The term athlete is bandied about quite loosely and seems to denote any person who participates in a sport. In our postmodern Hellscape, an athlete can even mean one who plays video games. Men’s Journal covered some gamer “training” at the Red Bull facility in Santa Monica, California, in case my Dear Reader needed another reason to feel as if they have underachieved in this life. I see athleticism as a spectrum of capacity. An athlete’s genetics, training experience, and accumulated skill amalgamate into their athleticism.
The simplest way to define athleticism would be the individual’s ability to produce power. This was discussed briefly in my last post about the different types (or not) of strength wherein I said explosive strength is synonymous with a quantifiable metric: power. I wanted to write this in order to clear up the confusion most folks have about the strength/power dichotomy and we can use athleticism as an illustrative tool.
Allow me a definitional aside
Power is a terribly misused term, often synonymously with strength. It is not the same thing as strength, but force production is its most important variable. Power is strength with a focus on time.
Furthermore, P = w/t = F(r/t) = F(V). Power is equal to work divided by time, which is equal to force multiplied by the distance over time, which is equal to force multiplied by velocity.
Don’t worry, that is the heaviest math this article will include. Work is the amount of force that is produced over a certain distance, and when that is divided by the time it took, we get the Power of the movement (as I said in the strength post, running a marathon and a one-repetition, maximum effort deadlift both have calculable power, the latter would be a much bigger number than the former). Since velocity is a distance over time (with a stated direction, in our case it’s usually vertical and directly against gravity), force multiplied by velocity gives us power. It’s not complicated, but it offers plenty of wiggle room for most people to misunderstand it.
Because my Dear Reader is a Learned Scholar, he is well aware that motor neurons are nervous system cells that innervate muscle fibers and that when the brain tells the skeleton to move, the cells ask the fibers to contract. It would follow that when the fibers contract in such a way that the contractile force produced is greater than gravity pulling down on the mass of the body part, the skeleton moves. If the musculature is strong enough, it can move the skeleton, all the surrounding tissue, and an external resistance through space, but the Reader already knew that.
Asideception, an aside within an aside
This is why I criticized the Occupational Activators (FP’s are guilty as well) in my post about exercise variation. If one cannot activate their muscles, it means their nervous system doesn’t work, i.e. some form of paralysis. I would venture as far as to say that the majority of trainers believe activation work to be an important part of training. If one were so inclined, for research, he could see an example of a woman showing us how to activate the glute musculature. It’s no wonder why these experts accrue such a following.
MAXIM: If a lifter stands up with a barbell on their back, their glutes activated, otherwise their hip joints would not have extended. The Occupational Activators and Functional Proselytizers are spewing malarkey.
Back to the first dream
Now, there exists a spectrum of ability in being able to make a percentage of one’s total motor neurons call muscle fibers to action at the drop of a hat in order to produce extremely fast contractions of skeletal muscle. Vladimir Zatsiorsky in the Bible, Science and Practice of Strength Training, shows that approximately 0.3 to 0.4 seconds is needed for an athlete to achieve peak force. Many sports require less time than this to perform a specific task, which means the athlete needs to be quite powerful if he or she is to be successful at a high level. My guess is that the following gentlemen fall at or below .3 seconds on the force-time curve. Scientists aren’t usually given free rein to test athletes of this caliber because too much money rides on them.
The gentleman pictured above is called Obi Melifonwu. He is 6’4″, 224 lb, and he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash almost by accident, as his form has obvious room for improvement. He jumped 44″ vertically and 11’9″ horizontally. This is because he was born with a freakish ability to make a huge proportion of his muscle fibers contract quickly, and he likely has an absurd ratio of type II to type I muscle fibers, often called “fast-twitch” and “slow-twitch” fibers, respectively. If he chooses, my Dear Reader can read more about that here, as an in-depth discussion on the matter is beyond the scope of this article.
Another example would be J.J. Watt, who is 6’5″ and 290 lb. He ran 4.84 seconds in the 40-yard dash, jumped 37 inches vertically, 10 feet horizontally, and benched 225 lb for 34 reps. Those are mightily impressive numbers, especially given that he weighs almost 300 lb.
Obi Melifonwu and J.J. Watt have a remarkable ability to call a huge number of type II muscle fibers into contraction at any given moment. We use the vertical jump often because it makes plain the athlete’s ability to manifest their power. It is the best test we have. Tangentially, there is not “lower-body” power or a QB with a “powerful arm.” Aaron Rodgers throws fast and far because he has a 35″ vertical and he has practiced throwing for decades. Power, as manifested in the human machine, is something that comes from the nervous system and makes its way out to the muscles. It is not dependent on an arm or a leg but exists as an engine of motor control.
The other end of the spectrum usually looks like Milton from Office Space.
For all intents and purposes, power cannot be improved drastically. It goes up slightly while strength, force production, is gained and fostered in the weight room, but the ratio of power to strength gained in the gym decreases as strength is accumulated. Most of the time, if we’ll be completely transparent, an athlete who has never seriously been taught how to jump or land efficiently will gain a couple of inches on their vertical from a few well-coached plyometric exercises in just a handful of training sessions. This is not an increase in power because there is no chance we’ve put on any serious lean body mass (LBM) or made significant strength gains in those weeks. It’s simply learning how to use the current musculature efficiently and better utilization of genetic capacity. That’s why my Dear Reader will never see a trainer teach an athlete how to jump before they first test the athlete’s vertical.
Allow me a For Instance. An untrained man with a 125 lb squat and a practiced, accurate 20″ vertical who doubles his strength, a 250 lb squat, may add two to three inches to his vertical jump. That would be a strength increase of 100% and a power increase of 10-15%. However, here’s the ugly part no one wants to accept: if he doubles his squat again, making his 1RM 500 lb, he may only add another inch, possibly two if everything else is absolutely optimal, i.e. nutrition, rest, injury status, programming, stress, plyometric practice. However, it’s quite possible that his vertical tops off around 24-25 inches.
This means that going from untrained to strong gave him a 300% increase in strength but only 20, maybe 25 percent on his test of power. This is a crude way of breaking down strength and power for such complicated movements, but it’s also the most pragmatic and illustrative (and we don’t need this particular article to be 25,000 words). Athletes don’t improve power more than this except in a case of large weight loss (i.e. a 300 lb man jumped 10 inches, lost 100 lb over two years through training and nutrition, then jumped 24 inches) or a 14-year-old finds her vertical at 8 inches, but reaches a vertical of 16 inches by the time she’s a 20-year-old collegiate athlete. However, it’s obvious the man didn’t have a 10in vertical that he increased 140%, he was just obese, and the woman didn’t double her 8in vertical because she wasn’t a woman when she was first tested.
The Ugly Truth
Please, not the truth. Anything but the truth! The spectrum of athleticism is best illustrated as a normal distribution or a bell curve, although it probably doesn’t follow one perfectly because nothing does.
Since the Reader is intimately familiar with statistics, he already knows that a normal distribution means ~68.2 percent of the population will fall within one significant step away from the mean (the zero on the middle of the x-axis with the white line going up the middle of the bell). That states that the majority of the world will be close to the center of the curve. Because humans vary widely in their abilities, a group of 27.2 percent of the population will fall just outside of the first deviation, quite below the mean or quite above the mean. That means they are at least one standard deviation from the mean, but not two. Now, we have accounted for 95.4 percent of the population within two standard deviations from the mean. Just beyond them are the freaks. The last 4.6 percent of folks who are at least two standard deviations below or above the mean. This is all review for the Learned Scholar reading this.
What does it mean for athleticism? Well, as I said before, the best test we have for proving one’s power capabilities is the vertical jump. One can peruse the Internet and see several charts denoting the breakdown of low, average, and high vertical jumps. Just as a warning, it’s often difficult to tell whether a certain source is using a standing vertical jump (SVJ) which allows no foot movement prior to the leap or a maximum vertical jump (MVJ) which does allow for an arbitrary number of steps prior to the leap. Most often is the SVJ, but sometimes MVJ numbers are offered deceitfully as SVJ performances. The real ghouls will pretend a box jump is their SVJ which is like if I told a bank that my salary is every dollar I have ever earned instead of the income I receive annually. There are also many ways to game the commonly used Vertec machine, so ideally an athlete would be required to jump on a force plate (the Just Jump mat would be a cheap, accurate way to fix combine results). Anyway, I grabbed a chart from The Exercisers and the Metric Reader can go straight to Hell.
As the Arbiter of Reality, I deem the male and female means to be 18 and 14 inches, respectively, with a standard deviation of four and three inches, respectively. Out of the kindness of my greatbighumongous heart, I created this chart to show how much of the population would fall into each pocket.
Is it becoming clear yet just how much of a freak Obi Melifonwu is? This, to me, seems the be the most straightforward spectrum of athleticism. The Darwinian Reader could look at a sport as an environment that selects for certain organisms. There are many sports that are terribly dependent on skill without much need for power, e.g. hockey, baseball, video games. However, if one hockey player has the exact same skill level, bodyweight, strength, of his opponent, but has a 32″ vertical and his opponent only has a 26″ vertical, he is going to win the war. A battle or two may be one by the lesser opponent, but the war will always be won by the better athlete. Them’s the breaks, folks.
Games like basketball and football are quite dependent on explosive capabilities. Often a player needs a burst to get by a defender, change direction quickly, or out-jump the opponent to catch the ball or score. This is a far different environment than the ones in hockey or chess. Without a doubt, the greatest athletes in the world are playing football, basketball, or doing relatively quick events in the Olympics. A further examination of sport-specific skills/training shall be approached in another article.
My apologies to the Reader who was expecting the great, old photos of athletes I usually include and my most sincere apologies to the Reader whose vertical is on the wrong side of the black line in the chart above. It is not my fault the world is not fair. At least stories similar to Adam Thielen’s are inspiring. Although, he would not be doing half of what he is now if it were not for the fact that a far superior athlete, Stefon Diggs, is drawing the attention of the best defensive backs the opposition has to offer. Isn’t it curious that Diggs sat out in week 9 and Thielen’s streak of 100-yard games ended?
An individual’s genetic tendency to be in a specific section of the bell curve, training history, and sport-specific efficacy all combine to create The Athlete. However, pure athleticism can be seen as predominately a measure of power, as an athlete on the right of the curve will be able to do more in the weight room in less time, do more with less skill on the field, and will likely pick up new skills or master the fundamentals more swiftly than the athlete on the left side of the curve.
“Well, that about does her, wraps her all up… I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail.” – The Stranger