Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint Exupery
I like to cast the net wide when it comes to my coaching reading. I don’t just limit myself to training books. I like to read business, psychology, biographies, leadership and management, philosophy and even military books. If there are good ideas out there that can help me and my athletes, I don’t care where they come from.
One author who I discovered both through my colleague Mladen Jovanovic and listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast is Nassim Taleb, an author and philosopher who initially made his name as a financial trader, but now pretty much does whatever interests him. He is best known for his books “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan”, in which the central themes are human error in decision making, the catastrophic effects of unpredictable events and managing risk.
A key concept that frequently appears both in my reading of Nassim Taleb (and my conversations with Mladen) is the idea of via negativa- to improve a system by removing elements rather than adding as humans are so prone to do. The problem with adding to a system is that there are risks (seen or unseen):
- Extra work sets may create a stronger signal for strength and power adaptation but also create additional fatigue and risk of injury
- Vitamin supplements may reduce radiative oxygen species as desired, but they can blunt training adaptation. The same goes for ice baths post training- they reduce inflammation, but it turns out they also reduce long term strength and power gains too.
- Taping ankles or other joints is great for immobilising that joint and creating a quick fix for a strain or tear, but may pass the dysfunction up the kinetic chain and in the long term may create injury issues elsewhere in the body.
Whenever something gets added to the system, a series of events will be set in action that create negative effects at some point down the line. These may be catastrophic, or they may be acceptable losses, but it will probably happen.
Even worse is when an element within the system exists that we know to be harmful. Often these negative elements can will exert a far greater detrimental effect than the measures we employ to combat them. All the fruit and vegetables in the world won’t help your health if you smoke a pack of cigarettes every day. Taking an ice bath after training doesn’t do much if you’re training for 5 hours a day, every single day (I’m looking at you, China).
A secondary consideration of via negativa is that many roads lead to Rome. There are many ways to succeed. Just think of all the ways to get strong: 5/3/1, DUP, Westside barbell style training, high frequency training, high volume training, the list goes on. The same can be said of nearly every facet of strength and conditioning. On the flip side, there are a limited number of common mistakes that unite the failures:
- Too much or too little volume or intensity
- Too much monotony or too much continuity in the programme
- Poor nutrition
- Insufficient rest and recovery
- Insufficient overload
- Improper technique
So if you are a coach or rugby player looking to improve performance, the smart money is on a via negativa approach. Firstly you have already been exposed to any risk associated with adding existing elements to your programme. Removing these elements will likely improve your programme and reduce the risk of unforeseen events, and if it doesn’t, you can safely re-introduce these elements to your programme knowing the consequences.
Secondly you are more likely to avoid the failures that link unsuccessful programmes. Less fatigue, less equipment needs, less financial costs, less training time, less injuries etc. are all potential benefits associated with taking away from, rather than adding to your programme. The sporting world abounds with examples of a via negativa approach:
- The Bulgarian weightlifting powerhouse of the 1980s performed just 5 exercises.
- Michael Yessis designed the extremely successful 1*20 programme utilising just one set. If you want to know how well it works for new trainees, check out my podcast with Jay Demayo who uses it with his Division 1 NCAA athletes.
- Dan Pfaff has remarked on several occasions that Greg Rutherford can only tolerate one big weights session per week, so that is all they gave him in the lead up to his gold medal performance at the 2012 Olympics.
- Even bodybuilders have figured it out. Check out this video by Dave Pulcinella on the foods that work- the only 6 foods he eats in the lead up to a contest:
The longer I coach, the more I realise that my programme should contain fewer exercises, fewer sets, less fatigue and fewer fancy tools. To address injury and recovery issues I should be doing more to remove the existing issues than try to solve them with new additions: remove stress, remove energy leaks, remove interruptions to sleep, remove prolonged sitting, remove alcohol and processed food. The list goes on. Stop adding. What can you remove from your existing training to make yourself better?