Don’t forget Simplicity
You know what bugs me? I’ve seen a lot of ‘Train like the Pros’ articles lately, and know quite a few people who debate how a particular world-class athlete trains with a view towards altering their own program. While I agree that hearing how one of the top level athletes trains is certainly interesting, and I like talking about it as much as the next fitness-geek, it really has no baring whatsoever on our own training. “But hang on, he’s the best sprinter/ weightlifter/ fighter in the world! Surely he’s the best because his training is better than his opponents?” It’s probably not that simple, and for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is genetics. Now, I agree that this is often used by people who don’t want to admit their own laziness (“I try, but he’s just naturally strong/ talented/ good”) but there is certainly an element of truth to it. A lot of people in the weightlifting world talk about the Bulgarian method, which involved working up to maximal lifts three times a day, six days a week. Bulgaria had a lot of sucess with this method, and some Western lifters try to emulate it. However, what is often forgotten is that the government tested every twelve year old in the country and chose the top 3200, which is one of the fun things you can do when you’re running a Communist dictatorship. Out of those 3200, they whittled them down to the ten athletes that they sent to the Olympics. The ten weightlifters who were still standing at the end were the ones who were genetically gifted enough to thrive under an extremely demanding regime. There’s a good chance you’re not in that top fraction of a percent.
MASTERY OF THE BASICS
Secondly, most pros don’t train like they used to. The vast majority of world-class athletes have vastly changed the way they train, compared to what they did whilst they were climbing the ladder. I read a quote recently from George St Pierre saying that he didn’t do much barbell training anymore, and felt better for it. Now, undoubtedly that’s one less stress on his body during his week, so I’m not surprised he feels better. But we have to remember that the guy is freakishly strong; he’s certainly stronger than any of his opponents. And it took him years and years to get that strong. So should I immediately stop lifting? No, because I’m not freakishly strong. He can afford to stop lifting because he’s earned it; you haven’t. That rule goes for a lot of things besides strength.
A top-level competitor might not spend a great deal of his time on basics. Does this mean that the basics aren’t important? Of course not, but he’s probably practiced that simple movement tens of thousands of times, and it’s deeply ingrained. You’re not at that level. So he can afford to go and work on the trickier, showier stuff precisely because he’s spent so much time on the basics, not because they’re not important. Last year I worked with a fighter who didn’t do much wrestling, and focused on his jiu-jitsu and boxing. Did he think wrestling wasn’t important? No, in fact his whole game was based of his freestyle wrestling. But he grew up in Iowa, where wrestling is king, and competed all through high school and college. I would have been an idiot to model my program on his, even though he’s a better figher than I’ll ever be.
Lastly, the more advanced an athlete gets, the more complex his training has to become to still produce a stimulus. As we get closer to our genetic limits, our rate of adaptation slows and our complexity increases. So we get better slower, and we’re forced to work a lot smarter to get it. A novice lifter might easily double his squat in a year, and go from say 80kg to 160kg, but an Elite powerlifter is going to bust his ass for a 5% gain. And his program is to have to involve a lot of variation of reps/sets. He might have to switch to box squats, or start incorporating different types of bars or other gym toys etc, etc. But the novice can probably keep plugging away with a basic 5×5, and keep making gains. This is why coaches are very interested in an athlete’s training age – because someone who has ten years of consistent strength training behind them is going to respond very differently (and progress much slower) than one who has six months. I can watch YouTube clips of Louis Simmons training his lifters at Westside Barbell and know that he is probably the smartest powerlifting coach on the planet, but would I do the things he has his lifters do? Not a chance. I’m not that advanced, but that also means I don’t have try as hard to progress. I can keep making gains without having to worry about putting in chains and banded deadlifts.
So what are the takeaways from this? If you do the Olympic gold-medallist’s program, you will not suddenly be at his level. Secondly, he probably spent most of his life training a different way than what you’re watching on YouTube. Thirdly, he might be good for other reasons than the 30 second clip you just watched of him doing takedowns wearing a weight-vest. Fourthly the closer you are to novice the simpler your programming can and should be. Remember that the reason a lot of the pros use some of these fancy toys is because they’ve stopped progressing using the basics, not because they’re inherently superior. Remember too, that there are a huge number of factors involved in making someone a champion, and the fact that he runs backwards on a treadmill wearing a gas mask may not be why he wins. By the way, I’m not making this stuff up.