“There are people who believe everything is sane and sensible that is done with a solemn face.”
I can think of no better lead-in for this post than this abstract, from Human Heredity. Its being an oldie-but-goody in no way diminishes the power in its message. In layman’s terms, what went on here was that 5 sets of identical(monozygotic) twins were put on an identical, 10-week, isokinetic (i.e., force delivered over a consistent velocity) training protocol. The end results? Well, between sets of twins there was a wide range of response — however, the response within each twin pair was…you guessed it…identical. And here’s another study which shows basically the same thing. Now, we can obviously go way off the deep end in discussing this, with lots of resultant handwringing about “shitty genetic draws”. Where the rubber meets the road, though, is this: one’s response to any particular training regimen is largely, though not entirely, genetically driven. The magic, of course, is in finding that particular protocol that plays to your particular genetic hand. The other part of the magic is more spiritual in nature, and is centered in embracing your particular genetic gifts. Now, there’s a balance here as well, of course. As Greg Glassman (the founder of CrossFit ) points out — and quite correctly, in my opinion — an athlete is made better by becoming more competent at those things they are not naturally inclined to excel at than they are by honing their natural gifts. The one caveat I’d interject here, though, is that this is true in an already well conditioned athlete, who is, by the time he is well conditioned, well aware of his/her natural attributes and shortcomings. But what if you’re still unaware of your genetic leanings? What then?
First, let’s have a look at the roll genetics plays in determining one’s strengths and weaknesses within this list (credit Greg Glassman, again) of overall fitness indicators:
- cardio-respiratory endurance
- stamina (i.e., repeatability or “prime” endurance)
I really, really like this list, as I think Greg’s got all the physical attribute bases nicely covered. And two things immediately jump out. Number one, an athlete who is accomplished across the board here would be considered a pretty damn good all-around athlete (think decathlete) in anyone’s book, and (2) very very few individuals would even come close to being accomplished at all of these endeavors simultaneously. At best, we could hope to be “really good” at one or two, do ok at a couple, and just hope to “not totally suck” at what’s left.
I’ll give a quick two examples of (1) assessing strengths and weaknesses using Greg’s list as a template, and (2) targeting workouts according to those defined strengths and weaknesses (and I’ll add to this goals, as well) using a pair of athletes I’m intimately familiar with — myself and my son.
It’s all about me
My strong suit has always been, from as far back as I can remember, “prime” endurance, followed closely by speed and power. My strength, agility, balance and flexibility have always been pretty good — probably better than average. Coordination, and accuracy? Uhh, not so much (ever seen me dance? It’s not pretty). Cardio endurance? Uhhh, yeah; pretty much off the scale low.
Which brings up a good point. Before we move on, it might behoove us to define the difference between “prime” endurance (or Greg’s stamina, if I understand his definition correctly) and cardio endurance. I think everyone has a good feel for what cardio endurance looks like; the rail-thin miler, the marathoner, the riders in the Tour de France — all examples of the cardio-fit club. So what about “prime” endurance? Well, let’s use an example that’s near and dear to my heart, the 40-yard sprint. And let’s go a step further and say that we’ve identified, say, the top 10% or so from a group of randomly selected athletes; not so difficult to identify the athletes with good speed at this distance, right? just put a stopwatch to them. But once we begin vetting and ranking this upper echelon, things get interesting in a hurry.
The breakdown of the “speed” athletes usually (and I do say usually — there’s always the freak/outlier lurking about) looks a little something like this:
- the ultra-fast in a single sprint; jaw-dropping, freaks-of-nature kind of speed. Long recovery required between sprints, though, and a large drop-off (relatively speaking) between the fastest time and “prime”, or repeat times. These athletes also tend to be one sneeze away from flying apart at the seams; the Ferraris of the athletic world.
- those with good (remember, this is relative — good within a sub-group of top performers) , but not the fastest top-end speed. This sub-group’s strength lay though, in their ability to repeat at or very near (very little drop off) this speed time and time again. This, by definition, then, is stamina, or (a term I prefer) “prime endurance”. This happens to be the group in which I fall (or fell, back in my competitive days). Actually, my genetics haven’t changed, and I’d consider this ability my strong suit still. This carries over to the weight room as well, and defines how I structure my workouts, both on a macro and micro-cycle level.
- those with decent top-end speed, but lacking adequate prime endurance. The athletes from group #2 who, after the nth sprint with little between-sprint recovery, unceremoniously hack-up a lung.
Now, you can see that stamina is an objective measurement; it’s also highly event-specific. So a starting baseball pitcher’s definition of stamina is different from a closer’s definition is different from the stamina required of an American football defensive back. And some sports require very little (again, relatively) in the way of stamina at all (think power lifting, or Oly lifting).
Doug McGuff touches on this notion a bit in Body by Science. If you have a copy, check out pg. 171 and the section on Myosin light chain Kinase. For those who don’t have a copy (you’re missing out; get one!), Doug relays a story of Arthur Jones (of Nautilus fame) testing a man who exhibited phenominal strength — for one or two reps — followed by a preciptous drop-off from that peak strength. That is to say, although the guy possessed great strength, he exhibited very little in the way of stamina. Arthur Jones figured the guy was just dogging it, and sent him away. In retrospect, Jones realized that he had unwittingly dismissed potentially the strongest power lifter he’d ever seen. The lesson here being not to confuse and/or dismiss particular atletic attributes out of hand; for every attribute there is a correct and appropriate athletic application.
Moving on. So now we have a kid (me) genetically-inclined toward endeavors requiring speed, power and a good bit of short burst stamina, and we place that kid in the epicenter of (American) football-leaning culture. What we have here is the athletic equivalent of an alignment of the moon and stars, the perfect mix of genetics and expressive outlet on our hands; ability feeding off of an outlet in a nice, symbiotic relationship. Other good outlets for my particular genetic profile might have been rugby, wrestling, possibly a combat sport; maybe with proper training, a track & field throwing event (esp., discus, hammer, javelin), though these are relatively low on the stamina requirement. But what if you’d have placed this kid in a culture where distance swimming ruled? Long distance skiing, running or biking?
A chip off the old block?
Let’s look at another athlete, and a totally different set of inherent abilities; a kid who is truly his mother’s child. In fact, the on-going family joke is, if he didn’t resemble me so much in the face we’d all have to wonder 😉 Tall, solid and lanky (in the south, we label this particular build “raw-boned”), with hand-eye coordination (and general, body coordination), accuracy, balance, and agility that are off the charts high. The kind of kid that you only have to demonstrate a skill to once and he’s got it down pat; after a few attempts, he’ll school you on the finer points you might not have noticed in your 30-odd years of practicing the skill. He’s a freak that way, an outlier. Better than average ability the short sprints. Now, drop this kid into a culture where baseball is religion, and you’ve got that genetic/expressive outlet, moon-and-stars thing all over again. Is there a glaring kink in the kid’s armor? There sure is (cue Alanis Morissette’s Isn’t it Ironic) — Strength…and stamina.
First, do no harm
So, in order to more effectively build a better (already conditioned) athlete, we need to remove the kinks in that athlete’s armor while at the same time not letting the inherint attributes slide. This, in fact, is much easier said than done. Most have probably already experienced this phenomenon. Improved stamina leads to reduced strength; increased strength leads to a decrease in accuracy, and so it goes. This is where the art of training comes into play, along with the realization that each athlete is as unique as, not only his individual genetic makeup, but as his phenotype at this particular moment in time. Constant assessment, both in the 10 physical attributes (or at least those that are relavent to the athlete’s particular situation), and in the athlete’s required skills base, are a must. For what good is it to have improved a short stop’s 60 meter sprint time only to have boogered his bat speed so as to hose his batting average in the process?
More on assessment and targeted training in an upcoming post.
And by the way, what if neither Ottow nor Ewald trained properly for their genetic makeup? I would love to have had a 3rd, here, with the exact same genetic makeup (is that even remotely possible, naturally?), who was trained according to his identified strengths, using the 10 attributes identified above. What would that phenotype have resembled, as compared to the other two?