by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

Mastery is essential to self-actualization. But all routes to Mastery are predicated upon physical existence, physical integrity, and a minimum quotient of physical health.

overhead press
Attaining Mastery in multiple domains is the way of the Athlete of Aging.

The training career of the Athlete of Aging can be mapped onto manifold conceptual spaces. Many of you will be familiar with Rippetoe’s classic strength training curve, which looks at absolute performance relative to age-adjusted genetic potential.

On this analysis, strength rises rapidly during the novice phase, hits a deflection point as the linear progression winds down, and then settles onto a long plateau with a gentle upward slope. Training period, training complexity and individualization increase as this strength curve elaborates over time, while the rate of strength development falls off.

Rippetoe Strength Training Curve
Figure 1. Strength Curve Over Training Career. After Rippetoe.

If you look at the bottom of the figure (see above), you will find that Rippetoe also maps programmatic progression onto his time-like strength curve, from novice, to intermediate, to advanced. Not every Athlete of Aging need progress across this continuum to wring the full health benefit out of training. For most of us over fifty, progression to Intermediate will do the trick over the long haul.

There are alternatives to this time-like map of training. We may for example map the training career onto growth or "human need" domains, integrating the general attributes of a continuous existential development from basic physical existence and physical integrity to a life of self-actualization, personal growth, and Mastery.

We begin by considering attributes that must be in place before the Athlete can even begin training. At the most fundamental level, the Athlete must be present, that is, he must enjoy the blessing of existence itself, as a physical being. One cannot train if one cannot move or minimally maintain movement. One must demonstrate some minimal degree of physical integrity, possessing the capacity for movement, locomotion, and exercise—which we might call basic fitness and empowerment. Some degree of general systemic, cellular, and metabolic health is also assumed.

The Athlete of Aging.
Figure 2. First, you have to show up. With a body and everything.

This very basic level, a physical domain of physical existence, physical integrity, minimal fitness, and basic health will necessarily support a serviceable body composition—a minimum of muscle and bone. Basic fitness and empowerment will support a degree of mobility that will permit productive exercise, and which can itself be trained. Cellular, systemic, and metabolic health will support the capacity for extended effort or endurance, which is critical for the conduct of athletic training, and which is in turn developed further by that training.

The Athlete of Aging
Figure 3: You can't train if you can't exercise.

This is represented graphically in Figure 3, in which we observe the bidirectional flows of influence from one “component” to another. I will not continue to picture these bidirectional influences as the model elaborates, because I’m too lazy to produce the necessary proliferation of arrows.

And this is a propitious juncture to acknowledge that I’m conducting an analysis, that being a very old word meaning, roughly, to cut something up. When we cut up a living system, we are likely to find the one critical factor that does not remain invariant under such a transformation is life itself.

So, yes, I know: Dissecting a frog may be instructive, but it is not good for the frog. I’m going forward anyway.

At the assumption of training, the proper central emphasis, for reasons I and others have argued at length elsewhere, is on force production, which we call strength. An untrained Master who embarks on the life of an Athlete of Aging will get strong first, and if the Athlete does so with the proper programming of the proper exercises, collateral improvements in mobility and endurance will materialize, promoting the development of appropriate conditioning, balance, and basic precision of movement (itself the product of manifold influences, including proprioception, innate ability, and so on).

Figure 4. Integration of ontological, physical, and training domains.

It shouldn’t take too much imagination to see how continued training will progressively promote the central athletic attribute of power, which is the first derivative of strength, and contribute collaterally to the progressive expression of speed and agility. And if the athlete will, as we have repeatedly recommended, take on the physical practice of a sport or physical discipline (tennis, swimming, tai chi, Olympic lifting, etc.), we can easily see how that Athlete will progress to a certain level of skill.

Such an athlete may elect to deepen his understanding of either his training or his practice through the pursuit of additional reading and research, through competition or coaching, through experimentation and creativity, or even by challenging the very principles by which he has achieved his current level of physical achievement. Every arena needs its heretics and iconoclasts.

At this stage, the Athlete is flirting with Mastery, with a level of accomplishment that demands, and is fed by, a simultaneous deepening and transcendence of the Athlete’s individuality. At this level, achievement goes beyond physical performance (which has long since progressed to the flat part of the curve) and entails commitments and contributions to others.

Figure 5. Ascending to Mastery.

Mastery has a social dimension, with attendant responsibilities to our fellows and our community. And of course Mastery has an existential or spiritual dimension, with attendant responsibilities and benefits to ourselves.

Mastery is part and parcel of what Maslow called Growth Needs. In Maslow’s hierarchy (which, I am constrained to point out, is also a philosophical exercise in frog dissection), the necessities of esteem, cognitive stimulation, and aesthetic enrichment were all milestones on the path to self-actualization, and these Maslowian concepts are elements of what I am calling Mastery.

Figure 6. I got your Broad Domains right here.

If anybody reading this were still awake, he might object that, as I myself observed at the beginning, not every Athlete progresses to advanced programming. This is a critical point, because it brings to light two extremely important issues.

The first issue is that Mastery does not display a one-to-one correspondence with programming or even to the quantitative metrics of physical performance. An older, more frail, less competitive athlete may never progress beyond basic intermediate programming or average strength performance for his trained demographic, and may yet achieve Mastery—a condition in which the degree of skill, insight, accomplishment, and contribution are generative of apparently disproportionate benefits to oneself and one’s community. Those who have found the most joy, experienced the most personal growth, and have served as the greatest inspirations and teachers for others are not necessarily the strongest or most gifted among us.

The second point is that one need not achieve athletic Mastery to be an Athlete of Aging or to experience mastery itself. To be an Athlete of Aging necessarily entails training the physical body to optimize performance in the Arena of Life because, without some degree of physical health and vigor, all other roads to Mastery, self-actualization, and joy become more or less intractable.

We all need some degree of accomplishment at the level of athletic skill, or at least the level of strength, because such is necessary to sustain and support a healthy pursuit of Mastery in music, or mathematics, or history, or carpentry, or any other endeavor that makes us richer, more joyful, more useful, and more ourselves. Steven Hawking, you say? An extraordinary person, to be sure. How much would he have accomplished without the constant, intensive, expensive, and technically magnificent attention to his fragile physical integrity? Nothing. And how much more would this great man have accomplished with the use of his hands, his voice, and the capacity to go dancing once and awhile?

It may occur to you from the foregoing that all routes to Mastery follow the same general path: from the fulfillment of the Existential requirements of being, basic health and physical integrity (one must exist, have hands, and be in some semblance of health to be a carpenter), to the Composition of the most basic physical requirements (access to tools, a workshop, and a baseline of physical and cognitive dexterity), to training and building Strength in fundamentals (deciphering plans, basic cuts, simple joints, tool selection and use, shop practices), to realization of the Power of these fundamentals once developed and given their full and efficient expression (increasingly complex, challenging, and beautiful projects), to Skill as one’s pursuits become increasingly demanding, competitive, lucrative, and satisfying, culminating in an ongoing achievement and pursuit of Mastery in continued practice, innovation, teaching, and exploration.

The master carpenter may also achieve, or have achieved, Mastery as an athlete, or he may engage in athletic training to support and inform his general health, vitality, and pursuit of mastery as a carpenter. But Mastery, in either case, contributes to an ongoing process of self-actualization.

Athletic training for strength, power, endurance, and a healthy body composition may lead to Mastery in the realm of physical performance and teaching, or it may not. But perhaps by now you have observed that all routes to Mastery are predicated upon the raw facts of physical existence, physical integrity, and a minimum quotient of physical health and capacity. All other things being equal, the stronger, healthier carpenter (or musician, or author, or historian, or chef) is closer to Mastery, self-actualization, meaning, completion, and joy. And whether it’s on the platform under the bar, or in the workshop at the lathe, or on stage behind the piano, that’s what being an Athlete of Aging is all about.

So go to the gym and do your squats.

Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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