At the end of the film Rocky III Apollo Creed says to Rocky in a bit of back-and-forth trash talking, “you fight great, but I’m a great fighter.” You will hear this term a lot in sports. An athlete plays great, but a different athlete is a great player. A runner that runs great vs a great runner. What is the difference?
I know when I first watched Rocky III and heard that, I was confused. To help explain this difference, let us take a trip back in time when Brad was a race car driver. Specifically, a Circle Track Stock Car Racer.
When I first took to the track, I was hardly a natural. I could drive in circles, but I could not drive fast, nor was I smooth. Getting around cars and passing? Forget it. I would lose control and sometimes crash when I tried. It was only through frequent, diligent practice, a lot of reading books, and talking with other racers that I developed my skill and ability. It took time, but I got rather good. I eventually thought I was a fast driver.
However, it was not until I got on the track with my late Uncle that I realized the difference between myself and a real fast driver. My uncle was a natural; he was a fast driver. There was a reason he was famous in our small town and earned the nick name “Sneaky Snake.” In this one race, the only race I ever participated in with my uncle, we were driving cars that were driven on the street only a few weeks prior. It was what was called a “jalopy endurance race”: winning was determined by a combination of the last cars running and the state they were running in.
I was a late entry and I had to start in the back of a 40-car field. Like I said, I was fairly good. Even driving a hand-built Frankenstein car with parts from different manufactures (it was a Chevy Impala that I stuffed an Oldsmobile engine into), I was able to easily drive through the field and pass a dozen or so cars.
Then, I pulled in behind my uncle.
I knew where I needed to steer my car, when to apply the brakes, when to pick up the throttle; I essentially knew all the things you need to do to drive fast due to my research and practice. However, after half a dozen or so laps, it became apparent that my uncle did not need to know that stuff to succeed. Instead, he just did it.
I could not get around him, even though my car was slightly faster. Heck I had caught up to him, so I knew I was faster, but he was so smooth. I decided to just follow him and as I did, we were faster. We were passing cars more efficiently, many times it was the same cars that we were now lapping! What was crazy, is that it felt like we were moving slower together than I was moving alone before. That is when I came to know the difference between myself, a guy who raced fast, and my uncle, a fast racer.
Fast forwarding to today, I have experienced this phenomenon a hand full of times in different endeavors. Wrestling/Jiu Jitsu, riding snow mobiles and motorcycles, and now, lifting. Early in my coaching career, before I was an online coach when I was on the floor of the gym I owned at the time, I learned that most folks fell into 3 different categories. The first category consists of folks who started off lifting the same way I drove: in circles. It starts kind of ugly. Like Bambi learning to walk. However, with time and practice, they get better and look the part. The second category are the rare folks that just never get it. They always look like Bambi on ice. Finally, the third category is just as rare: the folks that just get under the bar, and they are darn near perfect the very first time.
The first category is by far the most common, so when it comes to bodybuilding, most folks will have an experience like mine in racing. Through tons of experience, practice, and research, they’ll learn the in the trenches skills that will get them quite far: they’ll learn to target what muscle(s) they are trying to work in any given set while keeping good form, being able to perform consistent reps until that muscle(s) fails (or when they reach the target RPE).
However, there are those rare individuals that do not need to learn how to train the muscle they intend to work. They just do it instinctively, all the time. Most of the times these folks do not even know that they have this attribute and therefore, have trouble explaining what it is that they do differently.
A good illustration of this is my good friend Jeff Alberts. When you watch Jeff lift, he just does things differently. It is very hard to put your finger on what exactly is different. He is just so smooth in his lifting and very consistent. Dare I say that he almost makes it look easy, even though he pushes so hard. Like when I was following my uncle, despite feeling like we were moving slower, we were getting around the track more efficiently. Likewise, his lifting is just so…efficient.
I imagine when Jeff first started lifting that he was the type that did not need much coaching. When it came to the squat, he probably just got underneath the bar and was able to do smooth squats like he had done them before. Unlike myself, who looked a bit like a fish out of water when I first started squatting, but got better with time, experience, knowledge, and practice. So, I am sure now the questions arise, where am I going with this?
To be clear, while some are “naturals” true champions are made when naturals build on top of their natural foundation. Jeff probably started off with more natural athleticism to his lifting than I did, but instead of just relying on natural talent, he’s applied relentless effort perfecting it over the years. The result is what you see when you watch him lift: consistent form, despite training at an exceedingly high intensity, while somehow, impossibly, making it look easy.
Over the years I have come to realize that I might never look like him or lift as naturally as he does. I had to actively learn what was for him, instinctive.
However, what I can do is learn from him and emulate the hours he’s put in on top of his starting point, even though it was further along than mine. I will admit, I am a fan-man of Jeff, but not only because of his talent. Jeff has put thousands of hours into perfecting his craft. While I may not be able to instinctively lift as naturally as he can, I can put relentless effort into perfecting my craft. I watch every one of his training videos he posts on Instagram. In many cases multiple times. Even if I cannot necessarily pinpoint any one thing that I can apply, I simply watch to train my brain to emulate him.
Watching Jeff, and a handful of other athletes I consider to be among this rare breed, is part of my journey to better myself. We all have different ways of learning and different strategies and I am sure anyone reading this might have a different system of learning from these instinctive lifters. If so, please share your experiences and strategies by commenting on this blog. While we cannot suddenly become naturals, we can always improve from where we are now by learning from others.