• Lessons from Mars: Barbarino vs. Albright

     By Jay Diamond

    How much can you leg press?

    Mars Albright BarbarinoThose of you who frequent the gym can answer this without pause, but those who don’t generally answer “I don’t have a clue”. But that’s just wrong – you have a pretty good idea. If you are able to get out of bed in the morning, you can leg-press your body weight. That was my starting point when first attempting weight training. A healthy adult should at least be able to leg press their own weight.

    But getting out of bed wasn’t my goal– it was to be healthy, and I thought a reasonable measure of a healthy male in the prime of life should be a “Fireman’s Carry” (when you can carry another person over your shoulder of roughly equivalent size out of a burning building).  That’s roughly TWICE your body weight.

    If you’ve read my earlier blogs, you know that 5 years ago I didn’t have a clue about fitness, going from the worst shape of my life to the best (today). After starting with some basic cardio (trying not to die), I wanted to take the process further, and weight training was the next logical step. With a new goal in mind, I sat down for the first time on a seated leg press at my swanky London gym, loaded up to twice my body weight, and proceeded to fail miserably.

    I couldn’t budge the weight. While generally failure is success in weight training (that’s the subject of another blog), this was failure out the gate.

    Completely demotivating. Pathetic.

    Dropping the weight to match my body weight, I could still only barely move the press. Was I really that badly out of shape? The answer was yes, but that’s not why I was struggling.

    In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter came ~100km closer to the planet than planned, the engines overheated, and the probe was lost. The reason? A Lockheed Martin engineering team had used Imperial units while the in-house NASA team used metric units. The two teams didn’t realize the mistake until the orbiter was lost.

    Returning to my gym disaster, I was frustrated, dejected, but realized that it was more likely that I’d misused or miscalculated than was truly the wimpiest human to ever use the machine.  I tried the press with no weight – it worked without a problem. Then I realized that Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore – the UK is on the metric system and I was originally trying to push 360 kg (almost 800 lbs.), not 360 lbs (about 160 kg). That wasn’t going to happen, especially for a guy who’d never completed a leg press in his life.

    A quick recalculation and I was easily pressing my body weight, and struggling with twice that amount.  A mistake costing NASA $125M had only cost me pride, which in my humble estimation was worth much more (my math may be off on this calculation as well).

    After a few weeks, I was proudly hitting my Fireman’s Carry goal and strutting around London like Vinnie Barbarino.

    I’d met my goal. I was content. Complacent.

    Then I made my another mistake. I decided to validate my assumption that a reasonable goal for a healthy male was to leg press twice his body weight. A quick online search yielded an odd result.

    And that’s when
    Madeleine Albright
    ruined my life.

    I stumbled on a story that described how former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then about 70 years old, claimed to be able to leg press 400 pounds. 10 reps.

    A 70 year old woman was besting Vinnie Barbarino.
    It must be factually incorrect.

    Like any good skeptic, I sought other sources seeking to falsify this preposterous lie only to have the claim verified by many reputable sources. Confirmation bias had been overpowered by evidence. She’s simply in remarkable shape.

    I was crushed.  Completely demotivated. Pathetic.

    Albright became my nemesis. If there was one thing I’d accomplish in life, it would be to better Madeleine Albright. Eventually I surpassed her, although I’ll admit it wasn’t easy. It took several weeks of incremental increases. Today I’m vastly exceeding those goals – and I owe it all to Ms. Albright, the Mars Orbiter, and a lot of hard work.


    1. Set reasonable goals that stretch your limits.
    2. Once you’ve reached your goals, avoid complacency and reset for new stretch goals.
    3. Save the $125M and your pride –  check your math.
    4. Madeleine Albright is coming for you. Be prepared.


    ______________________________________________________________________________________________________JD Portrait 1Jay Diamond is the founder of Reason4Reason – a skeptical activist group based in the San Francisco bay area. He holds dual masters degrees in engineering and business and has managed both startup companies and hundred-million-dollar programs for Fortune 50 companies. Growing up in Canada, he performed magic, studied science, and became aware of the skeptical movement. Jay has lectured around the world on science & technology, business, and skepticism. 

    Category: FeaturedFitnessJay DiamondSkepticism


  • Article by: Jay Diamond