Barbells and Bell Curves, Part 4: Outliers, Bias, and Noise
5 min read

Barbells and Bell Curves, Part 4: Outliers, Bias, and Noise

Honest effort requires an honest assessment. Or, perhaps, the inverse is also true.
Barbells and Bell Curves, Part 4: Outliers, Bias, and Noise
Photo by Ian Schneider / Unsplash

Let's conclude this series with a discussion about outliers, so called "exceptions", bias, and noise.  Fitness is a noisy industry.  There's a lot of BS floating out there that doesn't mean anything and is surprisingly terrible at making you "fit" for any task.  Unfortunately, "health" has become equally biased.

70/30 or 90/10?

This entire post-series has been geared towards manipulating margins to our advantage.  If you're this far into it, there should be no question if you're in the:

  • 90% average
  • 5% worst
  • 5% best

Why?  Well, if you have to ask, you're probably in the 90%.  If it's never dawned on you to ask, you're probably in the 5% worst.  Ironically, the 5% best don't ask either, they just keep going.

The 70/30 Principle:

(1) 70% of people need to spend 70% of the time doing the thing they want to excel at.
(2) The best / worst 30% (15% worst, 15% best) at an activity would likely see benefit from up to 70% supplemental (strength and conditioning) training.
(3) 70% of our (sport specific training time) should be spent on the (15%) highest-reward or (15%) lowest-risk activities.

The 90/10 Principle:

(1) When your strength and conditioning is better than the top 10% in your field, you can spend 90% of your time focusing (only) on your field.

That last one requires continual re-evaluation.  If you didn't hit the relevant strength / conditioning benchmarks within the past year, they don't count.  Not that the work can be taken away from you, but what you did / lifted 5 years ago is irrelevant to performance this week or this month.

Usta-could-ers don't make it to the top 5%, let alone stay there.  So, one year to cover all 6 movements / attributes I've outlined seems fair – approximately one two month block for each per year.

To recap, we've gone from:

  • Focusing on The Thing until we didn't need to (minimum standard > game changer > diminishing returns), to
  • Being so good at other things that there's no reason not to focus on the thing.

If you're hitting the "cut off" in all of those numbers in each domain, you're roughly keeping pace with an average amateur cyclist and amateur weightlifter in addition to your specialized sport-specific skills.

User Bias and Outlier Bias:

Steph Davis | climbing and wingsuit legend

Steph Davis is well know as one of the most legendary climbers, free soloists, and base jumpers of all time.  She's also an adamantly "hardcore" vegan.  This isn't a nutrition post, so the discussion probably isn't going where you're thinking – that's for another time.

What I want to point out here is that "going vegan" isn't going to magically make you level up to Steph's climbing ability.  Likewise, she would still be well above the 5% best climbers if she started eating meat again.  This is called (healthy) user bias.

By contrast, unhealthy user bias, is a term that refers to poor lifestyle choices that confound and cloud your blame for lacking performance.  Don't blame the training protocol I gave you for "not working" for the damages of your daily 6-pack but Bush Light.

Steph also falls into a category of what I call "high performer bias."  Many, many athletes perform at a very high level inspite of rather than because of their nutritional habits.

Spot the: vegan, steroid user, McDs loyalist, and animal-based dieter

This is another picture I like to share to illustrate the point.  If you can't pick out the matching game I outlined in the caption, here's the spoiler:

  • Competition GSP: loved McDonald's before fights
  • Competition Arnold: obviously drug assisted
  • GSP Now: animal-based diet
  • Arnold Now: calls himself "vegan"

Whilst nutrition has obviously health / longevity impacts; it's far from a perfect correlate to performance – as indicated by the examples above and countless others.  Again, would GSP have performed better if he had eaten better?  We'll never know.  The point is we do know what he did eat, and how he did perform.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Back to you.  Since your "skin in the game" is unquestioned by now, you can be trusted to put in a solid effort with randomized workouts (e.g. Crossfit style WODs).

You're also at a level where training will need to be highly specialized.  So, you're going to need to use what you've learned rather than ask me for a program.  Alright, I'll concede... some.

  • What sport specific movements can I emulate in the weight room?
  • Am I still meeting all the "cut off" standards? (within the past year)
  • What is the best use of my time?

That last one we talked about in Part 3.  Perhaps all your on-field training is "light" because you know it's much easier to measure and increase "hardness" off-the-field (i.e. in the weight room).  Or rather, the better use of on-field / on-mat time is technical development with training partners / tools that are otherwise not always available (you can lift any time, but practice is at 3:00 pm).

Or, perhaps you adjust a split that looks like:

  • Sport-Specific Training: 4 days / week
  • Maintenance Lifting: 1 day / week
  • Olympic Lifts / Crossfit: 1 day / week

Now, I would NOT just do some random Crossfit-type workout.  I would seek coaching and consultation, or at least focus on a specific attribute to develop (e.g. work capacity, strength endurance, power, etc.) and focus on sessions developing that area for a month or two, as we did with the foundational moments in the strength standards.


The tools are out there.  You have to use them, and you have to be the one to put in the time.  Essentially this comes down to:

  • knowing yourself
  • pushing yourself

The spoiler for the whole series is:

  • 70% of people should spend 70% of their time training "the thing" they want to get good at.
  • The 15% worst and 15% worst at a given activity will likely see benefit from inverting those ratios.
  • Beware of outlier and user biases.
  • Sort through the noise.
  • Avoid injury.
  • Keep pushing forward and stop looking back / around to compare yourself.

Honest effort simultaneously requires and begets honest assessment.