Often times when someone approaches me to help them in their fitness journey, I’ll prescribe exercises and movements that they may not have expected. For instance, someone interested in weight loss might expect to be doing circuit training to increase their heart rate, or a combination of diet and cardio training, which I would usually recommend. But then they find themselves on the floor going through range-of-motion exercises! What gives? There’s more to fitness than just having endurance, or being strong. There are many domains of fitness, and each is equally important.
When we take a holistic approach to fitness, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the hierarchy of each domain. We begin to ask ourselves which is more important, strength or flexibility? Endurance or explosive power? While there can be some debate on the topic, I believe there is one answer than can help put things in perspective. I call it the Pyramid of Fitness.
The pyramid of fitness is a classification tool for all the domains of fitness. It allows us to understand how each domain fits with our own personal goals. The fitness pyramid is built like any pyramid, with the base being the most important. The top of the pyramid occurs after the base has been built. You can’t have pyramid top without a bottom.
The elements of the pyramid are:
- Nutritional framework – The shape and structure of the pyramid
- Base of quality movement – Flexibility, mobility, range of motion, and joint integrity
- Body of strength and endurance – General strength and physical preparedness
- Skill specific strength & endurance – Goal oriented movements and physicality
Before any part of the pyramid can be built, the nutrition must be in place. The nutritional framework will set the shape of the pyramid. You can’t lose 30 pounds if you’re overeating your caloric limit, and you can’t build muscle or strength if you’re not getting enough protein.
I have a saying: “Your nutrition determines what size you are. Your exercise determines what shape you are.” If you want to be bigger, that’s easy. Just eat a ton of food. If you want to be bigger and visibly muscular, you need to eat the right amount of calories and lift weights. If you wish to be smaller, eating less is a start. Eat less and exercise, though, and you’ll be leaner.
Base of Quality Movement
The most important part of the pyramid is the base. The wider the base, the taller the pyramid can become. The base of any fitness program should be comprised of quality movement which incorporates full range of motion in the joints and muscles, overall flexibility, and the ability of all the muscles and joints to work together to create stability and function.
A few examples of quality movement include the ability to squat low and allow the hips to move through their total range of motion, or the ability of the shoulder blades to retract and protract. This is especially useful for competitive athletes or anyone looking to get stronger, as good mobility and range of motion improves overall posture, pain management, and injury prevention.
If someone comes to me with the goal of losing 30lbs, I’ll check their overall hip mobility and flexibility first. If they can’t stand up out of a chair without hunching over? That’s where we’ll start.
Body of Strength and General Physical Preparedness
General Physical Preparedness, or GPP, is a popular theme in the fitness world. In short, GPP is what I consider to be the “basic requirements” of strength and endurance. Can you do ONE bodyweight pushup? Can you walk briskly uphill for 15 minutes, or tolerate a few minutes of light arm resistance?
Very early in most beginner’s workout regiment, they’ll experience a moment of sickness. During a light circuit workout they’ll feel ill and need to sit or rest (or worse, vomit). This is especially common in VERY untrained individuals or people who overestimate their fitness capabilities. These symptoms are indicative of low GPP. Once functional movement and range of motion have been established, I focus on building the body of the pyramid.
An example of GPP would be someone who comes to me to improve their arm strength or bench press, but can’t do more than 10 minutes of exercise without feeling like their stomach is churning. How could their body tolerate a heavy bar overhead if they feel like passing out after the first two reps?
Skill Specific Training / Goal Specific Training
Once the base and body of the pyramid have been built, we can focus on the last few details that make everyone’s program unique. These last few details can be the difference between success and failure, but can only be trained after a base has been built.
A practical example of this would be a young, high-school athlete who wants a bigger vertical jump for basketball. After assessing overall fitness it’s determined that he’s lacking hip mobility and leg strength. In this case, it would be more beneficial to perform good quality leg exercises that improve flexibility, range of motion, and total strength BEFORE having him jump up and down.
Another example, and the one I see the most often, is someone who wants to be leaner with visible abs. After a comprehensive assessment, it’s determined that she lacks the nutritional component to change bodyweight and the strength to support her current weight. Doing hours of ab exercises everyday wouldn’t be the primary focus, it would be nutrition. The ab exercises would only be beneficial after nutrition and general strength have been established.
Understand the Pyramid, Understand Your Weaknesses
Don’t get too caught up in the flashy components of fitness. It’s important to understand how all the domains of fitness fit into your personal exercise plan. Too often I see people training the top level of the pyramid without an appropriate base of support. This inevitably leads to failure and frustration.
Does your fitness pyramid match your fitness goals? Are you focusing on the goal-specific training instead of the base of your pyramid? Remember it’s important to seek out a mentor – someone outside of your circle of influence – to help you understand your weaknesses. Contact me today and make sure you’re focusing on the right things!