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Talent vs. Work: Part 3

While I had wanted to wrap this up today, it’s clear that this is going to be four parts.  First the quick SEO boosting summing up.  In Talent vs. Work: Part 1 I tried to start addressing the assertion that ‘hard work can overcome talent’ by first making a bunch of random introductory comments and then looking at how the concept of ‘talent’ (in terms of some innate ability whether it be physiological, biomechanical, neurological or otherwise) might manifest itself.

I was looking at this both in terms of the idea that people start out in a given activity with ‘more talent’ than someone else as well as with the idea that some people have higher overall potentials to training in terms of how well they adapt or what magnitude of improvement they get (and this seems to have a genetic component as well).

In Talent Vs. Work: Part 2, I looked much more briefly at the idea of work and what it represents.  I tried to make the often forgotten point that, talent or not, nobody but nobody gets to the top level of any field, sport or activity without putting in the work.  That is, even if they have some in-built talent or ability or even the genetic potential to be great they will never reach that potential without the work.  That is, rather than being some silly either/or situation where it’s talent vs. hard work, it’s always the combination.

This led me to look at the Talent/Work Matrix (YES, MATRIX!) where I developed 4 ‘categories’ of athletes based on the interaction of work ethic (high or low) and talent (high or low).  These were the thoroughbred (high talent/high work ethic), the prima donna (high talent/low work ethic), the workhorse (low talent/high work ethic) and the always gonna (low talent/low work ethic).

Today we continue with seemingly random and unrelated issues that tie into this topic just because I can’t apparently stay focused enough to just wrap it up.  First I want to go off on a semi-related tangent about how people seem to parse this topic when it gets brought up.


Don’t Stop Believin’

Invariably, no matter how clearly I try to get across certain concepts, someone will manage to misinterpret it and nowhere is this more clear than on this topic.  I suspect it’s as much about a psychological desire than anything having to do with poor reading comprehension: people don’t want to believe that there are any limits.  They want to believe that they can get as far as they want and reach the top so long as they just work hard enough.  It’s a very Puritan work ethic kind of thing, promoted by a lot of media and movies and stuff.

Rocky movies, Disney movies, most sports movies where all it takes is a 5 minute training montage to a motivational song (by a band such as Survivor or Foreigner or something in that oeuvre, Peter Satera and Bryan Adams are saved for the love theme and Kenny Loggins is best put at opening or end credits), a crusty mentor, a trick and an also ran becomes a world beater.  Oh if it were only that easy.

And make no mistake, I wish it were true too.  As much as anything, what drove me deeper and deeper into this field was wanting to be a better athlete than I was.  I was the classic workhorse, I didn’t have a ton of ability and I thought I could make up for it by working harder.  I spent most of my 20’s overtraining myself into the ground.  My constant obsession with nutrition, sports science, etc. was all in an attempt to eke out what I could performance wise.

But I’m getting way off topic.  I think people tend to respond negatively to the idea of some sort of in-built genetic limit because they simply don’t want to believe it.  Check the comments in What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential for a taste.  People don’t want to believe the realities.  Again, neither do I.  But what I want to be true and what is true aren’t always the same.  But somehow they manage to interpret my articles about this topic in one of two ways.

The first is that I’m just trying to piss on their parade or ‘hold them back’ by telling them that they can’t be what they wish they could.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I wish everyone out there had the potential, work ethic, etc. to be the best, to be 250 pounds and cut, to set world records, to reach the top. I also want a pony and for unicorns to exist.  But only one of those three ideas is real.  Hint, it’s the one that starts with ‘p’ and ends with ‘ony’.

The second is that they completely misinterpret what I’m trying to say: they confuse the idea that there is some upper limit that they can reach with telling them that they shouldn’t bother trying. This seems to be one of those weird either/or psychologies.  Either you’re first or your last, either you can accomplish every goal you ever wanted to without limits or you shouldn’t even try at all.  People seem to assume that in talking about a limit that can’t be surpassed, I’m somehow suggesting that they shouldn’t bother trying.  Which isn’t what I’m saying at all.

As I stated explicitly in What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential, talking about genetic limits is in one sense critically important and in another completely irrelevant.  Because until we can do easy genetic testing (and there are companies now doing this for sports performance), nobody knows ahead of time how far they can or might get.  You might have the potential to be the next Tour De France Winner, you might never make it to Category 3.

You might have the potential to get to 200 lbs of freaky lean muscle mass, or you may never be bigger than 165 lbs lean.  You don’t know until you put in the time and find out.  Just realize that statistically speaking, you are not likely to be one of the exceptions to the generalities of performance: that’s not what the word ‘exception’ means.  Most people in any activity will only achieve average performance levels because that’s what the word ‘average’ means.

Basically, the only real point of talking about limits is as a reality check.  To recognize that you do have a limit (even if you don’t know where it is) and that once you get there, you’re not going past it.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work like the dickens to get there or see what those limits are.  And how do you know where those limits might be?  Now it’s time to talk about asymptotes.



For those of you who didn’t pay attention to or simply sucked at high-school or college math (we call these folks liberal arts majors and I’d really like less foam on my coffee, thanks), an asymptote is a line that can be approached indefinitely closely but that you can never reach or cross. In college, me and my nerd friends developed the concept of the humor asymptote for example: it occurs when a joke is infinitely close to being funny but doesn’t quite get there.

Many things work on asymptotes.  World records are one of them and this is an example I bring up whenever people try to argue that ‘there is no limit to human performance’.  Because invariably when you graph performance over time you get a curve that looks something like the following:


Generalized Curve of Performance vs. Time


So, for example, if you graph the men’s marathon world record over the years you invariably see a rapid improvement early on with incremental improvements over time approaching the theoretical line.  Now, where that line exactly falls (for example, the guys at Science of Sport blog have an exhaustive post about whether or not a 2:02 marathon will ever be run) is often up to debate but clearly there is some upper limit.    And you can usually get a pretty good idea of where that line is based on real world performances.

I’d note that a particularly stupid idea has come out of this by graphic women’s performance in certain long-distance races; one research group has postulated that women will outrun men because their rate of gain is currently higher.  But that has more to do with women being on the steeper part of the curve since they got into sports (and marathons) significantly later than men.  Their performance improvements will flatten out too and their best will be the standard 8-10% lower or thereabouts that women’s records always reach relative to men.

For example, in all likelihood, nobody will ever run a sub 9 second 100m and here’s what I’m using to make this argument: let’s simply look at the rate of progress of the world record.    Ben Johnson ran 9.79 back in the 80’s.  Roughly 20 something years later, that’s been dropped to 9.58 by Usain Bolt.  So 20ish years to improve by 0.21 seconds or about 0.01 seconds per year.  The next 0.6 is stunningly unlikely to happen in any of our lifetimes.  Maybe when humanity evolves to beings of pure energy at which point the record will be 0 seconds.  Or possibly negative times if someone can build a time machine.  Runners will finish the race before they start training for the event.  Or are born.

For lifters, if you get bored, go compare improvements in the raw powerlifting records to geared to see how much all of that awesome new training is working.  Raw records have been more or less stagnant for years with only tiny improvements over time.  Where the numbers have jumped is in geared lifting because of what the gear (and untested federations and altered lift judging) allows.

The same can be seen in natural bodybuilding; just go to a show.  The biggest divisions are the 165’s with a few guys topping out near 200 lbs lean.  And almost nobody bigger than that or if they are they aren’t in shape.  In the pro ranks, well, Arnold competed at 220 back in the 70’s and guys are now coming in at 270-280 lbs in contest shape.  And it’s not due to hydrolyzed whey protein.

My point being that the same curve can be found in most sports with occasional big freaky data outliers where the records make some big jump.  Swimming is a recent one, records were shattered and pretty much everyone agrees it was due to the new suit.  The same thing happened in long-track ice speedskating when the Klap first came along; allowing skaters to finally use their calves, power outputs went up 10% and records fell.  And then the record improvement pace went right back to small incremental changes.  While it’s fun to focus on the exceptions, that’s all they are.   Focus on the concept here.


Now Let’s Talk About You

For any given individual, if we are talking about physiological capacities, there is some similar line that exists.  And folks will approach it similarly (many will note the similarity of the above curve to the graphic in Practical Programming for Strength Training) assuming proper training is performed (if you train like an idjit, you don’t get the gains).

So in the first year of proper training will generate the fastest results, the gains will be less in year two and by year three or four most folks have gotten most of the gains they are going to get; they will have to put in much more work to get much less gains.  Even if we accept that they only reached 90% of their potential by the end of year 3, it may take them the rest of their career to get the final 10%.

So while a newbie squatter may be adding 5-10 lbs per workout, an elite lifter may work for 12 weeks to add the same amount to their best lift.  An OL’er I met years ago told me his coach aimed for a 1-3kg improvement (that’s 2-6 lbs for the metrically impaired) at the end of a 16 week training cycle.

I’d note that the above only really applies to adults beginning a new activity.  Kids can show a different pattern because a lot of factors aren’t trainable until after puberty.  So a kid who starts a sport when they are 8 may see some type of rate of improvement that plateaus before taking off again after they hit puberty (except in those sports like girls gymnastics where puberty equals the end of their competition life).  Since I doubt many 11 year olds read this site, I’ll focus on the adults.

But the above is reality.  By about year 3 maybe 4 of proper training, in terms of physiology, you’ll be approaching your inbuilt limits assuming your training has been intelligent, etc.  Put differently, if you trained like a dum dum for 4 years, you may still get beginner gains when you start training properly.  But that’s because your real training age is 0, not 4 years.  So asssuming proper training, nutrition, putting in the effort, we can redraw my graphic from above with changed headings and this will represent how most people will improve in a given activity.


I still want a pony
I still want a pony


And this has an important real world consequence which is what I’ve been leading up to: if you are not already pretty close to the top folks in a given sport or activity by that 3-4 year mark, realistically you’ll never get there.  No amount of hard work, no amount of grinding is going to get you those last gains.  Because the gains you’re getting past that point are so miniscule.

Case in point, Lance Armstrong was already winning races when he was 16, Steve Prefontaine set some high school running records when he was 14-15 that (I believe) stand to this day.  I seem to recall a story, perhaps false, that Benedict Magnusson (one of two men to clear 1000 pounds in the deadlift) pulled 405 lbs his first workout.  Sure, he put in 10 years of work to double that but he started at a level that is above what many will reach.  They all started at a high level made good beginner gains and then ground out the rest over the years.

This was the point I tried to make in both Talent vs. Work: Part 1 and Talent Vs. Work: Part 2, guys who reach the very top invariably start at a higher level (i.e. they have some inbuilt talent), combine that with years of hard work (and usually an inbuilt ability to adapt to the training).  If you don’t start out at a similarly high level or aren’t in that small percentage who just get an absurd improvement to training, the simple fact is this: you won’t get there.

An example that may put this into a bit more real world perspective; one of the last times I had this argument was with a guy who maintained steadfastly that there were ‘no genetic limits’.  He had been lifting about 10 years and his squat was something like 500 lbs.  Make no mistake, a good squat, a big squat, a squat most would love to have.  And in his weight class the raw record was something like 800 lbs or maybe more.

I asked him, if after 10 years of hard training he was only at 500 lbs, when did he expect to get to the 800 lb mark or set a world record in lifting?  Let’s just say that I got no coherent answer from him (tho I did get some amusing personal attacks).  But by the time you are working for an entire year to add 1% to your results, the reality is that if you’re not at 99% of the world’s best, you’re not getting there.  EVER.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t stop improving competitively past the 3-4 year mark.  One notable exception to the improvement curve is in sports with very major technical demands.   With regular practice, technique can keep getting better or at least more efficient (this is a topic for another overwritten article series).  And you may see gains that aren’t quite what the curve would predict.  I saw this during my time in Salt Lake City as outlined in the No Regrets series: in year 5 I was back on the beginner performance curve but only because my corner technique had finally clicked in.

Of course, sports aren’t just determined on physiological factors and folks often keep improving their competition results (at least within folks that are at a similar performance level to them) through improved tactics, racing smarter, better equipment.  But again this only really applies when you’re comparing folks of similar performance levels.

But now I’m getting into what I want to finish with on Friday so I’ll cut it here.

Read Talent vs. Work: Part 4.

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