There’s no such thing as isolation in training or in life. Everything you do, have done, and will do, affects everything else. Success is a synergistic – not additive – phenomenon.
To illustrate this synergism, I’ve come up with 28 factors that warrant consideration if you want to be as successful as you can possibly be. Not that nobody will ever attain perfect synergism and, in turn, optimal performance. This list should only serve as a guide to determine where you can improve when your physique or performance improvements stop dead in their tracks.
The factors are divided into three categories: those over which you have no control, moderate control, and complete control.
Category 1: Factors Over Which You Have No Control
1. Genetic Factors
We might as well go ahead and get this one out of the way. There’s nothing you can do about your genes. Sure, the era of genetic manipulation is fast approaching, so feel free to atone for your own shortcomings by designing your own mutant kids with freakish strength, size, webbed feet, and randomly placed nipples.
In the meantime, it’s best that you spend less time complaining about your natural fiber type distribution, single nucleophilic polymorphisms (SNPs), limb lengths, and muscle insertion points. This time would be better spent planning your training, nutrition, and supplementation strategies to overcome these deficits.
2. Childhood Environment
Behavioral patterns are established at a young age, so what your parents encouraged, condoned, or reluctantly permitted have profound impacts on where you are today. Did they encourage exercise? More importantly, what did they feed you? It goes without saying that those who ate unhealthy foods constantly in their youth experience lasting negative physiological consequences.
In other words, if you ate a lot of Humpty Dumpty when you were little, you’re more likely to look like Humpty Dumpty when you grow up. Heck, with all the trips to Burger King I made as a little porker, it’s amazing that I never got stuck in the slide on the playground. Is it any surprise that to this day I don’t respond all that well to carbs?
The author as a child. (Okay, not really.)
Childhood environment also includes pre-natal factors such as maternal nutrition (and potentially drug abuse) and fetal positioning during pregnancy, as well as post-natal issues such as nutrition, positioning of the infant in the crib, and even the manner by which the child acquires new skills such as walking. For instance, significant coordination problems can be present for extended periods of time if a child doesn’t learn to crawl before walking.
3. Time of Year
You’ve probably noticed that your improvements in the gym don’t come in a linear fashion. Rather, they may come in bursts here and there, often with different seasons. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has actually been described for centuries, but not until recently did it receive the attention from the medical profession that it deserves. Even if you haven’t been clinically diagnosed with the disorder, it’s fair to assume that almost everyone is affected to some extent by the seasonal changes.
Beyond just psychological health, SAD or pseudo-SAD can definitely play into your progress in the gym. In those affected, the problems start in the fall, peak in the winter, and gradually resolve as spring rolls around. While many people simply refer to SAD as “being stuck in a rut” or “having the blues,” symptoms may actually be more extensive: depression, inexplicable fatigue, increased need for sleep, fat gain, and carbohydrate cravings.
Ever wonder if those who opt to bulk in the wintertime are just trying to rationalize the poor dietary habits they anticipate? It’s speculated that light therapy can lead to favorable outcomes, so it would appear that the problem is more an issue of fewer daylight hours than actual weather patterns. Then again, we’d all be lying if we said that going to the gym in two feet of snow and trying to lift when your feet are frozen didn’t bother us.
You can’t do much about the time of year, but you can certainly look to other controllable factors (e.g. light exposure, inserting novel training approaches into your program to keep it interesting, removing junk food from your house, and increasing energy expenditure through exercise).
4. Chronological Age
Except in rare cases, the older you get, the less overall training stress you can handle. This is true from both volume and intensity standpoints. Joints break down, endocrine function is compromised, recovery time is prolonged, and body fat increases while muscle mass decreases.
While there’s nothing you can do about your age, you can take several actions to partially counteract the effects of this aging. The nature of these actions may be supplemental (Alpha Male), pharmacological (hormone replacement therapy), exertional (reducing frequency of high volume and high intensity training, incorporating restoration techniques), or nutritional (decreasing overall caloric intake, changing macronutrient composition).
Well, I suppose that you could have control over this one if you were really motivated. For those that aren’t interested in such endeavors, you’ll have to recognize the differences between males and females and learn to live with them.
Females not only have fewer muscle fibers, but their type I fibers are naturally larger than type II fibers (proper training can change this). They also display subtle differences in muscle pennation angle. This alteration negatively affects power.
Endocrine issues predominant, though. While females have higher resting growth hormone levels than males, men more than compensate for this shortcoming with testosterone levels that dwarf those of their female counterparts.
Oh yeah, last but not least: boys have penises, girls have vaginas. Are we all still on the same page? Please note that I’m awarding a gold star to anyone who noticed the shameless reference to an Arnold movie.
Just for reference purposes, this is what scientists refer to as a “female.”
6. Morphological (Somatypes)
Generally speaking, most people can be categorized as an ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph. Interestingly, these categories weren’t a product of the research of an exercise scientist or physician; rather, William Sheldon, a psychologist, created them in the 1940s based on his studies of the photographs of over 4,000 college-age males.
Sheldon sought to associate body type and temperament, and wound up associating ectomorphs with being slender, lean, quiet, and reflective; mesomorphs with being muscular, athletic, vigorous, and enthusiast; and endomorphs with being heavier, altruistic, and in love with eating (yes, they got a raw deal). It’s important to note, too, that you rarely see these somatypes in pure forms; people are usually a blend of two.
These classifications don’t play much, if any, role in modern psychology, but they have endured in their influence on how individuals approach exercise and nutrition. There’s reason to believe that our genes and natural temperament directly affect our personalities. These factors may in fact be further reflected in our body type and the behaviors that ultimately influence that body type.
Nonetheless, a lot of people will probably give me a hard time for even mentioning this factor, so I put it last. With that said, mesomorphs rejoice, endomorphs quit complaining, and ectomorphs keep quiet and eat – or just ignore me altogether. There isn’t anything you can do about it now, anyway.
That concludes the “out of your hands” section of this discussion. What’s done is done, so you’d be better off seeking ways to work around any shortcomings you have in this regard. With that in mind, take thirty seconds to complain, swear, or flat out bitch about how bad your genes are. Likewise, those of you who’ve been blessed with a favorable genetic profile, gloat for this time period. You can even do a little dance.
All done? Good. You should never make an issue out of these factors again.
Category 2: Factors Over Which You Have Some Control
7. Biomechanical Factors
Tendon attachment points, muscle belly length, and overall limb length are factors that are outside of your control, and they’ll certainly affect your ability to develop a freaky physique and achieve success on certain lifts. However, there’s quite a bit that you can do in your own training to make sure that you’re working at your own peak biomechanical efficiency.
Most notably, by balancing your training volume appropriately, you ensure that an appropriate length-tension relationship is maintained. This length-tension relationship is important not only in neuromuscular proficiency, but also in terms of maintaining proper posture and preventing and rehabilitating injuries. For more detail on the length-tension relationship, please see Neanderthal No More, Part I.
8. Endocrine Factors
Levels of circulating hormones are genetically determined and affected by circadian rhythms, but lifestyle factors play as large a role in where your endocrine status positions you in the catabolic-anabolic continuum. Beyond just issues of what’s circulating, one needs to consider receptor density (androgen receptor density is increased with resistance training, for instance) and the amount of hormone that’s unbound (free to exert a biological effect).
Very simply, if your blood work doesn’t look so hot, you need to consider training, nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle factors before you start complaining about how you “picked the wrong parents.”
9. Current Living/Working Environment
You only have so much control over where you live and work, as you can’t very well ditch your family or quit your job just because they aren’t conducive to lifting heavy stuff and looking good nekkid. From job and family stress, to the presence of junk food, to highly active occupations (e.g. construction worker), you need to minimize the negative effects of these environments on your psychological and physical status.
For some, relaxation techniques may be valuable. For others, it may simply be an issue of bolstering willpower or avoiding eye contact with “forbidden foods” altogether. Or, the construction worker may need to rearrange his training split and closely examine his volume and intensity in light of the timing and nature of his work responsibilities.
10. Psychological Mindset
I don’t know how to put it nicely, so I’ll just come right out and say it: some people are just pansies. In their defense, it may be genetic or the product of how they were raised. I couldn’t tell you for sure, as I haven’t studied enough psychology to qualify as an expert. I can, however, guarantee you that many of these individuals will de-pansify (yes, that’s a Cressey-ism) when exposed to the appropriate stimulus, be it a new training environment, lifting partner, goal, or program.
Willpower, or lack thereof, also falls into the psychological mindset. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people can gain it (I did), and some people never seem to get their act together. Whether it takes hypnotism, constant affirmation, or brutal beatdowns from “concerned” friends and relatives, do what it takes to establish good habits based on willpower.
The lifestyle factor is a broad one indeed; it basically includes everything you do 24/7. In mentioning this category, I’m hoping to demonstrate that there’s a lot more to life besides training and eating. All this “other stuff” may seem unrelated, but it has a profound impact on your progress.
Do you compromise sleep quantity and quality by staying out until the wee hours of the morning? Do you awake naturally, or do you verbally and physically assault your alarm clock each morning? Can you find ways to relax, or are you constantly stressed? Can you find a balance among social interaction, training, family obligations, and work responsibilities?
We all like to think that everything is under control, but when it really comes down to it, each and every one of us could do things to improve in this regard.
12. Acute and Chronic Disease States
You may not be affected by one of these now, but what you do certainly can increase or decrease your likelihood of dealing with something potentially serious down the road. You might be able to get away with eating junk now when you’re young, but bad habits can easily lead to long-term problems. Another example would be poor balance in programming; it might not affect you right away, but you’ll be subjecting yourself to injury in the long run.
If you’re presently dealing with any sort of acute (e.g. cold, flu, headache, muscle sprain or strain) or chronic (e.g. type 1 diabetes, arthritis, lower back pain) condition, you’ll need to adjust your training, nutrition, and supplementation approaches accordingly.
13. Intrinsic Motivation
Some people just “have it.” While “it” may be tough to truly define, your best synonyms would have to be the “fire” or the “drive.” Some are born with it, and others can gain it through experiences, but the vast majority of people will never know what “it” is.
You can see it in any number of ways, but I most commonly see it in the eyes, fingertips, and the spring in a person’s step. When I think of “it,” the first thing that comes to mind is watching an accomplished triple jumper I knew prepare to squat. The guy would pace and twitch, his eyes as wide as they could get. When he finally got up to the bar, even his set-up just screamed “explosiveness.” He looked like he was about to jump out of his socks. The guy seemed to just smoke any weight you could throw at him.
I’m sure that there were a half-dozen other athletes in the room at all times with the same physical abilities as him, but they either lacked the intrinsic motivation in the first place, or just chose not to use it.
14. Extrinsic Motivation
Extrinsic motivation is a bit more under your control, as it refers to motivation that you’ve acquired, often in an acute sense. Extrinsic motivation may refer to a training partner yelling a cue or encouraging word during your set.
Likewise, touching a working muscle (tactile facilitation) is a form of extrinsic motivation, as it can help with the mind-muscle connection and optimize firing patterns. For instance, touching the quads during a supine bridge forces them to contract isometrically, thus taking the hamstrings out of the movement (via reciprocal inhibition) and shifting the majority of the emphasis to the gluteus maximus (the intended target). Having a training partner touch the side of the glutes (stop giggling) can improve a lifter’s ability to fire out of the hole on a squat. And placing an object between the shoulder blades on rows provides feedback to get the scapular retractors working optimally.
Extrinsic motivation may also be related to the placebo effect of an ineffective supplement you’ve taken, or to effects of another pre-training supplement that’s actually doing its job (e.g. caffeine, Spike).
Collectively, these factors explain how performance can be markedly improved acutely. It’s no wonder that the difference between training and competition maximum may be as much as 10%!
15 and 16. Metabolic Tendencies and Muscle Fiber Types
These factors are grouped together because they’re closely related. Some individuals will be naturally “programmed” for endurance exercise. These folks will be highly proficient with the aerobic energy systems due to a predominance of slow twitch fibers. Match them up with the right training programs and they’ll be the best cyclists and marathoners.
On the other hand, there are those blessed with great strength, speed, and size potential due to a predominance of fast twitch fibers and tendency toward anaerobic metabolism. These are your high-level sprinters, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and bodybuilders (usually). Most people will fall right in the middle of the aerobic-anaerobic spectrum. Note: For info on the metabolic, contractile, and morphological difference between fast and slow twitch fibers, see my Cardio Confusion article.
Training dramatically influences a person’s natural tendencies, though. Endurance exercise can cause a shift from fast to slow twitch fibers and improve your aerobic capacity at the expense of size, strength, and speed. In fact, all training corresponds to a shift toward a slower-twitch profile to some extent.
Conversely, resistance training can actually impair your aerobic capacity if capillary density is decreased as a result of excessive muscle hypertrophy. Frequency, intensity, duration, and modality of training must all be taken into account when considering how one training approach will impact overall metabolic tendencies and fiber distribution.
17. Training Age
Charles Poliquin went into great depth on this topic in his recent article, Manipulating Reps for Gains in Side and Strength. Understand that the longer you’ve been training, the better you’ll respond to lower rep ranges. Additionally, from an experience standpoint, more time under the iron equates to more lessons learned through trial and error and, in turn, a better knowledge of what’s trash and what’s treasure in training programming.
18. Training History
While training history and training age are obviously intimately related, they aren’t one in the same. What you’ve been doing for all these years plays a crucial role in dictating where you stand and what you should be doing to continue progressing.
Chronic endurance training may improve your ability to eat enough carbs to sink a battleship without fear of fat gain, but it’ll negatively affect testosterone levels, therefore making it difficult to gain muscle mass in a chronic sense.
Conversely, if you’ve been lifting for “all show and no go” for several years, I don’t like your chances of being successful as a marathoner (or any kind of athlete, for that matter) without a complete shift in training focus and a substantial amount of time for a change to occur.
19. Training Equipment and Accessories
These implements can really make a huge difference in how quickly you progress, so they warrant a lot of consideration. On one hand, the equipment your gym has is outside of your control…or is it? You always have the option to change gyms (see below) or, if financially feasible, set up your own home gym. Some of the strongest guys in the world got that way by tossing iron around in their garage, you know!
There are also various implements that you can use to improve performance in certain lifts and promote safety. They include bench shirts, squat suits, wrist straps, wrist wraps, knee and elbow sleeves, chalk, baby powder, and even regular ol’ athletic tape. This effect is transient and is limited by your financial status, gym rules (ugh!), and powerlifting federation regulations (e.g. double vs. single ply suits and shirts).
20. Exercise Timing
The time of day at which you train is also of considerable significance. Due to work and family obligations, we may be limited to training at a few times of day. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize how circadian rhythms relating to various factors affect our ability to optimally perform at certain times of day and optimize our body compositions. In this regard, Armstrong (2000) presented the following data (1):
Daily Peaks in Factors Affecting Athletic Performance
Time of Day
Blood Catecholamine level
Blood Cortisol Level
Speed and Accuracy of Motor Performance
Maximal Ventilation (breathing) Rate
Lowest Fatigue during Maximal Exercise
Peak Esophageal (core) Temperature
Maximal Oxygen Consumption
Eye-Hand Tracking Control
Adapted from Armstrong, 2000.
Time of day is also significant with respect to injury risk potential, as there’s a diurnal variation in spine length due to the in- and outflow of the fluid within the intervertebral discs. At night, while you’re lying horizontally and the spine isn’t loaded, fluid enters the disc; when you wake up and start moving around, fluid begins to leave the disc. By the end of the day, you’re actually shorter!
Oddly enough, you’re safer in the “short” scenario. The increased fluid content present when you first wake up is associated with increased stiffness of the spine when you bend (because the discs have expanded). Because the muscles can’t just adapt to compensate for this alteration to spine length, the discs and ligaments take on more of the stress.
Body temperature is also lower upon rising, so range of motion (ROM) is compromised even further. As the day goes on and you move around more, body temperature increases and the fluid flows out of the disc, improving ROM and reducing ligament stress. McGill (2004) noted that in the morning, disc-bending and ligament stresses during forward flexion were 300% and 80% greater than when performed later in the day. Moreover, lumbar flexion ROM increases by 5-6° during this same time period (2).
Basically, you need to give your spine at least thirty minutes in the morning to “wake up,” and I’d prefer that you wait at least three hours to train. This recommendation is largely based on the increase in body temperature that you experience in this time. The data from Armstrong presented above actually shows that maximal grip strength and body temperature peak at approximately the same time of day (~4PM). Speaking anecdotally, this is the time of day at which I seem to have my best training sessions. This would obviously be influenced by how early in the day you arise, though. If you’re up earlier, this time would likely be shifted forward a bit.
Psychological stress relating to time of day (e.g. training after a long day at work, dealing with rush hour traffic or crowded gyms) may become an issue. Finally, for those exercising outside, pollution and hot weather may be problems with which to contend. Under these conditions, it’s optimal to run in the morning or at night, but not at mid-day.
Category 3: Factors Over Which You Have Complete Control
21. Training Environment
You can find strong, focused people with whom to train, or you can frolic around with the housewives in your local foo-foo gym. Which option do you think is going to more favorably impact your progress?
If your gym isn’t up to par, you have all the power in the world to find a new place to lift. Likewise, if those with whom you lift aren’t taking it seriously, you can either ditch them, or insist that they get with the program. Don’t let them hold you back!
22. Exercise Modality
You have several options, including resistance training, anaerobic and aerobic energy system training, agility work, shock training (incorrectly called “plyometrics”), proprioception drills, dynamic flexibility movements, and static flexibility techniques. It’s important that you understand how each of these modalities either facilitates or impairs progression to achieving your goals.
Aerobic exercise may help to increase energy expenditure and increase insulin sensitivity, but if done with the wrong intensity, frequency, and duration, it can impair gains in size and strength. Resistance training can increase size and strength and improve bone density, but it may aggravate existing musculoskeletal injuries or exacerbate existing postural abnormalities if done improperly, and impair performance if utilized excessively in-season.
Dynamic flexibility improves dynamic range of motion and optimizes performance acutely and chronically, but can be problematic if used in excessive volume as part of a warm-up. Static stretching may improve muscle tonus, improve the length-tension relationship, and reduce the risk of injury, but it can reduce force production capabilities acutely. Shock training can improve reactive ability and strengthen tendons, but it can also lead to stress fractures and tendonosis.
Very simply, if you’re going to do something, you should be able to explain without hesitation the rationale for doing it.
23. Nutrition Factors
Everything that you put into your mouth puts you one step closer or further away from your various goals, regardless of whether they’re performance, physique, or general health in nature. Beyond simple food choices, this category encompasses pre/mid/post-training nutrition, hydration status, adequate micro- and macronutrient intake, meal frequency, and appropriate nutrient timing.
Yes, I actually listed supplements after food! This ordering is in stark contrast to every overzealous teenager who blows his allowance money on NO2 to try to get “all veiny” when he’s still eating fast food three times a day.
Don’t get me wrong, there are several effective supplements out there. They just need to be exactly that – supplements to proper diet, nutrition, and lifestyle. Learn to separate the treasures from the trash.
A periodized program will always top a non-periodized program. If you want to make optimal progress, you simply must learn to manipulate volume, intensity, prioritization, frequency, duration, type of muscle action, and tempo. Moreover, non-linear periodization modalities trump linear models any day of the week.
At the risk of using a bad adage, failing to plan is planning to fail. Walk into the gym with a plan for what you’ll be doing and modify it only if it becomes clear that it isn’t compatible with your trainability status at that time. In other words, you may add or subtract volume and/or intensity based on how you feel or perform.
26. Therapeutic Modalities/Rest/Recuperation Initiatives
As far as I’m concerned, everything you do in between sessions in the gym is classified as recovery; you’re either facilitating it or impairing it. This may refer to addressing inflammation (as with injuries), or performing light activity to promote blood flow.
This category includes everything from ultrasound, to cryotherapy, to massage, to sleeping, to nutrition, to ART (Active Release Techniques). Just as importantly, it includes what you do to inhibit recovery. Staying out late and drinking comes to mind…
It takes some understanding of recovery to bench a grand, don’t you think? Source: Randy Bumgarner, Powerlifting USA, Feb. 2005 (3)
I recall Don Alessi once saying, “You have two eyes, two ears, two legs, and one mouth; you should use them in that order.” What you learn from seeing and hearing should influence your actions, and what you’ve done dictates what you can discuss.
Acquiring information alone won’t do anything if you don’t apply it. And simply talking without any rationale to back it up is a sure-fire way to look like a complete tool (or just wind up pushing junk products on infomercials). One needs to consider the information source (e.g. T-Nation vs. ordinary muscle rag); the amount of time spent reading, listening, and discussing each day; and how that info is interpreted and applied.
If you aren’t constantly exposing your body to new stimuli in training, you’re doing yourself a big disservice. Sets, reps, and the like are covered under periodization, but the exercise selection component is often overlooked. Variation is extremely important in the vast majority of trainees (Olympic lifters tend to be an exception to this rule).
From a supplementation standpoint, it’s to your benefit to cycle certain supplements to maximize their efficacy. While the importance of variety in nutrition is a commonly debated point, it goes without saying that healthy variety can’t do anything but help you. I certainly wouldn’t recommend eating the exact same things every day.
Tying It All Together
You might be wondering where I’m going with all these factors. Well, I’m going to challenge you to find one instance where two of the factors aren’t related to one another directly or indirectly. It’s kind of like the physiological version of the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. Pop a few capsules of Spike and see if you can do it.
The point is, you can look down several avenues to improve performance and physical appearance. My goal wasn’t to try to wow you with intricate details for each of these avenues, as every factor listed would comprise a novel in itself. Rather, I’m hoping to prompt you to consider each factor individually and determine how you can improve.
Feel free to post your “revelations” in the discussion section that follows. Hopefully, by “think-tanking” this, we can all find different ways to expedite our progress.
1. Armstrong, LE. Performing in Extreme Environments. Human Kinetics, 2000.
2. McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Stuart McGill, PhD, 2004.
3. Powerlifting USA. 2005 Feb: 21.