The Law of Accelerating Returns: On The Weightlifting Singularity

We live in the future. We’re way beyond post-modern now. And our rate of progress is increasing year after year according to the law of Accelerating Returns.

Advancement in any area is rarely linear – it certainly isn’t in the technological world. Often (and in the best cases) it is exponential: growth begets growth.

There’s a lesson here. Taking a hard look at the growth curve of your progress in any area is a good way to know if things are going well, or if you are heading toward stagnation.

The Future is NOW

I was watching Star Trek – the Original – the other day and realized that my own iPhone is far more advanced than the junk Captain Kirk had. When he, Spock, and Bones needed to call Scotty for a ride, what did they use?

A Flip Phone! They didn’t even have texting, let alone the plethora of apps that are commonplace on any smart phone.

Captain Picard – of Star Trek The Next Generation – had it a bit better. They were essentially using Blue Tooth. All they had to do was tap the cool pin on their chest and they could talk to who every they wanted. What’s more, they didn’t have to tell the device WHO they wanted to call …it just seemed to magically KNOW.

While we don’t have space travel yet, our world and technology is fast approaching that of the craziest Science Fiction books and shows, and already surpasses many of them.

The Law of Accelerating Returns ALA Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil proposed the Law of Accelerating Returns in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines. The idea can be explained as follows: The rate of change in evolutionary systems increases exponentially.

According to Kurzweil:

  • Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. As a result, the
  • rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.
  • A correlate of the above observation is that the “returns” of an evolutionary process (e.g., the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” of a process) increase exponentially over time.
  • In another positive feedback loop, as a particular evolutionary process (e.g., computation) becomes more effective (e.g., cost effective), greater resources are deployed toward the further progress of that process. This results in a second level of exponential growth (i.e., the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially).
  • Biological evolution is one such evolutionary process.
  • Technological evolution is another such evolutionary process. Indeed, the emergence of the first technology creating species resulted in the new evolutionary process of technology. Therefore, technological evolution is an outgrowth of–and a continuation of–biological evolution.
  • A specific paradigm (a method or approach to solving a problem, e.g., shrinking transistors on an integrated circuit as an approach to making more powerful computers) provides exponential growth until the method exhausts its potential. When this happens, a paradigm shift (i.e., a fundamental change in the approach) occurs, which enables exponential growth to continue.

The place this idea has been applied to most is to the concept of The Singularity, a hypothetical future where artificial intelligence gets so advanced that our current minds aren’t able to comprehend it. Much like how religion tell us that we can’t understand the mind of God, we won’t be able to understand the minds of those (machines or even modified humans) who will have this level of intelligence.

How the world will look after this happens – once intelligence hits a certain threshold – is completely outside the bounds of our comprehension.

It’s like trying to imagine a 7 dimensional sphere. It isn’t within the boundaries of how our minds work. We use them all the time in Mathematics and physics, and in that sense they “exist”, but we can’t see them in our minds.

Who knows IF The Singularity will happen – we can’t know until/unless it does. But, that isn’t the point.

The underlying concept of exponential growth in Evolutionary processes applies to all kinds of things, not the least of which is your progress in the gym.

Beyond Technology: The Weightlifting Singularity

The Law of Accelerating Returns doesn’t just apply to technology (though, that is where it is most often associated). Accelerating Returns are everywhere an Evolutionary Process is in place.

That includes the gym, or more accurately your body in response to the gym.

The goal of ALL training programs is to force adaptation to a specific stimulus. Your body IS a highly complex ecosystem that is constantly trying to respond to the external pressures of the world in order to survive.

Your gym activities are creating an evolutionary pressure that your body must learn to adapt to … that is, if you are working out correctly! Sadly, so many workout programs are just not providing the body with enough stress to honestly cause adaptation, and this leads to a lack of progress and total stagnation.

When you consistently create this kind of environment within which your body must thrive or perish, it will ramp up in response. And, in doing so, a whole host of unforeseen benefits will emerge, many of which you never could have planned for.

Science is only now starting to understand the myriad benefits of serious exercise done over the whole of a persons life. We honestly still don’t know all of the good things this obsession of yours is doing for you.

Growth Begets Growth: The Pat Mendes Bench Press Example

Obviously, when we talk about growth we mean this in a comprehensive way. It is NOT true that you will see your squat numbers grow exponentially! Duh …

That is the narrow and naive view. This way of looking at things (being overly literal) causes people to miss the larger point, and be unable to steer their progress correctly because of it.

Let’s take an example.

When John Broz, of Average Broz gym in Las Vegas, first met the young Pat Mendes (who is now the current national champion thanks to Broz) he knew that he had something special: a true diamond in the rough.

Unfortunately, like all rough diamonds, Pat was VERY rough! He could Power Clean a ton of weight, but it was ugly as sin. He could Squat a lot, but not a lot for a weightlifter of his size. And, of course, as a young high school kid, he was a little TOO obsessed with the Bench Press.

Pat was interested in what John was offering (coaching and a chance to be an Olympian), but he wasn’t convinced that the program John wanted him to do was going to get him there.

In case you aren’t aware, the John Broz method of training is more Bulgarian than Bulgarian – and has been a big influence on how I run my own training programs.

Basically it involves doing nothing but the Olympic lifts, heavy squatting, and some pulls. All heavy as sin, every day, twice a day. No breaks. No light weeks. Adapt, die, or quit. (I’m a tad more mellow than that, as I allow for a light week every 3 or 4. However, by “light” I mean that we only have to max out, no back-off sets.)

Broz also (like all Olympic lifting coaches) is obsessed with making sure that beginners learn proper technique. He didn’t allow Pat to touch a bar until he spent a month with just a stick learning proper form.

“The first pull can’t make a lift, it can only miss a lift if done incorrectly.” — John Broz

Imagine how a high school kid who is used to being the big man on campus must have taken all of this.

“I have to spend a month using only a broom stick? I’m going to do the SAME few exercises in the same way, every day, FOREVER? And you aren’t even going to let me Bench Press?”

Broz was making the hard sale, for sure!

Clearly, Pat’s progress on his squats was not exponential. He did go from a 220kg back squat to a 350kg squat in a little over a year. That is fantastic progress. But, it ain’t exponential.

But focusing only on the numbers on the squat bar is thinking too small. When you increase your squat by that much, guess what ELSE happens? You get much stronger in MANY other areas.

For Pat one of those areas was the Bench Press. After all that squat work, he was able to do an impromptu competition with his team mates on the Bench. They ended up easily benching 400# without issue …and Broz stopped them (they’re Oly lifters, and they only had squat stands to bench off of. Safety First!)

He hadn’t benched in over a year, and he could bench over 400# like nothing. Why, because growth begets growth.

What This Means for YOU

The Bench Press is a silly example. However it helps to explain an important point.

Get great at the back squat, and you get very good at a lot of other exercises.

Get great at the clean and the snatch and the same thing happens.

Get great at the BIG things, and the little things benefit without you even realizing it.

Lifters who do BOTH heavy squats AND the Olympic lifts make faster progress on both than lifters who only do one or the other. They create powerful feedback loops that feed into one another.

If you put your time and energy into the RIGHT exercises in the right way, then you will see the fruits of the Law of Accelerating Returns.

On the other end, if you put your time into piddly exercises that have no potential for compound growth, then you are wasting your time.

Don’t waste your time and energy on things that have no ability for compound growth!

No matter what the investment is – emotional, physical, your career – you must focus on those areas where The Law of Accelerating Returns can be applied. That is areas where the feedback loop of an Evolutionary process is in place and broad.

Little exercises like curls are not worthless, they can be beneficial for your shoulder health and ego if done right, but they are hardly the main drivers of your bodies evolutionary change, they don’t carry over to much else, and they have little potential for compound growth.

In contrast, major multi-joint movements that tax not only your muscular system, but your nervous system and cardiovascular system create massive feedback loops of progress that will lead you toward a level of advancement that you can’t even predict accurately.

Bottom Line: Hard work on the most important things creates feedback loops that build up onto one another and make you better at more and more things at an ever greater rate that expands out into areas you’d never have expected.

Figure out what the essentials are relative to your goals, and hammer the living hell out of them. You never know what kind of amazing rewards you’ll see because of it.

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