The Athletic Lifespan

I’ve been thinking for quite some time about how to codify the athletic (exercise, workout, whatever) experience. Casually, I’ve been attempting to put athletes into “buckets”. This is important, not to assign labels, but to continually assess our ability to move athletes past their current abilities to continually improve; the constant pursuit of excellence. Never attained, but always seeking.

Below are the 5 stages I’ve noticed in nearly all athletic endeavors. Interestingly enough, these can also be applied professionally, socially, and relationally. The time frames are approximate and do not reflect your abilities (i.e. WOD times, weights lifted) but rather the mental/emotional state of the athlete at the various stages.

Take some time to place yourself in one of the categories. Please keep in mind: there are not value statements associated with these stages. Wherever you are is where you are. Frankly, most people will stall out in one of the stages and need to start over. That’s completely OK. Hopefully, this will serve as a roadmap if you ever choose to pursue the next phase. 

1. Noob. 0-18 months.

“Noob” does not mean your first time exercising. Quite frankly, most former high school and collegiate athletes fall squarely in the Noob category. Primarily, because their early success was largely attributed to genetic pre-disposition to athleticism. The “noob” stage is defined by 3 main components:

1. Consistency in Training – regular, progressive training usually requires 4-5 hours per week of effort.

2. Working Hard Despite Circumstances – As mentioned before, most former student athletes fall clearly in this camp. It’s easy to train when it’s built into your school day. Now, you’re learning to build it into your daily routine, work schedule, and family. For the novice trainee, this means a shift in mentality from going through the typically globo-gym routine of 6 weeks post-New-Years-Resolution and into a consistent effort put forth on a regular basis.

3. Erasing and Re-learning – This is the time to shed all pre-conceived ideas around self-image, gyms, exercise, movement, etc and learn to be coached. It’s important to enjoy this phase. This is a great time to really enjoy what your body can do. Often times, this phase is accompanied by a ton of success and new feelings of self-worth around your abilities vs. your body image. This is a very fun time for all.

PLATEAU WARNING – 2 types of plateaus happen here for 2 distinct types of athletes: 1. Inability to Erase – you’re unwilling to learn new things. Often times accompanied by “________ told me _____” or “I saw _____ online.” and 2. Learning to Push – THIS IS A HUGE STEP. Your coaches will focus largely on your comfort and success in the Noob phase. This is an important step in trust-building. Towards the end of this phase, your coaches will push the outer limits of your comfort level – you may be surprised that they’re no longer making exceptions for you. This is because they know you’re ready to move on to the next phase.

2. Building Phase. 18mo-3yrs

Rhianna has summed up the main focus of this phase nicely: WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK. You have all the terminology, understand the basic motor patterns of nearly all movements, your barbell math is on point, and have a clear understanding of the progressions. Now, you just need to WORK HARD. The two main components of the Building Phase are:

1.  Know Thyself – You should now have a general idea of your max lifts, where you are in the pull-up progressions, double under progressions, etc. You’ll begin to pay closer attention to weight percentages and intended adaptations to various workouts. You’ll know how hard you can push it in a conditioning workout. You may also begin to recognize some workouts that you could potentially “Rx” – but this is not the end goal here.

2. Put in the Work – This is that intangible aspect of your fitness. You can do 10-15 double unders but generally don’t use them during workouts because they’re…well…really frustrating. You may consistently see yourself at the top of levels B or C and you’re wondering if it’s time to bump up.

PLATEAU WARNING – I won’t sugar coat it. This phase is uncomfortable. But, the good news is that you’ve developed consistent habits in the previous phase. You’ve readjusted your schedule, developed relationships with your coaches, and have trust in the process. That’s the hardest part! Now, it’s time to dig deep.

3. Exploration #1 3yrs-6yrs

You Rx most workouts in your respective level. You work hard in classes, you may read training blogs online, you probably own your own jump rope, weightlifting shoes, and have 10 shaker bottles. You understand terms like “meso-cycle”, “perceived rate of exertion”, and “total training volume.” You may have even considered becoming a coach. This phase is defined by 3 main components:

1. Complexity – You’re drawn to workouts that are complex in structure, movement, or weight. Often times heavier and higher-skilled workouts are given exertional preference over seemingly “simple” workouts. You may say things like “active recovery” to workouts you perceive as below your current athletic ability. 2-a-days may be a thought here.

2. Externalization – You’ve moved beyond the building phase (where coaching holds the highest value). Now, you begin to look outside yourself & your coaches for your further progression. Here are a couple key indicators of athletes in this phase:

  • “Is there a competitor’s/RX+ option?”
  • “I need to do a ______ cycle”
  • Hatch, Smolov, Smolov Jr, German Volume Training, Russian Squat Program, Westside Conjugate
  • Invictus, Lynchpin, Monster Mash, The Outlaw Way, OPEX, etc
  • “______’s programming isn’t enough volume for me.”
  • Instagram and Facebook become sources of training advice/programs.

3. Not-Applicable – You’ll zone out during warm-ups and movement instruction; tuning out the cues you’ve heard over the last several years. It becomes difficult to distinguish between movement review and decipher how it could possibly apply to you. You’ve done 10,000 dead lifts – what more could you possibly learn? At this point, you feel the need to get to lifting heavier and for more reps.

BIG PLATEAU WARNING – for those of you that have put in all the work to get to this phase – CONGRATULATIONS. This is a huge milestone. Remember, there are no value statements associated with this phase – it’s a normal progression. Unfortunately, this is – by far – the hardest phase to push through. Often times, one of two things happen here: Burnout and Injury. Burnout and injury are primarily caused by the “externalization” experienced in this phase. Athletes typically look to the more tangible aspects of fitness – weight lifted, programming style, complexity of movement – instead of looking in the mirror for more impactful, but less tangible, aspects of fitness – sleep, recovery, nutrition, stress. Failure to address the intangibles will inevitably result in a complete standstill at this phase.

4. Back to Basics – 6yrs-7yrs

You stop looking externally and take a very honest look in the mirror. This is a hard phase to go through, but you likely have a strong base of movement that will allow to push through this one fairly quickly. Hopefully, you didn’t experience injury or burnout leading up to this phase but rather arrived here through a plateau in performance or declining favorable body composition outcomes.

This phase is marked by the following:

1. Obsession with motor patterns – you realize that your crappy air squat turns into a crappy back squat. No Hatch Squat Program will fix this. You re-visit your noob phase. You zero in on the med ball cleans being done leading up to touching a barbell. Weight is an afterthought – speed and ideal movement patterns are what you care about here; down to the smallest aspect of movement connectivity. Here are some common indicators in this phase:

  • “How does my default push-up affect my muscle up?”
  • “Where do my eyes go when I lift?”
  • “How do my default everyday positions (sitting, standing, texting, typing) affect my performance?”

2. The other 23 – you understand that you need to begin eating, sleeping, working, and recovering like an athlete. This means avoiding alcohol, eating reasonably, and getting plenty of sleep. These factors impact your performance to a much larger degree than anything you did in phase #3.

3. Re-Coachable – you’ve emerged from Phase 3 and newly understand the value of the experts at your disposal. You realize that, just as you are the expert in your respective field through countless repetitions, so are your coaches. Your consummate desire to move better means you understand and respond to the cues given during warm-ups and movement prep. You may even seek out undivided attention to push through some plateaus.

PLATEAU WARNING – Consider yourself in the “Noob” phase once again. You’re re-learning and correcting bad habits both inside and outside the gym. The same warning applies – now’s the time to apply your corrected brilliance with basics toward hard work and new goals.

5. Exploration #2 – 7yrs+

Now, you’re ready to re-visit complexity and higher training volumes. The only difference is that it’s no longer arbitrary exploration or complexity or volume – it’s for a purpose. You find yourself being “up for whatever”, not looking at the workouts, and no longer externalizing programming as not being suitable for your level of athleticism. You probably re-visit your gym’s regular programming. You fall back in love with fun, simple, classic workouts. You show up to the gym as a blank slate everyday ready to use your body functionally and with intent. You’re eating like a responsible, athletic adult, getting plenty of sleep, and using those things to inform your training plan. This phase is marked by two things:

1. FUN – you enjoy the challenge of a workout. Your time/weight/reps on a given day really don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that you can’t turn it on, however – you have wisdom to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. You can access your various mental capacities at a moment’s notice.

2. Goal time – it’s probably been quite some time since you’ve verbalized a goal. It’s very important that you do so in this phase. Sign up for an event, tell a training buddy, and put in the unwavering work necessary to get there.

PLATEAU WARNING – There aren’t many carrots or sticks in this phase. You’ll need to create them yourself. It’s highly important that you put your goals in your calendar and really stretch yourself. You probably haven’t written a difficult, self-improvement goal down since your “Building Phase.” Up until this point your goals have probably looked like “Get a muscle up”, “Squat ____”, etc. Now, you need to do something pretty far outside your comfort zone. Something that requires 16-20 weeks of training. You need something to look toward.

Bonus Phase – Pay it Forward.

It’s easy to get all up in your head throughout this journey. Internally focused on your own circumstance, (dis)abilities, schedule, finances, a coach you don’t like, a crappy day…whatever. If you find yourself at a plateau throughout any of this, the quickest and easiest way out is to help someone else. High-five them, ask them how they’re doing, and be a light in their life. “I”, “me”, and “my” is a dangerous road to travel down – in all aspects of your life. Help someone on their journey and it will surely push you along in your’s.

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