Alex Honnold – Rock Climbing

Valley Uprising brought my attention to Alex Honnold.

The documentary covers the history of Yosemite National Park as a climbing hub and the greats who emerged over the years. A shy and awkward Honnold makes an appearance at the end of the feature. It’s hard to believe he’s the greatest free solo climber of all time.

Honnold’s climbing relies on nothing but chalk, shoes and several buckets of courage. He has climbed all over the world and completed the Yosemite Triple Crown – Yosemite’s three peaks – in 18 hours and 50 minutes. He holds a number of speed climbing records, the most recent being California’s Lover’s Leap.

What makes him successful?


His ability to remain in control on a precarious rock face is what separates Honnold from the rest.

He earned the nickname, No Big Deal, as his attitude toward risky climbs borders on nonchalance. He is capable of detaching himself from his emotions and channels all his focus into navigating his way up the trickiest of climbs.

Is this something he’s nurtured over time or was he born with these abilities?

J.B. MacKinnon from Nautilus explored Honnold’s brain – with the help of science – to get to the bottom of this question. The fMRI, a machine that detects activity in different parts of the brain, showed no amygdala activity when Honnold was exposed to stress-causing images. The amygdala is a region of the brain responsible for emotions like fear.

A sleepy amygdala is common in thrill-seekers – people who need large jolts of sensation to get a dopamine hit – and Honnold’s brain activity was 20% higher still than his sensation-seeking buddies.

Experts suspect Honnold was born this way. Though, they speculate that over the years, with exposure to climbing, he has furthered the ability to turn off his nerves.

Student of the sport

A good example of Honnold’s climbing ability not being completely innate came during his first attempt at free climbing. Fear, he admitted, got the better of him.

He has combined his good genes with an intense rock climbing apprenticeship. As an 11-year-old, Honnold read all he could on the subject. He began a journal and jotted down detailed notes of each climb, including what he could improve on. Self-review is an underrated but valuable tool, given it’s not always possible to get feedback from others.

Honnold also visualises climbing. He rehearses what’s required to reach the peak before an attempt. He reviews what could go wrong along the way. By coming to terms with the potential pitfalls, Honnold knows what he’s getting himself into and makes the climb as objective as possible.

Mental rehearsal also allows Honnold to develop his motor memory. As he examines every hand hold and foot placement in his head, it consolidates his technique.

The future for Alex Honnold is simple – climb. Living out of his van, No Big Deal lives and breathes the sport. His life shows that by combining passion with a desire to improve can result in the remarkable.


Ed Coan – Powerlifter

Don’t let his diminutive stature fool you.

Ed Coan is the greatest powerlifter of all time.


He has set over 71 world records in four different weight classes. Coan spent most of his time in the 120 kg weight class. And what makes his feats so remarkable is he was able to beat bigger lifters.

Imagine Mayweather pummelling Tyson in his prime, over and over again. This is what Coan has done in powerlifting.

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What makes him successful?

A student of the sport

Ed Coan knew he was a talented lifter. Lifting heavy things came naturally to him. Though, in order to move from a great lifter to the best, he had to do more.

He combined his natural abilities with an insatiable appetite to learn. He absorbed knowledge from Ernie Frantz, in his early days, and continued to surround himself with elite lifters over the years.

If you spend time and learn from strong lifters, you will become pretty darn strong too.

Prioritise technique

Coan’s training methods contributed to his success.

He favoured a bodybuilding approach. His muscles grew, giving him a greater capacity to lift heavy weights. And his tendons and the surrounding connective tissue got stronger too and this built resiliency.

The American was big on periodisation – the changing of intensity over a training period. While high-intensity training (lifting close to your maximum) is vital to building strength, it’s also demanding and can lead to overtraining. By training in phases, it gives the body a chance to recuperate.

Most importantly, Coan stresses technique.

Technique. Technique. Technique.

Coan says that a focus on technique allowed him to get the most out of his body. It enabled him to move with near-perfect efficiency, rather than wasting energy.

Play the long game

The sporting greats hang around longer than most. Jack Nicklaus and Roger Federer come to mind. Coan fits the bill too. The nuggety Chicagoan is in his fifties and continues to lift bone-crushing weights.

The message: be patient.

Time under the bar is invaluable. It allows you to groove technique, become a master of your body and break down the mental baggage linked with lifting heavy-ass objects.

Žydrūnas Savickas – Strongman

Žydrūnas Savickas is arguably the strongest man to have graced the earth.

Known as ‘Big Z’, the man mountain tips the scales at 180kg at a height of 1.91m. Savickas, forty-one years old,  is a Lithuanian strongman and former powerlifter.

Savickas interests in strength sports were piqued after watching a strongman event on TV as a teenager. This sparked a career spanning more than two decades yielding truckload of trophies.


Savickas has accumulated over fifty titles including four World’s Strongest Man victories and eight Arnold Strongman Classic’s. He is the only person to have won every current strongman competition.

But a long and profitable career looked unlikely in 2001 when he suffered a major setback…

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What makes him successful?

The ability to overcome adversity

In 2001, Savickas found himself competing in the rugged Faroe Islands. During Conan’s wheel event, an endurance-based challenge, he blew out both of his patellar tendons. Most thought his career was over. Tendon injuries are notoriously fickle. They have a poor blood supply and recovery is slow.

Also, the patellar tendons are fundamental in strength-based sports. They transfer the force created by quadriceps, the large muscles of the front part of the thigh, in movements like squatting.

Savickas was undeterred.

Nine months later, not only was the big Lithuanian competing – but winning – a national powerlifting competition. He would soon claim victory in his country’s strongman contest before placing second in the World’s Strongest Man.

The message here is: injuries are part of the sport and you must be willing to overcome hurdles to succeed.

Savickas rehabilitation was painful and arduous. Rebuilding his body was only part of the challenge. Conquering the mental demons from the traumatic injury, and again having faith in his body, would have been just as hard.


Savickas’s body awareness – when to push and when to ease off – is another contributing factor to his long and successful career. Perhaps he learnt to listen to his body after the injury in 2001.

Autoregulation is a form of body awareness that you can apply. It uses ‘perceived levels of exertion’ – how difficult a lift was – to guide training. The main issue with autoregulation is it takes time under the bar to develop the skill of knowing how much effort a lift was. People fall into two camps: the conservative who don’t push hard enough and the aggressive who get burnt out or injured.

Be patient. Know when to load up and when to ease off.

Future plans

Forty-one is old in most sports. But Big Z has shown no signs of slowing down, claiming victory in the 2016 Arnold Strongman Classic. If the burly Lithuanian can continue to manage his body there’s no reason he can’t extend his career into his fifth decade emulating the evergreen strongman Mark Felix.

Lu Xiaojun – Olympic Weightlifting

You’d be forgiven if you mistook Lu Xiaojun for a superhero. His armour-plated physique is a trademark of his brand.

Lu is a Chinese weightlifter of the highest calibre. He claimed gold at the 2012 Olympic games while also capturing three world championships along the way in the 77kg class. Lu claimed silver at the Rio games where he was pipped thanks to a world record effort by Nijat Rahimov of Kazakhstan.

Take a look at Lu’s background and you’ll notice factors which have contributed to his impressive accomplishments.


It would be naive to think genetics don’t play an important part in athletic development. The way an individual is built facilitates success in certain endeavours and difficulty in others.

Before weightlifting, Lu was a sprinter, with the 200m and 400m being his forte. This suggests a predisposition to power. Lu likely possesses a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres, allowing him to generate massive amounts of force required for the Olympic lifts.

As a child, strength came easily to Lu. His mother reported he was able to easily shift loads which others would struggle with.

Strong values

Growing up in rural China provided Lu with a solid grounding. Farm living instilled in him high levels of determination, the ability to endure hardship and withstand hard work.

Lu viewed his childhood as the cornerstone of his future success.

Support network

No one makes it on their own.

Despite living in poverty, Lu was sent to a provincial boarding school due to his prodigious talent. His family provided him with an opportunity to pursue excellence.

Financial hardship continued to plague Lu and his family. At one stage, Lu almost gave it all up. His family’s farm was under threat and could have used the money which was paying for his tuition. Lu’s coach, Dengling Hu, wouldn’t allow it but recognised something needed to change. He made arrangements for Lu to move to a different school which not only required less funding but also provided him with greater opportunities to progress as a lifter. Success soon followed.

With his body bruised and battered, Lu quit the national team in 2006. Two years passed when he was approached by Yu Jie. He wanted to coach Lu. The two were a near-perfect match and a partnership was formed. Their understanding of one another was a key component to the success which followed, culminating in Olympic gold.

Deeper meaning

For Lu, weightlifting was more than a sport. It was a pathway out of poverty for him and his family. The sacrifices his parents made instilled a deep level of gratitude. He was determined to pay his debt.

Initially it began with small contributions. After a tournament, Lu would send the winnings to his family. As his star continued to rise, so did his contributions.

After the London Olympics in 2012, Lu returned to his home town. He was intent on helping the impoverished community, and in particular the children, aiding in areas like home construction. To provide ongoing support he founded the ‘Love Fund’. It is believed he plans to auction his gold medals with the proceeds going towards this fund.

Lu be continued?

Genetics, strong values, a loving support network and a deeper meaning behind the sport all formed part of the Lu’s recipe for success.

At 32 Lu’s future is unclear, he is unlikely to make it to the next Olympic Games. Perhaps he’s aiming his sights for one more world championship gold. This would be a fitting way to end his already impressive lifting career.