Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Barbell Strategy?

You may be wondering, what's with the name Barbell Strategy?  The term barbell strategy is from the financial world, and it is an investment strategy.  Instead of choosing mostly medium-risk investments, you choose some very small risk investments and some very large risk investments, in order to maximize your upside.  Basically, you keep most of your money safe in the low-risk investments, but take a chance on winning big with the high-risk investments.  With stuff on either end and not in the middle, it kind of looks like a barbell, hence the name.

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb generalizes this idea to life beyond the financial world.  Volatility/uncertainty/randomness is everywhere, and you can't control it and neatly design your life.  We have an epidemic of control freaks in the world, and more and more in the fitness world.  Everyone wants to control every aspect, boil it down to what is "optimal", log and schedule every second and every morsel.  But the world doesn't care.  It will smack you down eventually because the world is volatile, chaotic, unpredictable, and full of curve balls.  Just the simple passage of time unravels your control.  The barbell strategy is a way to take advantage of the randomness, to work with it.  Basically, it means you need to avoid the "safe" middle, which isn't so safe.  It's fragile.

Thinking about this concept, we realized it applies very nicely to fitness.  Let's think about it like this: what do people typically think of as a good training plan for the average person?  Maybe an hour of medium-intensity activity every day?  Say, jogging through the neighborhood or using the elliptical, or if you want to do strength training, maybe go to the room with the machines and push through them at a nice steady pace with nice medium weights for an hour.  This is the equivalent of investing all your money in middle-risk stocks.  These activities are higher risk than you think (e.g., overuse injuries), and you could lose everything, but you sure won't win big.

How do you train with a barbell strategy?  Look at the image below.  On the left side, you are building a foundation for functional movement.  You have lots of low-intensity strength building, skill development, and general stamina.  Long walks, carrying heavy things when you need to, practicing good posture and habits of movement, learning skills - putting in the practice minus the intensity.  On the right side, you have some very high intensity, demanding work.  Power, strength, sprinting work over very short time periods (that's the only way to preserve very high intensity).  This provides the stressors for your body to adapt and get stronger, and it builds on that low-intensity foundation.  This is where the great phenomenon of supercompensation comes in (more on that in another post).  In the middle is the medium intensity training that you should avoid.

The bottom line is that staying safe most of the time (building a foundation) allows you to take bigger risks when you crank up the intensity.  Let's get a little more concrete.  What is middle risk when you are talking about an actual barbell?  It's lifting a weight that is light enough for you to do lots of reps, but heavy enough that you're straining.  What happens?  Form inevitably breaks down with fatigue, especially with high skill barbell movements, your movements are neither correct nor intense, and injuries develop.  If instead you do the barbell strategy with the barbell, you will 1) learn technique with lighter weights and plenty of recovery (low intensity) and 2) do very short, intense work (1 to 5 reps), with good technique and adequate recovery, to provide the stressor to build strength.

The short version: instead of running, we walk and we sprint.  That will prepare us for volatility and the crazy unpredictable world we live in.

Inspired by Taleb's ideas, we decided to name our gym Barbell Strategy.  We love barbells and we love the barbell strategy!