A few common denominators from the best athletes to help bring out the best in you
by Charles Poliquin
The tip-off could have been the huge cash withdrawal from the socialite’s bank account before the murder of her husband; or maybe it was the pool man’s fingerprints found by the forensic team in the bedroom; or maybe it was the frugal butler who suddenly decided to purchase first-class tickets to France. Whatever the evidence, there’s simply no such thing as a perfect crime – every evil deed has its own “smoking gun.” It’s the same way with good things, like success: It doesn’t just happen; there are always clues.
Over the last 27 years in my profession as a strength coach, I have met many strong athletes. Some have overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve their success, while others have great genetics or seem to have found a fast track to super strength. Regardless of how these athletes became so strong, in my experience they almost always have five traits in common:
1. They value rest. Recently I had dinner with Ed Coan, a legendary world powerlifting champion who set the bar, literally, for his peers. How good was he? He became world powerlifting champion at age 21 in the 181-pound bodyweight division, winning by 138 pounds. In 1991, at 220, he totaled 2,402 (962 squat, 545 bench, 901 deadlift), and to this day his deadlift record has yet to be beat. When lifters faced Ed Coan, the only questions asked were what record he would break and who would take second.
While magazine interviews with such champions often focus on the athletes’ intensity level, the secret that Ed shared with me concerns the exact opposite. Coan says that one of the crucial parts of his training was plenty of rest, including a daily nap. He didn’t offer any peer-reviewed scientific papers to support his contention – although interesting theories are being presented about the value of a daily siesta; it was only common sense: “You don’t recover, you don’t grow!”
2. They do what works for them. I have seen many athletes of comparable Herculean strength develop their abilities with different approaches. Some would swear by short training cycles, and others liked lengthy cycles. For some, such as the Bulgarian weightlifters who often defeated the Big Red Machine from Russia, the way to their super strength was by pyramiding up and down their weights in a single workout, a method called wave loading. Others preferred a series of several sets at peak weights. Despite these radical training differences, there is one trait that all these athletes had in common: body intelligence.
Now, ordinarily, to do things in the same manner as the next guy and yet expect different results is just plain nuts. But lifters like these are “body smart”: If one training method doesn’t work, they try another, until they find the system that works best for them. In effect they learn, mostly through trial and error, the most effective ways to adhere to the principle of overload.
3. They all choose a mentor. Actually one of the bits of advice used by Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) disciples such as motivational speaker Anthony Robbins is to find someone who is successful and copy what they do. If you want to be a champion powerlifter, seek out the advice of a powerlifting guru such as Louie Simmons and find out how he trains his world record holders. If you want to be a top strongman, then seek out a top strongman coach such as Art McDermott. And if you can’t visit mentors in person and train under them, at least read their books!
Ed Coan’s mentor was Bill Seno, a former Mr. America in the ’60s who also competed in Olympic weightlifting, a cross-training activity rarely seen today. Seno was as strong as he looked and reportedly bench-pressed 573 pounds, quite an accomplishment in his era! Bill Kazmaier was a former world record holder in powerlifting who dominated the strongman scene for many years. His mentor was powerlifting legend Tony Fitton. Seno and Fitton were individuals who helped Coan and Kazmaier, like many other successful lifters, take the guesswork out of their training.
4. They constantly experiment. Once an athlete’s mentor led them to the right path, every single one of the athletes I’m talking about tried many things to get stronger. This natural curiosity and willingness to experiment and take risks are important concepts.
There’s no such thing as a single, perfect workout for everyone – every system has some effect, and some work better than others. This experimentation with variety is simply part of the training process. I find it frustrating to see so many coaches or organizations claiming that they have the perfect workout system; or to read research studies that compare one set-rep system to another, such as comparing 10x3 to 5x5, which leads readers to conclude that the system in question is the best. In fact, some of the single-set systems in such studies produced results not necessarily because they were superior, but because the athletes using them were overtrained and the lower volume allowed them to rest – a principle called Fatigue masks fitness.
5. They all are great stress managers. In case of unfortunate events or obstacles, successful athletes can see the opportunity in them, instead of the curse. They all have had setbacks, which they used to make themselves even stronger. One obvious case is Lance Armstrong and his victory over cancer and his multiple victories in the Tour de France; there are also many cases of weightlifters who have overcome obstacles.
Bob Bednarski was a US lifter who competed in the ’60s and ’70s, and Yuri Zakharevich from Russia lifted in the ’70s and ’80s. Near the peak of their careers both athletes broke world records, but then both suffered elbow dislocations that many experts thought would end their careers, especially considering the nature of surgery and sports medicine then compared to now. But both men recovered to break numerous world records. Bednarski clean and jerked 486.5 in the 1968 National Championships weighing 247 pounds, and the following year he jerked 525 pounds off the rack. Zakharevich snatched 463 pounds in the 1988 Olympic Games weighing 242 pounds, a lift only a few super heavyweight lifters since then have exceeded. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”
In summary, the common motto for all successful lifters is simple: Be yourself. Variety is the spice of everyday life, and this is just as true in weight training. Discover the traits that make you unique, embrace them, and then find those training methods and ideas that enable you to achieve physical superiority and fulfill your individual potential.