Genetics and Hard Work


A very good friend of mine recently asked me an interesting question. What does it take to develop a champion athlete?

I have given this question a lot of thought recently. Although it seems like a very big question, it might not be quite as big as I first thought. At first, I thought it would depend a great deal on the athlete’s natural abilities, their training age, and so on. But as I thought about things more and more, I realized that the answer for pretty much any individual is the same.
The coaching world – or at least the small segment of the coaching world in which I am involved – is undergoing somewhat of a paradigm shift. My thoughts have shifted quite a bit too. But in lots of ways, I have come back to where I started. Allow me to explain…

I was a strong kid in high school. As a freshman, I was above average. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had broken all my school’s lifting records. Some by a lot. Not only that, but I was the strongest high school student that myself or any of my friends knew. I’m not saying that I was the strongest ever. I probably wasn’t the strongest in the state. But in the context of my small-ish high school and rural region, I was a “freak of nature”.

Some of the guys on my team that were not-so-strong would often bring up “genetics”. That is to say, the reason I was so strong was because I was born with some genetic gift that allowed me to excel beyond what they could ever hope to do. That used to make me very angry because I knew there was more to it than that, but at the time I don’t know that I could articulate what it was. But now I can. You see, by the time I was a senior in high school, I had already been lifting weights for six years. That’s 150% of the time that most kids my age had been lifting. And even before that, I had probably a year to two years of bodyweight training. I didn’t take summers off like many others. I didn’t stop lifting in the “in-season” either. I was a one-sport athlete (football), so I had a very long “off season” in which I considered myself an in-season Powerlifter. I thought about lifting weights, practiced my technique, read about lifting weights, etc.

My point is that there was literally tons of work that went into my performance at the time. And at this point in my career, there’s even more work still. I was happily obsessed with lifting weights for years and still am to a large extent. Getting muscular and strong has been something I am passionate about and that passion has provided near-endless motivation for training, researching, experimenting, visualizing, and so on. Are there some genetic gifts that I possess that make it so these efforts are more fruitful for me than they are for others? Perhaps. But there’s no way to tell for sure and there’s not much I or anyone else can do about that. I can tell you that there is a ton of hard work that goes into it. It’s a level of work that many are not interested in doing. And that’s okay. I’m not placing myself on a pedestal because I’m obsessed with strength. It doesn’t make me better than anyone. In fact, outside the Iron Sport culture itself, it’s probably kind of odd. But there is a deeper explanation for my Powerlifting success than innate talent.

Part of this paradigm shift that I was referring to is a resurgent emphasis on the hard work required to become an elite athlete. We’ve always known that hard work was required, but I think it’s only been more recently that we’re learning just how much is required. In his outstanding book “Outliers”, Malcom Gladwell makes the case that to achieve mastery at any activity seemingly without exception, it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Whether you want to be a master chess player, a master violinist, or a master Powerlifter, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice. That is, time spent practicing with the express intent to get better.

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Ten thousand hours is a big number, so let’s break that down a bit. If you practiced two hours a day every single day with no days off, it would take you over 13 years to reach the 10,000 hour mark. What about if you do the more conventional 1.5 hours a day for 3 days per week? Well then it will take you about 42 years. In other words, you’re never going to get to the elite levels by being a recreational athlete. In fact, the earlier start you get, the better off you’ll be.

I’ve listened to speakers at seminars talk about how this applies to sports like hockey, basketball, etc. They have found that for all the strength coaching, cone drills, and medicine ball exercises we have invented, the best hockey players still play hockey more than their peers. Same with other sports too. Then you look at groups like Bulgarian weightlifters and you start to see a pervasive trend – lots and lots of practice. Then more practice. During one presentation, Jed Smith said, “Individuals that become professional athletes practiced on their own an average of twice as much as their teammates that did not make it.” That’s in addition to normal team practices.

The irony is that to reach the 10,000 hour mark, you don’t only need a lot of time practicing. In many sports you also need an early start if you are to get to the 10,000 hours at an age where you can grab other opportunities. If you practice 3 hours a day, 7 days a week (total of 21 hours per week), it will take you about 10 years to achieve mastery. Say you are trying to become a professional basketball player. If you don’t start playing seriously until you are 12 years old, then you only play 21 hours per week, you won’t reach 10,000 hours until you are 22 years old. By that time, you are probably not going to get to play on a major college basketball team because you’re too old and your opportunities for making it to the pros are greatly reduced. You could play more than 21 hours per week. That would help you get there faster, but it does have a cost.

One case study of how lots of practice can make up for lost time is the story of another lifter that I know. I’ll spare his name from this story though. This guy was a world class powerlifter. Then he got an itch to try his hand at weightlifting. He wanted to go to the Olympics. After making the switch, he rocketed to the top ranks of his weight class relatively quickly. At first, I chalked up his meteoric rise in part as natural born talent and also as carry-over strength from his Powerlifting days. But this was not the whole of it. When he converted to weightlifting, he became obsessed. Or dedicated, depending on how you see it. A friend of mine that knew him personally told me that the lifter trained 11 or more times per week. I’m not talking about dragging a sled or doing easy stuff. I’m talking about serious weightlifting workouts. Dedicated practice. And between those workouts, you would often see him miming his snatch technique and other practice. So even when he wasn’t training, he was thinking about getting better. And after leaving the gym and heading home for the day, he would watch videos of weightlifters and do visualization drills for hours. His whole life was aimed at the goal of competing in the Olympics. And the result of all that time spent was a very fast rise in skill for a lifter who was already kind of old to be starting Olympic-hopeful weightlifting.

Of course this starts to get into some concerning areas. Who can maintain that kind of workload without burning out? Is it healthy to maintain that kind of single-minded obsession? I think this is where the conversation turns back to genetics. Or at the very least, to some other personality factors that are perhaps beyond the control of an individual. Clearly the people that can maintain the workloads required to meet their 10,000 hour mark are passionate about what they do. If they were not, then they wouldn’t put that kind of time in or at the very least, they wouldn’t be focused on getting better. So passion really becomes the lynchpin on which the whole idea of working toward mastery hinges. Where does passion come from?
Perhaps here is where we get to a more significant genetic cause. But passion for a certain activity is also just as likely to come from some sort of socio-cultural part of our upbringing. Using myself as an example, I obviously value strength. Perhaps my value of strength and subsequent passion for it is tied to my genetics. Perhaps it’s part of the way I was raised. But either way, I don’t think it’s something that can be faked.

I know a lot of people who have passion for what they do. Perhaps they don’t have the passion that my weightlifter friend has, and that’s okay. I’m not sure it takes that level of single-minded-ness. But it takes enough passion that you’re willing to put in the work. I’m sure that genetics play a role at some level. Even though some genes can be turned on and off, there is likely little that can be done about the genetic cards you were dealt. So if you’ve read this far, you probably have the passion for at least some hard work. So my advice to you is to not worry about genetics or other circumstances that are beyond your control. Work harder than anyone else and see how far your genes can really take you. If you don’t want to work that hard, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it also doesn’t mean that the other guy is just blessed with some unseen talent that allows them to be better. Chances are you’re just getting out-worked.

So to get more to the core of the question that was asked: what is required to develop a champion athlete? I think the answer to that is, more than anything else, it takes an extreme amount of hard work. That kind of work takes passion. So the centerpiece for any truly elite athlete is going to be passion enough to out-work their competitors.

About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.

Using Weight-Releasers In Training

Mike-Weight-releasers
I’ve recently posted a few videos of myself using weight-releasers on my Instagram and Facebook pages.  People seem to think they are cool, so I thought I would share what I know about them.

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Restoration Blocks

(C) Copyright 2015 Adam Palmer
Photo courtesy 9for9 Media

A friend of mine used to tell me “health is cumulative.” What he meant was that you could think of your health like a bank account of sorts. Doing certain things added to your overall state of health. Other things subtracted from it. And if you work yourself into a hole, you’ve got to work yourself out of it again.

The same concept applies in the strength world. There are some things that you need to do to stay injury-free. You can neglect them for a while, but the longer you do, the more risk you take. Often, this comes in the form of neglected muscle groups, but can also include other aspects of overall fitness (flexibility / mobility, energy systems, etc).

Recently I was having a conversation about this with another coach. We were both remarking that high-specificity training (even extremely high specificity) undeniably gets good results in the short-to-mid term. But left unchecked for longer periods of time, lifters get injured. We know that a major key to long term progress is avoiding injury. So this very-high-specificity training cannot be a long term solution to your progress.

Read more…

Why Speed Work Doesn’t Work

So this article is about why speed work doesn’t work — at least not for the reasons you think it does. I’m sure this article will make some people rejoice and make other people pretty upset. And for myself, since I rarely write articles that get such a divided response, I’ve gone over this quite a few times just to double check and make sure I’m not saying anything crazy.

My claim: It’s my professional opinion that “speed work” is not the optimal method for developing maximal force, particularly for trained powerlifters. Let’s stop there as this will give us plenty to talk about….

Speed Work Defined
For now, let’s define speed work as anything under a 7 RPE. If you complete a set and you could have done 5 or more reps, it counts as speed work. If you’re doing doubles or triples with less than 75%, it probably counts. If you’re doing singles with less than 85%, it probably counts. If this is just a warm-up to your heavier work, then it probably doesn’t count as speed work.

Just for the sake of clarity, I’d say those percentages are bottom-tension percentages of a 1RM in whatever lift it is that you’re doing. Usually peak force is at the bottom of a lift like the squat or bench, so this seems to be the most relevant number. Also for the record, I tend to place more value on the RPE than the percentage, but I figured I’d put percentages up as guidelines since a lot of you don’t use RPE yet.

Reason #1: Force Output During Speed Work Is Crap
If you attempt a squat in a meet and grind it for 15 or 20 seconds, but complete the lift for white lights, yet your competitor completes the same weight in 3 seconds, who wins? Assume both of you move up 5 pounds and miss. The answer is you tie (or win/lose based on bodyweight which is pretty much a tie) because there is NO time component to powerlifting. Despite the name, power (in the physics sense) is not what you care about as a powerlifter. You care about force. It’s common meathead knowledge that force equals mass times acceleration and many of you can cite Russian manuals that state, in theory, you can maximize force by maximizing the mass on the bar or the acceleration.

I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work in reality. I’ve tested it.

Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar. Are you trying to maximize force? Add weight. In real life, you won’t be able to accelerate enough to produce force like you can in a max lift. No way around it. Sure, a set done with maximum acceleration will produce more force than one done with an even tempo. But only if the weight on the bar is similar. If you always accelerate maximally, you will produce more force if the weight on the bar is heavier, even though acceleration is less.

For those who want a reason why, here it is. It takes time for your body to ramp up to maximum force (Fmax). In a heavy lift the bar speed is slow enough to get there (or get close). In a light lift, the bar speed is too fast for you to have time to get to Fmax.

Force, the most important quality for a powerlifter, is not practiced with speed work. Doing speed work does not produce maximal force. In theory it should, but in real life it doesn’t. My numbers indicate that even at 75% of 1RM (too heavy to be considered “speed weight” by most), force production is still only 85%. When you consider that increasing the weight to 90% or 95% yields near-maximum levels of force production, it’s easy to see that when it comes to practicing your ability to produce force, you can’t beat heavy weights. And if you’re worried about spending too much time with 90-95% loads, please read my previous article “You are not overtrained”. Don’t be scared.

The Data
I’ve gathered data on peak force production values in each of the three powerlifts by measuring force with a tendo unit as well as using motion analysis software on videos of the three powerlifts. Peak force production with highly sub maximal weights (defined above) does not approach peak force production values generated by heavier weights REGARDLESS OF INTENT TO ACCELERATE. Sure, trying to accelerate produces more force than NOT trying to accelerate. But it still doesn’t produce as much force as using a heavy weight. Measurements of peak force production using 75% of 1RM were approximately 85% of the peak force that was measured when using 90% of 1RM for the same number of reps. In other words, lighter weights produced about 85% of the peak force value that the heavy weights did.

During peer review, many thought using peak force production was an error and instead I should use average force production. I did collect data on that and average force production was even more linked to bar weight than peak force. I decided to look at peak force because that was the variable that responded more to outside influences. Things like intent to accelerate, fatigue, and load all affected peak force. Load was the only factor that seems to affect average force.

The real question in any training discussion is not “what works”. Rather, you should ask, “What is optimal?” As Dr. Hatfield says, it’s always a question of good, better, best. The evidence shows we can get higher peak force production by increasing the RPE beyond 7. To do this, should increase the weight until you are getting RPEs of 8+ for the number of reps you are performing.

Additionally, if you’re seeking a greater volume of work, I think doing that volume with higher peak force values will be more beneficial unless you are having recovery issues (and then speed work acts as a band-aid for a larger problem). If you’re trying to support muscle mass or develop your technique, I’d suggest that there are better options out there than doing speed work. Even for pure power development, I think there are better options available. Remember, good Better BEST!

As I’ve stated, power itself does not play a large role in powerlifting. Sure, there IS a time limit when exerting Fmax. You can’t just grind away all day. But the time component is limited by your ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores. At maximum intensity, these can last around 10 seconds. So if you’re not grinding out 1RMs for longer than 10 seconds, you aren’t limited by your ATP/CP. And even if you do take longer than 10 seconds to complete a maximum attempt, studies have shown it only takes .15 seconds and .25 seconds to reach Fmax in pulls. My own measurements show time to Fmax as being significantly less (.10 to .17 seconds) in movements with an eccentric component. If you’re slow, that still leaves you 9.75 seconds to grind away. If you could double your RFD (which would be quite a feat), that still only gets you an extra .125 seconds. I can’t remember seeing a lift and thinking, “Man, if he could have just kept grinding another .125 seconds, he would have gotten it!” I think a powerlifter’s training economy would be better spent developing a higher Fmax rather than focusing on RFD.

And before anyone balks at the apparent contradiction, let me clarify – it only takes a quarter of a second or so to reach Fmax. But when using lighter weights, the measured Fmax is LOWER than the Fmax that is measured with heavier weights. That’s a narrow difference, but an important one.

Reason #2: Technique Is Not Perfected
This is where my observation of the data ends and my interpretation of it begins.

If you have decent form (i.e. you know what good form is and you can demonstrate it with light weight), then speed work will not help you get better. The weights are typically so light that they involve a different motor pattern than will be used on heavy weight. Besides, it makes far more sense to do technique practice with a weight that challenges your technique (and thus requires you to pay attention and practice) than to do technique practice with something easy.

Increased strength is an adaptation of the human body. The body adapts to stressors and when it does, it supercompensates. Couple that with knowledge of mylination, skill development, and the data above and I think it’s fair to say that doing speed work as defined in this article will most likely not increase peak force production values. The primary drivers of success in powerlifting are force production and technique (mostly because good technique supports force production).

With that being said, speed work has other training effects that may or may not help you reach your goals. It gets you more training volume, which is almost always good. This can support muscle mass, improve skill to somewhat, and improve power generation. It’s important to note that power generation typically won’t matter to a powerlifter, but it is probably more important to other athletes. It’s also possible that speed work sessions are easier to recover from than bouts with heavier weights, though some people have the opposite experience.

Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar.

The Drama
I’m not trying to engage anyone in religious debate. If you care about your training method with religious fervor — to the point where you’re unwilling to try to understand my arguments or form logical ones of your own, then please don’t try to talk training with me. I don’t insist that everyone agree with what I say, but it’s a good thing for everyone to challenge their own assumptions from time to time. I’m willing to have a mutually respectful discussion on this or any training topic. Similarly, if you do speed work and I question its effectiveness, it doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting your guru of choice. Nobody gets a free pass in the realm of ideas. No person, because of the things they have done or said in the past, deserves to have their thoughts accepted without question. In fact, respecting someone’s ideas involves questioning them to see if they hold water. Good ideas deserve to be debated and questioned. What’s more, it’s the quality of a person’s logic that determines whether or not their questioning is good. The notion that the one who popularized some idea must grant someone “the right” to question them is absurd.

I also don’t mean to insinuate that any entire program doesn’t “work”. Anything will work given the right circumstances. But as I said, it’s not even about what “works”. “Does it work” is the wrong question! It’s about what is optimal. There is NO program or system that is perfect and we all have more to learn. What I’ve presented here is something I’ve learned and my intent is to share it so that others can improve their programs as well.

Some of my friends include speed work in their training. I don’t think it’s optimal, but they don’t take it personally. Conversely, there are things I do that they don’t think is optimal. I don’t take it personally either. We can discuss it like adults. Hopefully with good discussion, critical thinking, and careful review, we all get closer to the truth over time. I don’t expect that you, the reader, will change your mind on speed work immediately (though you might), but as a courtesy, just let what I’ve said here sink in for a few days. Maybe it causes you to question what you were previously doing. Maybe it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So why do people do it?
Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport. There is force and technique. Not much else plays a role. Speed work can contribute to hypertrophy, but it’s not ideal. So why do people seem to get gains from doing speed work?

First, it’s hard to say that speed work gave them the gains. These programming changes are almost never made in isolation, so it easily could have been some other aspect of training. It could have been the increase in frequency. Most lifters go from one heavy squat season a week to one heavy and one light session. In that case I would say that although speed work isn’t ideal, it’s a net win because frequency went up.

It can also help those who are chronically beat up. Since it typically involves lighter weight, it should cause less structural stress, so it can sometimes result in fewer injuries, which allows people to improve more over time. With that said, I think proper volume management and good general conditioning limits the need for this kind of thing for the vast majority of lifters out there.

And lastly, it’s a case of good, better, best. Speed work would likely produce results in someone if they were untrained enough. But that doesn’t mean it is ideal.
If you use speed work in your training, I encourage you to gradually migrate to something heavier. Don’t over-complicate it. Just gradually use heavier weights. Your prime work sets need to be at least an 8 RPE if not higher. No need to thank me — your future PR says it all.

About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.

Customizing Your RPE Chart

E1RM-TABLE

Writing can be a difficult process, even for those without literacy issues! I know at least for me, I have all these ideas in my head and they all interrelate to one another. Writing is a process where I attempt to take those ideas, untangle them, and put them in a logical, readable form that makes an impact on the way people train or live. Because of the interrelatedness of different concepts – the sheer organic nature of athletic training – I often feel like I fall short in terms of getting my points across. That’s not a que for you to pity me – that gets us nowhere. It just means I continually try to improve what I write about.

Take for example the RPE Chart. In my book, The Reactive Training Manual, I discuss what the RPE chart is and how you use it. I also say that it is best if you customize the given RPE chart to fit yourself as an athlete. But that’s all I say. I don’t tell you how to go about that or anything. And as a result, I get the impression that very few people do any customizing to their RPE chart at all.

So what is a process-oriented guy like me to do about it? How about design a process that helps people fix this problem?

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Hold, Damn Grip!

Photo courtesy of 9for9media.com
Photo courtesy of 9for9media.com

Probably the most frustrating part of powerlifting is KNOWING in the marrow of your bones that you can do a task, then being unable to do it for some pain-in-the-ass detail. This could be an injury, a technical “tick”, or one of the most frustrating for me personally, a failing grip.

Dropping an otherwise easy deadlift due to grip issues is a special kind of suck. It’s an awful feeling that leaves many lifters looking at their hands in disbelief. It’s also incredibly stubborn. Many, many lifters have tried all kinds of crazy stuff to improve the grip. Almost all of it fails.

Stuff that just doesn’t get the job done
Reporting negative results is just as important as reporting successful trials. And boy, have we tried some things and failed some things!

There are a ton of gadgets out there that all promise to improve grip. And perhaps it’s a little misleading because there are so many different kinds of gripping strength and the hands are such complex organs. But one way or another, we tried a lot of them that did nothing. Crushers, fat bar work, active grippers (like Grip 4orce), rolling, etc… none of that helped me or my lifters.

Even the old wisdom of doing more double-overhand work didn’t help. In this idea, you would do double-overhand work (without a hook) until you couldn’t any longer. Then you’d switch to a mixed grip. Some even advocate extra double-overhand work in the form of rows and similar lifts. This too got us nowhere.

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Long Term Planning for Powerlifting

Photo courtesy 9for9media.com
Photo courtesy 9for9media.com

For as long as I’ve been lifting weights (and probably a lot longer than that), “Long Term Planning” has been eschewed and neglected by powerlifters – especially the typical non-professional-coach type, but even by some prominent professional coaches. The thing is successful coaches see the benefits (and also the limitations) of long term planning, so they put it in its proper place – much to the benefit of their athletes.

I make it no secret that I greatly respect Norwegian Powerlifting coach Dietmar Wolf. In 2013, his most prominent lifter, Carl Yngvar Christiansen (CYC for short), placed 2nd at the IPF World Championships – only 12kg behind the winner. Now, by all accounts this is a fantastic performance, but some of CYC’s lifts looked quite easy. After the meet, there was quite a bit of discussion about, “why didn’t he go for it?” Someone had heard that CYC had a minor injury and the Norwegian coaches wanted to play it safe. Still some of my friends questioned the call saying, “When you’re there, you’ve gotta take the shot!”

The thing is I see where they are coming from, but I also know Dietmar Wolf a little bit having spoken with him on several occasions. I know that he likes to consider the long term view of things. His goal is to take the athlete to their genetic potential, which is a 10+ year vision, not a 10 minute vision. Lo and behold, after playing it safe at the 2013 championship (and avoiding injury), CYC came back in 2014 to crush the competition by 200kg, set a World Record Squat and Total, and also hit the highest Wilks of any lifter in the IPF. Score one for long term vision. Read more…

Learn To Grind

(C) Copyright 2015 Adam Palmer
Photo courtesy 9for9media.com

Have you ever noticed that most of the top level lifters have the ability to grind out heavy weights? Of course that’s not universally true, but most of them can really struggle through a lift and still come out on top. However, there are lots of other lifters who can’t grind to save their life. For these folks, when the weight hits the sticking point, it’s not only like hitting a brick wall – it’s like bouncing off of it. They hit the sticking point and immediately fail the lift. Now if you read the title of this article, it will come as no surprise to you that the ability to grind is something we can develop in ourselves and our training partners. Read more…

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