The other day, I went to do a few sets of pull-ups and was disappointed to realize I could no longer do as many as I once could.
There was a time a few years ago when I was working pull-ups diligently a few times a week and got up to doing ten in a row. For someone who could barely hang from a pull-up bar as a teenager, I was pretty proud of that number.
But on this day I could only knock out four, maybe five at a time, before my form completely fell apart.
At first, I started to get pretty down on myself. How could I have let this happen?
Then I took a step back and considered the reality of the situation. I injured my elbow a few years before during a bad tumbling fall and — despite having done countless hours of physical therapy — still have what’s known as golfer’s elbow. As a result, I haven’t been able to train pull-ups as often because the more pull-ups I do, the more aggravated my elbow becomes.
The reason I can’t do as many pull-ups as I used to is simple: because I haven’t been working much on them.
Contrast that to other areas of my training such as handstands, flexibility, and martial arts_ where I’ve been spending much of my time and energy, and as a result, have made significant gains.
That I’ve even kept a baseline level of strength despite my injury and putting significantly less time and energy toward my pull-ups should be a win in itself.
The reality is that we can’t expect to be getting better at everything all of the time.
No matter how dedicated we are toward our training goals, we can only put our energy and focus on so many things at once. As a result, our ability level in the things we aren’t making a current priority may naturally go backward a little, or at best, maintain.
This is why smart high-level athletes focus on periodizing, or dividing their training into cycles throughout the year — to grow their athletic arsenal over time. They have cycles where they’re working to build up strength and others where they’re looking to increase speed, muscle mass, conditioning levels, or technique. The most dedicated athletes plan these cycles over years, always thinking long-term.
Even if you consider yourself more of a weekend warrior, there’s a lot you can learn from high-level athletes.
For example, suppose you decide your immediate goal is to improve your conditioning so that you’re less winded during your other activities. In that case, you might plan a one to three month cycle where you’re consistently doing sprints, intervals, and other workouts targeting your conditioning levels.
During this time, you might not be as focused on making strength gains, aiming instead to maintain the strength you’ve already built. You’d reduce your strength workouts to a maintenance level each week (which, as recent scientific evidence shows, means just five or six sets a week, which can be broken up nicely into two workouts).
You’ll focus mainly on your conditioning during this time, then when the cycle ends, ideally take a short break before switching to your next focus. Over time, you’ll slowly build up your athletic arsenal. Your gains will build upon each other so that you become a much more well-rounded athlete in the process.
Of course, the concept of periodization or cycling works well in other areas of life, too. You might choose to devote a few months to improving your writing skills, or learning to cook, or taking a class on photography. During that time, you’d plan to put most of your time and energy into getting better at that skill. Once the cycle is over, you might choose a different focus to put most of your energy into, making sure to return to the previous skill regularly to ensure you stay at least at a maintenance level and don’t lose all your gains.
This approach favors long-term gains over short-term ones. Over time, periodization of your training, work, and life will help you become a much more well-rounded athlete and human being, all while helping you avoid injury and burnout.
“Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.” ― George Leonard