The real limit

My foray into strength and conditioning began with some fundamental texts. I read Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength; I read Tudor Bompa’s Periodisation; I read Dan John’s Never Let Go; I read Mike Boyle’s Advances in Functional Training; I read Mel Siff’s Supertraining. These texts gave me a good start and introduced me to important ideas, one of which was the difference between a real limit and a perceived limit.

Do a search for “training max”. What you’ll quickly uncover is that, when it comes to weightlifting and fitness, there are multiple types of maxes:

– Training max: the most you’ve ever lifted in training.
– Technical max: the most you can lift with no deviation from what is considered flawless form.
– Competition max: the most you’ve lifted in a competitive scenario.
– Absolute max: the most you can lift with no regard for proper form and the most provocative of stimuli.

The point: the real limit to your capacity is constantly fluctuating, as is the perceived limit to your capacity.

Another example of the gap between the real and the perceived limit comes from Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved:

“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, “In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.” This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”

Some more examples:

Love: we reserve our love for the small amount of people we are close to and intimate with. We think that our love can extend only to them. But the credit of our love can extend well beyond. Instead of loving a few individuals, we can love strangers too. We can “prove love”, as Chuck Tingle would say, for everyone, not just a select few.

Creativity: in Impro Keith Johnstone makes the point that creativity, or its absence, is a matter of inhibition, not ability. We cease being creative not because our stores are limited but because we begin to censor our output. “Creative” is the base state of humanity, not the peak state.

Overtraining/under-recovery: many disciples of CrossFit, and of fitness in general, end up taking enforced breaks from training. Why? Because they push themselves harder than they are able to recover from. They think their body can handle more stress than it is currently capable of, so they get hit with injuries and long periods of diminished performance.

Pain: Brazilian jiu-jitsu is great for many reasons, but one of the most important is the “tap”. Submitting enables a person to train year-round, without too much damage—contrary to striking sports where to train means to get hit. But when you choose to tap changes. Beginners, when first experiencing the onset of a choke or joint lock will panic and tap immediately. But the more experienced know that, often, the psychological can override the biological. The point at which you feel your consciousness fading is actually ten or twenty seconds later than you first thought; the amount of pressure your clenched jaw can endure from a shoulder being driven into it is a lot more after you relax.


The gap between the real and the perceived limit is always present, if not always apparent. But what to do with it? Take a look at this sketch.

perceived and real

It portrays four possible actions: 1) Increase the real limit. 2) Decrease the real limit. 3) Increase the perceived limit. 4) Decrease the perceived limit.

Increasing the real limit is akin to physiological and psychological adaptation. Think of how the bodily tissues are broken down and reconstructed, over and over, in the course of a deadlift or squat training cycle. Or how the aerobic system adapts and becomes more efficient after regular bouts of low-intensity, long-duration activity. Or how the mind steadily accumulates a body of knowledge and a network of relationships during periods of deep immersion in a particular field or discipline.

Decreasing the real limit is akin to physical and psychological deterioration. Deprived of adequate quantities of food, the body will turn on itself for sustenance. Fat stores will be raided, followed by stores of carbohydrate, and when those are fully depleted the body will begin to cannibalise its own muscular tissue. And if that is still not enough, the body will shut down tertiary operations of the organs and prioritise the operation of systems critical to life, like the brain and the heart. When deprived of another central nutrient, sleep, the mind will start to malfunction. Regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters will go awry; energy and mood will fluctuate wildly; information and memory processing will become impaired, and if sleep deprivation is taken far enough, will cease altogether. Natural processes like ageing also lower the real limits of our capacities: the bones of an eighty year old are more brittle than the bones of an eight year old.

Increasing the perceived limit is akin to the awakening of awareness. A top tier athlete understands, more deeply than an amateur, his biological limits, and a large part of his development is the result of training himself to bypass the perceived limit and reset it at a higher bar. The upper echelons of performance are as much a tale of how close one can get to, without overstepping, the limits of biology as much as they are the continued optimisation of the human specimen.

Decreasing the perceived limit is akin to onset of caution. When a mountain biker, skier or climber attempts a difficult trail and fails it—crashing, falling or similar—the common response is to set the bar back in a position lower than where it was before. For example, if the climber overestimates their capacity by n and suffers a disastrous fall, they will tend to recalibrate their limit to be more than n below what they previously thought they were capable of.


Those are the actions one can take in response to real and perceived limits. But what states do these actions result in? There are three: positive, negative and neutral.

pos neg neut

A positive state is the norm in nature. For example, there’s a very real reason that our grip is the first thing to go when we try to lift something incredibly heavy: the grip is a circuit breaker that protects the rest of the system. It breaks so that other muscular tissue, connective tissue, and skeletal structures don’t. The typically always-maintained gap between our perceived limit and our real limit is a safety mechanism that keeps us in whatever games we choose to engage in. Bypassing the perceived limits using artificial aids and stimulants often leads us to bypass the real limit of our capacities, resulting in damage that, if not irreversible, at least causes considerable stagnation.

A negative state is dangerous. It is when we think that we—or some thing—can do more than is possible. We can, to some degree, model and predict the potential limits of an entity, but more often than not limits are found by going beyond them. Via trial that leads to error. The example of this that comes to mind is from Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd:

“ “…the general mused on how this new aircraft would require intensive pilot training. The general then boasted about the safety record of fighter pilots under his command and told how he had had no training accidents for several years.
‘General, if you’re not having accidents, your training program is not what it should be,’ Boyd said. He told the general about Nellis [a US training base] and how realistic the training was — and how it resulted in a ten-to-one exchange ratio in Korea. ‘Goddamit, General, you need more accidents,’ he said. ‘You need to kill some pilots.’ ”

Boyd’s “killing pilots” is aggressive trial-and-error, pushing the skills of pilots and the planes they were flying past their limit.

The above example is also an example of the third state, the neutral state. Boyd is trying to get his pilots and his planes to operate as close as possible to the real limit—to make the real limit and the perceived limit one and the same. This is the aim of all high performance. For example, sports stars are genetically optimised for their sport, but they also exhibit a remarkable psychological ability to eek out the most from themselves. Their trade is high reward, but also high risk—they operate on the precipice, performance after performance.


The difference between perceived and real limits; the ways one can act on them; the states they result in. What are we supposed to do with this? Well, that depends.

If you seek high performance in any domain the priority is to untangle the perceived limit from the real limit and try to close the gap, to get towards neutral. But that does entail risk—sometimes minor and sometimes considerable. Ideally, it is best to avoid the negative state in any domain and preserve positive status. After all, it is possible to raise the real limit whilst keeping the perceived limit well below it.

That’s the real aim of intelligent training and pragmatic learning, to profit maximally whilst minimising risk.