairing toes to bar with air squats vs GHDs here. It is useful to pick movement combinations that are often paired with our movement in competitive environments here. For example, toes to bar are often paired with a knee flexion or explosive movement (squat cleans, box jumps, lunges, hang clean and jerks) that would be a good choice. Example:
20 jumping air squats
7 unbroken toes to bar
Rest to full recovery.
Volume with interfering prefatigue
Now we begin to purposely mess with a movement in order to ensure skill and density resilience–the ability to resist the degradation that many people see when we mix two movements that interfere with each other. In the case of toes to bar, we should attack the limiting factor for an athlete. In other words, if their grip tends to fatigue, do grip work prior. Let’s use the grip example here:
50m farmer’s carry (heavy)
6 unbroken toes to bar
Rest to recovery.
The sequencing here is very important. If an athlete has not built their density and resilience in a skill, adding in interference too early will be counter productive.
Volume with Anaerobic prefatigue
The final (and in some ways worst!) step to all of this. While the goal is always to stay under your redline in a mixed modal workout, the reality is that sport sometimes demands you exceed that. When that happens, you need to be able to maintain skill and sets. This step should be done sparingly, and only in peaking phases. Basically, it’s murder yourself, and then do volume.
15 cal bike SPRINT
7 unbroken t2b
This step will bulletproof your technique–but also will create massive intensity. Structure this at the end of a session, 1-2 times a week at max. I would only do this 3-4 weeks in a row, in a peaking phase before a competition.
Put them all together! Mix your movements in as many combinations as creativity and equipment allow. The important thing to remember here is: total volume matters. You may be able to hold technique and intensity at 60 toes to bar now, but trying to do mixed modal at 90 reps would be a disaster. In other words:
5 RFT of:
8 bar facing burpees
12 toes to bar
The first would probably allow you to do 2 sets of 6 for the whole workout (assuming burpee and deadlift volume is appropriate) whereas the 18 toes to bar would likely disintegrate into singles or long breaks by the 5th round.
This is a process. Respect that process and continually refine skill and other aspects of your fitness in order to raise the potential of yourself or your athletes!
Here’s to smarter volume acquisition!