Strength Does Not Guarantee Knowledge

This article is going to ruffle a few feathers.

Hell, it would have ruffled mine a few years ago.

There is a (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) assumption that a bigger, stronger lifter or bodybuilder inherently knows more about training than someone smaller or weaker.  Or, if the relationship isn’t inherent, it’s assumed that there’s at least a strong correlation.

Sure, not everyone believes it, but I’d wager it’s a hefty majority.  How many times does someone post an article or a video by a strength athlete or bodybuilder that contains something demonstrably inaccurate, or a lift performed in a more dangerous fashion than need be, and as soon as someone comments that they’re wrong, a dozen people jump down the detractor’s throat with cries of “Well what do you know?  You’re tiny!” or “Well if he’s doing it wrong, why don’t you lift that much weight and show him how you’re supposed to do it!”

I’d like to politely disagree with this sentiment.

And no, I’m not the typical small, weak nerd who just reads about lifting on the internet all day without actually touching a barbell.  If so, you’d have every right to write this off as a bit of self-serving pandering to my fellow small, weak nerd friends.

Rather, I’m a fairly large, competitive powerlifter (I’ve held all-time raw, drug free world records in two different weight classes and am currently a hair’s breadth away from netting an 800 pound squat) who happens to also be a nerd that discusses lifting on the internet in between crushing myself in the gym on a regular basis.

If anything, I’m writing this to my own detriment because I’m one of the folks who ostensibly benefits from the myth that being big and strong automatically means you know what you’re talking about.  And that’s why I feel like I’m the person who needs to say it.

At the heart of my disagreement with the current paradigm:  the massive variability in genetic potential.  This is a subject that still needs more research (but then again, what doesn’t?), but the current literature contains examples as extreme as people increasing their muscle mass by 60%, while others gain no muscle whatsoever on identical training plans.  Interestingly, this variability doesn’t just extend to muscle hypertrophy – in response to aerobic training, some individuals improve their VO2max (the primary measure of aerobic power) substantially, while others don’t improve one bit.  Here’s a great research review on the subject if you want to geek out a bit.

Stepping outside the lab if that’s not your schtick, let me throw a pertinent example at you.

Feast your eyes on these two guys.


If they walked up to you in the gym, or jumped in on a Facebook argument, would you automatically shut up and listen, or approach what they said with extreme skepticism because of how they look?

If the former, congrats.  You fall in line with almost every world class strength athlete and coach on the planet.

If the latter… you just wrote off Drs. Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky.  Their book “Supertraining” is still often regarded as the best book about strength and physical preparation ever written.  The work of these two men effectively represents the foundation of modern strength and conditioning and academic research into physical enhancement.  They are held in the highest regard by researchers and in-the-trenches coaches alike.

Is there something to be said for learning by doing?  Of course.  But remember the bit about genetics earlier in this article (and I’m not even going to wade into the minefield that is ANY discussion about steroids…)?  I’m usually going to heed the advice of an athlete or coach with 30 years under the bar over of a 20-something lifter or bodybuilder who may be a much better physical specimen.

It is my opinion that someone who has to incessantly demean others and claim superior knowledge just because they’re bigger and stronger than someone else is, in all likelihood, uncomfortable about how little they actually know, so they have to fall back on their physique or lifting skills to cover up their lack of knowledge.  As soon as people start being taken seriously because of qualifications other than how they look and how much they lift, this person knows that he’ll no longer be taken seriously, and his insecurities are fighting against such a shift in paradigm.

So, here are some tips to actually find legitimate sources of information and true experts.

1. Have they coached people to a high level in the pursuits in which you’d like to excel?

Want to become a great bodybuilder?  For my money, I’m going to talk to John Meadows or Shelby Starnes instead of Ronnie Coleman.  Sure, Ronnie may be the one with the Mr. O titles, but in addition to being a top-level bodybuilders themselves, John’s and Shelby’s 9-to-5 is turning other bodybuilders into freaks.

Furthermore, I’m going to heed the advice of Boris Sheiko about powerlifting over any of today’s top level powerlifters.  Sheiko was a good lifter in his own right back in the day, but he’s also the man behind the juggernaut that is the Russian national team.

2. Are they held in high regard by other people who know what they heck they’re talking about?  Smart people rarely gravitate toward fools.
3. Do they have a relevant degree?  Preferably an advanced degree (I’m enrolling in a Master’s program in the spring.  I’ll be the first to say I learned a lot in an undergrad exercise science program, but not much that’s going to contribute hugely to a discussion of elite performance – mostly just underlying mechanisms)?
4. Do they walk the talk?  And if so, for how long?

You learn a lot simply be being under the iron and fighting for progress.  The guy with “meh” genetics that clawed his way to a 500 pound squat over a decade probably knows more about squatting than the guy who dunked 5 wheels within his first year or two of training.

5. Last of all, what have they personally done?

Some athletes are really savvy, sure, and they’ve been so invested in their own training that they haven’t coached a bunch of other people.  But SIMPLY being strong and jacked is no guarantor of knowledge about training.

More than anything, look for someone who has quite a few of these things to their name.  If they were a pretty good athlete in their own right, got formally educated in the training process, spent time coaching, and are highly regarded by their peers – Bingo!  Someone with 3 or more of these factors to their favor is probably someone worth listening to.  But someone who can lift a house and has veins in their abs… if they don’t have much else going for them, approach what they have to say with caution.

If you want to learn how to improve your training, and if we collectively want to elevate the conversation in the fitness industry as a whole, stop and think before you run after someone for advice ONLY because they bench a house or have striated glutes; stop and think before you put someone down because they’re not as big and strong as so-and-so who looks big and shredded in his YouTube videos.  There are other indicators – and better indicators – that someone is an expert.  Seek people out with true expertise, and you’ll do nothing but benefit from it.

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