Pyramid of Fitness

Build a foundation of good movement, add strength, then skill. All within a framework of nutrition.

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.

Fitness Pyramid

 

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

 

Nutritional Framework

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!

Jack of all Trades

Believe it or not, there is no singular definition of fitness.

There is no one test to determine whether you’re ‘in shape’.  Though it feels like there are plenty of ways to determine  you’re out of shape.

Often we can just look at someone and determine to ourselves if they’re fit. Sometimes you just know, right? Maybe they have big muscles, or a lean figure, or a solid combination of both and we think to ourselves “I wish I was as in shape as them…

In reality, there are many more factors that determine your fitness level. Just because someone is big doesn’t mean they’re strong. Just because they run often doesn’t mean they’re healthy. In exercise science, we generally split fitness into 10 separate areas, or domains. That is, 10 different areas that can each be trained individually. All of which combine to determine your overall fitness. A truly fit person will have some level of mastery in all of the domains.

Some of these areas are obvious, some you may never have considered before. Listed below are the 10 domains of fitness. Read this list and think to yourself: “Is this area a strength of mine? Which areas are my weakness?” Are you a jack of all trades, or a master of one?

 

10 Domains of Fitness

Cardiovascular Endurance – The ability of your body to absorb, diffuse, transport, and effectively use oxygen and provide energy over a sustained amount of time.

Strength –The muscle’s ability to apply force while shortening, lengthening, or remaining static. For instance, pressing a heavy weight overhead or holding a heavy weight in place.

Stamina – Storing, processing, and utilizing energy to sustain a given workload. This allows your body to keep working while getting tired.

Flexibility – The ability of a muscle to lengthen through (and beyond) it’s normal range of motion.

Power – A muscle’s capacity to provide maximum force in a short amount of time. For example, jumping on a box.

Speed – Minimal transition time in a movement pattern.  An example would be a cyclist’s ability to quickly rotate his feet on the pedals.

Coordination –The ability to efficiently combine multiple movements into a singular pattern. For instance, running one direction while catching a ball.

Agility – Minimal transition times from one movement pattern to the other. Think of sprinting one direction, and quickly turning and sprinting the other direction.

Balance –The ability to recognize and control the body’s center of gravity in relation to its base of support.

Accuracy – Controlling a movement pattern in a given direction at a given intensity or speed. For instance, throwing a ball.

 

More To It

Looking at these 10 domains, it becomes clear that there is much more than just being strong or lean. In fact, you may have noticed that body weight and fat percentage isn’t even on the list. It’s possible to be strong, enduring, and cardiovascularly fit without taking body weight into account. However, this is only up to a certain point. Eventually excess body fat will interfere with certain factors like the ability to jump (power) or the efficiency with which you can change directions (agility).

It’s also possible to be masterful in one domain while completely ignoring the others. Have you ever seen someone who is super strong, but couldn’t climb a flight of stairs? Maybe they could run for miles but couldn’t change directions if their life depended on it.

In my experience with training various populations, I’ve actually come across many people who are masters of one domain, but grossly lacking in others. One prominent example is a long distance runner who could literally run for days. She had a very high cardiovascular endurance and stamina, ran marathons and ultra marathons. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much power or strength. She couldn’t jump on a box that was knee height! Now while many people may not be able to jump on a 16 in box, it’s a bit unusual for someone who runs marathons. True story. Just because you can master one or two domains doesn’t make you fit.

 

Be a Jack of All Trades

So how do you improve all domains equally? How can you be the best version of yourself? The simple answer is: Know your strengths, understand your weaknesses. Does your training program consist of doing the same exercises for months and years on end? Do you only ever train one exercise or one direction? If your idea of a workout is a barbell bench press for 3 sets of 10, cardio, go home, then you may be lacking in not only other domains, but perhaps posture and health!

My mantra is “Go where it’s dangerous.” This is a quote given to me by my Judo coach, and I find it holds true for every day life. Go where it’s dangerous. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Try new things, learn new weaknesses, improve your overall fitness. Can you deadlift your bodyweight? Run a sub-8 minute mile? Survive (and succeed) in a class of yoga? Learn your weakness and improve on it. Be more than just fit.

And of course if you need help identifying and improving your weaknesses, having an accountability partner is always useful. An experienced friend or coach can be a valuable asset. Sometimes just having an outside perspective can make a huge difference.

If you need an extra eye on your training program, or want to reach new heights in your personal journey, schedule a free consultation and fitness assessment with me today!

All the best,

Jeremy Bushong, MS, CSCS