Pyramid of Vitality

Vitality – Noun 

  1. Exuberant physical strength or mental vigor
  2. Capacity for survival or for the continuation of a meaningful or purposeful existence

Every action is preceded by a need or desire. Some take action because of the desire for abs, or because of the need to reduce their dangerously high blood pressure. Goals are essential to direct your activity toward relevant results. Any objective that gets you moving is a worthy pursuit; it teaches you to apply yourself and take charge of your health, your strength, your body image. However, this is only the beginning.

Physical self-actualization is the ultimate goal; the ascent to one’s most well-rounded and physically able form. The specializations along the way can be arranged into layers from foundation to peak.

The position of each specialization in the pyramid is based on three primary factors:

  1. The discipline required to excel

This takes place 100% within the mind of the practitioner. It is the sum of one’s determination and consistency.

2. The time required to excel

This is dictated by the average amount of time it takes a dedicated practitioner to reach “generalist” status in a given attribute.

3. The functionality of the specialization

The degree to which the physical skills acquired in the pursuit of a given specialization improve the practitioner’s quality of life and carry over to other specializations.

Level 1 – Aesthetics

Whether the goal is to lose a few pounds before summer or to cut 4% body fat for the physique competition, aesthetics are as much the tip of the fitness iceberg as they are the foundational layer of the Vitality Pyramid. The desire to be sexy is what attracts the vast majority of us to get moving in the first place. Training for aesthetics approaches the human physique as a work of art. The practitioner is a sculptor, and the practitioner’s body — an amorphous substrate. Through diet and calculated training, he/she has the ability to exact change on the proportions of muscle groups, emphasize muscle striation, increase vascularity, all within the confines of genetic predisposition. However, the irony of aesthetic training is in its limitation. The very training necessary to sculpt this idealistic human physique often renders the body rigid and immobile. The only way to counter this effect is to pursue higher specializations in conjunction with aesthetics.

Level 2 – Endurance

Endurance in its simplest form refers to how efficiently one’s body is able to utilize oxygen. It typically governs the amount of time one can continuously perform a given submaximal task. One’s cardiovascular and/or muscular endurance can be developed over many years, but results for the general practitioner can be fickle. One’s level of cardiovascular conditioning can improve rapidly given the appropriate variations in training. Improvements in endurance are gained and lost considerably faster than in other disciplines depending on the focus of programming.

Reduced blood pressure and cholesterol, lower resting heart rate, and improved utilization of dietary fat for energy are all results associated with endurance training. However, these results are not exclusive to endurance training, and in excess, it can hinder the results of other endeavors.

Level 3 – Strength, Power and Work Capacity

Simply put: Strength refers to the amount of weight (load) that you can move in a certain way. Power refers to how quickly that load can be moved. Work capacity relates to the amount of work that can be performed in a given time, or the amount of weight that can be moved for a given number of repetitions.

Strength is dictated primarily by the ability of the central nervous system (CNS) to recruit muscle fibers to pick up heavy things. At first, this adapts to new stimulus very quickly. At elite levels, adaptations to the CNS can take months or years of consistent training to achieve. Increase in muscle size is often necessary to elicit continued positive adaptation in raw strength. Strength is most directly observed in competitions like Powerlifting or Strongman, and in these sports, strength is exhibited in proportions that are perhaps best described as super-human. The pursuit of strength is a rigorous one, but often encourages sacrificing technique in order to lift maximal weight, particularly with less experienced athletes.

Power is applied when a weightlifter hits a 1-rep maximum (1RM) snatch, when a kickboxer delivers a knock-out strike, when a batter cracks a home run out of the park. This is the product of strength, speed, and technique. Delivering maximal power requires a level of neurological mastery of a given movement pattern that takes thousands of repetitions to cultivate.

Work Capacity refers to the total volume of work completed to a desired stopping point (designated amount of time, until failure, etc.). It is essentially the union of strength and conditioning. The higher an athlete’s intensity, and the longer the duration of the activity — the greater the work capacity. Some sports require athletes to remain mobile and explosive during constant bouts of fatiguing activity. CrossFit athletes, for instance, are subjected to an astounding variety of events which test their strength and endurance and they benefit tremendously from having excellent work capacity.

Level 4 – Mobility, Precision, Coordination

Level 4 is where the truly remarkable athlete begins to emerge. These are the factors that separate elite competitors from the pack and put legends into the spotlight.

Improving mobility involves increasing flexibility and abolishing soft tissue restriction, paving the way for ideal arrangement of joints into structurally integral positions and the ability to transition between them without limitation. This is necessary to an extent in every sport, but obviously some more than others. A Strongman competitor will benefit from a certain degree of mobility, but developing weightlifting or gymnastic-level mobility may detract from more relevant training.

Precision refers to the exactness (not frequency) with which a target is struck. A basketball shot, a football pass, a baseball pitch, an MMA strike – all of these require precision to accomplish with meaningful results. Some athletes have a predisposition for precision which causes it to come more naturally, but it is skill that must be meticulously trained. A common rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 repetitions of a given skill to master it, so regarding the finer aspects of the skill, every rep counts. Do not waste time performing low quality reps and ingraining poor patterns.

Coordination is a cognitive skill which begins with spatial awareness and manifests itself through movement – most often fast, complex, and involving some external object (e.g. ball, barrier, opponent, etc.) The ability to absorb information about the moment-to-moment status of one’s competitive environment, interpreting the information, and instinctively moving with fluidity and confidence can mean the difference between victory and defeat. These movements may be based on the necessity to negotiate a sharp turn while avoiding an opponent and receiving a ball or puck. It could be applied to mitigating an opponent’s attacks while dictating footwork and distance so that a counter attack is ready as soon as an opening presents itself. Coordination is a broad, all-encompassing aspect of sports performance; but it may also be the most sports-specific. Much like precision, coordination requires immense time and patience to master, but it is well worth the effort as it will aid you in competition and in life.

Level 5 – Free Movement

Finally. The pinnacle. The ultimate goal. Anyone who attains the ability to move with absolute freedom will invariably possess an abundance of every aforementioned attribute. Free movement is an instantaneous translation of thought into complex motions and positions which are divided and fragmented throughout all movement disciplines including sport, martial arts, dance, gymnastics, yoga, and many others.

Let me be clear, this is the final form for the generalist. This is the full, unfiltered expression of vitality. As in the case of most competitive athletes, the pursuit of such a broad range of raw skills may be a waste of time. But for those who wish to be well-rounded, who thrive on variety and spontaneity, this is it. This is our goal, and we achieve it through the consistent application of discipline one day at a time.

Hopefully this hierarchy helps to distinguish the myriad training adaptations from one another and clarifies their unique applications. We must each find our own path and move in the ways we find meaningful, and through the dissemination of knowledge we empower each other in that pursuit.

~ Joseph Groves, CSCS (f)

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