The Beauty of the Bell Curve

Jordan Feigenbaum
January 5, 2016
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Table of Contents

    By Austin Baraki, MD, SSC, ft. Leah Lutz

    “You refuse to settle for mediocrity in those around you, and you relentlessly push people to be the best version of themselves.”

    I received this compliment recently from a friend and client of mine, and it got me thinking. It got me thinking about my own experience with training, as well as the hundreds and hundreds of folks I’ve coached in the pool and on the platform. I reflected on all the lessons I’ve learned and I thought I’d write about it to provide some helpful perspective, especially for all the new trainees we picked up from September Strength Month (link) and in all the months to come in the new year.

    As Starting Strength Coaches, we have a huge variety of people come to us for guidance. We work with people of all ability levels — from the deconditioned elderly (link) to elite Powerlifters and CrossFit Games athletes, and everyone in between. Furthermore, as a resident physician I see the end stages of frailty and “unsuccessful aging” every day in hospital wards and geriatric clinics. But, we’ve already discussed those folks at length before (starting with part 1 here), so today’s article is actually not about those folks. This article is also not about elite athletes at the other end of the spectrum either! Instead, it’s about the “everyone in between,” which actually comprises the vast majority of our client base and very likely includes YOU!

    How do I know this? Well, I’m really just playing the odds based on some oversimplified statistics and biology. You are born with a certain set of chromosomes from your parents containing a random assortment of their genes. This set of chromosomes is the biological blueprint defining you as a human organism. It also defines your “genetic potential” for a given task – that is, how you might perform if every physiologic (and psychologic) function needed for that particular task was optimized.

    Although we can’t really “calculate” one’s genetic potential, we can consider it to be a “random variable” – that is, something whose value is variable due to chance (in this case, who your parents are and exactly which of their sperm and eggs came together, among other things). Because of the massive number of individual variables at play in determining this, basic statistics tells us that genetic potential should be approximately spread in a particular way called the Normal Distribution. This is what people often refer to simply as a “Bell Curve,” shown below:

    Now, imagine this distribution reflects the world population’s genetic potential for maximum performance in a given physical task – take your pick, powerlifting, marathoning, swimming, “Fran”, whatever. (This might be depicted more realistically using two overlapping curves, one for females and one for males – but we’ll keep things simple here.) Everyone’s theoretical “best possible” performance is measured somewhere along the bottom axis. To be clear, this is not the best performance you could put up right NOW, but rather the best performance you could ever hope to achieve with an entire career of perfect training preparation.

    Notice how the curve is symmetrically distributed with a tall peak in the center and has two “tails” that trail off in either direction. The right-hand tail reflects the exceptionally rare individuals who have inherited the potential to hit such elite performances as, say, a 1000 lb squat, or a sub-9.8 second 100m dash, or to become the next NFL superstar. On the other hand, the tall peak in the center represents the much larger number of people who have the potential for performances that are, by definition, more average: say, a 275 lb squat or a 15 second 100m sprint. Of course, just by playing the odds people are much more likely to fall in the middle section of the distribution than on either end.

    Okay, this seems obvious, so what’s my point?

    My point is that we pay so much attention to the “elite” end of the curve, admiring the performance of elite athletes in the Olympics and professional sporting events, that our perception of the curve as a whole becomes skewed. Those of us mere mortals end up perceiving “them” and their performances as being so incredibly superhuman that we see ourselves as falling far lower down the left side of the curve than we actually do.

    I want you to recognize the symmetrical LEFT-hand tail of the curve, and recognize what it means. The “bell curve” suggests that although you’re probably not a “genetic freak,” you’re equally unlikely to be a complete “genetic dud”! Most of us aren’t bred for performance like thoroughbred racehorses, and there are fewer and fewer “selection pressures” in our modern world; instead, the result of our genetic lottery is becoming more based on chance, so the results (that is, me and you) statistically end up gravitating toward the middle.

    It’s been my own experience, and my observation from coaching others, that most people *significantly* underestimate their own potential in a given task; in other words, they see themselves as falling much further toward the left-hand side of the curve than they really do, and often underestimate what the “average” genetic potential really is.

    I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over again in all sorts of people. I’ve seen it in family members like my own mother, who certainly never expected that at age 53 she’d ever be performing 6 unassisted chin-ups, deadlifting well over her bodyweight, or reversing her osteopenia as shown on DXA scan – all of which she is actually doing. I’ve also seen it in friends, acquaintances, clients, and even strangers that I meet and end up discussing my work with.

    I’d bet all of us who train have heard the phrase “Wow, that’s amazing, I could NEVER do something like that!” – of course this is almost universally Not True.

    This reflects the heavily researched sports psychology concept of “Self-efficacy”. A significant portion of our regular coaching practice involves helping folks build confidence, set appropriate goals, and formulate a plan to achieve them. The barbell is truly an elegant tool for these purposes; although we typically use it to periodically stress the body in specific ways to elicit musculoskeletal adaptation, it is equally valuable to “stress the mind” in a way that produces confidence, resilience, and many other psychological adaptations as well.

    Once initial short-term goals are met, a positive feedback cycle develops, creating a “snowball” effect of confidence, motivation, escalating goals, and escalating achievements. Although people do demonstrate variable “responsiveness” to training (a concept discussed at length in David Epstein’s The Sports Gene), this general cycle occurs the same way for everyone.

    Thinking back to my own early training, I can now clearly recall feeling the same way myself. I recognized that, there’s no way I was a “genetic freak” like that big dude squatting a “monstrous” 405 lbs in the rack next to me, or like any of the high school athletes getting ready to go off and compete among the best in the NCAA. Although I was correct in thinking I wasn’t incredibly genetically gifted, my error was in severely underestimating what a genetic freak actually was! I trained consistently in the pool for years on end and ended up joining those athletes in the NCAA, and I later learned under the bar that it really doesn’t take anything special for a young, healthy male to work up to a 405 lb squat with proper training (really, it doesn’t. It’s just not that heavy).

    Now, I didn’t have any particular problems with confidence or self-efficacy, so why did this psychological phenomenon happen to me in the same way it happens to so many others? It seems to me that the primary reason is INEXPERIENCE. A lack of experience gives you no context or qualification to interpret an accomplishment in a given task. You literally have no idea whether a particular performance is “impressive” or not, because EVERYTHING seems impressive when you have no experience with the task yourself.

    For a subset of people who have pre-existing confidence issues, this inexperience also leads to a cascade of other negative effects including feelings of intimidation. Think of all the folks who never even start an exercise program because they feel too intimidated to even enter the gym in the first place. Fortunately there are now thousands of gyms like “Planet Fitness” swooping in to save the day for just $10/month. In exchange, these businesses foster, reinforce, and even pride themselves on your underlying sense of mediocrity (although this is a rant best saved for another day).

    Of course, I realize that my personal example might be a little hard to relate to, particularly for the skeptics among our readers. I understand that most folks haven’t been lifelong athletes – and may not have ever been “athletic” at all. For these people, I thought the story of 40 year-old Barbell Medicine client Leah Lutz might resonate a bit better, so I’ve asked her to tell a bit more of her story here, after her recent contribution to the site:

    “Sadly you might say that I had started to view my genetic potential as simply being obese. It sounds horrible, but after struggling for about 10 years with my weight, yo-yo dieting down and then getting heavier, I was determined to lose weight, but I truly thought I was naturally or genetically a large person with no athletic ability whatsoever.  So when I decided I needed to lose weight once and for all several years ago, my goal was to be “not obese” and to simply be more comfortable with everyday life things. I had zero visions of doing anything athletic or ever competing.  In my mind that was not at all who I was or who I could ever be.

    I have absolutely no athletic background. None. I mean, I would do the PE I had to, I would go hiking, and I’d walk.  At my heaviest, 265 lbs, I was decidedly nervous to do any physical activity that would be too difficult, meaning everything we consider athletic. I was never on a team, never trained, and never entered an athletic competition. So by no definition would anyone see me as someone with athletic potential.  Think the exact opposite.

    When I decided to change my life and lose weight, I exercised because I decided I HAD to.  I was awkward and not very good at it, meaning I wasn’t too coordinated, didn’t have great balance, couldn’t run even 400m, and was just nervous about being in a gym and around “athletic” people. I would go to the gym, then go home and go to bed.

    Losing weight and becoming a more active person was difficult, one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but over time I came to enjoy training and learning, pushing myself to do more than I thought I ever could, be it a new skill or a new weight on the bar.  After a couple of years, I now liked my time at the gym. But I was still the non-athletic woman who worked out.  And my genetic potential?  I was still sure I had none. I was just getting by, doing what I needed to do.

    You need to understand that even after a couple of years and great progress, I’m not sure I could “run” a mile without stopping even if you held a gun to my head. I had to stop and think about how to do a broad jump. A pull up was not even a hope. But I was getting stronger, and I was gaining more and more confidence. I was learning that I needed to show up and do the work.  I was learning to keep training even when it was tough, even when I didn’t feel like, and even when it seemed like progress wasn’t noticeable.

    Then I decided to actually train for something. This was after my first powerlifting meet.  The first meet I entered 2 years ago was motivation to get to my goal weight. My goals for that meet where to 1) make weight, 2) not come in last on every lift, and 3) to not die of embarrassment in a singlet.  Thankfully I met all of those lofty goals, but I also discovered I liked doing the meet.  So I started training for the next one. I knew I wasn’t a genetically gifted lifter, but I also knew I needed to work hard. I had found something I loved doing (I mean most of the time, who really loves every day of training??), and I simply had to keep going.

    For me, having a coach makes it possible to keep going. I can’t begin to recount the number of conversations Jordan and I have had about what I “can’t do” or the things that I am sure will never, ever happen. My perspective was very skewed and still often is. I was positive that 165 lbs was the lightest I could ever be.  I then qualified for USA Powerlifting Nationals in the 138-lb weight class this year. In fact, I went into my qualifying meet this year pretty sure I wasn’t going to make the weight class, and doubtful that I’d set any personal best performances. It was simply too far from what I’d known or ever done. I had never weighed 138 lbs as an adult, and I had never competed with a 2-hour weigh in before the meet started. I wouldn’t be able to lift well at a lighter bodyweight, I thought. I doubted my ability from the start, worried that I had set my sights on something that other people could do, people who had trained longer, were more athletic, had competed more frequently, and on and on. And I did it. All of this is so far beyond what I had ever imagined I’d ever be able to do.”

    Think carefully about what you just read. In summary, this is the story of a 40 year old woman with no athletic history whatsoever, who went from morbid obesity to becoming a national-level 138 lb powerlifting competitor who can squat well over 300 lbs. But this one-line summary glances over much of what’s so important about her journey; in particular, the transformation in her mind, and the years of mental and physical battles she has fought through to get to this point.

    The initial assumption (like most people in her situation) was that she sat squarely in the “left-hand tail of inferiority” on the bell curve. Though she’s still no genetic freak, the luck of her genetic draw (statistically just like most of yours) put her potential much higher than she ever thought – this is the Beauty of the Bell Curve.

    My favorite aspect of coaching is helping people achieve far more than they ever thought possible, then seeing it open doors in other areas of their lives. YOU, reader, have the potential to be stronger than you think. Smart coaching combined with hard barbell training and the right mindset has allowed Leah to begin realizing her true potential, and it can do the same for you. Of course, I’m not suggesting everyone can become national level powerlifters. But I am suggesting that getting stronger will make you better equipped for just about anything else you want to do. Let’s turn that initial compliment I received from my friend and client into something of a motto:

    “Refuse to settle for mediocrity. Become the best version of yourself.”

    Time to get under the bar.

    Austin Baraki, M.D., Starting Strength Staff Coach is a resident physician in Internal Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas. He received his doctorate in Medicine from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia and his B.S. in Chemistry from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He became interested in strength training after completing a 15-year competitive swimming career through the Division 1 collegiate level, and is now a competitive powerlifter and strength coach for clients of all ages. As of 2015 he had achieved personal best lifts of a 530 lb squat, a 405 lb bench press, a 600 lb deadlift, and a 1505-lb raw competition total at a bodyweight of 192 lbs. He can be reached directly by email at as well as on Twitter

    Jordan Feigenbaum
    Jordan Feigenbaum
    Jordan Feigenbaum, owner of Barbell Medicine, has an academic background including a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, and is a former Starting Strength coach and staff member. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world  for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, 275lb overhead press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter.

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