I’ve been a strength coach for nearly three decades, and over the years I’ve met many strong and highly successful athletes. Some have overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve their success, while others have great genetics or seem to have found the fast track to super-strength. But regardless of how these athletes became so strong, they almost always have five traits in common. Here’s what I’ve learned about these athletes so you can replicate their habits and see your own strength levels soar.
They value rest I recently had dinner with Ed Coan, the legendary world powerlifting champion. How good was he? He became the world powerlifting champion at age 21 in the 82kg division, winning by 63kg. In 1991, at 100kg, he totalled 1,090kg (436kg squat, 247kg bench, 409kg deadlift). When lifters faced Ed Coan, they were all fighting for second place. You might expect Ed’s core belief to be that you should train with Herculean intensity but the secret he shared with me is the exact opposite. He says one of the crucial parts of his training was plenty of rest, including a daily nap. He didn’t offer any peer-reviewed scientific papers to support his view but in his mind it was only common sense. ‘You don’t recover, then you don’t grow,’ he said.
They do what works for them I’ve seen athletes of comparable strength develop with different approaches. Some swear by short training cycles, some by long ones. Some like to ‘pyramid’ up and down their weights in a single workout, while others do several sets at peak weight. Despite these differences, there’s one trait they have in common: they’re ‘body smart’. If one training method doesn’t work, they try another until they find the system that works best for them. Through trial and error they learn the most effective ways to adhere to the principle of overload.
They choose a mentor A great bit of advice is to find someone who is successful and copy what they do. If you want to be a champion powerlifter, seek the advice of a powerlifting guru. And if you can’t visit mentors in person and train under them, read their books. Their results prove they know what they’re talking about.
They constantly experiment Every single one of the athletes I’m talking about tried many things to get stronger. This natural curiosity and willingness to experiment and take risks are important concepts. There’s no such thing as a single, perfect workout for everyone – every system has some effect and some work better than others. Experimentation with various methods is simply part of the training process. I find it frustrating to see so many coaches and organisations claiming they have the perfect workout system. No one system is the best for everyone. It’s essential to experiment to find out what works for you.
They’re great stress managers Successful athletes can see opportunities in unfortunate events or obstacles instead of the drawbacks. They’ve had setbacks, which they’ve used to improve. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘What does not destroy me makes me stronger’.
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Quick tips to make giant strides
Realise the importance of rest It’s easy to think you need to work out around the clock to get stronger, but rest is when you get better.
Listen to your body You are unique so what works for someone else may not work for you. Listen to your body: it’s the only gauge you have.
Keep experimenting Give a training programme time to work but if you don’t see results, move on. Experiment intelligently and see how you respond.
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One of the world's premier strength coaches, Charles Poliquin has successfully trained professional athletes and Olympians worldwide. Poliquin writes a monthly column for Men's Fitness about how to train as effectively as possible.