Come join me on a trip down the river mathematica… where biceps rule.
The Problem: Too Much Learnin’
There is a TON of advice out there on strength training. But how do you know what advice applies to YOU, and what advice doesn’t?
- Exactly how strong a squatter do you NEED to be?
- What kind of priority should strength be in your routines?
- Do you REALLY need to learn how to clean or snatch well?
- Which one? In what order?
The only way to know the answers is to first figure out what kind of an athlete you’re trying to be in the first place.
This post is here to help you figure that out via a fun analogy with my Geek friends in the world of science.
Given that I’m a weightlifter AND a mathematician, two facts are clear:
- The analogy has merit, even if only for .
- I really love chalk!
The Great Divide In Science: The River Mathematica
The sciences are split between the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences — which is largely determined by how much mathematics is required to do your science, and what level of math it is that you are doing.
- FAR EXTREME WEST — If your science requires only the basics, or none at all — You might need trig or to look up p-values on a chart (which you believe is called “stats”) — then you are in a soft science.
FAR EXTREME EAST — If your science requires serious proof-based mathematics — knowing algebraic topology, group theory, category theory, measure theory, or any mathematical subject who’s name has the word “theory” in it — then you might be a theoretical physicist, and in one of the “hardest” of the hard sciences.
Most scientists fall somewhere in the middle, leaning heavily toward one pole or the other.
The great divide in the sciences between “hard” and “soft” is so great that they almost never talk to one another at all — let alone relate to one another!
How Is An Athlete Like A Scientist?
Interestingly, athletes can be similarly categorized by how important brute strength is to their sport.
In this article, I’m going to push this analogy to the limit — partly for fun and partly for learnin’ — by categorizing both groups into 4 Types based upon their respective needs for more math/strength.
Of course, I could have used a totally different categorization scheme. But, I like this one because it focuses upon how much each group can RELATE to one another — personally.
Physicists, Mathematicians, Computer Scientists, and Electrical Engineers all feel quite at home together. They can go to each others conferences and fit in. They find, in one another, someone they can finally talk to about all of the cool stuff they are learning!
Yet, they all feel quite divorced from the world of Psychology and Political Science. It’s like a different planet on that side of the river.
Sports are easily divided between those that require little strength and those that require tons of it.
Powerlifters and Football Players feel more at home together than they do with distance cyclists or even CrossFitters — who do 20+ minute WODS as a part of their sport without batting an eye.
Contrast those long WODS with Football, where the average game has less than 5 to 10 minutes of actual playing time — TOTAL.
Or, consider that a 100 meter sprint takes under 15 seconds for someone who is slow. And that running a 400 is the longest you can run and call something a “sprint”.
To a powerlifter or weightlifter, a sprinter looks like a God-damned endurance athlete. You call 10 seconds short! Dude… that’s like, more than 3 reps!
I need a nap just thinking about it.
Terminology Alert: For Serious
I’m going to be (over) using the word “serious” in this article. I don’t mean it as anything other than a way to determine exactly how much a person prioritizes one thing in their life over other things.
Prerequisites For The Analogy: What IS An Athlete, Anyway?
I have 2 definitions of an athlete:
The strict version is worth explaining, but it’s not going to be the one we will use.
Strict Athlete Test: Health vs Performance?
Is your health or your performance (especially in the moment of competition) more important to you?
- You choose health: you are a fitness junky first, though you might be an athlete, too. There are a large number of things you simply will not do to increase performance — this is reflected in how you eat, how you train, how your structure your life, and how many hours a week you spend in training for your sport.
You choose performance: you are an athlete above all else — in the strictest sense of the term. While there are some lines you won’t cross, in most cases you pick doing what it takes to improve in your sport above health concerns.
If you are in the first group, you are more likely to be a psychologically healthy human being. I’m more likely to befriend you. And I will be more likely to recommend you to someone looking for a role-model.
The humans in the second group are nuts. They are more likely to get injured, and will do things (on purpose) to increase their rates of injury if there is even the smallest chance it will help them win the game.
They are also more likely to take steroids, at least consider taking steroids, take something “legal” that promises it works like steroids… get my point?
ALL top athletes in every sport are in this camp, which is why you should never be shocked when you find out your “role model” is taking something illegal. Duh! They’re an athlete!
Let’s not pretend Athleticism and Health are synonymous, nor that the people who are “hardcore” athletes are even remotely health-conscious. They might be, but, in my experience, it’s rare as hell. They are the opposite.
Health means almost nothing to serious athletes — other than something you talk about to make non-athletes think you are less crazy.1
CASE IN POINT: My gym is NOT called Asheville Strength & Health, it’s called Asheville Strength. I don’t say that to be “hardcore”, but to be honest. I don’t want to end up misleading someone. We are not a health club, we are a sports club… well, sometimes I think we are more of a coffee & doughnut shop.
Loose Definition Of “Athlete”
I’d rather not promote crazy. So, let’s use the less strict version of the word “athlete” to mean either:
- You compete in a sport.
- You train the way athletes train up to some level of “seriousness” that goes beyond what most people would consider “normal”.
- You find the idea of moving to Asheville to train at Asheville Strength & Coffee appealing 😉
That’s a far larger group. Sure, it’s more nebulous as definitions go. But, odds are, YOU are an athlete in this sense, not the strict sense. And that is probably a good thing!2
Let The Analogy Begin! The 4 Types Of Athlete/Scientist
NOTE: The percentages below are completely made up! But, it’s an educated guess based upon the people we work with in person, in seminars, and online.
Type A: 80% — Soft Scientists / Endurance & Skill-Sport Athletes
Academic Examples: Psychologist; medical doctors; political scientists; sociologists; anthropologists; strength and conditioning scientists; etc.
Basic Math:3 You might need calculus, some (very basic) statistics, and possibly some linear algebra. Most universities will not push you harder than that.
Advanced Math: None.
Athlete Examples: Everyone from CrossFit competitors to basketball players to runners to golfers fall into this group.
These athletes may not be much alike, but they all share one key thing: squatting 3-times bodyweight isn’t important… it may even seem like a weird thing to focus on.
Endurance, skills, or both come first.
Strength training exists largely to keep you from getting injured, not as a performance enhancer.
Type B: 19% — Hard Scientists / Power-Sport Athletes
Academic Examples: Biologists; most areas of geology and chemistry; some areas of physics, mechanical engineering, etc.
Basic Math Required: Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, more serious statistics and probability theory.
Advanced Math Required: Group theory, possibly some early level Real Analysis (even if only used as a “weed-out” mechanism).
Athlete Examples: Baseball, sprinting, football, lacrosse, rugby.
In the gym, this type of athlete cares far more about strength — because being stronger nearly always means better performance. It’s hard to find modern pro athletes in this group who are anything less than “fucking strong”.
Type C: 1% — Harder Scientists / Strength Athletes
Academic Examples: physicists; engineers; computer scientists; economists.
Basic Math: All the things.
Advanced Math: This is the only group, so far, that could honestly go to a Mathematics conference and have any idea what is going on. Topology, Real Analysis, Abstract Algebra are common enough to be done at the graduate level. And if they don’t get it there, they will probably just read it on their own.
Athlete Examples: Strongman, shot put, hammer throw, highland games, etc.
These ARE strength athletes, they just put strength to the test outside the gym, rather than with a barbell.
Your 1-rep-maxes are very relevant.
Type D: 1% of 1% — Really Hard Scientists / Barbell Athletes (Powerlifters & Olympic Weightlifters)
Academic Example: Mathematicians; Statisticians (not the same!); Theoretical Physicists; Economists (specifically in micro economics); Computer Scientists.
Math Required: As much as humanly possible, of all kinds. Math is no longer a means to an end, but the end itself.
This group often vastly prefers proof-based math to basic math. In fact, most of them disdain doing anything that looks like something that a calculator was built to do. Paradoxically, they are also often among the most mellow and artist-like of all scientists, as though they have come full circle.
Athlete Example: Powerlifters and Olympic Weightlifters.
Strength is the whole damned point.
Which Are You?
There is no right or wrong answer. But your answer will help you clarify what your training should look like.
- Basketball players need a lot of skills and endurance, but very little power compared to football lineman who need brute strength and power more than anything.
Marathon runners (on one extreme) need almost nothing but endurance (specifically, muscular endurance), whereas powerlifters (the other extreme) need almost nothing but shear strength.
All athletes need SOME of everything: marathon runners need to be strength training to prevent injury; powerlifters need enough (cardiovascular) endurance to endure the brutal hours and hours of training they are going to be doing.
But, a sport is a specialization by its very nature. That needs to be taken dead-for-serious if you are going to maximize your potential in it.
You can’t go around spending all your time becoming huge and buff and strong… if you are a distance cyclist!!!
Similarly, if you tell me you want to deadlift 3x your bodyweight, and you spend all your time running and doing CrossFit WODS, I will politely tell you that your head is in the clouds.
- CrossFit — as a sport — is slowly moving from Type A to Type B. The weights required for the WODS at the games keep going up, weeding out people who are not strong enough to do them. Of course, if they keep pushing this to its logical conclusion, it will cease to be CrossFit and become Strongman!
Yes. I used Type A to describe endurancy athletes on purpose as a joke. Type A personalities tend to pick Type A sports. I think it’s the go-go-go style that appeals to them.
Type D sports require you to sit around and … do nothing… a lot. That’s appealing to some, revolting to others (not unlike math).
I once had a mathematician friend of mine say:
I like math because I can do this (leans back in his chair, closes his eyes, and looks to be asleep), and be working!
— Jeme Brelin
Not sure if that is related, but it’s true, funny, and sounds quite familiar to a strength athlete.
Now go lift something heavy,
- FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m in group #2, the crazy group. While I never have taken steroids, I certainly spent years, when I was younger, seriously considering it. I’ve taken every “supplement” known to man over the last 20 years that was legal. And, I have NO moral problem with anyone who chooses to take steroids. At all. I think it’s a completely reasonable thing for a seriously athlete to do. I just don’t like the legality issues, or that it happens to be banned in my sport (they are not banned in all sports). But, that’s just me. I have many good friends who are “on”, and I think they are right to be. ALL of the worlds best weightlifters are on a fuck-ton of drugs. So, if you are super anti-steroids, you MUST either stop enjoying pro sports or change your attitude about steroid (and other drug) use. Anything less is disgustingly hypocritical. ↩
- I hope to be as well, someday 🙂 once I find that sanity-stuff everyone keeps talking about. ↩
- I didn’t invent the distiction between basic math and advanced math. In mathematics they are the standard way of distinguishing between non-proof-based mathematics vs proof-based math — The first kind is what you know exists: geometry, calculus, differential equations, (loosely speaking) statistics, etc. We also call it plug-n-chug math, because the point is finding an “answer” with a number at the end — The second kind is what mathematicians do. You are not using math to solve problems, but building math itself. Think of math as a tool. If you are a carpenter or a mechanical engineer or a rocket scientist then you are a tool user. Most people are tool users. Mathematicians are tool makers. ↩