Featured story September 16, 2014
Greg Nuckols is just 22, and is already one of the top drug-free powerlifters on the planet. His best-ever lifts in competition include a world-record 750-pound squat at 242 pounds.
In a recent blog post, Nuckols told the truth about his lifting prowess: It’s innate. He was born to be strong. The first time he picked up a barbell, he bench-pressed 150 pounds and deadlifted 250 “with ease.” He could’ve deadlifted more, but it was Christmas morning, and that was all the weight Santa Claus had left for him.
He was 10 years old.
It’s easy for Nuckols, a strength coach in Orange County, California, to figure out where his strength comes from. “My mom's side of the family is full of freaks who, honestly, I just don't talk about because no one would believe me if I did,” he says. “I’m not one of the top five strongest people in that gene pool.”
His freakish strength was apparent from an early age. At 5 he won wrestling matches against 7- and 8-year-olds. “By the time I was 10 or 11, I could lift and move things around the house that my dad couldn’t,” he remembers. When someone told him that pushups would improve his chances in football, “I got to where I could bust out 100 pushups before school, when I got home, and before I went to bed at night.”
At 14, on his first day in his high school weight room, using an Olympic barbell for the first time, he benched 275 and deadlifted 425, which he estimates was 2.5 times his body weight. A year later, he broke state powerlifting records with virtually no formal training.
That led him directly to his current career as a personal trainer. “I was the strongest kid in the school, so people wanted to know what I did,” he explains. “I’d write them training plans for $20. Low barriers to entry in this industry.”
You can see the problem: a genetic outlier who had barely started his own training was already sharing information he didn’t yet understand. “I liked to believe I was so strong because I was some sort of powerlifting savant and just understood training so well,” he says. “It’s a convenient thing for strong people to believe. I didn’t fully understand yet that a lot of things only worked for me because I’m me. The American idea of being able to do anything if you tried harder was embedded deep in my young mind. Really, I just thought everyone else was lazy.”
The mysteries of genetics
Thoughts like that are now a distant memory for Nuckols. He’s a serious student of strength and conditioning, and his work with a full range of clients, from competitive powerlifters to people whose genetics might not even qualify as average, has given him a more generous perspective.
“If you like lifting weights, and you’re not the strongest guy in the gym, that’s fine,” he says. “Keep lifting. You’ll be healthier, happier, and longer-lived.”
As a bonus, you might discover that you’ve underestimated your potential. You can’t really know until you push yourself hard and see what happens. That’s a twist Nuckols saw firsthand when he worked with a young guy he describes as “amazingly, astoundingly weak” his first day in the weight room. Within five years, without drugs, he’s among the strongest and most jacked lifters in his gym, or any other.
Like Nuckols, he’s an extreme outlier, but one whose potential, hiding behind apparently modest genetics, only came out when he trained.
Which brings us back to the original point: Most training advice that filters down to average guys comes from the biggest, strongest, most-impressive specimens. Some, like Nuckols, started out strong and then worked hard to get even stronger. Others, like his friend, started weak and became strong just slightly slower than a comic-book superhero bitten by a radioactive spider.
Both types tend to believe, as most of us probably would, that everything they achieve is the result of pure effort. From there it’s easy enough to believe that when the rest of us achieve unimpressive results, it’s due to poor effort, rather than the stubborn averageness of our genes.
What we all have in common, no matter where we fall on the genetic spectrum, is the training process, Nuckols says, which almost always produces some measurable improvement. “As long as you love the process, and it’s something you can stick with, the results are a distant second in terms of importance.”
Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., is an award-winning journalist and the coauthor (with Alwyn Cosgrove) of "The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged."