Barbells, Bell Curves, and Do Diets Matter?
4 min read

Barbells, Bell Curves, and Do Diets Matter?

What / is there a point of diminishing returns for nutrition, conditioning, and strength training for sport performance?
Barbells, Bell Curves, and Do Diets Matter?
Photo by Victor Freitas / Unsplash

The Cultured Warrior #043

Does nutrition, strength training, or conditioning matter for sport performance?  I've been working my way through the Lex Fridman podcast episode with Gordon Ryan, Georges St-Pierre, and John Danher – all very smart, very talented people – and this has broadened interest in a topic I've often thought about.

TLDR; I'm working on a post series called "Barbells and Bell Curves" and reviewing ranges of minimum standards and point(s) of diminishing returns relating to nutrition, strength, and conditioning in the context of sport performance.

Gordon Ryan is, by far, the best grappler of his generation and at the ripe age of 26 is already in the running for greatest of all time.  In the podcast he makes reference to what I call The 70 / 30 Principle.  This is something I'll explore further in the above mentioned post series, and have talked about in the past as well, but essentially you need to spend 70% of your time focusing on the thing you want to perform (well / excel) at.

Photo from Jiu Jitsu Times

More astonishingly, and he's said it before, John asserts that there's "no significant way to increase VO2 max."  Now, that's clearly bollocks as runners obsess over it as cyclists to do wattage and lifters do with kilograms.

I think John is far too smart to take this statement at surface value.  What I think he's trying to articulate (in context) is that it's really hard to make significant changes to VO2 max in a short period of time – e.g. a 4-8 week training camp before a fight.  The exception being if you pursue that attribute at the expense of your primary (70%) skill set.  This is a terrible idea unless of course conditioning (or running and rowing!) is the thing you want to perform at!

All of this elucidates some more important aspects that I'll be sussing out in the future.

  • How do you know what to focus on?  
  • For how long?
  • Who benefits from what volume / distribution of training volumes and mediums?
  • What are / how do we establish "investment" benchmarks like minimum standard, game changer, and diminishing returns?

Believe me, I'm expecting to get plenty of hate mail about this; but the fact of the matter is that if your diet is (apparently?) creating a significant increase in your performance, it (diet and / or performance, you decide) was trash  or at least below 50% "optimal" to begin with.  Enter a statistics mini-course...

Photo from

A "Bell Curve" or "Standard Distribution" helps understand not only healthy user bias in medical literature, but also what I'm going to call high-performer bias in sport.  See that 2.5% on either side of the picture above?  That represents the 2.5% best and worst (collectively 5%), athletes that are 2 standard deviations above / below the average (mean).

If we're talking about Gordon and GSP (think MJ, Kobe, Brady, Woods level for those unfamiliar with BJJ/MMA), we're talking about at least 3 standard deviations, the top (or correspondingly bottom) 0.13%.  Go ahead, listen to the podcast above and note what Olympic level athletes and UFC fighters actually eat!

Again, I'll go into this in more detail in Barbells and Bell Curves, but remember that evaluating GSP's UFC titles on his (now) animal-based diet is like comparing Arnold Schwarzenegger's (now) "80% vegan" diet to when he was competing.  Sorry, Paul Saladino, much love brother, but we gotta call a spade a spade here.

Real quick, let's play a matching game.  Send the above picture to someone and ask them which person is on a "vegan diet", an "animal based diet", a "McDonald's diet", and a "steroid diet."  Travis Stephens, a training partner of GSP and Gordon under Dan, infamously ate McD's before judo matches, because "I can't count on always having good food available in other countries, but McDonald's are everywhere."  Oh ya, and he won a silver medal!

In closing, let me also say that John does mention in the podcast that nutrition (like strength training) may contribute to the longevity of an athlete.  This is, indeed, a very important thing – assuming you enjoy the sport / activity you're competing in and want to live longer / enjoy it longer.  However, it is not necessarily the same as performance, or better stated by Tim Grover, ...winning.

Until next time,


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