I have been looking more and more into the consequences of learning and adaptation. My recent book, seen in the sidebar to the right, attempted to explain many of the ideas that I have on the topic. However, while listening to a polyglot on YouTube today, I realized that I completely missed a very important idea. The relationship between efficiency, intensity, and volume is not linear. To my knowledge, no one else has realized this either.
This hypothesis implies that as the efficiency of your work increases, the intensity of the work you are capable of increases in a non-proportional way. Essentially, Increasing your efficiency by one unit, does not just increase your intensity capability by one unit. Your capability to work intensively actually increases by more than one unit. They are not one to one.
The reverse is true for volume. As your efficiency of work increases, your capacity for volume of work at a fixed intensity actually decreases in a non-proportional way as well. For example, this means the volume of work you were previously able to do at 60 percent intensity, will decrease by more than one unit for each one unit increase in efficiency.
Let's look at a real life example using weight lifting as I did in my book.
When you begin weight lifting, you are very inefficient at the movements. Your coordination and neural connections are not automatic. You must think about every exercise you do and this reflects in an awkward looking squat or bench press for an onlooking expert. Basically you are wasting energy on many things besides the actual work of lifting the weight.
Let's say you are able to lift 100 pounds for one set of one repetition. This represents 100 percent intensity for you on that day. Let's also say that you are able to lift 60 pounds, or 60 percent intensity, for five sets of ten repetitions. This represents a total of 50 repetitions done with your 60 percent maximum intensity level. This workout would be very easy for most people to complete who are beginners at this stage.
Let's also assume you are 50 percent efficient at lifting the weight, which means that 50 percent of the effort you apply to lifting the weight actually translates into the weight being lifted. This whole workout would look like this in a training log or diary:
100 lbs x 1 rep x 1 set (100% intensity, 1 rep of volume)
60 lbs x 10 reps x 5 sets (60% intensity, 50 reps of volume)
Now, let's look at a more experienced weight lifter who has been lifting weights for ten years and is very efficient at the movements.
Let's pretend he is a world champion and record holder who can lift 1,000 pounds for one set of one repetition. The 1,000 pounds represents his 100 percent intensity. Translating what we did above, 60 percent intensity would equal 600 pounds. Doing the same volume, five sets of ten repetitions, would equal a total of 50 repetitions. Again, a training log or diary would look like this:
1,000 lbs x 1 rep x 1 set (100% intensity, 1 rep of volume)
600 lbs x 10 reps x 5 sets (60% intensity, 50 reps of volume)
Now, let's assume from the ten years of hard work and experience, this lifter is 90 percent efficient at lifting the weight. This means that 90 percent of the energy he applies to lifting the weight translates to the weight actually being lifted.
If efficiency had no effect on intensity and volume, then these two workouts would represent relatively equal experiences to the lifter. However, in real life, the first workout is actually no problem and the second is impossible. The beginner would leave the gym feeling fine, while the experienced lifter would mostly likely not be capable of completing it or at best be completely wrecked and require an extended recovery period.
This is what I mean when I say that the relationship between efficiency, intensity, and volume is non-linear. As your efficiency of work increases, you are capable of increased intensity, but decreased volume at a given fixed intensity. You can see from this imaginary lifter that his efficiency went up 40 percent (50 to 90), but his maximum intensity was able to increase 1,000 percent (100 lbs to 1,000 lbs). However, his capacity for volume at any given intensity would go down (50 total reps to perhaps 25 total reps).
This is not unique to weight lifting.
Polyglottery. As I said at the beginning of this post, I realized this while watching a YouTube video by a polyglot. He mentioned that when he began studying languages, he could study for eight to ten hours per day, every day. Now he can only study a language for four to five hours each day. He stated he was unsure why this was, but assumed it was simply because he gets bored more easily now.
I believe that is the wrong explanation.
I believe his efficiency at studying languages has dramatically increased over the time it's taken him to learn the ten or more languages he speaks and he is now simply incapable of sustaining the volume of study he undertook at the beginning. I am sure that most of his energy was wasted on tasks other than learning a language and now that close to 100 percent of his energy can actually be devoted to learning, it is simply more taxing.
He is not the first polyglot I have heard make this remark. I have seen several of the polyglots on YouTube say very similar things. They were all able to devote eight to 12 hours each day to learning a single language when they began, but now are simply incapable.
Schooling. This non-linear relationship is seen throughout life once you are aware of it. Schooling is another excellent example. Students begin K-12 with six to eight hours of study each day. However, as they grow up and go off to college, then graduate school, and possibly even earn a doctorate, their volume of work gets relatively lower as the intensity increases. A typical course at the graduate level consists of meeting once a week for two to three hours. Compare this with elementary school where students meet five days each week for eight hours a day. The volume is lower in graduate school, but the intensity is much higher.
Expertise. This idea also corresponds highly with the work of Anders Ericsson on the nature of expertise. His work has found that the majority of experts are incapable of exceeding roughly four hours of deliberate practice each day. This has been found to be true across domains as diverse as chess and concert piano. This is also the exact same number of hours many advanced polyglots and weight lifters state they are incapable of exceeding as well.
As you can see, this relationship was realized from the connection of various fields of personal interest. It is my personal experience in weight lifting, studying polyglots, the education system, and knowledge from Ericsson's research that helped me connect the dots. Right now, it is only a theory. However, I believe it to be absolutely true and something that could be empirically tested with time.
To conclude and reiterate once more, as your efficiency of work increases, your capacity to apply intensity increases in a non-linear way and your capacity to apply volume decreases in a non-linear way.