Brian Gwaltney: Perspective and Standards — You Don’t Need More Than An “F”
“How strong is strong enough?”
That is a question that gets tossed around all too frequently. Every coach has standards they think everyone should hit. There are subtle variations between all the lists, but I’ve noticed they all seem to fall in the same general ranges.
Most coaches will agree that men should be able to squat and deadlift something around double bodyweight, clean their bodyweight and bench the same weight for reps.
As a thought exercise, I started comparing all these values to World Records and noticed something interesting: most “strong enough” standards fall between 30%-40% of the World Record for that lift.
As you can see, 30%-40% of the deadlift World Record falls solidly in the double bodyweight range for that vast majority of the population. If you can bench 215-285lbs for one, you can surely do bodyweight for reps. I applied the 30% rule to as many lifts as I could find and it didn’t take me long to find a reputable strength coach that uses that number for their strength standards.
Discovering this “rule” was neat, but the next question I asked myself is what made it really interesting. What if I apply this rule to another area of my life?
How strong is strong enough in personal finance?
Using the World Record in this domain wasn’t useful because people have made billions of dollars per year, so I used the top 1% earners in the United States as my max. CNBC says that’s about $400,000.
Instagram and YouTube led me to believe the top 1% of Americans earn millions per year, but it turns out, $400,000 per year qualifies you for the best of the best in the most competitive market in the world.
30% of $400,000 is $120,000. For that vast majority of us, that is enough to do everything we want. We won’t be flying private, but we can afford a nice home, take nice vacations once or twice per year, help our kids with college, and save for retirement. Strong enough as far as I’m concerned.
Seeing how well this 30% rule worked is something entirely unrelated to strength, I went back and looked at Zig Ziglar’s Wheel of Life. Zig breaks life down into seven categories: financial, career, intellectual, physical, spiritual, family and social. Physical and financial were already taken care of, so I tried applying the rule to the other areas. There aren’t records for the remaining categories, so I had to get a little creative in coming up with the maxes, but I did my best. Remember . . . this is a thought exercise.
Spirituality was the next place I looked. For a time, I trained as a Zen monk in Japan. (I wasn’t ordained, but I lived in the monastery and practiced as all the other monks.) We would typically meditate for around four hours per day. Given that this left very little room for any other aspect of life, I considered this the top 1% of spiritual practice.
30% of 4 hours is just over 1 hour. Regardless of your religion or beliefs, spending an hour per day focused on the spiritual aspect of your life is likely game-changing. Whether you choose to meditate, pray, go to church or revere nature, your life will improve by spending an hour focused on spiritually bettering yourself. You may not reach “enlightenment,” but you’ll be strong enough in this category.
I then looked at the intellectual category. According to CBS, the average Ph.D. graduate is 33 years old and has spent around 15 years in school after high school. Using 15 years as our top 1% mark, 30% equates to roughly four years. That’s a bachelor’s degree. That’s generally considered the standard of continuing education.
I’m not saying everyone should go to college and years spent in university is far from the best measure of intellectualism, but the four-year mark is what stands out to me. Investing four solid years into continuing education and improving one’s ability to learn and grow mentally will serve anyone for the rest of their life.
Another ongoing measure of intellectualism is the number of books one reads. CEOs read, on average, around 50 books per year. 30% of 50 is 15. It’s tough to argue that reading one per book month won’t expand your life.
Career, family and social were much harder to quantify. The career category could be measured by income, but that ignores other essential qualities like purpose and work satisfaction. In my opinion, relationships are all about quality and not quantity, so it’s tough to come up with any meaningful metric for that. Rather than trying to make everything fit the little box I created, I decided to leave them out of it altogether and assume that aiming for balance in all these areas would likely be plenty.
As I was thinking about these standards, something else stood out to me: You can achieve 30% in everything all at once.
You can have a 365-pound deadlift, 225-pound bench, and clean 185 pounds. It wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to do all those things in a single workout. You can also maintain those strength standards, earn $120,000 per year, read one book per month, meditate for an hour per day, spend time with your family and have an excellent, well-rounded life.
This last idea ties back into Zig’s Wheel of Life very well. If you’re unfamiliar with this principle, Zig recommends having a round wheel. By balancing all the areas of your life, your wheel will roll freely and you’ll go far. When one area is overemphasized or ignored, flat spots on the wheel emerge and forward progress is jarring . . . if it happens at all.
We all know guys at the gym that have enormous chests, but only wear pants because they skipped leg day for the 136th week in a row. The guy earning a million dollars a year that is fat and never sees his wife and kids is as cliché as it gets. These are people that went for more than 30% in a category, but other areas suffered as a result. Greatness always comes at a cost.
For many, that price is worth it. World Record holders, the best in business and the top performers in any other category don’t feel alive unless they are reaching the very top. These individuals make up the outliers that we all look up to and admire. This post is not at all a critique on anyone that makes the sacrifices required to do their very best in a single category. I am inspired by them as much as anyone else.
I would just like you to consider what you truly want out of life. Would you prefer striving for absolute greatness as the expense of almost everything else or would you prefer a round wheel? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, but it does require a tough look in the mirror and a tremendous amount of self-awareness. Your response to this question dictates the course of your life.
One of the hardest things any of us do is honestly assessing whether we have the potential to be truly great at anything. America teaches everyone from a very young age that they have unlimited opportunity. I love that philosophy as much as anyone else, but limits still exist. There’s a reason you don’t see any 6’2” gymnasts in the Olympics.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t chase our dreams or do our very best, but for the vast majority of us, creating a round wheel will likely lead to a more fulfilling life than striving for greatness that might be out of reach.
It’s often difficult to maintain perspective when we are constantly exposed to the very best. On any given day, we might see a dozen genuinely world-class performances in a variety of disciplines on social media. Some of the most popular pages on Facebook are nothing but compilations of people who have spent decades perfecting their craft showing the very best four seconds of it. With this much exposure to greatness, it’s easy to start feeling inadequate and self-conscious.
The truth is, you’re not inadequate at all. You’ve spent your time and energy in other ways and are likely, already, far more balanced than the people you are watching online.
The biggest thing I realized during this little thought experiment is that a round wheel requires nothing more than a solid F. We don’t need to get As. Or even Cs.
Achieving 30% of what we consider the best is plenty.
The key word in “strong enough” is enough. When you have enough, extra no longer helps and will often detract from other things. Being big enough to squat 1,000 pounds makes it hard to do pull-ups. Meditating 4-6 hours per day makes it tough to have a family. 60-hour work weeks don’t leave much time for the gym or anything else.
When I think back to the best times of my life, they all resemble something close to balance. They occurred when I had strong, close relationships, a fulfilling job, plenty of physical activity, constant exposure to new ideas and enough downtime to recover.
Conversely, the hardest times in my life always came when something was way out of balance.
Too much pushing in the gym leads to injury. Too much pushing in life does as well.
That was my thought exercise and I hope it inspires you to do the same. Spend some time thinking about where you have enough, where you’re striving for more than you need and which aspects of your life you are neglecting. Consider aiming for a rounder wheel rather than being the very best in one area.
For most of us, our lives will improve as a result.
Brian Gwaltney was trained as an engineer but discovered his passion for strength training shortly after college. He quickly became obsessed with all things health, fitness, and nutrition and began working as a personal trainer in Alaska. Forever wanting to improve, he continued his education by studying with the best coaches in the Industry including, Mike Boyle at MBSC. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Health and Nutrition Education and became a licensed massage therapist to better understand the body. Brian has spent most of the last 10 years actively running gyms and helping clients become the best version of themselves possible.
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