You Are NOT Elite

…so don’t try to train like you are.

arnold schwarzeneggar staring

People misunderstand how much work it takes to become an elite athlete. An amusing anecdote from the bodybuilding world: within weeks of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Education of a Bodybuilder, hundreds of skinny guys piled into commercial gyms on the west coast and hit supersets of benches and curls. They did it “because it worked for Arnold.” Well, skinny guy, your 6 sets of 10 on the bench with 135 lbs and in the curl with 65 lbs don’t compare to Arnold’s rep-max sets with 335 in the bench and 155 in the curl. Arnold was quite literally 3 times stronger than his pencil-necked impersonators.

Occasionally, my athletes talk to me about the programs they read in magazines or see in documentaries. Discussing the Division 1 NCAA football player who gained 30 pounds in 2 months is irrelevant. Analyzing the training of NFL tight ends is a fun conversation at best. Frankly, trying to replicate the 3 sets of 3 I might do in the deadlift just won’t get you far, either, and I’m not even that strong.

Consider this: is it more demanding on the body to do 20 push-ups or to do a ONE press-up in a handstand?

Is it more demanding on the body to squat on your toes 50 times or to squat flat-footed on one leg 5 times?

Now, let’s go farther: is it more demanding on the body to do 5 sets of 10 reps with 150 pounds in the back squat or to do 3 sets of 3 reps with 450 pounds?

Is it more demanding to do twelve reps of 200 meters in 30 seconds each or to do two runs of 200 meters under 20 seconds each?

usain bolt 200m from starting blocks

Seriously, people, you and I are not elite.

Elite athletes are stronger, faster, meaner, and tougher than us. They have been training harder for longer and more often. An elite athlete barely acknowledges pain – like, “just ripped my hamstring clean off the bone, but surely I can take one more long jump.” I’ve seen people stop a set of sit-ups because they got a little out of breath.

An elite athlete is used to six 4-hour training sessions per week. I sometimes struggle through three 1-hour sprint sessions AND making time to lift that week.

An elite athlete can notice the impact of moving her big toe during a heavy set of squats. Some people can’t tell when their heels come off the ground while squatting.

We are not elite, my friends. And that’s okay. Every elite athlete went through a learning phase, however brief, where they didn’t have all this body awareness, all this resilience, all this strength and power. They took the time to learn – some faster than others – and then spent the next 10 years refining their skills. They have years they regretted not pushing harder and years they now regret for pushing too hard. They have sprained, hurt, injured, and broken themselves multiple times in multiple places and learned to work through or around those pains. They have committed every physical, mental, and emotional resource to being extraordinary, abnormal, above average specimens of human performance. They are elite because they chose something difficult, then endured it for a decade or more.

infographic from Lauren Fleshman
Borrowed without permission from Lauren Fleshman,

Remember Lauren Fleshman‘s infographic about her journey??

We are not elite. But given enough time, enough emphasis on the fundamentals, enough dedication, and enough luck, we could probably get there.

You are not elite. If you were, I couldn’t help you. But, for now, while you are a beginner, let me set you on the path. Let me teach you the fundamentals. And when you exceed my capacity to help you, let me point you to the next professional.

Because I’m not elite, either. But you don’t see me pretending to be – in training, in coaching, or in attitude. Stop short-changing the elite and stop rushing your own progress. You may just discover, if you’re patient, that the fastest path to the top of the mountain is slow and steady. No matter who you are, you still have to start at the bottom.

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