Written by Greg Nuckols
Lots of ink has been spilled covering the nuances of strength training. Everyone has their own pet program, favorite accessory exercises, mobility drills and warm-ups they view as essential, and the list goes on.
However, as fun as it is to discuss new ideas and approaches, let us not forget that LOTS of people have gotten strong doing a LOT of different things. What I want to do with this article is elucidate some of the threads that tie great strength athletes together and set them apart from the crowd.
You’d be hard pressed to find a great strength athlete that regularly misses training sessions. If anything, most go the opposite direction: training like mad men when they’re sick or injured rather than taking time off. The difference between a good lifter and a great lifter can easily be that one builds their life around training, and the other builds training around their life. Look at how many top lifters are gym owners/trainers/coaches or some other job that allows them virtually unlimited gym access. Then look at how many are doctors, lawyers, or work some other job that makes great demands on their time and mental resources. Obviously there are exceptions, but the rule stands. It’s hard to get better, let alone become great, when you’re never in the gym or too stressed to focus on your training: simple as that.
I’ve never met a great strength athlete who didn’t think they had the ability to be the best. Sure, some people have their façade of humility and self-deprecation, but you don’t become the best by accident. You don’t think you’re average, and then randomly wake up a champion. At some point, the switch flips and you realize, “Wait a second. I see what the best of the best are doing. I think I can be better than that.” I’ve seen talented athletes wither when their bodies’ ability to perform caught up with their mind’s artificial limits. Great athletes always think they can be better until they’re proven wrong.
3. Training Rather Then Testing
Great lifters know that big lifts aren’t built on a diet of testing. John Q. Gymbro may like maxing on bench press every week, or pulling a max deadlift then walking out of the gym, but that doesn’t cut it if you want to be great. You have to hit a lift with high frequency or a lot of volume, or do plenty of accessory work to bring up weaknesses to continue progressing past a certain point. All programs that regularly produce great lifters follow this rule. Let’s just look at a couple programs that seem to defy it. The Bulgarian Method: Daily maxes epitomize testing a lift over training a lift, right? Well, not so fast. The weekly volume of the Bulgarian Method is actually quite high, even if you’re just working up to a daily max and stopping (7 days of warm-up sets adds up to a lot of reps). Furthermore, the means of progressing when you stagnate on daily maxes is to add drop-back sets of 2 or 3, building up to copious levels of volume. The Westside program, specifically the Max Effort method, seems to not fit this rule as well. However, in addition to the ME and DE work everyone knows about, the program is also built around doing absurd amounts of accessory work, and the common prescription to fix weaknesses is EXTRA accessory work aimed at those weaknesses! The net result is a lot of training the lifts in addition to regularly testing the lifts. Testing isn’t inherently bad; it’s only an issue when it’s done at the expense of overall training volume.
4. High work capacity
I’ve heard it said that the lifter who can train the hardest, the most often, tends to be the strongest. I could not agree more. Building upon the previous commonality, the training you do for your lifts has to continually increase in volume. Look at deadlift programs from guys like Lamar Gant, Ed Coan, and Konstantin Konstantinovs. The volume they entail is mindboggling. On a similar note, it’s entirely unsurprising the Juggernaut Method tends to be so effective for such a broad swath of lifters. The volume in the first few weeks builds a base for a big peak. Building the ability to do, and recover from, a lot of work is simply something most average lifters forget, but most great lifters prioritize.
Watch video of any great strength athlete, and you’re sure to see someone with stupidly strong and functional hips. If you are already good at incorporating your hips into your lifts, fine. If you need direct glute work to bring them up to snuff, fine. Either way, strong hips accomplish two things. They keep you relatively injury-free by decreasing your risk of a back injury or a pec tear because you lift things by creating hip torque with your butt rather than hyperextending your lumbar spine or straining your hamstrings. They also increase the force you can apply to a weight, and the speed with which you can do it. Shoot, many NFL and college scouts will recruit an offensive lineman solely because he has a huge butt. Great athletes have great hips. Simple as that.
6. They Are Masters of the Mundane
I have to steal this phrase from my mentor, Travis Mash, because it’s just so good. Great strength athletes do what they have to do to get better. If they need more mobility work, they do more mobility work. If they have weak hamstrings holding back their pull, they do more hamstring work. If they’re training hard, they sleep more. If they need coaching, they seek it out. They get the calories and macros they need to fuel their training. This is the point where many athletes with the potential to be great end up being left by the wayside. Everyone can train hard, smash weight, and take part in the fun parts of strength sports. Great athletes pay just as much attention to the less fun parts that make just as big of a difference.
True, genetics isn’t a habit, but it had to be mentioned on a list like this. Someone like Lance Armstrong, with all his dedication and attention to detail, would have never been a world record squatter. To excel in his sport, he simply could not have had the fiber type distribution necessary to excel in strength sports. In addition to fiber types, there are numerous genetic and morphological (which mostly trace back to genetics) factors that MUST be in place for someone to reach the pinnacle of their sport. That being said, if you attend to the first 6 points in this article, someone with average genetics can become very good, and someone with good genetics can become great. The best two or three people in any sport will always be the freaks that happened to pick the right parents (AND worked for their results), but can a guy win a Strongman show without the best genetic draw, place well in weightlifting, or crack the top 20 in their weight class in powerlifting? Definitely.
No matter what path you take to the top, don’t think that you’re the special snowflake. While I’m sure everyone can think of exceptions to these rules, they hold true for 95%+ of top-caliber strength athletes. If I were you, I’d want to learn from their successes instead of your own errors – errors that could easily be prevented if you cultivate these habits in yourself.Greg Nuckols is finishing a degree in exercise science, and coaches athletes at Mash Elite Performance during the summer. He holds several all-time drug-free world records in the 220 and 242 classes in powerlifting. Website, Twitter