Typical vs. Maximal Performance

October 27, 2016 in Blog

Something happened today I wanted to share.

I recently started a weight lifting program, and today was “legs day”. Sitting down to do my seated leg press, I was about to do my normal weight for this machine: just the bar. Instead, I decided to challenge myself and put 35 pounds on each side.

As I started to lift the weight with my legs, I immediately realized that this weight was extremely heavy for me. Maybe I’m not ready for it, I thought. Nevertheless, I pushed through it with increased effort, and was able to do 7 reps.

Good, I thought. I can lift 70 pounds with my legs. But I didn’t want to overexert myself, so I put down a 35 pound weight on the floor and hoisted the other 35 pound weight up on the rack. Then I put a 25 pound weight on each side to lessen the load a bit.

Round 2. Yet for some reason it was still heavy– almost heavier! Weird, I thought. But I still pushed through, and did another 7 reps.


Pleased with myself that I was able to push myself a bit out of my comfort zone, I stood up and decided to go on to another machine. Until my eyes looked up, and for the first time, I really saw that top rack:


Now, I had seen that top bar just a few seconds ago, but I didn’t process that it might actually be part of the machine. I had just assumed it was the holder for the weights.

So I asked a nearby trainer: Hey, did I just lift ALL that weight? 

Yea, he said. Nice job.

It couldn’t be true. But it was. My legs lifted 400 pounds.

Now, for experienced weight lifters, that weight might still be child’s play. But for me, it was almost 6 times the the amount I originally thought I could lift with my legs. Well, actually, I wasn’t even sure I could lift that!

The analogy to the work I do in psychology was immediately striking. In particular, the distinction between typical and maximal performance came to mind. Typical performance is how we usually perform. Maximal performance is how we perform with maximal motivation and effort.

There have been some reports of superhuman strength during a crisis. While many of the stories are most certainly exaggerated, there is emerging research suggesting that enhanced focus and energy (such as during our flight or flight response) does allow us to go way beyond what we initially thought was possible. This distinction between typical and maximal performance matters A LOT.

How many children have we written off in school due to their typical performance? How many children would surprise us if we actually got them fully engaged in the learning and creative process? How many of us as adults constantly sell ourselves short because of the narratives we’ve created in our own heads of what’s possible? How many of us give up or stick to the same routines day after day because that’s what we typically do?

Today’s weight lifting experience taught me a valuable lesson about life, and reaffirmed for me the importance of going beyond what is when we assess a child’s potential, or even our own potential, to what could be. After all, believing in others is the greatest gift we can give people. It may also be the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

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3 Responses to “Typical vs. Maximal Performance”

  1. Leanne Sowul says:

    This is an amazing story. You stumbled, kind of accidentally, upon a growth mindset- and the results were so convincing that it will likely change your perspective on challenging yourself in the future. If every child had an experience like this early on, who knows how much more they could achieve in a lifetime? I’d like to share your story with my students.

  2. daniel says:

    Those of us who strength train know this lesson well – as Mark Rippetoe says, training shows you that “your limits are not where you thought they are”. Actually, you should probably drop whatever workout you are doing (“leg” and other body part days for a novice lifter are a really bad approach, as are leg presses) and do his Starting Strength program. Check it out if interested.

    There – now I’ve paid you back a bit for the stuff your work has taught me.