How much should I train?

A lot of people ask me questions like, “how much shall I train”. There are many layers to this question. Firstly: about the formulation of the question. It comes in different forms; “how much should I train?”, “how much shall I train?”, “how much do I have to train?”. Let’s consider what happens if we formulate the question differently. Suppose we frame it in a way that is less of an imperative. Meaning that we try not to use words like “must”, “have to”, or “should”. It’s worth exploring. In general, you can apply this principle to many things: getting away from external imperatives and using fewer “musts” or “have-tos” in your language, replacing them with a more empowered language that acknowledges that you, and not some mysterious outside entity, are the authority in your life.

So: how much do we train, how much do we practice, how much do you want to practice? The answer is inevitably individual. To receive a more precise response, the question would need to be more specific. For example: How much training is required to create this effect to reach this particular outcome.

The answer will still be individual, but at least you can meaningfully discuss a solution. If someone wants to reach, say, a certain number in a lift, there will be an answer to how much training is needed to effectively get that specific body to be able to do so. Although, admittedly, finding the exact answer is still not easy. Even so, this is a lot easier to answer than the question of how much practice or training is needed “in general”.

If we remove our principle of reducing outside imperatives, the answer to that question is zero. You do not have to practice or train. It’s not imperative in life. It’s not a must.

Once you’ve realized this, you can try to formulate the question differently. You will need to ask the question to yourself. You might first need to figure out what you want from the practice. Is this clear to you or not? It doesn’t need to be clear, but there needs to be an inquiry into it. Do you have a clear goal? A clear intention? Or is it vague?

Again, there is no right and wrong in this, but how you answer these other questions will guide the answer to the main one. A vague intention - for example, that you simply enjoy the practice, without clear goals in mind - will lead to a vague answer. If your incentive is that you enjoy walking this specific path, how much time you spend walking it is entirely up to you. It can vary over time, with more and less intense phases.

Someone who is competing or performing might get a clearer and stricter answer, one that is based on the information that is already there from people who have walked a similar path. If you’re an athlete or performer or are training for a competition or performance, the answer will be much more straightforward.

Performance in this sense can be either an artistic performance or simply performing your work the way you need to. A soldier, for example, or a firefighter will need to train to be able to perform their job.

Most people are not practicing in this sense, but if we broaden the definition of practice beyond the physical, you could practice and improve in any endeavor you do, including your job. The question is: is it necessary? Is what you are doing, who you are, not enough? Let’s say you’re a waiter. Do you have to become a better waiter? You are typing some things on a computer. Do you have to get better at that, improve your number of keystrokes per minute? You don’t, but some people feel excited about improving at such things.

Still, mostly, it’s not a must. Only when you start a new job, it’s a must to train. Then you reach a level that is sufficient to do your work. Whether you want to improve from there is up to you. Before, improving is required to do the job. After, becoming better than good enough is a decision.

The work of Anders Ericsson is significant in this regard. Ericsson points out that most of our lives are acted out with “good enough” as the standard. When you’re brushing your teeth, you’re usually not trying to get better at it. But sometimes, a dentist will tell you, “I can see that you brush better here than there”. This happened to me once.

So that time, I had an incentive to practice my brushing to do a bit better. But mostly, you simply brush your teeth, and that’s it. There’s no practice. We could practice, however. Is it needed? No. But if you want to excel at something, for whatever reason it might be, you need to practice. This could be because you feel excited about excelling, or it could be a need, for example, if you want a specific job.

Let’s look at musicians as an example. Say you want to play in an orchestra. You will need to practice more and better than the other people who want that spot. Anders Ericsson points to a study he did with violinists in Berlin, which shows that the violinists who accumulated more hours of practice tended to get the more prestigious jobs. Of course, other factors are at play, but there’s a correlation at least.

This brings us to another important thing to consider: Not all practice is the same. Showing up is, in a sense, not enough. Showing up is better than not showing up, but it’s not enough. Your practice needs to be mindful or, as Anders Ericsson calls it, deliberate.

Ericsson makes a distinction between two forms of practice: deliberate practice and purposeful practice. Deliberate practice is when you walk a path that others have already laid out, where you can learn from their processes. Purposeful practice means practice where there is no teacher: you explore a new land that has not been explored before.

So again, it’s not merely about showing up. The quality of your practice makes a difference. For example, the quality of your feedback, how you respond to said feedback, your ability to focus, your ability to deal with frustration, and so forth. All these variables determine the quality of your practice.

We talked about time, and we’ve seen that there is no survival need to practice for many of us. Many of us simply like to practice. After work is finished, providing money to pay our rent and food, we go to practice. Because there is a different need being met there: it can be an emotional need, a social need, or something else depending on the practice.

Excitement is a significant factor. Your level of excitement about something, as well as how much time is left after you finish your other duties in life, will determine how much you practice.

Because, other than the limitations put out by those factors, there’s usually not a top to it. Of course, if you’re a weightlifter, you can’t practice heavy lifting for twelve hours per day. Still, there’s a lot of no-load practice you can do. Re-balancing training, supplemental training, reading, studying other people’s technique, etc. You can spend a lot of time on the topic of weightlifting. The vaster the subject, the more apparent it is that you can spend a lot of time with it. Our practice, what we call physical and cognitive practices, is vast enough to include everything. However: there’s not enough time to do everything.

Because there’s not enough time, we are regularly and actively choosing what we do. “Now we are doing this, for this and this time”—a certain amount of days, hours, months, years, whatever. But there are always so many other things that we could do, which I find exciting. There are many exciting things to choose from, but we need to choose and then focus on what we’ve selected because otherwise, we will struggle to, let’s say, walk linearly. Something happens when you have this global approach when your mind is everywhere, so we need to sometimes go into a narrower, more focused view.

The metaphor I like to use is that of a forest. Sometimes we look at the whole forest, and then we look at an individual tree. We are looking at all the details, the leaves, the branches, the small things. Then we again look at the forest. And we do this back and forth, back and forth. Always returning to this overview, this general view, and then going back to the details, seeing what you cannot see while looking at the forest as a whole. And when you look at the whole forest, you see that you cannot see when only looking at a tree. Out of this, back and forth, the landscape takes shape.

Then there is also the question of what constitutes the practice. When are we practicing? Is it only during the time when we are focusing on it? Or does the practice extend beyond that, into the time after? In between these moments of focus, when things are processed in us? Or maybe even when we do it half-heartedly, on the side? We know that there is this phenomenon where we do something with a lot of focus for a time - a week, two weeks, a month maybe - and then we stop, and when we come back after our break, there’s an improvement. We are better, and we got better in the time when we thought we were not practicing. We weren’t doing focused practicing, but in our minds and bodies, we were still processing things, and when we came back… something happened. It’s a bit like dough. You work on it, and then you leave it to work on its’ own for a while. To ferment. And then you come back to it, and something has happened, and you can again actively work on it, taking the next step. Like a cheese. You prepare it, and then you leave it to acquire more taste over time.

So, in a way, you can practice all the time. However, it’s also important to remain balanced. Otherwise, we risk fatiguing ourselves and burning ourselves out. It’s a problem in our society that many people don’t realize when energy is being taken from them without the same energy coming back in. There is more and more talk about self-care and about how important it is. Intelligent slave drivers have always understood how important it is. If you have a slave, you give him some free time to recover because otherwise, you burn out your slave. He dies, and you need a new slave. So the slave driver pretends to be a nice guy, giving the slave some recreational time, which ensures he can get more benefit out of the slave. Factory owners did the same to the industrial age workers. Landowners did the same with taking the produce from the farmers. You can’t take all of the crops. You leave exactly enough to the farmers so that they can continue their work so that you can take from them again next year.

So this is common knowledge among people in abusive power positions. But a lot of us are less aware of this. And it might not be so clear to us what our needs are in terms of what activities help us take care of ourselves.

Our recreational time has also been under attack in recent years, primarily through connectivity. People work in jobs where one is connected all the time, where one can be reached all the time. This leaves no time to shut off, relax, re-balance, and then go back to practice, which becomes a problem. It also becomes a problem when jobs require people to do an amount of work that you cannot sustain healthily. But this has been around for thousands of years already. What’s new is this constant connectivity that the internet has brought people, where they are still reachable even in the middle of the night. They never go into a different mode, into a “rebalancing-for-work” mode.

We can think of our practice as similar. To sustain a practice for a very long time - for your whole life, even - you need to balance it with the rest of your life. For many years I trained - focused training - for six, up to ten hours per day. I would sometimes do my last session at eleven or twelve in the night. Then, at a certain point, I realized I could not sustain that anymore because my other responsibilities started requiring more time. My teaching responsibilities, duties for taking care of other people, and trying to formulate this thing that we are doing so that people can participate. And my most significant responsibility: my children.

Having children completely changed how I practice, how I approach it, how my life is scheduled, how my life works. Anyone reading this who has children will completely understand how a child changes everything. And people who don’t have children probably won’t understand. Before I had kids, I didn’t know this world. I didn’t understand it. And then suddenly, I understood a new world that had been incomprehensible for me before. So many things that hadn’t made sense to me before suddenly made perfect sense. All these people trying to minimize the time needed for practice. It suddenly made sense. If you have very little time and want to get a particular something out of it, it makes sense that there are gyms that offer these weird things where you have electric cords or whatever, where you go once per week for twenty minutes, and it supposedly makes you fit. This always seemed ridiculous to me, and of course, it still seems silly, but I can also understand it. You want to get the benefits of being in a certain shape, and you don’t care about actually practicing. Many companies advertise that: reducing the time of practice but still getting all the benefits.

That, however, never works in reality. It simply doesn’t work that way. You cannot reduce the time massively and still get the same results. It is not possible. It’s only possible if you used to practice poorly, and then you improve the quality of your practice. Say you used to practice ten hours per week mindlessly, without knowing what you were doing. Then, you gained some knowledge and started focusing more on what you do, and suddenly you could get the same value out of two or three hours instead of ten. This is the difference between focused and mindless practice. But when these companies say that you don’t need to put in the effort, they are advertising something that is not true. Going in there and doing twenty minutes of electrical cords and stimulation, or whatever it is that you do, is probably better than not doing it. Showing up once in your life is better than never showing up at all. However, we also need to acknowledge that those twenty minutes of electrical stimulation are in no way to be considered similar to actual practice.

So how much do you need to practice? The answer is very individual. If you have a clear goal - wanting to achieve specific abilities, a certain degree of fitness, or something like this - the answer will be more precise. But it will still be highly individual and depend on your current state and what you are trying to achieve.

For most people, the main interest is in practice itself. Although you may formulate clear goals, and the road to achieving those goals may be quantifiable, the big underlying thing is the excitement about practicing. About exploring something in increasing depth. Most of us are not soldiers, firefighters, or circus performers. Some are, and their lives are different. Their practice is different. But most of us are not them.

Essay version of the video created by Oskar Henke


Joseph Bartz