For every position we have an opposing position. In any sporting event there are athletes that compete and there are also individuals that play the sport for fun. This is the case in basketball, baseball, hockey, and even American football. Do you train these recreational players the same way you’d train an NBA, MLB, NHL, or NFL star? I suppose that we could and I’m sure people have but let’s put outliers and extreme cases aside and look at the question from a general standpoint. A parent of 4, who works a 9-5 desk job is not going to practice basketball for the same number of hours or even use the same methods as Lebron James for various reasons, with the most obvious being the time commitment. To add to this, since our theoretical parent is working a 9-5 he/she most likely lacks the athletic endowment to perform the same movements that King James can produce otherwise he/she would be in the NBA/WNBA. Recruiters are pretty good at snagging these folks before Corporate America gets their paws on them. The same can be said for all other sports. So why would strength training be any different? Would we expect our hypothetical working class parent to train like Ed Coan?
Let’s begin by defining some terms. A competition is an event or a contest in which individuals or groups of individuals, or animals, perform an activity that is scored against other individuals or groups of individuals. The individual or group of individuals with the highest score wins. A competitor is an individual who performs an activity with the primary purpose of being scored and evaluated in competition. Training is physical activity performed with a longer term goal in mind, with the respective workouts designed in a way to produce that goal. This is not to be confused with exercise, which is physical activity performed for the purpose of “just doing it.” My client and buddy Karl trains for four hours in his garage, can bench press more than most can squat, and competes in Powerlifting competitions. He is a competitor and this does not mean that you need to do the same nor does it mean that I will ask you to do the same should you enlist my services. Some competitors compete because they want to win, some compete to drive their scores up for personal reasons, some do it entirely for the experience of competing. As a general rule, most competitors seek to improve over time, meaning that they must continue to train in a way that drives improvement over time. This is the main point to take away from this.
In my industry the sports that I deal with are Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Bodybuilding, and Men and Women’s Physique. Since all of these sports involve some type of resistance training it is fair to call them strength sports. All things equal, most individuals competing in these sports end up getting stronger over time. The main difference is the modalities used and rate of strength increase.
So how do we perform better at strength sports? We train more over time. We lift more weight, we perform more sets, and we add more repetitions. In short, we continue to push our bodies beyond our homeostatic set points to continue driving the desired adaptation. Powerlifters train more over time to improve 1-repetition maximum (1-RM) on their squat, bench press, and deadlift, Weightlifters do the same to add to their Snatch and Clean & Jerk, and Bodybuilders and Physique competitors do this to add more lean body mass and/or reduce their body fat lower each time they get on stage. Are you seeing the trend yet? In short, competitive individuals have to do more to do more. Initially, the more we do the bigger and stronger we get and it happens in a quick linear fashion. Mark Rippetoe refers to this as “the Novice Effect,” which states that untrained humans that are far removed from their genetic potential will adapt and improve faster than those approaching their genetic potential. Over time this linearity becomes nonlinear and we end up reaching a point of diminishing returns.
During this time a few things happen. The time commitment, level of complexity required for the desired adaptations, and, most notable, our risk of injury all increase. It starts as a low risk game of craps and over time graduates to high stakes roulette the further we go down the rabbit hole. Does this mean that competitive sports are unhealthy? The answer to the questions is: it depends. More on this later. What this does mean is that competitive sports become less healthy over time due to the increased demands that come with advancing further along on the adaptation curve. The decision to continue driving adaptation is ultimately up to the athlete. There is no right or wrong here, there are simply risks, benefits, and informed decisions. A well informed athlete knows what he/she is getting involved in and will either accept the risks or not. It is not up to anybody else to make that decision.
So what is health? This is a term that has various definitions by various organizations. For this article I’m going to go with the World Health Orgnaization’s (WHO) definition of “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In short, we will think of health as our body’s ability to function well mentally, physically, and socially. Since I’m in the business of improving health through nutrition and physical activity, we will focus on those aspects of health in this discussion.
Now that we have established reasons that competitors train, let us discuss why non-athletic populations train and/or exercise. Physical activity is something that humans have been doing since Paleolithic times. Primitive life required physical fitness for hunting and gathering as well as long trips to visit other tribes, family, and friends. Over time humans evolved and the need for physical activity to perform daily duties declined. However, its role in our health has not changed.
The history of physical activity and the prevention and/or management of chronic disease dates back centuries. A classic story is that of Dr. William Herbeden’s description of Angina Pectoris in 1768. For those of you who are unaware, Angina Pectoris refers to chest pain (angina (n) – pain, pectoris (n) – chest). In his paper he described instances of individuals complaining of pain in the breast, which sometimes shot into the arm. During this period he had no idea what caused it and knew even less about how to treat it. He stated that some individuals reported symptoms while walking up hill, standing up or sitting down. At the end of his paper, he shared some interesting insights on possible treatment options. Dr Herbeden’s closing paragraph is as follows:
“With respect to the treatment of this complaint, I have little or nothing to advance: Nor indeed is it to be expected we should have made much progress in the cure of a disease, which has hitherto hardly had a place or a name in medical books. Quiet and warmth, and spirtuous liquors, help restore patients who are nearly exhausted, and to dispel the effects of a fit when it does not soon go off. Opium taken at bed-time will prevent the attacks at night. I knew one who set himself a task of sawing wood for half an hour every day, and was nearly cured. In one also the disorder ceased of itself.Bleeding, vomiting, and purging, appear to me to be improper.”
Notice the bolded sentence there. Sawing wood is what is now considered moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), which is also known to work well in both prevention and management of heart disease! With that said, it is now common knowledge that physical activity improves health. The man in the paper performed his MVPA by sawing wood. In present day, people run, lift weights, surf, cycle, hike, climb mountains, and ski. I happen to like lifting weights using barbell as do those who enlist in my services, so the remainder of this discussion will be focused on barbell training.
From a health standpoint, properly performed barbell training increases muscle mass, bone mineral density, muscular strength, balance, and coordination. Aside from the physical advantages, barbell training, as well as all physical activity modalities, improves confidence, mental well-being, quality of life, and psychosocial status. All of the aforementioned benefits do not require a high degree of specialization to achieve. A properly planned barbell training program, such as Starting Strength, will yield these benefits within 3-9 months in most untrained individuals. In short, the health benefit comes very quickly and doesn’t require much.
So let’s rewind back to our discussion of competitors. If competitors train to perform better for the purpose of improving scores and rankings in a competitive event and health focused individuals train to perform better to improve their health and quality of life, should both be trained the same? Yes and no. Yes, untrained health focused individuals should train to improve performance metrics initially. This is because they are untrained, often extremely weak, and move poorly. Since they are weak at baseline, overload events are recovered from very quickly which leads to a linear progression that last several months.
In contrast, a trained competitor has very different experience when he/she experiences an overload event and recovery from it will take much longer. This occurs because seasoned competitors have already exceeded the health benefits of his/her sport. While both are training progressively, the athlete’s progression takes much longer and is more stressful than the health focused individual’s. A seasoned competitor is also aware that he/she is risking injury every year he/she tries to achieve higher levels performance. A health focused individual is typically not interested in performing an activity at this level. He/she wants to feel good, maintain good health markers, and not have his/her life revolving around training. This demographic typically desires “short and sweet” workouts and does not think about the activity for the remainder of the day. This is not to say that athletes want to get injured. This simply means that athletes are pushing their bodies to a much higher level than nonathletes, and thus, due to the nature of being an athlete, will have an inherently higher risk of injury.
As a Registered Dietitian (RD), it would be wrong of me to exclude nutritional strategies from this discussion. Dietary strategies can also be either competitive or health focused. What a bodybuilder or physique competitor does is not necessarily what a health focused individual should do. The results that a bodybuilder or physique competitor attains should also not be the standard a health focused individual is held to. For example, the strategies that work for getting stage lean for a bodybuilding or physique show should not be used for general health purposes due to the very fact that those levels of leanness and the dieting required to achieve those levels are not sustainable from a long-term health perspective. Most bodybuilders would not claim to walk around at 4% body fat year round and there is a good reason for this. The dietary strategies used in these sports are a large component of the training. In some ways these individuals are “competitive dieters.” Therefore, the results and the strategies used to attain those results should not be standards that your health focused client/patient should follow. At the same time, negatively criticizing these competitors for their dietary strategies is no different than criticizing Lebron James for daily repetitive dynamic jumping and landing involved in professional basketball. Both are competitive sports and both involve high levels of training that will carry continuously increasing health risks the longer and individual competes in the respective sport. The epidemiology behind this goes beyond the scope of this article and epidemiological claims are not being made here. I am simply stating as a general rule, competition introduces health risk and that risk increases the longer an individual or group of individuals continue to compete.
So what happens when the health focused individual full achieves the “Novice Effect”?” Does he/she continue training? The answer is: It depends! Some individuals start out health focused and transition into competition. Others just want an activity in their daily routine to simply provide them health benefits and nothing more. These folks eventually shift more towards exercise, only now they are using useful movements to preserve the strength and motor patterns they acquired during their linear progression. To be clear, they will still squat, press, deadlift, and bench press, with the programming being the only thing different. There are also those who are competitive but not competitors, meaning they set goals but try to achieve them without entering a competition. Neither approach is superior to the other, it is all a subject to individual variation. The purpose of this article is to educate coaches, clients, and athletes on managing expectations. If your goal is health focused, then keep things simple, keep goals realistic to your current lifestyle, and leave the training at the gym. If your goal is to reach your genetic potential in a competitive sport, then buckle up for a long roller coaster ride!