One thing I always felt as an athlete, and now hear from a lot of my clients, is confusion about all the types of popular fitness training out there – what’s good, what’s bad, what’s worth it, etc.
My answer is always (frustratingly, I’m sure): “it depends”.
One thing that the fitness and strength & conditioning world definitely has enough of is ego. There are a ton of people out there who will tell you in a heartbeat why their methods, their system, their approach is the best, and how everyone doing something else is wrong and stupid. This is red flag #1 – anyone offering advice or promoting a certain system who doesn’t respect other approaches in their own time and place has a closed mind and a limited amount to offer you.
Very fortunately, there are also a lot of coaches and trainers who have got their egos in check and are truly working for the benefit of their clients. These are the people who meet you where you’re at, picking the appropriate tools and systems that will help you, instead of putting you into the box that they’ve created. I’ve had the great fortune to learn from a number of these humble leaders, and I can now proudly say that I’m not a believer in any one system, but in a combination of systems and approaches that continue to offer efficient, lasting results.
This last bit about results is crucial – a system of training is only as good as the results it delivers for you. It doesn’t matter if thousands of others have improved their verticals, dropped pounds instantly, or radically transformed their bodies – what matters is what works for you.
So, admittedly the first part of this was a little bit of a rant because I’ve seen too many clients get tunnel vision for an approach that they love and start listening only to what others tell them works – forgetting that they, and ONLY they, are the experts on themselves.
Coming to comprehend yourself by frequently checking in and seeing what gets you results will tell you exactly where you need to be focusing your training.
To decipher what any type of fitness trend or workout system is going to deliver for you and whether or not it’s a good fit, start by checking back in with your goals. Every system is going to deliver some results in some aspect of your training, the important factor is to decide what you need to accomplish, and which system is the best tool for the job.
The Performance Pyramid – a way to categorize and understand a myriad of different training approaches
The organizing tool I frequently like to come back to is the Performance Pyramid. I find it an effective roadmap for deciding what aspect of your training can use some improvement. It’s worked for me and thousands of my clients, and I’ll keep using it until it stops getting results or someone can show me a more effective approach.
So first of all you need to check in with your basic health – how is your diet, hydration, digestion, sleep, mental state, stress, and relationships to family, friends, school, or your career. If you’re trying to use fitness or competition as a way to escape dealing with any of that your body will rebel until you’re forced to look at the issue at hand. However, if you’re aware of and willing to deal with whatever is in front of you and you want a type of training that will allow you to gain clarity, insight, reflection, and personal growth, then you get green lights across the board. So this type of training could involve yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, and endless other examples that will move energy in your body in a mindful, introspective way, allowing your emotions and thoughts to shift and transform. If you’re looking to start exercising for your health or are battling an injury or illness, this is a great place for you to start training.
Different types of yoga help on different levels of the Performance Pyramid
If you’ve checked in with your basic health and things are in order, you’re ready to look at your movement quality. Checking simple movements like a toe touch, a deep squat, the ability to fully rotate, reaching overhead, etc. will give you an indication of any weak links. If you feel pain or can’t continue to breath naturally in any of those positions, that is the place to focus first. Masterful coaches know that starting to deadlift without being able to touch your toes, running without being able to balance on one leg, or lifting heavy weights without being able to easily move your shoulders and hips through full range of motion will only result in injury and limited gains. As the Performance Pyramid shows, you want to gain your natural mobility as a foundation for developing really good stability and motor control. These two characteristics of movement are very interconnected though, so some of the most effective types of movement-based training will simultaneously develop mobility and stability, creating new ranges of motion with control that can be applied by your body right away. Again yoga shines as a way of improving both mobility and motor control, but the type of yoga matters. Slower paced hatha, Yin, and restorative type classes will help dive deeper into ranges of flexibility you may not have accessed in a while – but if you don’t seem to be making any physical progress (not to say there isn’t wonderful nervous system and spiritual progress being made) then your body may be craving more stability. In a sedentary population, this is more and more true – lots of people are tight, but stretching isn’t fixing it. A body that loses its ability to have proper muscle tone and activity will develop reflexive tightness to keep itself safe, to avoid going into positions that it can’t control and that may cause injury. So programs that promote lots of stretching or foam rolling are a great start, as long as stability and motor control are laid on right on top of that new range of motion.
Kettlebell training done properly is a great way to build full body stability through your entire range of motion – not to mention a fun way to gain strength and power!
How do you gain stability and motor control? Now you’re getting into the fun stuff – you’re back in the state you were in as a baby, rediscovering new movement patterns and feeling your body respond and transform. I can’t tell you how many times clients have come back after a movement-based session and are ecstatic that tying their shoes, taking out the trash, or turning around to look behind them in the car feels totally different.Here begins a very long continuum of training methods, as in my mind nearly every type of training should be helping to improve or maintain our control through full ranges of motion. The introductory and beginner levels of this type of movement training involves things like corrective exercises, Muscle Activation Techniques, neuro-developmental type patterns rolling and crawling around on the ground, and one of my personal favourites, MovNat – types of training that serve as a great warm up or movement prep for a more intense workout. From there you can quickly find great benefit in flow and skill-based movement and strength modalities like kettle bells, club bells, Indian clubs, gymnastics-style training, TRX suspension training, and calisthenics. These types of training serve a broad range of purposes and when applied masterfully by a talented coach can help develop mobility, stability/motor control, and even the components of the next level of the Pyramid – Capacity (strength, power, speed, endurance).
When your movement is dialled in, you’re ready to start looking at the “sexy” types of training that are super popular and make up the bulk of what people think of when they think “fitness”. Of course you can start these before your movement is perfect, but you’ll be limited in what you can do and at a higher risk of injury. A well designed program will introduce these types of capacity training gradually at low intensity, mastering the technique before going “balls to the wall”. The pinnacles of this type of training are things like Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, sprint and speed work, medicine ball training, bootcamps, any energy systems interval style workouts (think, work till you puke), CrossFit, battle ropes, P90X, anything with the word “extreme”, and the beautiful simplicity of just running, biking, or swimming faster and further and up steep things.
With strong fundamental movement patterns, Olympic Weightlifting is one of the most effective ways of generating superhuman strength and power without sacrificing movement quality.
If you have a specific sport or discipline in which you compete, you’re probably already doing quite a bit of training at the skill level – these are your technical practices. This is obviously a crucially important aspect of your performance all along the way, but what the Performance Pyramid shows is that you can only take your skill to the level that you’ve developed your foundation of health, movement, and capacity. Focusing only on skill and leaving the foundation on the sideline will get you an inverted pyramid which is a recipe for injury and crashing and burning.
So the next time that someone tells you about the “newest, greatest type of workout!” – look a bit deeper. What level of the performance pyramid is it developing? What is it missing?
From there you can compare the list of options to your specific training goals. Do you need mobility? Strength? Speed? Endurance? Match up a training style with what your body is asking for and you’ll find a highway to success. If you start (or stay) working in a discipline of training that isn’t in alignment with what your body needs, it will put up the roadblocks and red lights quicker than you can fall off of a stability ball doing single leg squats. Of course any of these training styles can be taught well, or taught poorly. So be picky about who you let coach you and guide your physical development – they should constantly be problem solving for you and offering solutions that work.
If you’re not sure where your low hanging fruit lies and what to focus on for the best results in your training, ask a coach, trainer, or therapist you know and trust, someone who has perspective on multiple training techniques.