‘Strong’ is Determined by the Size of Your Pond

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A friend of mine at the gym at school got sponsored not too long ago.  He does physique stuff (hasn’t actually competed, but is still jacked enough to pick up a sponsorship.  Pretty legit), so we come to a discussion with totally different paradigms.  He has helped me a lot with “feeling” muscles that don’t seem to want to fire properly, and I help him with approaching strength-based programming.  It’s a surprisingly productive relationship for a commercial gym.

He asked me simply how I handle heavy weights.  For him, he said, squatting much more than four plates feels like he’s dealing with a crushing amount of weight, especially in the hole, and pulling anything more than mid-400s feels intimidating in his hands when it breaks the ground. He was curious about how I seem so nonchalant when handling 500+, and how I keep progressing even when the weights feel heavy.  I gave him some basic advice about exercise selection (partials and supermaximal holds can help confidence under weight, and paused squats can make you feel much more comfortable in the hole when you squat heavy), and then also explained the truly important change that needed to be made.

Everyone knows the illustration of moving a goldfish to a larger and larger bowl.  Keep it in a little bowl, and it will stay small.  Move it to a larger bowl, and it will grow.  Put it in a pond, and it will grow even more.  You’re that fish, and your bowl is how wide you cast your gaze (metaphor time!).  If you want to be the strongest guy in your gym, that’s great.  Not a bad place to start, but also a pretty lousy end goal.  Unless you train at a true barbell club with multiple world-class lifters, in the weightroom of a college or professional sports team, etc., being the strongest person in the gym is pretty meaningless.  You’ve simply become the biggest fish in a tiny fish bowl.

Bench 315 in most gyms, and people will “oo” and “ah.”  Squat five plates and people will be astounded.  That’s one of the worst things that can possibly happen.  You see, you’ve cast your gaze pretty narrowly.  You’ve become the top dog.  If you’re the strongest person in the whole gym, there must be a reason everyone else isn’t as strong as you.  You must be pretty darn strong.  How much stronger can you get?  It’s hard to say exactly, but probably not much.  You’re the strongest person at your gym, after all.  You’re even stronger than that one guy who uses prohormones (or, *gasp,* a low dose of test from time to time).  It’s going to be difficult moving forward, to further cement your place as king of the hill.

Cast your gaze wider than that.  Let’s say you weigh about 180 – an average-sized dude.  Men your size have squatted 710, benched 556, and pulled 791.  So much for your amazing *cough* lifts.  Congratulations.  You’ve cast yourself from a tiny fish bowl into an ocean.  You’ve gone from being the biggest fish to being a painfully average-sized fish – which is exactly what you should want.

I honestly think newbie gains are 50% physical and 50% mental.  Sure, they have a lot of untapped potential for growth, but they’re also mentally playing “catch up” with everyone around them.  Here’s an experiment I’d like to do some day:  Take two groups of new lifters and put them both on the same training program.  One group trains in a commercial gym or lab setting, and the other trains in a collegiate football weightroom – when the team is actually lifting.  I almost guarantee the second group gets significantly stronger on the exact same program.  All over the Internet, you see people talk about finally squatting 315 or benching 225.  It happens at the gym I train at when I’m in school.  At a barbell club, doing either of those things means, “Congratulations.  You’re a non-midget who just hit puberty.  Pretty productive for your first 2 months of training.  Now let’s work toward something that’s ACTUALLY worth bragging about.”

When you broaden your gaze – throw yourself into the ocean – it sets you up to get stronger again, very quickly.  Odds are, if you’re taking the time to read this, you probably have been training for a while and you think of yourself as pretty strong.  You’re the strongest (or at least one of the strongest) of your friends.  You can show up most people in your gym.  You’d probably beat most of the people at a state powerlifting meet.  Forget it all.  How would you do head-to-head against Ed Coan in his prime?  Or Lamar Gant?  Or Dan Green?  Or Andre Malanichev?  Until you can honestly tell yourself that you’d be competitive (maybe not win, but at least be mentioned in the same sentence), you’re not strong.  The sooner you can get that through your head, the better.

Everyone knows about diminishing returns in the gym.  The stronger you are, the harder it is to continue getting stronger.  Until you’re at least kind of strong to begin with, though, gains come naturally.  The longer you can delay your assessment of yourself as a strong individual, the better off you are.  When people tell me I’m strong, I usually bluntly deny it.  It’s not feigned humility – a practice I have no respect for.  It’s the truth.  I really don’t see myself as very strong.  Not yet, at least.  Travis Mash, my first mentor, has squatted 804lbs, benched 550lbs, and deadlifted 804lbs raw.  Right now, that’s strong to me.  Until I take down each of those, I’m not strong in that particular lift.  Once that happens, Coan’s records are my next target, my next standard.

Will it happen?  We’ll see.  Objectively, it’s quite unlikely, but I wouldn’t keep training if I didn’t see it as a possibility.  As useful as it is to avoid hubris (the whole point of this discussion), it’s also important to avoid doubt.  So what if you widen your gaze, but doing so makes you throw up your hands and say “I don’t have a chance”?  No matter how crazy the goal, you have to entertain it as a possibility.  Imagine young Dorian Yates:

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What if he told you his dream of becoming Mr. Olympia?  You’d laugh at him.  And you’d have looked like a fool for doing so in hindsight.

Luckily, as corny as it may sound, HE believed he could do it, and ultimately that’s what mattered.

People who follow my writing will recognize this as a variation on a theme I like to bring up fairly frequently:  You limit yourself by having low expectations.  To bring this full circle and to tie it back into the original metaphor:  Throw yourself into the biggest ocean there is.  You may never become the biggest fish, but only by venturing there do you find out just how large of a fish you can become.

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12 thoughts on “‘Strong’ is Determined by the Size of Your Pond”

  1. This is a piece of gold. I don’t understand how this kind of psychological stuff is barely mentioned in strength training websites and youtube channels. It’s of the utmost importance. Please keep sharing this information.

  2. People at my office are surprised when I tell them I’m not strong at all; most of them don’t know anybody who can lift what I lift; but I’ve entered two strongman meets thus far, and I’ve actually seen guys outlifting me while still warming up. I know I can become way stronger than I am right now, but it will take more than a quick fix! I’m just starting out the journey. I’m very curious to see what will happen once I get rid of my mental barriers.

    One thing on overhead pressing = I’ve watched the 1956 US Weightlifting Olympic Try-outs on YouTube, and I’ve seen some 123- and 132-lb lifters getting 225 and 230 above their heads with no leg drive and just some lean back. I’ve watched John Davis — he then weighed 260, which is about my size — press 350. Why then should I let 225 be a mental barrier? It’s not even my bodyweight!

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