It was the summer of ’77. Ostensibly the unofficial start of my career as a fitness trainer. My parents, being both cool and wise, allowed me to use a corner of their unfinished basement as a gym. The cool part is that they allowed me to use the space, and the wise part was that it was a great way to know where the teenagers were. So, in the space between the laundry area and the furnace, I set up what was a pretty awesome fitness hangout. There was an old couch, a weight bench, those silver plastic barbells that I had gotten for Christmas, an official Jack LaLanne bodybuilder spring with handles (I still have that!), a pullup bar, a home-made punching bag made out of my dad’s Army duffel stuffed with old blankets, and a record player for all the classic 70’s vinyl that we played during workouts. I’d invite my friends over and we would hang out, rock out, and work out, in varying amounts. At their requests, I started writing up workout programs for the group based on each person’s individual sports or bodybuilding (the main emphasis amongst this population) goals.
As I was training, and helping my friends with their programs, I began to take notice of an interesting, yet obvious, phenomenon: Some people were better at some movements than others. More specifically, every person could do a few exercises very well, a number of movements fairly “average”, and except in the most gifted among us, a few things that had a lot of room for improvement. For example, every time Jimmy (real name) got off the bench press, we had to lighten the weights for everyone else. Jimmy was so good at doing the bench press that he was in another league from the rest of us. Yes, he did have a little more muscle mass (relative term for sure) in his chest and shoulders, but that alone didn’t explain his high level of performance on the bench. It was then that I realized his arms were several inches shorter than the rest of us, and this created a distinct mechanical advantage (due to lever length, I would later learn in biomechanics class) in the exercise. This, among several other things, was Jimmy’s gift. He was “made” to do that exercise and I realized that we all had some feature that was a true strength.
Flash to the present, and Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein published “The Sports Gene” (2013). This was a fascinating read, which delved into the biological, evolutionary, and sociocultural factors relating to athletic excellence. Epstein reported that performers at the highest level across all sports must have the right opportunities, the highest work ethic, and an ability to respond to training. But of equal importance is that each sport typically has one identifying characteristic amongst its greatest, and this is usually a physiologic (e.g. visual acuity in the best baseball hitters) or anthropometric (e.g. Achilles tendon length in high jumpers) trait that is significantly greater than both the general population, and good, but not great, performers in each sport.
And just recently, in the February 28th, 2016 edition of ESPN Magazine, “The Analytics Issue”, an article highlighting the NBA’s use of analytics on the body, for training, draft selection, and statistics recording was released. Featured in the article was the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard, who is a league MVP candidate, and All-Star. Leonard’s wingspan at 7’3” is the largest in the NBA relative to his height, and it is precisely this arm length that Epstein isolated as the single most important trait for basketball success in his book. Additionally, the NBA, and the Spurs, are applying the best sports science available to develop Leonard’s career, elevate the already astronomically high level of play in the league, and hopefully vie for a championship title.
The point behind all of this information is that everyone among us has physical gifts that “fit” into a specific sport, activity, or exercise program. At TLB, I always try to help a client find their strengths and learn how and where to apply them effectively. We also focus on getting each person to feel good about his or her own unique set of skills or gifts, and appreciate those of others. When we really make the exercise program “fit” a person’s gifts, the end results are always higher. That is, higher satisfaction with the training process, higher level of outcome, and higher rates of injury-free existence. Learning and applying your strengths helps you to have more fun, get more results, and not get hurt. In a future post, I’ll discuss the relationship between strengths and weaknesses in training and competition.