What is Elite?

A few months ago, I was standing next to a kid about a hundred pounds lighter than me. He was skinny with hair covering his eyes and a glazy look about his eyes that seemed to indicate that he knew herbs beyond stevia and yohimbe. What caught my attention was his t-shirt: “Select” with the name of a small sport on it.

I asked him: “What does “select” mean?” He told me, with some hand waving and a lot of “ums,” that it was a team made up of all the elite athletes from the various clubs in the state. “So,” I said trying not to laugh, “you are the best of the best?” His answered amazed me:


Welcome to the second decade of the new millennia. One can be “select,” “elite,” or “best of the best” by finding a small enough sport in a small enough pond that requires club fees and the purchase of a t-shirt.

Not long ago, I watched an ESPN show about Marcus Dupree. One of the coaches indicated that, in high school, Marcus ran a 9.5 hundred yard dash (blazingly fast…you can’t do it) and benched over 400 for ten reps. That’s a solid bench press even on the internet forums. My friends, that is “elite.” That qualifies for the “best of the best.”

I began discussing this issue not long ago with my editor, Chris Shugart, and he agreed: how did we come to this new era that anyone who does anything is elite? Moreover, and more important: what are the kinds of things that truly makes one elite?

I shouldn’t pick on this one mop headed boy. I have seen the same thing happen with high school football players, gym rats who think they are one step from Mr. Universe, and, of course with the rise of the internet, the various lunatics and crazies that think that simply doing something different than arm curls makes you on the cutting edge. I have lived by a simple formula for a long time:

What is an elite athlete?
1. The athlete no longer is on a steep learning curve. The athlete, in other words, is no longer improving in quantum leaps from year to year, or season to season. Lifts, for example, no longer double over two years. Improvement is slow.
2. The athlete has a year-round approach to one sport.
3. The athlete uses some form of intense training camp or focused training of some kind each year.
4. The athlete uses high levels of strength training before the competitive periods. Save for lifters, as strength levels go down, performance should improve.
5. The athlete has made a personal choice to be elite.

Point One:
1. The athlete no longer is on a steep learning curve. The athlete, in other words, is no longer improving in quantum leaps from year to year, or season to season. Lifts, for example, no longer double over two years. Improvement is slow.

Let’s look at each point and widen our view a little about elite. The first point is hard to understand for many because it also has an interesting corollary: Yuri Sedych, still the world record holder in the hammer (and it is a long, long time since he set it), told me a very simple definition of “elite” a few years ago at dinner.

His point was simple. Now, I can do my Yuri imitation if you like, but trust me, he leaned in, checked to room for eavesdroppers like a good Comrade, and told me: “if you improve every year, then you are elite.”

Holding those conflicting concepts in your head can damage your brain: so, you are no longer improving by leaps and bounds, but, at the same time, you are still improving.

I can hear heads nodding in agreement all over the internet: “That’s me, I am elite!” Hold on, just a moment longer. The first workout that I ever attempted the snatch, I lifted 165 pounds. Three weeks later, I got 187 pounds in my first meet. A few weeks later, I got 204 and within nine months, I nailed 231 pounds. This was in 1975 to1976. Fifteen years later, I found myself trying to figure out what to lift to break the state record. My coach, Dave Turner, said: “Hey, we forgot the small plates, you need to take 142.5 kilos.” That is 314 pounds and I made it. It took me fifteen years to add 149 pounds to my lifts, basically about ten pounds a year, if you look at it globally. That’s improvement, yes. Just not very much, I am sorry to say.

For those of you interested in body composition goals, most people find that you have one or two great leaps in lean body mass. One is usually puberty and the other is when you first start training with weights. Some brave souls embark on the journey of high rep squats and sneak in an additional six weeks of sudden and miraculous growth.

From there, the gains and goals slow down. The key here is to register some kind of progress. That is easy to say, but difficult to do. I have suggested here before that I like two basic ideas:

One, try Clarence Bass’s idea of a yearly photo shoot. If you want, hide or burn the photos after, but consider the idea. Once a year, pull out all the stops and make yourself go into the details of improvement. I love the twelve week body makeover challenges, the 30 day bootcamp ideas, and all of the rest of those wonderful “before and after” contests that are so popular today. There are a few details that really seem to make them work and you might as well mine this shaft of gold:

1. I think the “before” picture is more valuable. When I attempted to lose fat after a poor athletic year not long ago, I posted my shots of me and my belly (“Get in my belly!”). That simple act did more to keep me going than anything else, I think. It will also help you hold back on cravings or quitting.
2. Rally up some support. I always talk about “Edna” who decided to lose weight and quit smoking at the same time. She did it simply by telling everyone her goals (everyone…I mean…everyone) and made it hard for her to quit as she had hired a hundred nannies.
3. The target of time seems to work better than anything else. “30 Days” seems to have more clarity than adding thirty pounds. It also gets closer every day. (If you have to think about that joke too long, maybe my writing isn’t for you.)
Two, if you are courageous…enter a contest. I love to compete as it is a line in the sand that on this day, you MUST be ready to go. I have spoken with eloquence and joy many times about my college friend who decided to enter a novice bodybuilding contest and literally could barely stand up to train the last week. Under the lights, he was stunning. What always amazed me though was after competing and all the dieting and starving down to get cut, he began to grow in the next few months. While most of the guys who trained the same way workout after workout made no progress, he changed by the day. Soon, he looked like a football player, a strength athlete, and a sprinter all rolled into one. It was a lesson for me.

I hope you think about this, because there is a lot of conflicting information here: first, you are NOT going to improve by leaps and bounds anymore, BUT you still, you must, continue to improve.

That, in a nutshell, is the key to understanding what it is to be elite. A decade after beginning your journey, you should still be making progress although it may seem slow at times. As I tell my athletes: “if it was easy, everybody would do it like 5K runs and we could all have the same damn t-shirts.”

Point Two:
2. The athlete has a year-round approach to one sport.

You know, you can ignore the second point here. Really. I made quite a career of wearing a kilt one weekend and a singlet the next. I always maintained that the “cross training” of Olympic lifting and Highland Games would make me a better discus thrower. And, I was wrong. And, it pains me to say it.

Highland Games gave me a limp and O lifting blew my left wrist into enough pieces to warrant two surgeries. When I give my life affirming, masterful workshops today, I often caution people to follow Andrew Carnegie’s advice: “Put all your eggs in one basket…and carefully watch that basket!” True, there is a time and place for “all of this.” You should know that in basketball you can score one, two or three points depending on what is going on in game and where you are standing (or jumping). But, if you blow your ankle out before the nationals playing basketball and you are a high jumper, your career is over (and, yes, Calvin, I am talking about you).

Now, it is fine to take a month, six weeks or two months away form your focus and try other things, but the bulk of your time, energy and focus has to be on that one basket of eggs!

John McCallum, author of the classic “Keys to Progress,” used to argue that bodybuilders needed to “soften” up every so often to make gains. If your goals are lean body mass, don’t get hung up in the “skinny fat” mentality of most guys in the gym: they are dreadfully afraid of putting on any fat to their 24% bodyfat frames that weigh 160 pounds. So, they straddle a program that doesn’t rip off fat nor does it build any bulk.

With a year round approach, you can take six weeks to experiment with one of those “lots of milk and squats” programs. Later in the year, you can play around with a 28 day fat loss attack. The mistake most people make is trying to “get a little more ripped, add a little bulk and try to get a little symmetry.” You should have noticed that the word “little” was repeated three times because that is what you are going to achieve: little.

Step back and take a year-long approach to your goals. Let there be a season to grow and a season to rip, a season to bulk and a season to define. And now, the chorus: “Turn, turn, turn.”

One suggestion that might help a lot: I have a love for six-week and two-week programs. I love them. If a book is entitled: “Tremendous Traps in Two Weeks,” I buy it. So, if you do have a year round approach, feel free to have short focused goals of simply stressing a bodypart, a movement or anything you need to bring up. Years ago, I followed something that Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, wrote about the upper pecs and I did three sets of back to back to back Incline Bench Presses, then Incline dumbbell presses, and finished with Incline Flies, lightening the weight with each exercise. I did it three times a week for three weeks and the results were so good people actually mentioned my chest development in social gatherings. I did it for athletic reasons, but the point is valid: you can make amazing progress if you focus on something. If you focus on everything, maybe not so much.

Point 3
3. The athlete uses some form of intense training camp or focused training of some kind each year.

I have told the story here before about meeting Robby Robinson. If you recall, he come up to me while I was doing Power Cleans in the corner of the original Gold’s Gym and told me that I was on the right track. Even though, I was a discus thrower, I still thought it was worth my time to spend several days in Santa Monica to see what was going on in this renaissance of bodybuilding that was happening in the mid 1970s. I have spent, I just figured this out, over a year of my life in training camps. If you toss in visits, workshops, clinics, telephone conversations, hanging around and just plain BSing about all of this lifting stuff, the total amount of time would sneak up into the category of “way too much time.”

I go to discus camps, but I find I usually learn more about things like sleds, kettlebells, hill runs, slosh pipes, chains, nutrition and caber tossing than the discus, usually. If you go to a clinic with a bodybuilder, you tend to hear a lot of insights about recovery (“there is no overtraining, there is only underrecovery” I was told once) and learning to starve.

I’ve told this readership the same thing before: get out of the comfy confines of your local spa and go see what the best are doing. Go to a clinic. Take a certification course. Find out what is really going on. Get your hands dirty and relearn (or simply learn) the basics. If there isn’t a formal “camp” to go to, book a hotel room near a gym or place you need to train and go there and immerse yourself in the place. I have had the pleasure of hosting a few people that have asked to intern with me. Last year, Adrian Cradock of Ireland, stayed with me for seven weeks and immersed himself into tumbling, Olympic lifting, kettlebells, throwing events, hurdle work, football off-season training and cooking. This kind of courageous leap can be a life changer for you and it does take a little courage.

Point Four
4. The athlete uses high levels of strength training before the competitive periods. Save for lifters, as strength levels go down, performance should improve.

I learned this years ago from John Powell, the great discus thrower. The explanation was so simple that I nearly cried: the body, especially the nervous system, can only be asked to do so many things at once. I have been encouraging people to get strong earlier in the year, then focus on all the other qualities and the most important quality for most of you is FAT loss. I discuss this in an upcoming book with my good friend, Pavel Tsatsouline:

“Although there has been an ongoing, perhaps two century, discussion on “weight loss,” fat loss is the quality to impress upon athletes. Certainly, combat sports and weightlifting have weight categories for competition, but there are dozens of methods of rapid weight loss that vary from practical to deadly. Fat loss continues to mystify everyone who can’t understand these four words: Eat Less, Move More. Without a doubt, that is an oversimplification, but , alongit follows the same lines as “Buy low, sell high.,” it’s It’s hard to argue that much of the weight loss industry is filled with quick fix gimmicks. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer said years ago: “To attribute obesity to ‘overeating’ is as meaningful as to account for alcoholism by ascribing it to ‘overdrinking.'” True fat loss can improve test results varying from jumping and sprinting marks to flexibility standards. If there was a single magic wand to wave to “instantly” improve performance in most sports, it would make fat disappear. The challenge, of course, is maintaining the dietary rigor to force fat loss while training the other qualities needed in performance.

And, that is the key. The reasons that bodybuilders can go on extremely difficult fat loss regimes is because they only deal with two qualities. Bodybuilders live in a very narrow focus, but wrong thinking people keep trying to train football players like bodybuilders. Tanning or skin coloring is not the same as mastering an opponent’s offensive schemes. Once a bodybuilder, ideally blessed with natural symmetry and muscle insertions that gift one towards the sport, shifts from pure hypertrophy work to final preparations for a contest, the single concern is fat loss. Any other athlete in any other sport MUST juggle multiple qualities.

It brings us back to the wonderful quote by Art DeVany that seemed to upset some people. Answering the question: “What’s the best way to lose fat?” DeVany answered: “Don’t get fat in the first place.” Given the advice back in the 1970s that, to overstate the case, “all carbs are bad,” it is a wonder obesity is “only” in one-quarter of our population as we write this sentence. “Don’t get fat” literally means to swim against all lot of cultural norms over a long period of time for our modern athlete. School lunches added to lack of required physical education plus the proliferation of every sugary substance imaginable at every practice and athletic event for the kid involved in club activities make it very difficult for even a well-informed child to stay lean. Add the lack of honest “play” and we have the recipe for obesity.”

In other words, get as strong as you can THEN work on the other qualities you need.

Point Five:
5. The athlete has made a personal choice to be elite.

I have written time and again on goal setting. Many people wash over these articles with a blank face and ignore the importance. It comes down to this: if you want to be great, the best, the king of the hill, A Number One, top of the list, you need to make the choice to do it.

You might have the genetics to do it, but natural talent only gets you so far.

You might have a mom or dad pushing you to do it, but, in my experience with some of my athletes, that can be a millstone around the neck.

And, you make this choice by setting goals. If you want to get extremely low numbers on your bodyfat tests, you are going to have push away and push aside temptations in the form of sweets and fatty goo nearly every day, if not nearly every hour. You have to have courage in reserve to achieve the great goals. But, you have to have it. No one can do it for you.

It takes more than a t-shirt to be elite.

Back to top