First off, shout out to Will Ruth for pitching this idea to me. He’s a longtime reader and the moderator over at r/strongman on reddit, along with a fellow strongman competitor, coach, and decent dude in general.
Preamature optimization is a term from the computer science world that essentially refers to those folks who go out of their way to try to maximize the performance of their rig without going through the necessary processes to build up the baseline of their hardware. Remembering that I’m a political science major, and that this sort of stuff is well outside my wheelhouse, I’ll use a personal example of a time where my brother would try to install the latest and greatest graphics card into a hand me down PC that was still running DOS to try to play newer computer games. You’re trying to maximize the performance on a system that really doesn’t have much room to grow. Readers of my blog clearly know where I’m going with this, but obviously this isn’t just an issue in the world of computer science; we see this in lifting all the time. Rather than focusing on improving their potential, people focus on maximizing their CURRENT potential.
"Increase my killing power eh?"
It’s easy to get inundated with premature optimization when you’re new to lifting. If you consume any sort of media, you’re bound to run into instances of articles and interview touting the next big great thing that’s going to completely revolutionize the training world. New specialty bars, slingshots and various knock offs, the latest and greatest in wraps, straps and gear, new techniques, etc etc. I’m not here to say that these things DON’T work, because they absolutely do. I’m a huge fan of new tools, techniques, ideas, concepts, paradigm shifts, etc. But here’s the thing; the folks raving about these advances have built up their potential to such a degree that tapping into that extra untapped 5% results in a MASSIVE net gain. It’s the difference between first and second place, world records and missed attempts, etc etc. For someone who is MISSING this potential, the gains are minimal at best.
Let’s use some simple math here (once again, because my education makes me fear math[sub-sub thought here, I realize I have already greatly offended many nerds by saying “math” instead of “maths”]). Let’s say we take a trainee that has the strength potential to squat 1000lbs, but for some reason, they’re missing that little extra something that will optimize their performance. If they’re hanging around at 900lbs (90% of their true potential), and they utilize something that gets them closer to 95% of their potential, they just added 50lbs to their squat. However, say we take a kid capable of a 200lb squat, who can only manage 180lbs. If they take the same route of optimization, they get a whopping 10lbs out of their squat. Woo! Meanwhile, consider the effects of adding 5lb to the POTENTIAL of either lifter. In the case the 1000lb squatter, we’ve added half a percent to their potential, while that 5lb jump is a 2.5% increase in how much they can squat ONCE optimized. The effects of increasing the base are FAR more dramatic among the weaker lifter than the stronger.
The last time you were debating percentages like this was when you were drinking a gallon of milk a day
So you have to ask yourself; what was it these guys with the potential to squat 1000lbs were doing in the first place? They were BUILDING their potential, not maximizing it. They weren’t calculating band tension, running Prilepin’s chart to figure out the peak combination of intensity with volume, foam rolling for 3 hours to ensure that their glutes were firing at least at 78% maximal efficiency; they were simply grinding away and busting their asses. They were hammering the basics hard, for days, weeks, months and YEARS on end. It wasn’t about riding a constant wave of highs and maximized performance; it was about slogging it out in the trenches, through a bunch of decent to ok workouts that eventually accumulated into something impressive through sheer collective effort and time. And during this process, sure, a lack of specialized attention and optimization may have made it such that, at THAT time, they weren’t performing at their max, but that just meant there was even MORE to discover ONCE that trigger got pulled.
Fundamentally, this is why I spend so much time harping on building your MINIMUMS, not your maximums. Increasing your potential in the early stages of your training has a significantly larger effect on how strong you TRULY are compared to fixating on trying to maximize what limited potential you have. Pre-workouts, psyche ups, nose tork, optimum positioning, meal timing, optimized nutrition, perfect mobility, etc etc, all these things are great once you’ve built up a large, wide base to refine and can turn yourself into something lethal, but when you’re still working with mush, all you get is slightly better mush. If you spend all of your time and energy trying to ensure you’re always lifting your maximal amount of weights because YOU are maximized, you’re missing out on the opportunity to improve your base potential. Training UNoptimized improves your performance optimized, but it’s not necessarily true the other way around.
But let's not get too crazy
Before you try to squeeze out as much performance as possible out of your rig, try to get the best possible rig to squeeze out of. Don’t put a turbocharged engine on a pinto.