“Everything in excess is opposed to nature”—Hippocrates
Perhaps you, the reader, are familiar with Easy Strength by Pavel and Dan John, but you are probably not so familiar with the book Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Even if both these books are unknown to you, don’t fear and keep reading—I am about to explain what a strength training book and an economics book have in common.
Though not immediately self-evident, the authors’ hypotheses should be important to you whether you are a coach, trainer, teacher, or athlete. In both books, the reader is presented with commensurate philosophies, and hopefully, by the end of this article (if I have done my job) you will find a beneficial paradigm to apply to your program design.
First, What Is “Easy Strength”?
In their book, Pavel and Dan John demonstrate with anecdotal and scientific examples that there is more than a “one size fits all” approach to strength training. More specifically, depending on the kind of athlete and where they are in their life-cycle, there should be different intentions in their programming. A novice athlete would not train in the same fashion as a professional athlete.
To give you an example of what Easy Strength does not espouse, let me use my daughter’s experience as a novice javelin thrower for her high school (Go Pirates!). Her throwing coach has her in the weight room four to five days per week, after several hours of daily field training. I will not sadden you with details, but it suffices to say that every lift (and there are a lot of them, including deadlift and hanging cleans without much hands-on instruction) is to be performed in the 3 sets of 10-12 rep range.
The programming couldn’t even be considered GPP, never mind that it is being done in season, not during the off-season. It is more of a bodybuilding split routine, and regardless of the skill of the athlete, they are supposed to use the same programming. Therefore, a freshman/novice thrower, like my daughter, is following the same programming as the senior/advanced thrower. Do you think the needs of both athletes are the same? I would suggest not.
I know the above example is anecdote, but I have talked with handfuls of SFG leadership and instructors, and they too have had similar experiences with their children. This is not to be a polemic on the state of high school athletics, but to offer an example you might also be familiar with. Therefore, to return to the example of my daughter’s experience, the weight room training she receives in no way relates to Easy Strength. In fact, it could be considered the exact opposite due to the volume and number of lifts. As will become clearer later on, the Easy Strength approach provides a philosophical and literal template for strength training that allows you to more mindfully develop an athlete’s strength attributes over his or her life-cycle/career.
Second, What Is “Antifragile”?
To quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
[A]ntifragility is defined as a convex response to a stressor or source of harm (for some range of variation), leading to a positive sensitivity to increase in volatility (or variability, stress, dispersion of outcomes, or uncertainty, what is grouped under the designation “disorder cluster”).
Or more simply, for our purposes: that which gains from stress.
It is also helpful to define what antifragility is not. Obviously, it is the opposite of fragility. But it is not resilience or robustness. These qualities are beneficial, but inherently do not increase their own qualities when subjected to stress. Examples of resilience or robustness might be bamboo or a thick stone wall. An example of something antifragile might be your femur.
If your bone breaks, it should knit back together and become stronger at the fracture line. Likewise, this is why weight training is recommended to help decrease the risk of osteoporosis; the incurred stress of lifting weight can help to increase bone density. But if a stone wall is pushed, eventually it will fail and collapse. I have a friend who works on demolitions who saw a 200-year-old, thirty-foot-high stone barn gable end flex over two feet from center and back to plumb, before it gave way—talk about resilient! But not particularly antifragile given that the stress of breaking does not gain that gable anything, whereas our bone can become stronger.
Easy Strength Is Antifragility Training
The concept of antifragility can be applied to almost anything. Indeed, Taleb, as a Professor of Risk Engineering, has primarily applied this to the economic realm, though not exclusively. So what does this have to do with Easy Strength? My contention is that the methodology in Easy Strength is inherently an application of the antifragile concept to strength training.
I am a simple person and a visual learner. I like images. Therefore, I found a diagram on page three in Pavel and Dan’s book to be helpful. It is the premise of the whole first chapter, that is to say, the quadrant. The Y axis represents the relative absolute quality of maximum (meaning, how good you are at something) and the X axis represents the number of qualities (meaning, how many things you are good at). Pavel and Dan’s hypothesis was that most of us should be “living” in ESQ3 for a majority of our training.
Again, I like diagrams. So, in Antifragile (which contains a lot of words and not many pictures), I was pleased to find another quadrant. It is found in the appendix section on page 437. To simplify Taleb’s quadrant, we can represent the Y axis as exposure to risk and the X axis as potential gain.
So as you can easily surmise from Taleb’s quadrant, in general you should seek to maximize gain and minimize risk, that is to say, “live” in AFQ3.
Two pretty graphs do not an argument make. Likewise, these quadrants do not perfectly overlay one another. That said, you can (and I do) make the argument there is a general correlation between them.
ESQ1 and AFQ1
I would argue Easy Strength’s Q1 is similar to Taleb’s Q1, low levels of risk and gain, but beneficial. Remember, in ESQ1 we are developing the potential athlete, learning a whole host of movements but there is not any great skill.
In my mind, this relates to Taleb’s flaneur, traditionally defined as a lounger or idler. The flaneur in the antifragile context is someone purposefully experiencing a whole host of different things, developing a palate, as it were, and intentionally not specializing in anything. In the AFQ1 quadrant, being exposed to multiple and varied experiences sets the stage for developing antifragility. Likewise, training in ESQ1 prepares the athlete for more rigorous and specialized training, in the future.
ESQ2 and AFQ4
ESQ2 would relate to Taleb’s AFQ4 in that the rewards and risks are increased. In ESQ2, we are developing many qualities (speed, power, and explosiveness in multiple skills, etc.) and high levels of their maximums. This works for a period of time, but is inherently unsustainable over the long run.
Professional athletes such as football players have careers that span maybe two decades. Certainly, active professional athletes, especially in collision sports, near the forty-year-old mark are an outlier. Similarly, with AFQ4 there are potentials for large positive outcomes, but it is the potential for large negative ones that make it unsustainable and hence tends more toward fragility.
ESQ4 and AFQ2
ESQ4, the rare air of having few qualities but of a very high level of maximum correlates to AFQ2, having a large improbable downside and small upside. Think of this as it relates to powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or girevoy sport. The lifts themselves become the goal in competition, so maximum volume or tonnage determines the event winner. Reaching sub-five seconds in the forty-yard dash is not relevant to a professional heavyweight powerlifter, or for many other people for that matter. Likewise, these technical lifts themselves may become heavily specialized. Too, performing a max attempt, by definition, contains a greater degree of risk.
That said, I must reiterate there is nothing inherently “wrong” or “bad” about any of this. The quadrant is not a moral judge; it just offers insight into potential outcomes. Any time you heavily specialize, other non-relative skills have to be put to the side.
ESQ3 and AFQ3
Lastly, we come to ESQ3, the developing of fewer qualities at low or moderate levels of relative maximum. This in my mind, correlates to AFQ3—a large upside with small downside.
If you read Easy Strength pages 33-38, there are listed eight strength attributes. These attributes are generally and specifically beneficial to anyone, an athlete or desk jockey. To be proficient in these attributes does not require massive specialization, hundreds of different lifts, tons of equipment, or tens of hours per week in the gym (large upside). Overtraining and risk of injury are decreased (small downside). Likewise, achieving them with an Easy Strength approach does not leave you mentally or physically spent. You have the energy and/or ability to pursue other skills if desired, allowing for a more balanced athletic development. This methodology then, tends toward antifragility.
So for ESQ3, let us coin a “new” term for now—antifragile training. I think longevity is a part of it. Not just longevity as it pertains to overall lifespan, but to the athlete in their given sport or the continued quality of a person’s physical actions. That said, maintaining and then increasing our strength (becoming more robust) over the long run is not an original idea. Sports periodization, with its macro, meso, and micro cycles, is a part of this. Outside of our Easy Strength system, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 comes to mind.
This antifragile training concept applies to you and me, but it is important to note these quadrants are not mutually exclusive all the time. They are sort of like fractals, being self-similar across different scales. Remember, our overall philosophy in training is to tend toward antifragility. Therefore, we should always start from ESQ3. For example, as a non-professional athlete, perhaps I have a certain skill I want to get better at, e.g. I want to improve my deadlift for the TSC (don’t we all?). I can focus on that goal and move into a heavily specialized series of mesocycles. Meanwhile, using ES tenets as my baseline, I can maintain and/or improve my lifting in my squat and bench without detracting from my short-term goal. Therefore, “living” in ESQ3 does not preclude me from visiting other quadrants.
The Application of This to Your Training
In this article I have made several assumptions: that the Easy Strength principles are a beneficial and practical way to increase strength, and that antifragility is a desirable outcome. That said, based on the comparison of the quadrants between the two books, it seems the practice of developing moderate levels of relative maximum strength with fewer qualities contains large upsides and small downsides.
Therefore, when planning out your next three or six months of training for reaching whatever goal you have set, perform an analysis of your training template, not solely based on the outcome of any one lifting event, but on whether or not your whole plan tends toward you becoming more or less fragile.
What quadrant are you spending most of your time in? You are investing in your body and your health. Short-term exposure to high risk/high reward can be profitable, but over the long term probably not so much. Only you are accountable for the choices you make so do your own cost/benefit analysis.