Do you need to compete to coach physique athletes?

 

This question gets brought up in fitness circles all the time. In fact, I was presenting a research poster at the 2017 ISSN conference this afternoon, and it came up again during a great conversation with my friend Jay Woith, who was kind enough to stop by. I am currently two weeks out, and both Jay and his wife are competitive physique athletes, so we were discussing some of the “weird” side effects of prep that only competitors (and their spouses) really know about. I suppose we should have been talking about the content of my poster, which compared the validity of a variety of body composition testing methods, but the ISSN crowd sure loves to talk bodybuilding. Anyway, I figured I would put my two cents down in writing, since this topic is so commonly discussed.

I tend to lean libertarian in all matters regarding the trade of goods and services, so my first thought is, you don’t need to do anything- your value as a prep coach is exactly what someone will pay you to prep them for a show, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or you’ve never stepped foot on stage. Having said that, it’s common to see people jump into prepping athletes very, very quickly. Some people seem to become a coach the second they step off stage for the first time, and others begin prepping athletes having never done a prep themselves. On the surface, I’d say this probably isn’t ideal, and I would be very hesitant to trust them with my prep (and my money).

Nonetheless, I think categorizing an individual as “has competed” or “has not competed” is overly reductionist. For example, let’s not ignore the obvious: Just because an individual has competed, doesn’t mean they’ve competed well. If they technically have competed, but have never showed up in great shape, that’s not helping me hire them. On the flip side, just because they have a great physique and have had great showings on stage, doesn’t mean they can take you to that level, or even maximize your potential. There are some genetic unicorns out there who get in really great shape doing some really stupid things.

There are a lot of factors to consider when evaluating a potential coach. Do they have the basic “textbook knowledge” in exercise, nutrition, and physiology? A degree or certification in a relevant field can be reassuring here, but isn’t necessarily a must. Do they stay on top of the relevant research as it emerges? Do they have the practical experience? This could mean personally, as a competitor, or this could refer to their previous track record as a coach. Are they prompt, organized, and responsive? Are they passionate about teaching you the process as you go? Do they have an appropriate client load that will allow them to devote sufficient time to your prep? Is their personality and communication style compatible with yours?

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider, and the relative importance of each factor will vary from client to client. There are coaches who have never competed that check off plenty of these boxes, and there are seasoned competitors that check off very few of them.

Having said that, contest prep can bring you to some strange places, both psychologically and physiologically. It’s a unique experience with unique challenges, and there is tremendous benefit in having “been there” if you’re hoping to coach others through it. Personally experiencing the rigors of contest prep equips the coach with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy that, in my opinion, cannot be obtained by any other route. I would never claim that a coach must have competed prior to prepping others, but this is one of the primary reasons that I would never personally hire a coach that had never driven themselves to obtain a stage-ready level of conditioning and put it all on the line in a competitive setting.

I have always planned to coach some physique athletes one day. However, I intend to wait until I have accomplished some things that my future clients will appreciate, just so they can be certain that they’re in good hands. A few years ago I was thinking about when it would be the “right time” for me to begin coaching, and I decided that I wanted to conduct laboratory research in the bodybuilding population, prep myself through a few full competition seasons, earn my pro card, and finish up my PhD in a related field before I thought about bringing on clients. Admittedly, these are excessive barriers to entry and by no means represent necessary coaching prerequisites; this is just the path I chose for myself. But with all the highly qualified prep coaches that are out there at this point, I think consumers deserve to hire someone who has put in the effort to acquire both the educational background and the practical experience to support an effective coaching service.

So, bottom line, hire whoever you want. Just remember that you are the employer in that relationship, and the coach is your employee. As such, you’re well within your rights to demand that the prospective coach has put in the work necessary to develop a strong skill set and continuously makes an effort to provide an acceptable level of service. And if people want to hire you to prep them, more power to you, whatever your background may be. But, if you’re thinking about getting into coaching or want to take your coaching skills to the next level, I do believe that there is tremendous value in the experience of competing.

Three new podcast appearances

mydnacoach podcast ep 96 Eric Trexler

Greetings from Phoenix!

The 2017 ISSN conference just wrapped up, and I’m at the airport to catch a red-eye back to Chapel Hill. After a fun and information-packed conference, I finally have a minute to post a quick update.

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of being Jonny Deacon’s guest on three episodes of the “My DNA Coach” podcast. We discussed a few ingredients that I have previously done some research on, including creatine, caffeine, and nitric oxide boosters.

Check out the links below and give them a listen!

Episode 96: Creatine

Episode 97: Caffeine

Episode 98: Nitric oxide boosters

 

 

Post-show update

Trophy picture

I’ll write a more in-depth summary of this contest prep/competition soon, but I wanted to provide a quick update while the emotions were still fresh. The show went remarkably well last night, and I won the men’s bodybuilding overall, the men’s classic physique overall, and pro cards for each.

There were some amazing competitors at the show, and I want to congratulate them for their effort and success. I also want to thank Kent Bierly and the ANBF for an incredibly positive experience. Their shows are a lot of fun for the spectators, very athlete-oriented, and they run smoothly and quickly. I really support the format of their shows, and I’m excited to continue competing with the ANBF at the pro level.

It’s impossible to separate my bodybuilding interests from my academic interests- I love learning, teaching, and applying the convergence of physiology, exercise, and nutrition. Frankly, that’s a big part of why I recently started this website- I was tired of feeling the need to categorize my activities or assign them to independent “silos,” when I consider my pursuits as a bodybuilder, student, researcher, and teacher to be inherently interconnected. This website is the outlet where I can put them all together in a big, delicious stew. Anyway, I want to extend a big, open “thank you” to all the people who have directly or indirectly inspired, motivated, or supported me in my endeavors as a bodybuilder, student, and researcher.

Finally, I want to thank my family and friends for their continuous support. Contest prep is rigorous for the athlete, but these rigors also tend to impact the friends, families, and colleagues of the competitor as well. Ideally, the athlete does their very best to minimize this impact, and the athlete’s social circle does their best to accommodate and support (within reason). I am incredibly fortunate to have a group of friends, colleagues, lab mates, and family members that are unbelievably supportive, and I am very thankful for all of you.

In a nutshell: I’m thrilled about how the show went, I’m surrounded by supportive, motivating, and inspiring people, and I’m pumped to make some big time improvements and start my journey as an ANBF pro!

Pre-Competition reflections on show night’s eve

My first competition of the season is tomorrow, so I figured it’d be a good time to jot down some pre-competition reflections while I’m “in the moment.” Here goes.

1) There’s never a perfect time for contest prep

The last few months have been wild. I don’t even know how many weeks I technically prepped, because it just kind of happened over time. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of teaching, research, and taking courses simultaneously, and I decided I wanted to clean up my diet a little bit. Then a little bit more. All of a sudden, I accidentally slid into a contest prep- still not really sure how that happened.

Anyway, the time felt right, so I went for it, and I’m glad I did. All things considered, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished over the last few months. Academically things have been fantastic, and I achieved my best conditioning ever this prep. I also learned a ton from this contest prep, mostly by breaking a bunch of my own rules out of necessity. I’ll write a more thorough article in the future discussing some of those rules, and what breaking them taught me, but that’s for another time.

In hindsight, I would’ve loved to have a more focused “bulk” prior to cutting so I could bring a little more lean mass onto the stage tomorrow. But conditions for prep are never perfect, and sometimes you just kind of roll with it, even if you don’t feel “100% ready” for it. All in all, I’m really excited to hit the stage, and very content with the process and the results of this particular contest prep.

 

2) You don’t necessarily need cardio for contest prep

I didn’t do any formal, structured cardio this prep. At all. The reason? I kind of hate doing it, and with all my current academic responsibilities, I found it unrealistic to set aside the time for it. Overall, I think the decision was great. I achieved my best conditioning ever without the need for cardio, and it came with the benefits of less gym time and better recovery from resistance training. There are no hard rules in contest prep- there’s plenty of freedom to “pick your poison” when it comes to creating a caloric deficit.

 

3) It’s really important to practice good sleep hygiene, especially during contest prep

I had to slash my calories really low to get away with abstaining from cardio. Oddly enough, this prep was fairly smooth with regards to hunger and food cravings. Aside from a lingering back issue, my primary adversity to deal with was disrupted sleep.

I was very able to fall asleep, but staying asleep was next to impossible. However, I did find that a focused effort on “sleep hygiene,” or proper pre-sleep habits, helped out to a meaningful degree. This topic may end up yielding an in-depth article down the road, but there are some quick tips that are generally suggested (see a few resources for further reading here, here, here, and here). The habits that were particularly helpful for me were:

  • Blocking out all light and sound at night (sleeping mask, ear plugs)
  • Trying to maintain consistent times for going to sleep and waking up each day
  • Minimizing artificial light/screen time before bed
  • Finding ways to relax and unwind before bed
  • Restricting caffeine intake to the morning hours

The worst part about sleep issues during prep is that they exacerbate the “usual” prep problems. Prep tends to make you lethargic, sluggish, hungry, and stressed, and sleep issues just turn these problems up a few notches. So I highly recommend paying attention to sleep hygiene during prep- it’s not magic, but a few minor changes to your daily routine can go a long way.

 

4) You need to find ways to enjoy prep

I had a football coach that always stressed the fact that we played 10, 48-minute games per season. This meant that our overall time commitment was virtually all training and practice, with actual competition making up a comparatively tiny fraction of the season. Bottom line: You better find a way to enjoy practice!

Bodybuilding is an even larger discrepancy. I’ll spend less than an hour on stage tomorrow, and it’s been four years since I last dusted off the old posing trunks. Parts of contest prep are just awful, and there’s no avoiding that. Hunger, lethargy, and sleep issues certainly come to mind. But it’s really important to find ways to enjoy the process, despite your body’s generally unpleasant physiological state.

It’s really cool to watch your body change, and to give yourself some credit for making it happen. When you wake up and check your weight changes and take a look in the mirror, you should enjoy the small, daily “wins” comprised of incremental improvements. As a physiology student, I find joy in simply observing the changes, both good and bad, and connecting them to the biological basis behind them.

I’ve also found a lot of joy in the support component of this contest prep. It’s been fantastic to have friends check in to ask about my progress, how things are going, how I’m feeling. Most importantly, my family will be with me at the show, and their support means the world to me. Win, lose, or draw, it’s going to be a really exciting day that I can share with family, and that’s priceless. On that note, I’m going to relax and enjoy some family time tonight, and tomorrow it’s game time! Stay tuned for post-competition updates and reflections.

Higher education in exercise science: Why and how to pick the right program

I completed an undergraduate and master’s degree, and am currently working on a PhD, in the field we’ll call “exercise science.” I define this operationally, because various programs will file it under any of the following terms:

  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Sports science
  • Human movement science
  • Some branch of “health,” “medical,” or “biological” sciences

As a result, I frequently get contacted with two questions from aspiring students:

“Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”

“How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

This article will address both, so let’s get into it.

 

1) “Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”  

Whenever you evaluate the value of a degree, it’s important to consider what the degree can set you up for, and which positions it sets you apart for. For exercise science, the former is its great strength, while the latter is a potential weakness.

Exercise science can set you up for a great deal of exciting and lucrative careers. As I have discussed in a previous article, most curricula will include a strong base in the “hard sciences,” such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In addition, the more degree-specific course work will direct you toward courses in psychology, behavior change and counseling, exercise physiology, nutrition, pharmacology, research methods, statistics, and athletic training, among others. As a result, it’s common to see individuals with majors and/or minors in exercise science advance toward a variety of paths. Sure, you could go the strength coach or fitness professional route, but based on the broad base of coursework you could also pursue medicine, physical therapy, nursing, clinical exercise physiology, dentistry, and a long list of health-related professions. This also gives you the ability to work with a variety of populations, ranging from children to the elderly, and from the ill to the physically elite.

The only downside is that having an exercise science degree doesn’t necessarily set you apart for many positions. To explain what I mean, consider a dietetics degree. In many states, legislation mandates that certain roles and duties must be carried out by a registered, licensed dietitian; anyone performing such tasks without the proper degree (and licensure) is in violation of the law.

If a job opens up for a clinical exercise physiologist, which typically involves cardiac rehabilitation or other health-oriented work in injured/ill populations, this employer will probably require some kind of exercise science degree. However, the situation is quite different from the previous dietetics example. We don’t really see a lot of legislation in place that requires certain roles to be filled by degree-holding exercise scientists, or jobs requiring any type of state licensure. Some professional organizations are working on changing this, but it remains a work in progress that is hotly debated within the field.

But, in the meantime, this means that there are plenty of people filling jobs in the fitness and performance sectors that do not hold an exercise science degree. So, individuals that want a fitness or performance-oriented job may not necessarily need an exercise science degree, and obtaining one doesn’t necessarily give you a legally required credential that sets you apart from applicants without the degree. The employer is likely to view the degree very favorably, but they’re not mandated to put you ahead of candidates without it.

 

2) “How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

Dr. Rick Petosa gave me some great advice when I was an undergraduate student. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

“An undergraduate degree teaches you to be a good consumer of knowledge. You learn the basic fundamentals, learn to separate the good information from the bad, and learn to apply it. Graduate school teaches you to produce knowledge- to identify gaps in what we know, to form connections between ideas that haven’t yet been connected, and to make original contributions to the body of knowledge.”

With this in mind, you need to find a graduate program that has two things:

 

A) A research advisor who will be a good “fit.”

This means you can get along with them both personally and professionally (there is a difference!), they share you research interests, and they share you expectations regarding research productivity.

There are faculty members that literally live for their research, and expect students to do the same. They tend to be a great fit for students that are equally driven to pursue a highly productive research career, which often corresponds with countless hours spent in the laboratory. On the flip side, there are advisors who perform very little research activity. They tend to be a great fit for students who are more interested in working as teachers or practitioners; their research productivity may not be as high, but there is more time for development in other areas of focus.

When I was searching for graduate programs, I reached out to numerous people to solicit recommendations. I was very fortunate that both Jeremy Loenneke and Layne Norton told me to check out the work being done by Abbie Smith-Ryan at UNC Chapel Hill. She was just starting up as a professor, and until they recommended her, I was not familiar with her work. I ended up going to UNC to work with Dr. Smith-Ryan, and 4+ years into the experience, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Dr. Smith-Ryan is an excellent researcher and mentor, and I’ll always have a tremendous appreciation for everything she has done (and continues to do) for me. Finding the right advisor is the single most important factor that can make or break your grad school experience, so take your time and choose wisely.

I eventually plan to do a series of “Sports Scientist Spotlight” articles, in which I outline and celebrate the work of some exercise science researchers that I respect and admire. In the meantime, I included a list of some resistance training and sports nutrition researchers at the bottom of this article to help aspiring students begin their search. Some of them may not currently work as professors in departments with graduate programs, but people change jobs and new programs start up all the time. I’m bound to be missing plenty of fantastic names, but at least it’s a starting point. If nothing else, you can look up their papers and find the names of other colleagues they publish with or cite- one of the best ways to search for advisors is simply by figuring out who is producing the researcher papers that capture your interest.

 

B) A department with appropriate resources for your needs.

Certain departments will have a very clear focus on developing researchers, teachers, and/or practitioners. In many cases, it will be clear where their priorities lie. If their campus is full of lab space and students are primarily funded through research assistantships, a research-focused student will thrive. But if there are no teaching assistantships available and minimal emphasis on developing hands-on skills, this may not be ideal for the aspiring teacher or practitioner.

This is part of why an on-campus visit is VERY helpful for the graduate school search. A phone conversation, brochure, or webpage often fails to tell the whole story. But getting on campus to see how busy the labs are, discuss how graduate student funding is arranged, and assess the overall vibe of the environment will tell you exactly where the department’s priorities lie. My current department is very research-oriented, which is a tremendous fit for me. UNC has equipped me with everything I need to achieve my academic goals, and the faculty, staff, and facilities are truly fantastic. But I want to be clear that this isn’t a good vs. bad thing- again, it’s about finding the right fit for you.

 

Conclusions

Exercise science makes for a great undergraduate degree that can lead to a wide variety of career paths. However, depending on the exact job you want, it may not be entirely required. While your degree will typically be viewed quite favorably, you might still have to compete for that dream job against candidates who don’t hold one.

When it comes to graduate school, it’s all about finding the right fit. Schools and advisors will interview you, but you’re also interviewing them to make sure that you’re selecting a program and an advisor that will suit your goals and personality.

 

 

Appendix: A very incomplete list of researchers who study resistance training and/or sports nutrition topics, just to get you started

Last Name First Name
Antonio Jose
Arent Shawn
Baar Keith
Bellar David
Burke Louise
Campbell Bill
Cholewa Jason
Craemer Joel
Cronin John
DeFreitas Jason
Earnest Conrad
Eckerson Joan
Focht Brian
Fry Andy
Galloway Stuart
Galpin Andy
Greenwood Mike
Hamilton Lee
Hoffman Jay
Jeukendrup Asker
Jones Andy
Kerksick Chad
Kraemer Bill
Kreider Richard
Loenneke Jeremy
Ormsbee Mike
Philp Andy
Roberts Mike
Ryan Eric
Phillips Stu
Schoenfeld Brad
Smith-Ryan Abbie
Stock Matt
Stone Mike
Stout Jeff
Taylor Lem
Tipton Kevin
van Loon Luc
Volek Jeff
Wax Benjamin
Wilborn Colin
Willoughby Darryn
Zourdos Mike

“PowerBuilding”: Finding the right split

Note: The following article is a piece I wrote a while back, when serving as the Director of Research and Education for INOV8 Elite Performance. I have since allowed Kala Duncan to host this article over at her site, but I’m putting it up on TrexlerFitness to allow more of my work to be aggregated in a centralized location, and to ensure that images display properly. So, without further ado, please enjoy!

Bodybuilding is awesome. Few things truly match the fulfillment and excitement of a successful contest prep— months of discipline and restriction that culminate in the brief presentation of your best physique yet. Unfortunately, improvement takes time and patience in the sport of bodybuilding. Many competitors walk off stage knowing it will be several months, if not years, before they return to the stage with a significantly improved physique.

It has become increasingly common to fill this competitive void with off-season powerlifting. Thus, the competitor rotates between powerlifting and bodybuilding, making them a hybrid “powerbuilder.” This is an excellent strategy, as it provides ample opportunities for frequent competition and forces the competitor to constantly reach toward the next short-term goal.

The only drawback is that powerlifting and bodybuilding are not one and the same, and training for the two sports differs. They aren’t drastically different, but training programs for each sport have distinct characteristics: bodybuilding programs tend to utilize higher rep ranges, a larger variety of exercise selection, and lower training frequency for each muscle group. Conversely, powerlifting programs often utilize higher training loads, fewer repetitions, and more frequent training of each muscle group, along with longer rest periods between sets.

The powerbuilder faces the challenge of trying to train for two slightly distinct outcomes— building a balanced, complete physique, and increasing 1RM strength on the squat, bench, and deadlift. The two goals are far from mutually exclusive, but still require the powerbuilder to incorporate aspects of both powerlifting and bodybuilding-specific training. This can be further complicated by a busy schedule (such as my own) that threatens gym time. For that reason, I’m going to lay out a few decent splits and strategies for powerbuilders.

PHAT

PHAT is an acronym that stands for “Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training.” The training system, designed by Layne Norton and described in detail here, includes five training sessions per week: two power-oriented days and three hypertrophy-oriented days, with each muscle group getting trained twice per week. This program could be considered a form of daily undulating periodization (DUP), in which training volume and intensity are varied within the same microcycle.

Push/Pull/Legs

You can incorporate the general principles of undulating periodization, or more traditional linear periodization, into a push/pull/legs routine to have a slightly more bodybuilding-focused hybrid program. With this strategy, training frequency is slightly lower, with a bit more volume per session. In this program, each muscle group is trained “1.5” times per week (3 times in a two-week period). The “push” workout involves all upper-body pushing muscles (chest, triceps, shoulders), “pull” involves upper-body pulling muscles (back, biceps, traps), and “legs” is self-explanatory.

As with PHAT, you can use this template to alternate between power and hypertrophy each workout— if one leg day is more hypertrophy-oriented, the next would be power-focused. Alternatively, you can also make each workout a blend of hypertrophy and power work— you may start with some heavy, low-rep sets of squat or deadlift, then move on to higher repetition hypertrophy work with accessory exercises.

Upper/Lower

Again, the basic principles of either undulating or linear periodization can be applied to an upper-body/lower-body split. This program offers slightly higher training frequency than push/pull/legs, and could potentially increase training frequency beyond that of PHAT, depending on how many rest days you take. Some prefer to do 4 workouts per week on this split, whereas others simply repeat the cycle of upper-body, lower-body, off, then repeat.

Just like push/pull/legs, you can alternate between power and hypertrophy sessions, or incorporate both into the same workout with power-oriented work preceding accessory hypertrophy training.

My Current Split

The previous training splits could be placed on a spectrum ranging from bodybuilding-oriented to powerlifting-oriented. In my opinion, such a spectrum would look like this:

Slide1

I’m currently focusing on powerlifting, with the intention of hitting the platform in the near future. While I’ve often rotated between the previously mentioned training splits, I made my current split to dedicate slightly more focus to my powerlifting goals. My current training split is as follows:

slide2.jpg

In this split, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday are designated as “powerlifting” days. These days include heavy sets for at least one of the power lifts, with other accessory work aimed at improving the “big 3” (squat, bench, deadlift). Monday and Saturday are more dedicated to bodybuilding. Finally, based on my class/teaching/research/volunteering schedule, Tuesday and Thursday are off days. This split can be rearranged to fit anyone’s busy schedule; ideally, the workouts that focus on one or more of the “big 3” would not fall on back-to-back days.

One feature of this split is that typical 3-day powerlifting programs, including many beginner/intermediate strength programs and variations of Sheiko, can be easily incorporated. With the schedule listed above, I could simply use my Sheiko programming for Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I would include relevant accessory work for the “big 3” on those days, with additional bodybuilding-focused workouts on Monday and Saturday. The bodybuilding days would primarily focus on the muscle groups neglected by your powerlifting program, along with any muscle groups that might be lagging in development. Accordingly, I tend to focus on back, calves, and arms on those days.

Selecting the Right Split

As a powerbuilder, your goals and training needs tend to vary throughout the year. Sometimes you want a traditional bodybuilding program, sometimes you want to focus strictly on powerlifting, and sometimes you want something right in between. I am currently farther toward the “powerlifting” end of the spectrum, but not at the point of electing a program that is strictly for powerlifting. As my goals eventually switch toward bodybuilding-related outcomes, I will slide toward the other end of the spectrum and adjust my training split accordingly. Having a list of potential training splits gives you the ability to tailor your training to your exact goals in bodybuilding and powerlifting, and enables you to make great progress in both endeavors without temporarily neglecting either.

Research on getting better (at anything)

I’m a couple weeks out from my first natural bodybuilding competition in four years. This is an ideal time to start planning out the upcoming off-season; as I approach stage-level conditioning, my weaknesses are becoming more apparent, I’m getting an objective assessment of my progress since my last competitions, and my motivation is at an all-time high. But how do we go about getting better at bodybuilding, or anything for that matter?

It’s a purposely vague question, with a fairly universal answer. I firmly believe that just about everyone stands to benefit from reading “The Mundanity of Excellence,” which seeks to answer this question. In this research paper, sociologist Daniel F. Chambliss studies elite swimmers to obtain a deeper understanding of what contributes to the development of excellence, and what separates the elite from the rest of the pack. Chambliss emerges with three primary conclusions; while they apply perfectly to bodybuilding/fitness, they can be applied to any number of pursuits.

1) “Excellence is a qualitative phenomenon”

Athletes tend to really mess this one up. For whatever reason, our natural inclination is to do more, harder. But as highlighted by Chambliss, we’d often be better off striving for better, not more.

Chambliss observed that the elite simply did things better than the sub-elite. They trained similar amounts, but the elite performed their tasks more effectively, efficiently, consistently, and proficiently. They did the little things correctly, and demonstrated unwavering consistency.

When you identify weaknesses in your physique or performance, you’ve identified an opportunity to improve. But to capitalize on this opportunity, you need to revise your approach. If you simply do more of what you’re already doing, it’s very unlikely that the problem will resolve itself.

Let’s say you’re unhappy with the muscularity of your legs. How might you revise your approach? You may consider exercise selection, training frequency, the relative volume and intensities you use, or any combination of factors. But it’s important to make meaningful changes to your approach, and this involves improving the quality of your training and/or nutritional strategies. More of the same approach will, in many contexts, get your more of the same results. The day you become rigid in your approach is the day you drastically limit your capacity for progress; reluctance to try new approaches is the absolute enemy of progress.

2) “Talent is a useless concept”

There’s no doubt that “natural talent” (i.e., genetics) determine your upper limits in bodybuilding (and most other pursuits, for that matter). We all have strengths and weaknesses, and there’s value in attempting to identify them. But the author’s point still rings true, particularly as it pertains to fitness.

Your genetics will inherently dictate how far you can go with this fitness stuff, and how arduous the path will be. But people are generally terrible at honestly evaluating if they have “good” or “bad” genetics. More importantly, no matter how much you stress over it, your genetics are what they are.

The author also notes that focusing on the concept of “inherent talent” or “genetic gifts” clouds our ability to assess the habits that contribute to excellence. As Chambliss points out, “Talent is indistinguishable from its effects,” which leaves us unable to truly connect cause and effect. As a result, when we observe excellence or success, we’re quick to simply attribute it to natural talent. But this diverts focus away from the habits, techniques, and skills that contribute to the person’s success, many of which may be obtainable by those who weren’t born with them. It is far more productive to try to learn from those achieving excellence than to wonder what inherent advantages you’re missing out on.

I certainly have some genetic limitations (and some gifts), but worrying about them serves little benefit. As I start planning how to improve moving forward, I am simply listing my primary weaknesses, and trying to objectively assess ways to fix them. And one great way to do this is by observing the habits of people who excel in my weak areas, not by assuming that it came easy for them due to luck, genetics, or the alignment of the stars.

3) “Excellence is mundane”

This point ties very closely to point #1. When comparing the elite to the sub-elite, Chambliss noticed that they, on the surface, did things similarly. The elite were not displaying heroic, awe-inspiring training efforts day in and day out. They were doing things qualitatively better than the sub-elite, and with remarkable consistency.

Chambliss notes that the elite swimmers did the little things consistently better, and that even their motivations were fairly mundane. He paints a picture of athletes who put their focus (and gratification) in the smaller, more frequent, process-oriented goals. The author frames the mundane, simple, daily tasks of training as small but meaningful decisions that contribute to excellence; the elite athletes simply made the correct decisions frequently and consistently. It’s finishing the workout when you’re tired, sticking to your diet when motivation is low, squeezing in the workout early before you leave town for a trip. It’s also finding a sense of joy and accomplishment from a small training PR, not being 100% fixated on an Olympic gold medal that is 3 years away.

This is a tricky one in the fitness world. It’s a community that has traditionally been obsessed with the little things; now the pendulum has swung the other direction, and there seems to be a knee-jerk trend toward embracing “fitness-life balance.” This reaction has been a net positive in my opinion, but when taken too far, the over-emphasis on “balance” can be misapplied in a manner that undermines the small, mundane tasks and choices that can contribute to excellence.

I choose to look at the “balance” thing a bit differently, separating the action from the cause. When you’re doing all the little things right, but treating them as normal daily tasks that contribute to a pursuit you love, this really isn’t problematic. This is representative of Chambliss’ point- the tasks are individually minor and not a major strain on the individual, but they can compound over time. On the flip side, if you’re obsessing over these details and they’re causing stress and anxiety, you’ve got a problem. You’re turning mole hills into mountains, and these actions are no longer mundane based on the disproportionate emphasis you’re giving them. Moving forward, I’m aiming for the former approach: Enthusiastically doing the little things well- not because I have to, or because I’ll be doomed or ashamed if I don’t. I’m doing them because they’re small, simple habits that will support my progress and enjoyment of the process.

Conclusions

With prep winding down, it’s time to focus on improving. “The Mundanity of Excellence” provides a tremendous perspective on how to make that happen, and is easily translatable to fitness and beyond. The nuts and bolts of my off-season plans are really beside the point of this article; I’m going to put more emphasis on heavy compound lifts, increase my training frequency, change my split, switch up my “go-to” accessory exercises, break my habit of over-doing the volume on isolation exercises, and push my caloric intake (and protein intake) higher as my off-season progresses.

But more importantly, I’m going to play the slow game; the marathon, not the sprint. It’s about doing things better, not more; doing the little things right, and consistently; focusing on the process; enjoying the small wins in training. In fitness, it’s popular to promote the exact opposite- bursting into the gym like a bat out of hell, making each gym session a heroic effort with intensity that is impossible to sustain, and being willing to “go harder” than the competition. In fitness, it’s also popular to burn the hell out really fast, or to be the person who’s constantly “at a plateau,” or to be the person who’s constantly injured, or to be the person who lost their passion for the process. If the goal is success, enjoyment, or longevity in the sport, I strongly encourage you to explore the former approach over the latter.