Ergodocity and Strength Training

Image stolen from Taleb's twitter feed

Image stolen from Taleb's twitter feed

Oh boy, another #nerdgym post. Sorry.

Let me quote from Dan John (It's been a while since I've done that)

"It's not how many injuries you have in you, it's how many recoveries you have."

Or something like that. He writes so much in so many places, it's hard to seach and find the exact quote. But the sentiment is correct: you need to be conservative in your training becasue the downside will take you out of the game.  

Why can a casino always win money, even on a fair game - say a (fair) coin toss? 

When tossing a fair coin, there is a non-zero probability of a long string of runs. In fact it's a classic example of a fat tail probability. The probability of a string of runs goes to zero slower (as the string gets longer) than our good old friend the Gaussian that we always look at when thinking about probabilities. A casino can always fund a longer string of you winning than you can fund losing (because they have more money in reserve). That is, if you play the game long enough, you will eventually go broke because you can't fund a long string of losses (that will eventually happen). Or as Keynes said, "The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent"

This is often referred to as the absorbing barrier. It becomes very important in dynamic systems where the probability of ruin takes you out of the game. If you hit the absorbing barrier, you don't get the option to recover.

In the context of strength training - you need to keep lifting more to increase the stresses on your body, but you need to do it slowly and conservatively. If you go too hard too fast, you can get injured. That will set you back while you recover. At some point you may not have any more recoveries in you - and you'll be out of the game. 

Absorbing barriers make dynamical systems non-ergodic - that is, a snapshot of a population is not the same as looking at one subject over time. Coming from chemistry, I always think of ergodicity as a given, all molecules behave alike. So I can choose to simulate one particle over time or many particles at once and the average will be the same.

Thats not true in strength training. When you look at the average ability of the folks in a gym, you're seeing the results of those who are smart enough to not get hurt and those that take the long path to success. You don't see all of the folks who hurt themselves and quit.

It can be frustrating because when you start you're so far behind everyone else. You'll be tempted to go faster and put more weight on the bar to catch up. It won't work. If you take the short cuts, the absorbing barrier will get you and you won't be around long enough to get strong. Be patient, be consistent, one day you'll realize you're suddenly strong.

I always get amused when I talk to someone about how much they lift. Often they'll say things like, "I used to be able to deadlift 500 lbs, but I hurt my back and now I'm working back up and I'm at 300 lbs." 

I've had very slow progress on my deadlift. After the novice gains were done, it took me about 7 years to go from 300-400 lbs, about 3 more years to make it to 440, and about 3 more years to get up to 460, I'm somewhere on the 5 lbs a year plan right now. But I've never gone backwards! I may be increasing slowly, and I'm very conservative about adding more weight (or even how often I train heavy), but constant slow progress will always win against anything that has a higher probability of hitting that absorbing barrier taking me out of the game.  I can hold my own in things like the TSC against much larger and more experienced lifters because they're always coming back from injury. 

That's why we do such boring work like swings, squats, deadlifts, and presses. Repeat the same exercises often, increase slowly and over time you'll be a lot better!

If you chase the fads and do high-intensity muscle confusion and novel workouts that "challenge" you, you won't have the chance to improve (but the probability of hitting that absorbing barrier is still there).

Michael Deskevich