Updated: Sep 15, 2019
This is a bit of rant, so bear with me.
But first off, how much in common do you have with this guy? Not a lot you say? Really?
In psychology there is something referred to as “the extrovert ideal”. There is a good book on it called Quiet by Susan Cain. The extrovert ideal is basically the phenomena that since there are more extroverts in western society, a lot of our social norms end up being what is normal for extroverts, but not introverts. This is not good or bad, it is just how things are based on the power of the majority. If you are introverted it is good to know about this so that you don’t feel like an alien in your own society, and can develop social skills to survive in the extrovert driven world.
Now in fitness, I think there is a similar, but almost inverse, phenomena. I call it “The 1% Ideal”. In fitness, those who get the most attention, and therefore those who have the most influence, are generally in the top 0.1-1% in terms of ability. They are in the top 1% due to one or more factors including: exceptional genetics, exceptional training history, exceptionalal environment, PED use, and dedication/ an especially effective psyche.
Let me qualify a few things:
It is natural for these people to get attention. They deserve it. Just like super-models happen to be nice to look at, athletic prowess is also eye-catching, interesting, and awe inspiring. It is also normal to look to these people for inspiration, and on some level their presence is beneficial to give the other 99% a goal, albeit an unrealistic one, to shoot for.
Experience. Yes, the 1% has a wealth of training experience to draw from, but again, is that training experience relatable to you and your relationship with fitness and your goals?
It is also appropriate that if you are a true competitive athlete, which means you are trying to be the best at your sport and all that matters is winning, that you would look to the best for training advice, methods, etc. Intent is not the only important thing here. Are you able to dedicate as much time to your craft as the person you are following. It is important to know the distinction between a competitive athlete and someone who recreationally competes, and know where you fall here.
So, yes there is a place for the 1% to influence the other 99%, but……
My issue is that the top 1% often end up being the ones teaching normal people about fitness. This is the 1% Ideal of fitness and the top-down approach doesn't make a lot of sense.
Why you maybe shouldn’t listen to the 1%
The reason you should add a grain of salt to advice or training programs designed by/for the 1% is because you have very little in common with these people on many different levels. And you may say, well I want to see what I am capable of. Sure, I get that, but that doesn’t change the fact their lifestyle, genetics, training history, etc. is completely different than yours. What allows them to be the 1% is likely much different than what it takes for you to experience your version of elite fitness.
When people try to follow the same training program as Rich Froning after doing Crossfit for a year it is ridiculous. It can be related to a Rottweiler giving advice to a mouse on what works best when fighting cats. There is going to be very little in common between the Rottweilers cat fighting experience, and the mouses cat-fighting experience. Similarly a weightlifting program that works for someone who is a full-time athlete, has impeccable limb-lengths for lifting, and has been lifting since they were 10, probably isn’t too relevant for the 28 year old ex-soccer player who just started weightlifting, has pre-existing injuries, long femurs, and a full-time job.
Here is an in depth look at how you differ from the 1% across different categories. When reading this keep consider whether you are similar to to justify following a program that mimics the training of the 1% or is designed for the 1% may not be the best choice.
Environment can be thought of in terms of your upbringing/development. The easiest example is to reference the amount of current NHL players whose Dad played in the NHL. If your dad played in the NHL you are far more likely to make it there yourself. Similarly, you have a much better chance of making the NHL if you grow up in Saskatchewan (a hockey hot-bed), than compared to someone who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii. Another great example is Dmitry Klokov the world famous Russian weight-lifter. He happens to be the son of a world champion weightlifter. Growing up in an environment wherein your desired craft of expertise is commonplace will greatly influence your chances of success. There aren’t many pro surfers from Saskatchewan.
So, did you grow up with fitness? Did you grow up lifting weights with a coach, or someone in your family who really knew what they were doing?
I believe that everyone is capable of achieving levels of fitness they never thought possible. Everybody can improve, but not everyone can be world-class, sorry. One cannot ignore the influence that genetics has on where you may end up. As my boss likes to say, “We don’t build NHL players, God does.” This does not mean that we are not vastly improving our athletes abilities over their summer training, but the reality is, you cannot turn a shetland pony into a race-horse.
There are endless things genetically that can influence someones ability to achieve greatness in a sport. The length of your femur compared to your fibula will greatly influence your ability so squat. The length of your forearm is going to greatly influence your ability to perform something like a handstand pushup. Your lung capacity is going to greatly influence your aerobic ability. Your resilience or ability to handle stress (which may have been influenced by something like anti-biotic use in the first year of your life) is going to greatly influence your ability to withstand the training demand required to be part of the 1%
We like to think that with hard-work everyone can make it to the NHL or the Crossfit Games, but that just isn’t the case. Tough to hear, but it is reality. This should not be discouraging and be interpreted as me saying you should not try to improve yourself. But it is important to realize that the elite or 1% are in that class for a reason. The best of the best are special. In big ways.
The group of hockey players I train during the summer has its fair share of genetic freaks. These are young guys who are gifted physically, and compete at a high level. For example, last summer I taught a sixteen year old kid who weighed about 180 pounds how to do a Hang Power Clean. This was his first time with the movement, and with relative ease he built up do 225#. I am strict with technique and safety, and he handled 225# on his first day without breaking a sweat. Sixteen years old. Day one. Let that marinate.
Training history is similar to environment but this is more related to how much time you have spent at your craft. For example, Mohamed Ehab recently won the gold medal at the World Championships of Weightlifting in the 77kg class. He is rather popular on instagram and shares a lot of his training techniques (sometimes I think he is trolling), but it is clear that this guy can do a lot of things the average person cannot. No surprise, he is the world champion at his body-weight. To put things into perspective however, you should know that he has been weightlifting with a coach since the age of eight. A lot of weekend warrior Crossfit athletes who decide they are going to follow the “Bulgarian Method” to get stronger, or follow Klokov’s training program have been lifting since they were 21 without a coach. What works for Klokov and Mohamed has nothing to do with you unless you also grew up in Russia lifting weights with your world champion father and his olympic lifting friends.
The training history does not necessarily have to be directly related when it comes to the sport of fitness. Amanda Goodman is a high level female Crossfit Games athlete who is part of the Opex family. She is 5 feet tall and 143 pounds. She came to Crossfit after finishing a career in NCAA gymnastics. James Fitzgerald spoke about her ability at my program design course and blew us all away by telling us that she squat cleaned 225# on her first day of lifting. So, forget about my hockey player, Goodmans day one ability is just insane. But, her training history as an elite gymnast translates well into the sport of fitness because she had already built a world-class strength base and coordination.
Full-Time vs Part-Time vs Weekend Warrior
It also puzzles me when normal people try to follow the training programs of full-time athletes. Full-time or professional athletes are FULL-TIME athletes. This means that it is their job. When they wake up in the morning, their job that day is to train or compete. There is no added work stress, and at some levels meals will even be prepared for them. Along with being a professional or full-time athlete is the self-care that comes along with it. Weekly massage, chiro, physio, etc. Your five minutes of foam rolling is not the same. So when a proverbial weekend warrior named Derek finds professional athlete x’s training program online and tries to fit it in while working full-time, carting 2 kids around to hockey practise, and sneaking in meal of processed food while driving, it is no wonder it doesn’t go well.
Training is stress to the body, just like lack of sleep, shitty nutrition, or a nasty boss. Stress is stress. So, when you have a big load of stress in your life already (because you are not a full-time athlete), and then you decide to wallop on an elite level of training stress, it isn’t going to work. Injury, fatigue, overtraining, loss of sexual function, etc. is what you have to look forward after your first month of results.
Now not all elite athletes are weirdos, but in a lot of cases they are not only special physically, but they possess certain mental traits that allow them to perform at the level they do. If you know any elite athletes, you might know what I am talking about. It can be described as laser focused, obsessed, possessed, cool as ice, etc. This doesn’t mean that they are bad people or anything like that, but when it comes to competing they have something special upstairs. In college I was lucky to play with some of the best lacrosse players in the world. Some went on to play professional lacrosse in field and box. Our goalie, "Pickles", became MVP of the World Field Lacrosse Championships after graduation and is arguably the best player in the world right now. These elite players were special, and Pickles sure was. Off the field he was unassuming, but on the bus rid home he could tell you which hand each player on the other team shot. He got about as stressed for a game as he was going to the cafeteria. I on the other hand would take about 14 nervous pees before each game, and sometimes even practise. His ability to focus on only the things that mattered for success was amazing.
If you watch the Crossfit Games or a behind the scenes show, you may want to the bodies of these athletes, but do you want their lifestyle. 100% of their energy is dedicated to becoming better at performing physical tasks. Relationships, pleasure, social-life, everything you can think of comes secondary to their success at moving themselves and objects faster and for longer periods of time.
So once again, we need to appreciate that the best are the best for a reason and a unique psyche can play into that.
Lastly, the pink elephant in the room no one likes to talk about. Some of your favourite athletes, even in Crossfit, take steroids or performance enhancing drugs. If you don’t believe me watch Icarus on Netflix. Look up something called the Fat Free Mass Index in relation to Crossfit Games competitors. Listen to an interview by Lance Armstrong. He took performance enhancing drugs because he wanted to even the playing field. He also never failed a drug test. For people in the know, it is said that passing the piss test is easy. The entire country of Russia was just banned from the olympics because of steroid use that was funded by their government. If you think Russia is the only country doping, give your head a shake. If money and fame are on the line, people will cheat and lie under oath.
A big misconception is that if you take steroids you can sit on the couch and become huge, strong, or an elite athlete. This is not the case. So, even though all of these Russian athletes took steroids, it wasn’t so they could do less and become great, it was so they could train more and recover from the added training. Or like Lance Armstrong, to even the playing field. These athletes still put in amazing amounts of work. Steroid use is far more common than the average person thinks. And don’t even get me started about instagram.
So, when it comes to following the weightlifting program of some eastern european champion…how well are you going to respond to that style/amount of training without being on the same vitamins.
What Am I Getting At?
Well two things…
It is all too common nowadays for authority in fitness to be based on personal ability or achievement. This is a major flaw of the fitness world and I believe it leaves a lot of people behind. The 1% of athletes have spent their time training themselves and focusing on themselves to make themselves good. A coach is someone who has spent their time learning how to make others better. For some reason the 1% athletes become coaches by default. Now not all 1% athletes are poor coaches, but would you rather learn from someone who has spent the bulk of their time educating themselves so that they can help others, or someone who has focused on their own training above all else. When it comes down to it, ask yourself what is more important to your “coach”. Their training, or your development?
Furthermore, the experience of the 1% is just not relatable to the other 99% of people who are just trying to be fit and healthy and experience their version of elite fitness. What helped so and so squat 900# isn’t too relevant to the thirty year old who may want to squat and impressive 400#. Again the Rottweiler’s cat fighting techniques don’t have a lot to do with the mouses cat-fighting techniques.
Am I selling myself as a coach a bit here? Sure I am, and not just because I was never a successful athlete. I agree 100% with Mark Rippetoe’s quote which says that the best coaches are, “Mediocre athletes who tried very hard to become great athletes and didn’t make it due to genetics, but learned in the process of trying very hard, what it takes to become great at the sport.” I was always close to what I viewed as success, but never quite there. I really put to the test if hard-work can take you to the top. It can take you far, but the top is special, and you can’t force your way in. Making the change to coaching has meant that my training has become a hobby, and my clients training is my job and my passion. That is why I can call myself a coach.
Elite athletes are elite athletes first and coaches second. Coaches are coaches, all the time.
You shouldn’t follow a training program designed for the top 1% unless you can emulate their lifestyle or share a similar training history. You shouldn’t pretend you are a full-time athlete when it comes to your training unless you are actually a full-time athlete. You do not have the time, the money, the body, or the room in your life for the training stress you’ll get from an elite program. You may not get hurt or overtrained, but you are surely going to be wasting a lot of your time. So when selecting a training program pick something that is appropriate for you given your training history, work schedule, diet, injury-list, etc.
Chances are what is appropriate for you is not what Rich Froning is doing despite what Crossfit HQ may tell you. If you are new to lifting, following a peaking cycle for powerlifting won’t help you either. The best case scenario is to have a coach who knows what works for someone at your level and can help you progress safely and effectively with training that suits you, not what works for the top 1%.
It happens in politics and we don't like it. The top 1% of earners often end up making decisions that influence the middle-class or the 99% who they have little or nothing in common. The same thing happens in fitness, but it goes unnoticed. When it comes down to it, you are in the drivers seat when it comes to what training program to follow and who to take your advice from. The point of this blog post was to get you to thinking critically about where you get your advice from and how to select what kind of program is going to be right for you. You can follow programs that are designed for the top 1% of the population and wonder why they don’t fit you, or you can be realistic about your goals, your training history, and how much time you can actually dedicate to training and recovering, and pick a program that fits your level. You can chose to follow a “coach” because they have spent a lot of time developing themselves to reach the 1% of ability and believe that makes them a legitimate coach. Or, you can find a coach who has dedicated their time to developing their ability as a coach and education rather than training themselves. An easy question to ask is one I mentioned before. What comes first, your “coaches” training, or your development?
Grit Human Performance