Monday, 1 August 2011

Spotting excellence at the gym

How often do we miss excellence, when it is actually right in front of us, but we’re so absorbed in our own reality that we fail to look up and notice it?

Last week, I was talking to two acquaintances at the gym. I only know them well enough to say “hi” when I bump into them. One guy is Polish. He’s a remarkable athlete, with a muscly, gym-fit physique. The other guy is British, and he tends to spend more time in the sauna, rather than lifting weights.

The three of us got into a conversation, and the Polish guy asked what “sets” and “reps” were. The British guy replied that there are eight reps to a set, and you should wait about a minute between sets. I commented that the number of sets to a rep varied depending on your experience and goals. But the British guy corrected me. No, he was adamant that there were eight reps to a set.

The Polish guy nodded and said “ah, I see. Thank you.” The Brit seemed pleased that he had been able to share some wisdom, and he walked off smiling. But I was puzzled, and wanted to understand more. The Polish guy was so strong, with such bulging muscles, that I wondered how he had achieved this, if he didn’t use sets and reps.

He explained that in fact he did use sets, and proceeded to talk me through a sophisticated procedure that he used to work his way down to his one rep max. This is the mark of a serious power lifter. There we had been, me and my fellow Brit, explaining rudimentary gym basics to the Pole, when in fact he was the expert. His question had not been about how to do sets and reps - it was simply a question of vocabulary. He is currently learning English.

If we had been paying attention, this fact should have been obvious. You only needed to look at the guy to see that he knew more about the gym than us. And yet, my British friend had been so absorbed in his own experience, where a set is always comprised of eight reps, that he missed the opportunity for enlightenment from a true expert. And I had swooped in to correct him, when someone far more qualified was standing right next to me. It was as if we’d been debating music in front of Mozart, or explaining physics to Einstein.

We benefit so much when we learn from experts - so why are we so reluctant to recognize expertise and listen instead of lecture?