033. What Makes Athletes Faster, Better, Stronger? – The World Of Muscle

033. What Makes Athletes Faster, Better, Stronger?

What’s the cause of improved athletic performance?

There’s no denying athletic performance has been increasing over the years.  World records are steadily being broken.

The question is: What can this increase be attributed to?

David Epstein presented a Ted talk about what he considers the answer to the question.

Randy agrees mostly except he believes the one area was a little too downplayed.

Hear Randy’s explanation.

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Hosts:  Randy Roach and Tamas Acs

Episode #33

Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

In This Episode:

A TED talk by David Epstein of Sports Illustrated titled:
Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

Are we “somehow just getting better as a human race, inexorably progressing…”

David looks at our “march of athletic progress”

Is it primarily due to genetics, technique and leaps in equipment and playing surface technology

Randy asks…what about drugs

Tamas asks…what about the mind

Update on “The American Muscle Monopoly”

Related Links:

Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

Episode Summary and Updating:

The show began with Randy stating that he had received a link from a friend, Jim Bryan, to a tech talk by David Epstein,a writer for Sports Illustrated

The show was titled: Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

Randy said that he knew David and had spoken to him on occasion a few years ago and that David gave him a nice endorsement for Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Volume I:

I’m assuming this will become a seminal research volume.”

Randy enjoyed David’s presentation and agreed with a lot of it, but a couple of things did not resonate with him, specifically with David’s statement:

“Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had [he]been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride…That’s the difference track surface technology has made, and it’s done it throughout the running world.”

David was referring to a hypothetical race that included Jesse Owens of 1936 and current sprint champion Usain Bolt at the 2013 World Championships

Randy conceded that he was not an expert on track events but just felt that the statement did not seem accurate, that being a 14 foot gap being closed to a single stride based on a track surface.

Randy looked at some of the history of the 100 meter sprint

He confessed that he has been a long time believer that performance enhancing drugs coupled with diversified genetics were the primary factors for increased performance followed by increases in sports technology

Although drugs could be considered as technology, Randy kept the argument to external tech advances such as playing surfaces, pucks, balls, racquets, bats etc.

Randy also took notice with David’s statement:

“Clearly, athletes have gotten more savvy about performance-enhancing drugs as well, and that’s made a difference in some sports at some times, but technology has made a difference in all sports, from faster skis to lighter shoes.

Again, Randy acknowledges much truth in what David stated, but feels the statement downplayed the dramatic difference drugs and doping have made in so many of the size, speed, strength and endurance fields of competition

Tamas asked Randy what he actually felt was the most dominant factor, drugs or genetics

Randy had a hard time choosing between the two and seemed to settle both being pretty much equally important and when combined, they produce an enormous schism between the general public and the elite, enhanced athletes

Randy continued with the Jesse Owens sprint comparisons

Jesse ran the 100 meters in 10.3s in 1936 on a cinder track, inferior shoes and make-shift starting dugouts

Starting blocks were introduced in the 1940s

Regardless, The speed did not increase all that dramatically over 20 years from Owens 1936 10.3s indicated by a 10.2s world record by the mid 1950s which was brought down to 10.1s by Ira Murchison just before his gold medal run at the 1956 Olympics

Interestingly, the 1960 Rome Olympic games 100 meter run four years later was won by Armin Hary of Germany with a slower time of 10.2s

Hary was said to have run a 10s flat 100 meter in 1958, but the run was not allowed based on the track’s slope exceeding the legal limit

Slope, wind, timing technology and altitude were strong additional factors that added to the difficulty when comparing 100 meter runs from different eras

Randy showed his lack of political correctness when he asked what a white man was doing running a 10s 100 meters in 1958 on a cinder track

Hary was known for his explosive starts to the point that many believed that he either had exceptional reaction time or he was anticipating the starter gun as he often false started

Could the explosive starts have been from something else

Randy stated that Hary was active at the dawning of the use of testosterone and early anabolic steroids

Armin Hary was also from Germany and Drug usage was around the European theatre at that time

Paul de Kruif, writing 10 years earlier in 1945, stated the athletic potential of testosterone for both muscle building and reaction time:

“The news seems too good how testosterone hardens flabby muscles and makes muscles swell and be strong to work long without tiring. The news seems incredible how testosterone sharpens nerve reflexes and upsurges the mental power of the brain. What is most significant in the biological sense is that testosterone engineers the human body’s building of its own proteins…We know how both the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns have won championships, super-charged by vitamins. It would be interesting to watch the productive power of an industry or a professional group that would try a systematic supercharge with testosterone—of course under a good hormone hunter’s supervision.” (The Male Hormone, 1945)

Whether Armin Hary’s two false starts slowed him to his 10.2s gold medal run in 1960 is uncertain

What is certain is the use of testosterone in the Soviet union already by the early 1950s

When exactly testosterone followed later by its derivatives, anabolic steroids, made its way into sprinting is also not certain, but Armin Hary was running at the cusp of drug usage in strength, size and speed oriented sports

Four years later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games Bob Hayes ran a 10.06 100 meters which was quite a bit faster than owns and still on a cinder track

In 1968, Jim Hines ran a 10.03 on a cinder track at sea level

That same year Hines broke the 10s barrier with a 9.95s run at the Olympic games in Mexico on a new synthetic (tartan) track

At a glance it appears that the new track shaved a good amount of time off of Hines best run

However, Hines made that 9.95s run in altitude

Also at the same games in altitude, Bob Beaman literally smashed the world recored in the long jump by an unheard of 21 inches and that record stood for over 20 years

Jim Hines 9.95s altitude run also stood for almost 15 years before finally broken by Calvin Smith in 1983

Again, Smith also ran in altitude in Colorado when he broke Hines long standing record

Altitude seems to be more of a factor than synthetic over cinder track

For a while from the late 1960s into the 1970s sprinters ran on both cinder and synthetic tracks without enormous differences at least compared to what difference altitude made

Ben Johnson was a good example of dramatic leaps in sprinting performance with increased drug use

Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, testified that Ben began steroids in the early 1980s

In 1982 and 1983 Ben was running 10.2s, 10.3s and even a 10.4s 100 meters

He ran a 10.2s 100 meters to win the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic games

With increased use of the steroid, stanozolol, Ben runs an outstanding world record 10.79s 100 meters four years later to win the gold medal at the 1988 games by a wide margin

Randy said he could have rung American sports broadcaster Bob Costa’s neck when Bob ran a show on both Florence Griffith-Joyner and Ben Johnson

Both Joyner and Johnson won bronze medals in 1984

They both grew significantly bigger by 1988 and won gold

Joyner’s 100 and 200 meter records still stand today

Bob Costa hosted a television segment that looked at both Johnson and Griffith where Costa tore into Ben over his drug use often referring to him as a cheater, but attributed Joyner’s success to an improvement in mental attitude

Again, Randy called Bob Costa a bastard for what Randy felt was a totally biased and distorted presentation comparison

As fast as Johnson was in 1988 running at 9.79s, current record holder Usain Bolt smashed it in 2009 by running a 9.58s 100 meters

Randy re-iterated his point in believing both genetics and drugs have made the difference in sprinting over that of running surfaces

Bolt obviously has been accused of steroids which both he and his Jamaican organization deny

Randy mentioned the number of sprinters who had been caught and linked to steroid use over the past 15 years

Could a drug-free Usain Bolt really destroy Ben Johnson’s drug-drenched 9.79s run by over 2/10s of a second

Tamas then brought up a significant point that athletes had just begun using weights to help with their performances

Jesse Owens would not have utilized squats or box-jumps in his training back in 1936

However, the Soviet Union had begun this style of training way before the 1970s

Ben Johnson was used once again as an example of a sprinter who used weights both on and off drugs and could still not come near his 9.79s run on weights alone after coming off the drugs

Tamas’s point was more that weight training was additional technology that entered many fields of athletics ramping up in the 1970s and beyond

Randy again emphasized his belief in the combination of drugs and genetics

He stated a study that showed the combo of weight training and drugs had the best effect on putting on muscle

The interesting part of that study was that the group taking just the drugs and no weight training actually put on more muscle than the group conducting the weight training but NOT using the drugs

Randy stated that in bodybuilding many of its early practitioners used weights because of illness or not wanting to be skinny, thus most likely not representing the genetic elite

Into the 1960s following the release of the Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott’s sword,sandal and loin cloth movies plus Dave Draper’s television appearances, thousands of more enthusiastic young kids came into lifting bringing a much broader genetic pool

Randy gave his own example of his friend who at 17 without lifting already looked as if he had trained for several years

He was naturally mesomorphic and many skinnier ectomorphic kids could work out for years even using steroids never matching him training naturally

Tamas gave his own personal experiences with some of his clients

Randy again mentioned that David Epstein made very good points regarding genetics and technique especially for swimming

David pointed out how the flip turn and poolside gutters helped shave times for competitive swimming

Randy again turned to drugs when he pointed out what happened with the East German women swimmers in 1972 when there was such a dramatic change in their physiques from the World Championships to the Olympics when these same swimmers destroyed the records in such a short period of time

Randy could have sworn that years ago he saw a picture of one of the women and she had a beard

He asked the listeners if any had also seen this picture

Epstein pointed out the significant changes in the body types for the different sports such as basket ball players getting taller, female gymnasts getting shorter, swimmers exhibiting much longer torsos and shorter legs compared to the opposite of sprinters with shorter torsos and longer legs etc.

Tamas brought up his discussions with Randy over bone lengths and leverages and the two talked how this could make one “suck” in one sport but be very good in another

Randy mentioned how once upon a time a number of strength athletes such as John Grimek in the 1940s and even Bill Seno later in the 1960s could compete at a very high level in bodybuilding, weightlifting and later powerlifting

Now this is not possible as genetics has sifted out the pure weightlifter from the pure powerlifter and pure bodybuilder

Randy suggested how in some sports it can be argued that technology has over-stepped its bounds especially powerlifting where the assistive gear has added way too much to the lifts

Some heavyweight powerlifters are bench pressing well over 1000 pounds where they would be hard pressed to bench 700 without the specialized shirts

Randy found no validity or point to this level of intrusion upon the purity of powerlifting

A number of the sports could argue pros and cons over technology advancements in their fields

Randy once again emphasized genetics and drugs and brought up Jeff Everson from Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Volume II

Jeff was an early college strength coach for 10 years beginning in 1973

He was ranked third in America for this skill

Jeff’s first five years of strength coaching were drug free before he took drugs himself for the next five years

He saw many who could not touch him in any lifts actually go past him quite fast when they engaged in anabolic steroids

Jeff stated how it took him about four years to move his bench press from 300 pounds to 400 pounds naturally and then another 100 pounds in four months using a relatively low dose of anabolic steroids

Jeff’s best bench naturally was around 450 pounds but moved to over 560 wearing a singlet (no specialized shirts) and a two second pause at his chest

An injury kept him from his anticipated 600 pound attempt

Jeff’s analysis convinced him that a short span of years (with the first cycles of drug use being most effective) can bring anywhere from a 10% to a 35% increase in strength and/or performance depending on the athletic endeavour

A shot putter could add to a 60 foot put another six to eight feet (10% or so) which is highly significant in that sport

Arenas of lifting could see from 20 to 25% such as a bench press moving from 400 to 500 pounds
Jeff believed those seeking sheer size could add up to 35% more mass using drugs so a 200 pound bodybuilder could be looking at 270 pounds

Randy again mentioned Ben Johnson and how he shaved over 4/10 of a second from 1984 to 1988 with increased drug use

This was a bigger leap in four years then we see with Jesse Owns from 1936 until decades later

Again, a number of factors made it hard to compare sprint feats from one era or even one race to another

Randy compared Arnold at 6’1.5” and his biggest competition weight of 237 pounds in 1974 to that of Ronnie Coleman 30 years later at a height of 5’10” or 5’11” weighing 296 pounds

One more time Randy stated that he liked David Epstein’s article but just thought David down-played drugs with his statement:

“Clearly, athletes have gotten more savvy about performance-enhancing drugs as well, and that’s made a difference in some sports at some times, but technology has made a difference in all sports, from faster skis to lighter shoes.

Randy again brought up his belief that drugs go beyond just muscle building and enter the realm of reaction time improvement

Tamas made an excellent addition with more emphasis on one’s mental approach to training and performance

John Ziegler, considered the father of Dianabol, was also working with hypnosis back in the early 1960s

Tamas mentioned how many runners broke the four minute mile immediately after Roger Bannister finally cracked it in the mid 1950s

Randy added a similar example when Vasily Alexeev first clean and jerked 500 pounds back in 1970 then followed quickly by Ken Patera


Randy mentioned that his article, “The American Muscle Monopoly” had been sent out to many significant people around the world.

He confessed that this did bring recognition to both him and Joe Pietaro of MuscleSport, but their intention really is to bring as much focus and notice to Lee Thompson’s anti-trust lawsuit against the NPC and IFBB

Editor and writer, Greg Sushinsky said of “The American Muscle Monopoly”:

“This might be the most important article written about bodybuilding governance and politics in the history of the sport.”

Randy feels this is the best shot in decades to remove a greed based monopoly over bodybuilding and to get the Manion family out after near 40 years of power

Tamas concluded by sharing his visit to Randy’s gym where he had a good arm workout

Randy and Tamas will be doing future podcasts on training

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Joe Breen

Good episode guys, you covered some interesting ground

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