The past three months have been some of the most exhilarating of my entire life. In June 2012, I was as an assistant coach on the USA teams at the inaugural IPF Classics Powerlifting World Cup in Stockholm, Sweden (Picture on right: Platform at 2012 IPF Classics World Cup – click for larger view). In essence, this was the first official Super Bowl of raw (unequipped) powerlifting. I can’t recall ever being that excited for a single competition that I wasn’t competing in. The anticipation was overwhelming. The Swedish Powerlifting Federation delivered on their promises. The competition was top-shelf on every level and the entire week exceeded the hype. Collectively the USA men and women’s teams placed second overall. Individually, our lifters performed exceptionally well as many came home with medals and some with world records.
The following month I had the honor and pleasure of presenting at the 2012 Reactive Training Systems (RTS) Powerlifting Seminar in Orlando, Florida (Picture below left: RTS Seminar Presenters). Working alongside powerlifting legends like Suzanne “Sioux-z” Hartwig-Gary as well as some of the brightest coaches, experts, and scholars like Jeremy Hartman, Mike Tuchscherer, and Dr. Michael Zourdos has already proven to be one the highlights of my professional career. I probably learned more about technique, training, and nutrition in two days than I had within the past two years.
Three weeks later all but one of the RTS presenters competed at the 2012 USAPL Raw Nationals in Killen, Texas. We were all blessed with outstanding individual performances. Any time four lifters exhibit a 94.4% successful attempt rate including personal records (PR); they’re obviously doing something right.
Our lives are full of chapters. Occasionally, I like to refer to them as seasons. These three impactful life events comprised a season in my life. As seasons conclude, I like to pause and reflect. Meaningful introspection isn’t accomplished in one sitting. In fact, it can take days, weeks, and months, sometimes longer to truly learn and grow from all that’s transpired. Self-analysis often reveals positive and negative elements. When you’re truly honest with yourself, examination can be painful. However, that pain can lead to improvement and progress. Perusing meet results and photographs, watching video highlights, reviewing lecture notes and power points, and simply recalling conversations all contribute to vivid memories that will last a lifetime. I’m so thankful for these moments and never take them for granted.
Success in athletics is easily quantifiable in a myriad of ways including PRs, scores, and winning. Success is neither an accident nor a coincidence. Achieving success is a process and the direct result of a set course of action. It doesn’t just happen.
One of my star lifters recently gave me a most wonderful book entitled “With Winning in Mind,” by Lanny Bassham. Lanny (pictured on right at 1975 Pan American Games) was an awkward kid growing up. He never excelled in athletics but years later, he finally found his niche’ in competitive rifle shooting and went on to win the Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada. Two years later he won the world championships in Seoul, Korea. In doing so, Lanny developed his trademarked Mental Management System that helps competitors create a process for increasing the probability of success. While some of the information is both common sense and familiar, it’s definitely worth reviewing. His other ideas and many of the nuances of his methods are creative, fresh, and thoughtful. I have begun employing some of them in my own life and am thankful for the positive mindset they help create. His text should be required reading for every competitive athlete.
One of the best things about powerlifting is its objectivity. Performances and results aren’t influenced by personal feelings or opinions. Success as well as winning and losing are all based on actual fact and concrete data. It’s a reality that provides immediate feedback. Lifters compete within specific weight classes and the one who lifts the most weight wins. It’s simple and so revealing at the same time.
As I outlined in my 2010 piece “Training Specificity for Powerlifters,” athletes of all genres are quick to seek out the latest training methodology. Unfortunately, training protocol isn’t the answer to athletic success. Self-proclaimed gurus, strength coaches, famous powerlifters, and sports performance specialists would all have you believe that their programs are the key to unlocking your potential. Lord knows there are a myriad of methods to choose from including: linear periodization, undulating periodization, 5/3/1, Sheiko, 5×5, the Texas Method, the Bulgarian method, Westside, RTS, Prilepin’s Table, and the list continues. Sadly, athletes are often duped into believing that training protocol matters most. Training plans matter but not nearly as much as consistent effort applied over time. Corrective exercise specialists and physical therapists will brainwash you into thinking you’re better off fixing all your imbalances first before taking another step. If we only followed their counsel, we’d never actually train. At some point, you need to suck it up and get under the bar. Equipment manufacturers will even go so far as to announce that unless you’re training on their equipment or using their facilities, you have no chance.
When examining methodology, it’s easy to find uniqueness and differences. More important are the common themes. What are the best athletes doing? Where are they similar? This is key.
The five speakers at the RTS Powerlifting Seminar presented on a variety of topics from technique and training methodology to nutrition and attempt selection. Looking beyond the power points and the uniqueness of each presentation, one pervading theme resurfaced throughout the weekend. Each expert drove home the mantra of applying consistent effort over time in order to achieve technical mastery.
RTS’s Mike Tuchscherer recently wrote an article entitled “Genetics and Hard Work.” I agree with Mike’s assertions in this article. In fact, his closing remarks about an extreme amount of hard work have inspired me to train harder than before. My own personal reflection has led me to such questions as, “What could I have done differently in my preparations for Raw Nationals? Did I overlook something? What can I do better moving forward? And what’s necessary for me to improve?” Some of that introspection combined with the info from the RTS Seminar have revealed to me that I need to spend more time on the things I’m not good at. It’s no coincidence that those also happen to be many of the areas I dislike. That’s all about to change. I’m embracing those weaknesses and committing to improving them.
While we can all work harder, genetics cannot be overlooked. I won’t use it as an excuse but it’s our reality. My wife Sioux-z stands 4’11” tall and I’d bet my life she would never dunk a basketball on a regulation 10′ basket. That’s not an excuse to put forth less effort. If she were to truly aspire to such an athletic feat of explosive jumping ability, I’d be the first to support her in that endeavor. Thankfully she prefers to spend the bulk of her training time squatting. After all, sometimes your “best” sport picks you. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve or even become world class in an endeavor you aren’t necessarily equipped for. It simply means that if someone with superior genetics follows a similar path, they have a significant head start.
I relish watching experts perform their craft. Experts have the ability to make the extraordinary appear ordinary. It’s like watching an artist paint a masterpiece right before your eyes while only using two colors. Athletics are no different. Supreme athletes are able to do incredible things with their bodies that the rest of us can only imagine. So naturally, every four years I’m drawn to the Olympics. This year was no different as I enjoyed watching the world’s best compete on the world’s grandest stage. I’m particularly fond of the sports I can’t consume on a regular basis – gymnastics and track and field. I find the gymnasts and decathletes to be the world’s best overall athletes because they’re able to do things all the other athletes can’t.
The 2012 Summer Olympics had two instances that really stood out to me. During one NBC telecast, the commentators showed an illustration of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s recent 100m final. Bolt is the current world record holder in both the 100m and 200m races as well as a double Olympic champion. At top speed, his stride measures approximately 10′ in length and he took 41 strides to complete 100m. His next closest competitors were at 44 and 46 strides respectively. In a most basic equation, speed = stride length x stride frequency. Bolt’s competitors have to move their legs much faster to overcome the stride deficit. They could train like animals, become stronger, produce more force than Bolt, and take nearly every performance-enhancing drug in the world, but the probability of overcoming that genetic (stride length) deficit is close to zero. Their flexibility simply can’t be improved to that degree and they can’t trade-in for longer legs. Their only hope is that the Jamaican’s penchant for self-adulation eventually goes to his head and he slacks off in training or underestimates his rivals. However, Bolt has proven he is human in three rare defeats to Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and his current training partner Johann Blake.
From what I gather, Bolt works extremely hard at his craft. He deserves credit for working hard. He should thank God and credit his parents for his physical traits. His combination of genetics and hard work are currently insurmountable. While he’s not my cup of tea, there’s no denying he’s the best sprinter of all-time. Naturally, the discussion and media coverage surrounding Bolt’s prowess got me thinking about the role of genetics in sports. Oppositely, a less-publicized Olympic athlete made me consider the role of hard work. NBC painted a poignant picture of Kenyan middle-distance runner David Rudisha. The current world record holder in the 800m, Rudisha lives in Iten, Kenya. His remote village is approximately 200 miles from a rubber track. So, while many of his contemporaries train on rubber tracks and at expensive facilities, he and his coach Colm O’Connell remove large rocks from their makeshift dirt track in what has become an almost daily ritual prior to training.
Coach O’Connell wisely preaches, “It’s not about sophistication. It’s not about facilities. It’s about doing the simple things well and believing in what you do.” Amen to that! Rudisha went on to win the 800m final and set a new world record of 1:40.91. His post-race interview illuminated his humble, soft-spoken demeanor. Without any bombast or show, Rudisha spoke softly revealing his profound conviction in consistent effort and his training methods proving that he doesn’t need modern facilities to become the greatest middle distance runner alive.
Coach Colm O’Connell with David Rudisha and Rudisha next to his world record time.
It’s glaringly obvious that Rudisha is eternally focused on process rather than outcome. When you constantly dedicate yourself to a series of steps (process) and repeat them over and over again, the results (outcome) take care of themselves. Fortunately for powerlifters, the same holds true. Strength is a skill. Lanny Bassham defines a skill as “doing something consciously long enough for the process to become automated by the Subconscious Mind.” Skill acquisition is best achieved through frequent, repetitious practice. Practicing your skills often and diligently over long periods of time can eventually lead to technical mastery. And while technical mastery is not exactly a destination per se’, it’s a journey that every powerlifter should embark upon. The sooner you hone your skills and step toward technical mastery, the sooner you’ll add a lot of weight to the bar.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s text “Outliers: The Story of Success” he refers to the 10,000-hour rule. His book is based on original research done by Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who calculated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Using a calculator you can really have some fun with this and notice that even while training 7 days/week for 3 hours at a time it would take close to 10 years to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice. Most trainees don’t have that kind of time and/or aren’t willing to put in that amount of work. Again, this is one person’s research and you can accept it or discard it as you see fit. Perhaps the more appropriate rule for a lifter would be 10,000 high quality repetitions. Suffice it to say, even while some learn faster than others, I think we can all agree that it takes thousands of hours and many years of quality training (practice) to become a master of something. Any way you look at it, the amount of skill you develop is determined by the quality, quantity, and efficiency of your training.
Ultimately, when considering any training strategy, notice the differences but examine the similarities. Parallels typically include a steadfast devotion to the basics and a constant reinforcement of sport form. If you wanted to become a world-class violinist you wouldn’t practice the bass guitar. Sure, both are string instruments but they are quite different. The same holds true for the powerlifts. Some coaches espouse building the lifts rather than training them. Don’t succumb to this lunacy. Training doesn’t need to be fancy in order to be effective. If you want to improve your squat, spend the bulk of your time squatting… just like you do in competition.
Mike Tuchscherer is correct. The one universal commonality of experts and champions is a tremendous amount of hard work. Focus on the controllable. Pay your dues by putting in the time and work. The amount of effort you apply is entirely up to you. Outwork your competitors. At SSPT, we like to refer to it as “sweat equity” and it’s absolutely magical because, as with most things in life, you reap what you sow.