Black Swans & Strength Training

For many years scientists and poets were convinced that all swans were white.  A black swan was even used by some poets as a metaphor for something that would never happen.  This was fine and worked brilliantly until an entire species of swan was discovered here in Australia that was entirely black.  The simple discovery of this huge number of black swans rendered the previous theory null and void, whereas all of the previous confirmations were not adequate to prove the previous theory correct.

Based on this idea that one cataclysmic and unpredicted event has the capacity to dramatically impact the state of things, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book encouraging people not to put their heads in the sand, but rather to approach problems in a way that allows them to deal with unexpected events in such a way that those events don’t destroy them.

Obviously, given the nature of this site and what I do, I naturally reflected upon the book’s implications for strength training.  This article is my opinion on how you can take a black swan, and either avoid the issue entirely by avoiding the risk, or mitigate the damage by creating a resilient or more preferably an “Antifragile”, system.

What does a black swan look like in a fitness environment?

According to Taleb, there are both positive and negative black swans. These are events with unlimited (for all intents and purposes) upside or downside.  The closest thing I could think of to a positive black swan was Steven Bradbury’s speed skating gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.  He was able to take advantage of two exceedingly rare events where the leaders of his race crashed together, allowing him to skate on by. This got him through his semifinal and then won him the final.  In terms of everyday people and everyday events though, I couldn’t think of any positive black swans related to fitness (If you’re able to, please let me know in the comments below or on the facebook page!).

Unfortunately, in the fitness arena, negative black swans are much easier to come by.  When I think of negative black swans, surprising events with an incredibly significant downside, I think of injuries.  Any significant injury that makes it so that you can’t train or so that you can’t do the things that you love doing for an extended period of time is going to have a significant negative impact upon the goals that you joined the gym to achieve.

You’d think then, given that there aren’t any obvious big wins to be had today, but there is the definitely potential to have a super negative outcome, that people would be doing whatever they could to ensure that they avoided these negative events... right?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Let’s pretend you earn 100 training bucks per session and 500 per week.  This is the currency that allows you to train.  If you go bankrupt, something in your body will break (the severity of the break is completely random - could be a sore shoulder, could be a fully loaded barbell to the skull (ouch...).  For a lot of people, when they visit the gym, they try to spend their entire training budget.  They will go from exercise to exercise exhausting themselves completely.  For them, a great session is when they leave the gym having spent every buck.  After all, sweat is just weakness leaving the body, right?

This is all fine, except that every now and then, our body will incur an unexpected debt. Maybe because of stress at work or poor sleep our body doesn’t have its normal capacity.  What’s likely to happen then?

What happens when you’ve spent all your training bucks and your attention diverts for a moment to the cute guy or girl who walks past in the tight shorts/shirt?  It’s in these moments that not having a reserve results in a bankruptcy, and a potentially nasty one at that.

This can happen to any of us regardless of how careful we are because, unfortunately, that’s just the way things go.  However, the tips in the next section will help you to limit those events, and give you a reasonable insurance policy just in case you manage to bottom out unexpectedly!

Grey Swans

So how do we shift our training away from these dreaded black swan events that could potentially derail us for a long time, ruin our quality of life, and sabotage our goals?

How do we take our black swans and turn them into grey swans (events that hurt but that don’t cripple us or even derail us significantly) or avoid the mishaps completely?

Mark Rippetoe famously said that “strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general”.  It goes beyond that though. In Scott Iardella’s book The Edge of Strength, he references a study of over 9000 men between the ages of 20 and 80, which concluded that strong men were significantly less at risk for death from all causes - even accidents and the like.  In other words, people who were strong appeared to be better equipped to deal with any challenges life threw at them, whether it was sickness, accident or injury.  That’s a crazy correlation...

I think that it goes beyond just getting stronger (and how do you even do that anyway? - I’ll give you an idea of that soon, but it’s probably not exactly what you think).  I’m firmly of the opinion that moving better (which probably correlates to strength as well) is a key ingredient to better health as well.  Regular readers are used to me harping on about Original Strength, but it really is incredible how efficiently OS helps people to improve their quality of movement and their ability to enjoy and control their bodies.

Original Strength improves people’s quality of movement - thus diminishing the risk of black swan events - by improving how their brain talks to their body, and how their body moves in concert with itself.  So applying a system like OS where the vestibular system is activated, the midsection is activated, and the hips and shoulders are tied together, will make you stronger, more resilient, and less likely to get hurt or put out of commission.

The getting stronger part - this is surprisingly simple for most people.  Lift heavy, lift often, but avoid finding your limits at all costs.  Always leave reps in the bank.  In other words, if you can lift a weight 10 times, don’t lift it more than 8-9 times.  If you can lift it 5 times, only ever lift it 4.  If you get tired, or the next rep isn’t going to happen beautifully, don’t do it.

Strength trainers draw a distinction between technical failure and absolute failure.  In a bench press, technical failure is when you can no longer crisply follow the most efficient line or maintain optimal body posture, absolute failure is when the bar comes crashing down while you squeal for help from anyone nearby, or you just can’t complete the rep.

There are reasons that people will push towards technical failure, but in general, for strength training, or recreational lifting (read not getting a medal or a paycheck because of your lifting) you don’t need to mess with it as it’s not the most effective for most goals and it greatly increases your likelihood of running into the fabled black swan. Good examples of this type of training are the Rite of Passage from Pavel Tsatsouline’s Enter the Kettlebell that utilises a kettlebell you can lift 5-8 times, but takes a while to build up to lifting that bell five times in a row with a clean between each rep, and only does it with heaps of rest.

The final thing which is related to avoiding technical failure, but that I wanted to highlight separately - listen to your body.  If you don’t feel good after you’ve started your session, back off.  If something doesn’t feel right, rest! If it’s not getting better or feels really wrong, see a professional therapist.  Don’t be silly, you’re not winning anything today but you might lose big...

Some More Practical Examples

I mentioned the Rite of Passage above, which is a brilliant example of a simple sustainable plan, but there are many.  Justa singles, Pavel’s 40-day plan that Dan John has written about extensively, Geoff Neupert’s KB strong, and any number of plans from his Kettlebell Express series, really, there are a huge number, but the key thing is the avoidance of failure with a relatively heavy weight.  This allows you to create a physiological response without necessarily hammering your CNS (which programs that ask you to consistently get ‘one more rep’ can often do).

Here are a couple of simple examples though to get you started:

Ladders - find a weight that you can military press 5-6 times and lift it in a ladder of once, twice, three times for five rounds.  Attempt to reduce the time you take to complete this sequence over the course of two weeks and then retest how many times you can press the weight.

For time - set a timer for 20 minutes, grab a bell you can press 5 times, and press it for as many sets of 2 as you can in 20 minutes. Geoff Neupert has some great programs where he adds squats in alongside the press in his ebook Kettlebell Express.  This is a great plan!  So you can match your squats to your presses.  You could easily do presses and squats one day, then two days later do double presses with your 5RM double press bells and add farmers walks, and then two days after that do 3 presses with your original bell alongside squats again.  A couple of weeks of this will sort you out but avoid failure.

Use your breath! - If you know how to breathe diaphragmatically then it can allow you some interesting ways of pushing yourself while avoiding failure.  Pick a simple, safe exercise that you can push yourself on a little bit - I like crawling or GMB’s ‘monkey’.  These are nice because technical failure is pretty obvious with them.  Your goal with this idea is to go as far as you can with beautiful technique while you maintain your diaphragmatic breathing.  When you start gasping for air or you can’t breathe with great control, then it’s time for a rest (I’d recommend half as long as you were working for - that should be plenty of time for you to regain control of your breath). Perform that five times in a session twice a week for three weeks and you’ll notice some interesting improvements in your body.

These examples are fairly ad hoc, but you should be able to see the threads.  We are avoiding our limit, we are listening to our body, and we are prioritising technical excellence over bodily fatigue.  If you can internalise these ideas, you are stacking the deck in your favour and minimising the likelihood of running into that terrible black swan that ‘bankrupts’ all of your training ‘gainz’...