Barbells and Bell Curves, Part 2: The Good and The Bad

Part 2 of a statistically driven approach to level up your training! Get stronger, train smarter, perform better!

Barbells and Bell Curves, Part 2:  The Good and The Bad
Photo by Clark Tibbs / Unsplash

In Part 1 of this series I recapped statistics terminology and discussed the basic concept of The 70/30 Principle – do the thing.  Before we go further, let's expand on another aspect of The 70/30 Principle.

First, we had:

(1) 70% of people should spend 70% of their training time doing the thing they want to excel at.

But, what about the other 30% of people?  Alas, this is where I derived the tiered benchmarks in my own strength / conditioning standards:

  • Expected: If you can't hit this, you're in the bottom 15%
  • Game Changer ("bang for your buck"): Clearly above 50% (average) and flirting with the top 15% at  least in a few attributes.
  • Cut Off ("point of diminishing returns"): Strength, conditioning, etc. aren't your problem any more.  Likely around 1.25 standard deviations above the mean.  You're going to have to cut into your primary training time ("the thing") to pursue this attribute further.

Hopefully, you're starting to see the second definition of The 70/30 Principle take form:

(2) The best / worst 30% (15% worst, 15% best) at an activity would likely see benefit from up to 70% supplemental training.

The Good and The Bad:

Remember the bell curve from Part 1?  15% of people are going to be more than one standard deviation below the mean (average), and 15% more than one standard deviation above.  

The 15% Worst:

These folks' ability to perform at their chosen activity is likely being help back by some lackluster general fitness attributes.  Spending 70% of their training time until they hit a "minimum standard", or what I've called an "expected" benchmark, might be a good idea.  This might mean losing a few pounds, doing a few pushups every day, walking more than to the mailbox, etc.  

Or, maybe you're not particularly out of shape, you've just never done anything athletic before.  No judgment.  Everyone has to start somewhere.  You just happen to be below the "minimum standard" and it's your coach / trainer's job to help get you there – or as high up the chain as you're willing to go.

The 15% Best:

This one is a bit more tricky.  The 15% worst probably know who they are regardless of how long it takes them to admit it.  In contrast, the 15% best are usually the types of people who aren't measuring themselves by "standard" deviations.  Rather, they are the deviant, I mean, don't you have to be to truly excel at something?

At any rate, these folks have likely put years into The 70/30 Principle (1) and basically have worked it until it stopped working.  Again, brutally honest assessment is critical – you might as well set a high bar for yourself because no-one else cares.  Less harshly, you might want to experiment with 80/20 or 90/10 ratios and see if you can't shake loose that plateau.

If you're really convinced you've made it this far, recall that the "expected" benchmark tracks nicely with the 15% worst athletes.  Our 70/30 ratio falls apart a bit here as I think the "game changer" benchmark I laid out would lose it's kick if it were merely "average" (or the top 50%).  Rather, I'd suggest that it's closer to that 15% best mark, or about 1 standard deviation above average.

The "cut off" benchmark might land you somewhere in the 90th percentile or 10% best (+1.25 SD).  This is a level where specifics matter and heuristics fall apart, so forgive my inexactness.  If you're in the top 10% of your activity, you need someone better than me to coach you.  However, if you suspect you may be close, what we can do is look to pursue the top 10% of a specific supplementary attribute (pushing, pulling, hinging, squatting, power:weight ratio, aerobic capacity).

This is where we have to be disciplined and come back to do the thing(!).  Are you trying to be a professional cyclist and a professional grappler?  Are you trying to win a power lifting meet or not gas out at your next wrestling tournament?  In other words, the measuring stick starts to slide.

The standards I've set loosely correlate the "cut off" benchmark (e.g. point of diminishing returns) with the performance level of moderate to advanced recreational athlete within that discipline.  How many competitive powerlifters do you know who are also competitive cyclists?  Exactly.

The point is that I can maybe keep up with a recreational rider for at least 20 minutes (compared to his 60 minute ride) and the powerlifter (in my weight class) at least won't be warming up with my 1RM.  In the mean time; recall that I don't even spend half my training time doing those things combined!  What happens when the same cyclist or lifter steps on the mat / court / field with me or you?

Tertiary Training and Outliers:

These topics will get covered in future parts:

  • Going further than the top 15% (Part 3)
  • Outliers and Bias (Part 4)

However, I want to plug a quick word here.  "Tertiary training" consists of things that don't directly contribute to our performance, but can be helpful, and often done "off the field/mat/court" – that is, they don't (have to) contribute much to our overall training volume.  You could also think of this as mental training.

Think of things like:

  • Film, instructional, or competition study
  • Nutrition education
  • Sauna / ice bath
  • Mobility work

Some of these slip into the "longevity" category more than "performance", but they're not irrelevant.  Remember, we want to do the thing and keep doing it!  What's the one sure thing that will absolutely not help your training?  Getting injured and not training!

All of those things are great, though, we have to be clear what we're talking about.  Let's be absolutely certain that "health" and "fitness" are not the same things.  One can be medically healthy and not "fit" for a given task and, as we'll look at in Part 4, one can be quite unhealthy and still exceedingly fit for a given performance.

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