Pulling Back the Curtain: Part 1, Individuality

Sara Fleming

How many of you have seen one of these memes?

How many of you believed the underlying message?  I’ll admit it, there was a time when I did.

It usually goes something like this:  Long slow distance and low intensity cardio is bad, makes you weak and sick, and makes you look like a skeleton.  Sprinting and high intensity work is good, makes you strong and awesome, and makes you look like a supermodel bodybuilder.

Here’s the truth:  Its a bunch of nonsense.

We are all born with a set of genes that are unique to us as individuals.  As we develop into full grown adults, those genetics dictate the development of a lot of things that predispose us to excel in certain activities.  For some lucky folks, this may be virtually everything they try.  For some of us, it requires a lot more practice and hard work.  For all of us, it means that there are some things we simply cannot change.  Some of the things that are dictated by our genes and development are as follows:
1.  Muscle mass
2.  Muscle fiber ratios, ie fast twitch to slow twitch
3.  Tendon strength
4.  Coordination
5.  Speed
6.  Strength
7.  Subcutaneous fat percentages
8.  Limb lengths
9.  Height
10.  Weight


First things first:  Thinking that one can take an elite marathon runner with a very slight physique and turn him into a big musclely sprinter through diet and training is misguided.  The sprinter did not start out as an individual with an average physique and running times and by hitting the track every day, became a speed demon Adonis.  You can change some things about your body through training, but the drastic changes that would have to occur to change one body type to the other are not likely without pharmaceuticals.  Speed potential is also pretty much predetermined.  One can certainly train to get faster, but if you want to be an elite sprinter, you need to have the right parents.

Secondly, training to run a marathon does not mean you will become weak or skeletal.  The marathoner in the picture is one body type of many.  Maintaining a six minute mile for two and a half hours cannot be done by a weak or unfit person.  Additionally, the physique of the average recreational marathoner is  is very diverse.  Long and thin is only one variation.  In competitive long distance runners, there will be commonalities in the 10 qualities listed above, but physical appearance isn’t necessarily one of them.

One of our top American sprinters in the
100 m.  She doesn’t look much different
than many of the elite long distance runners.

I help coach a very large track and field club and there are some things that become very apparent right away when working with large populations of children.  The fast ones are fast almost as soon as they can run.  The strong explosive ones can throw and jump farther than their peers almost immediately.  The ones with good stamina can be competitive at the 1500m even at six years old.  Years of training, improving form, growing and developing, and working on getting stronger will improve these kids in their specialty and they can certainly improve in the events they are not ideal for, but one thing is very evident.  They all have certain predetermined advantages to the events they are well-suited for.  More importantly, it is practice and dedication, more so than body type, that ensures long-term high-level success.

In my last article on the posterior, I made the point that sprinters do not necessarily develop a large posterior from sprinting.  Instead, it is likely that having a large strong posterior contributed to them becoming good sprinters.  Likewise, being a short, fast twitch individual may enable you to become a good gymnast.   Being a slow twitch individual with a big heart and lungs might make you a good long distance runner or cyclist.  There are certainly outliers, but for the most part there is a very strong correlation between the ten qualities listed above and success at a particular activity rather than looking a certain way.  Of course at the extremes of some sports, you may find a more consistent body type in the top tiers, but in most sports, there are a range of body types that excel.

So, how do we use this information to train better?  First of all, stop thinking that training like a particular athlete will give you the same physique.  Instead, realize that training like an athlete in general will give you a better physique overall, but one that is within your genetic reach.  Training like an athlete doesn’t have to be complicated.  I train a lot of different athletes and what we do in the weight room and outside of practice is pretty similar.  We all know the basics, but tend to ignore them in the face of the current trends of this hard-core program vs that hard-core program.  The bottom line is this:  Getting stronger and establishing a base will improve all other aspects of fitness as well as your ability to do a number of activities.

Strength is intrinsically linked to flexibility, coordination, power, and speed.  When you get stronger, your body is learning to optimize the coordination of your muscles both in muscle fiber recruitment of individual muscles as well as recruitment of groups of muscles to work together.  Strength training through a full range of motion improves overall flexibility and mobility.  Finding the appropriate strength training program for the individual is the tricky part.  For some of my older, less mobile clients, it may simply be circuits of compound movements within a range of motion they can handle.  Their goals are typically quality of life and independence.  For my more able clients, its the basic squat, press, pull, and carry in whatever form works best for them.  Heavy and simple.  It works for overall function, strength,  and body composition, both muscle mass increase and fat loss.  An effective one to two hour session in the weight room is also pretty good for overall cardiovascular fitness and endurance.  If your heart rate isn’t elevated when you are lifting weights, you’re not lifting enough weight.

Base can be general or sport specific.  Your main activities will determine what form your base will take, but don’t discount the benefit of general cardiovascular fitness training for enabling one to have the endurance to train harder in the weight room, on the mat, or on the field.  Developing a base can be as simple as going for a 30-60 minute walk, jog, or bike ride three days a week or simply practicing your sport.  The bottom line is that you need to have the endurance and cardiovascular capacity to train effectively.  If you work out for 20 minutes a day and then drive to your office and sit in a chair all day, don’t be surprised when you can’t lose weight, can’t reduce stress and fatigue, and don’t have the endurance to enjoy a long hike with your family.  Additionally, an active lifestyle is free training.  Working in the yard, walking the dog, going on hikes and bike rides with the kids, or simply going for a walk every day will do your body a lot of good.  For example, it has been shown that patients with Type II diabetes diminished their dependence on insulin through regular physical activity regardless of weight loss. (full text here)

So, bottom line is this.  Don’t base your program choices on the physiques and abilities of a select few of those who use them.  Also, don’t expect that you can train all of your clients with a single approach.  Instead, develop the qualities that will improve them overall with the lowest risk to benefit ratio.  Some individuals like to work hard in the gym with no other goal than to be tired at the end of the workout or sore the next day.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but without working towards a goal, its a lot harder to program intelligently or effectively for the long term.  If you’re not getting the  results you want for yourself or your clients, take a good hard look at the individual you are training and see if you can honestly assess their abilities and deficits.  It is also important to ask them what they want beyond simple body composition changes.  Based on that, set a training goal that utilizes their current assets and abilities and will also require that they work on their deficits.  You’re not going to take a skinny endurance junkie and turn him into a beefy ripped thoroughbred who is satisfied with running short distances.  You can, however, make him stronger, less prone to injury, and you might improve his running times.  No specialized training required.

The really cool thing is that a lot of my clients have found that smart simple training has revealed some abilities they didn’t know they had.  One of my 70 year old clients was astonished that she could jump rope and has found it much easier to work in the yard and keep up with her grandsons.  I had a relatively uncoordinated soccer player become one of the top pole vaulters in the state and one of the top weightlifters in the country in her age and weight class at age fifteen.  I’ve had other clients go on to compete in a number endurance events, strength events, and a combination of the two.  The secret is simply figuring out what they do well, what they enjoy doing, and working towards a goal that incorporates both.  Strength and base takes care of the rest.

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