A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled “CrossFit vs. Hyrox vs. Spartan…Who is the Fittest?” That post was very well-received and it’s been one of my most popular to date. In the article I compared the different fitness competitions and identified the types of athletes that tend to do best at each discipline.
All-around fitness is an interesting topic indeed, because it totally depends upon the context in which you view performance. The challenge – for many of us – is to select from being a very focused specialist, in any one sport for example, versus striving to be a generalist. This is absolutely related to one’s goals and those tend to change over time as well. My emphasis has always been to help people achieve peak performance without sacrificing long term health in the process.
Right now there is a lot of different, goal-based training going on in The Lifetime Athlete community.
Participants in Fit for the Field are gearing up for pre-season training. FftF is an on-demand conditioning program designed specifically for backcountry hunters and mountain athletes. I’ve always enjoyed engaging with this very motivated and dedicated group and helping them to get optimally prepared for backcountry adventure. Using my Athletic Capacity Rating System (ACRS) I analyzed the unique energetic, biomechanical, and physiologic demands of backcountry hunting and organized the training around the specific requirements of the sport.
Whenever we examine any sport or athletic endeavor, we need to observe the relative amounts of the 5 Capacities of Athleticism which the sport requires the proficient athlete to possess. These are strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance. These properties are well-recognized in sport science as the necessary ingredients for success in any athlete. I’m pleased to see that the health and medical community is finally starting to view this trait set as being both imperative and undeniably necessary for the general population as well. Human performance is just that…and you know that here at TLA everyone is an athlete.
What I do when I’m analyzing a sport is this. I review the literature and my own experience and I determine, using the ACRS, the demands of a sport in terms of the 5 Capacities in low, medium, or high levels (low=1, med=2, hi=3). The analysis of backcountry hunting revealed a 2-1-2-1-3 score with respect to strength-speed-power-agility-endurance. Using this knowledge, I then selected the appropriate training elements, in the proper ratios, to match things up. Thus, the stimulus we are using in FftF will elicit the desired adaptation response in the trainee.
The Training Tribe does things a little differently. T2 is our online, nationwide, year-round fitness program with that perfevity focus. Perfevity is my word for the crossroads of performance and longevity (you can also use longormance if you like) but all jokes aside, it’s a noble pursuit. T2 makes humans who are robust, resilient, versatile, and durable. The programming takes those 5 Capacities and implements a balancing act among them over the year. This is our proprietary, and almost magical, Block Periodization system based on the Annual Training Plan. The year is divided into 5 blocks of 2-3 months each. We always touch on all 5 Capacities in every block, but each block emphasizes to a greater degree, just one capacity. Right now, those cats are finishing up the Strength Block and are about to move into the Power Block next month. T2 participants tell me all the time how they feel that they can just about do anything they want, fairly easily, at a high level, and without getting hurt. From playing sports to playing with the kids and grandkids, it’s a winner.
The clients that I coach 1-on-1 at TLA embody yet another unique perspective. They have something they really want to go after…something that means a lot to them. Granted, some of the clients are working on getting out of chronic pain and using me mostly in physical therapy mode. And some are targeting health and body composition goals. We do what’s needed to get those things accomplished and out of the way for the next level…which is smashing performance goals. I don’t claim to specialize in coaching every kind of athlete there is…that would be ludicrous. But I have worked at least to some degree with almost every type, age, and level of athlete…from youth to professional to geriatric (not sure I love that term) over my 40 years in this field. My main wheelhouse these days is working with hikers, cyclists, runners, triathletes, hunters, skiers, and serious fitness enthusiasts. Lifestyle and identity stuff. Passion.
We add another layer onto the methodology with personalized coaching. Not only do we analyze the athletes’ sport or goal, we assess them as well. Using a variety of tests and measures, I can determine where an athlete is currently residing with the Big 5 on the ACRS scale, and relate this to their body type, genetics, and training/injury history. The sculpting and honing of the beast then becomes even more effective. Many of these principles are in my book AnimalFIT. The coaching relationship supports a very detailed and dynamic program, in which constant monitoring of workout performance and recovery status allows for frequent adjustment and optimization.
Let’s get back to the title of today’s discussion. There are four things I should go over. The title suggests we are going to compare how to train for strength versus speed versus endurance. We will. But I’ll list out the additional points that can make this conversation even more valuable.
- As you could tell from our review of the 5 Capacities of Athleticism previously, it’s also important to consider power and agility in addition to strength, speed, and endurance.
- Everybody needs some (or more) of all of these abilities. A “zero” score is not acceptable for human function. Many people will argue that they only do “X” and therefore don’t need to have any abilities in “Y” but this is flawed thinking. When you are in specialist mode, you don’t need to do a lot of training in the capacities you are not seeking, but you do need just a little for overall health and function. Much to the surprise of many, this helps everything, even the “main” thing. Getting a runner to do a little agility work, a yogi to lift some weight, or a lifter to do a bit of cardio…always works wonders.
- Whenever I describe a “1” score on the ACRS, and give it a “low” designation, that does not suggest that 1 = bad. Actually 1 = low and that represents an adequate baseline for most folks. We only go up to 2 or 3 when the sport or the goal demands it. The only thing that is bad is “zero” as in having no ability in a category. Totally unacceptable.
- Even though I do it often, I should briefly define those 5 capacities to truly support our discussion.
- Strength is maximum force production. It’s your 1RM. How much weight can you lift, or force you can generate, one time is the true definition here. Relative strength trickles down in ratio form, such as estimating backward what your 1RM might be if you know your 5RM weight.
- Speed is maximum velocity. All-out. It’s the top gear you can only hold for about 5 seconds. That’s true speed. Relative speed is a pace you can hold over greater duration or distance and that is dependent on additional mechanical and conditioning factors, but it’s not true speed.
- Power exists on the force-velocity curve between strength and speed. It’s your ability to sustain high output and is recognized in physics as Force X Distance divided by Time. Power can be subdivided into two sub-classifications, anaerobic and aerobic. Anaerobic power looks like explosive Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch) or weighted sled pushes, pulls, and drags. Aerobic power is related to VO2max and represents your best output over 5-7 minutes on a bike, rower, running track, etc.
- Agility is the combination of 4 key characteristics in good human movers. It combines mobility (access to range of motion via flexibility), stability (arresting motion when indicated), reactivity (respond and adapt to environment, terrain, opponent, etc), and fluidity (moving smoothly and gracefully). Agile people are MOVEMENTSMITHS, those who own every position and have mastery of motion in every direction.
- Endurance can be viewed in two ways. It is cardiorespiratory fitness that optimizes the delivery and utilization of oxygen in the muscles, organs, and tissues. It’s also muscular fatigue resistance or the ability to repeat submaximal contractions for extended durations.
One more thing to consider…and that’s the problem of “slow fitness.” Not everyone, but many, many fitness enthusiasts only do slow training. They walk, jog, or bike a little. Do some resistance training. And they work on mobility with some yoga or stretching. This isn’t necessarily bad. In fact it’s quite good. It’s just not getting all the way there as an athletic human. Slow fitness never really addresses the needs for speed, power, and agility. It leaves readily available and necessary components on the table. Humans are animals and we are wired to move like athletic beasts. But if we spend decades never using these properties…well, we lose them. Doesn’t have to be that way.
Now we can get into the exciting discussion of training for each of the 5 Capacities.
Strength: Think of the sport of powerlifting. It should really be called strengthlifting because absolute force with little concern for speed is the focus in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Resistance training of all types falls into the strength category. When we consider the kind of stimulus that optimally develops the muscle, connective tissues, and nervous system to generate maximum force, we actually can use a very simplified model. We can use the “3 to 5” method put forth by Andy Galpin, PhD, and others. Do 3-5 (working) sets of 3-5 exercises, for 3-5 reps, resting 3-5 minutes between sets, 3-5 times per week. Let’s define this further.
- 3-5 working sets does not include warmup. It usually requires several progressive sets in an exercise to groove the motion and excite the CNS to be able to produce an approximate 9/10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
- The exercises should generally be compound, large excursion, whole-body lifts, such as variations of squats, lunges, hinges, presses, and pulls.
- 3-5 reps is perhaps a nearly ideal range to stimulate strength gains, although research shows this can happen with almost any rep range as long as maximum effort is applied. Beginners often underestimate how hard/heavy they can and should go in a set, but as they become advanced trainees they gain a better understanding of their true human limits of performance.
- 3-5 minutes rest is probably one of the big secrets of this methodology and it’s tied to the rep range. If we truly give a 9+ RPE (getting very near failure) in a set, we actually need that time period to allow the muscle fibers and CNS to recuperate enough to give another supreme effort. When folks aren’t making gains we talk about the rest periods. Turns out a lot of them are taking only 30-60 seconds and working on more of a conditioning style of training. Once out of the beginner stage, this won’t stimulate strength until they load heavier, go harder, and rest longer.
- 3-5 times per week allows for the accumulation of enough workload to keep the adaptations happening, although only the most advanced athletes truly go hard 5 times per week. 3 is usually enough for almost all of us.
An associated element of resistance training is muscular hypertrophy, or size gains. When muscle growth is the target – through mechanisms known as myofibril cross-sectional diameter increases and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy – the training patterns should be adjusted slightly. Here are a few pointers.
- Whereas strength gains tend to be highest in the lower rep ranges, it’s in a “middle” range of 6-15 reps (or most commonly 8-12) where hypertrophy appears to be greatest. However, this certainly depends on training age and newer technology such as blood flow restriction (BFR) training shows results with much higher reps (and lighter loads). As long as RPE is relatively high for the majority of working sets, hypertrophy will be stimulated.
- Also slightly different from a pure strength focus, in which very high CNS drive, heavy loads, low reps, and long rests are needed…hypertrophy training trades a small amount of intensity for more volume, with 10-25 sets per week (usually spread over several sessions) per bodypart or muscle group. Hypertrophy training combines compound lifts with more single joint and isolation movements.
- The three evidence-based physiological requirements for hypertrophy are:
- Adequate volume via accumulated time under tension in the working muscles.
- Mild muscle fiber microdamage.
- Metabolic stress of a challenging session.
Speed: Perhaps more than any other capacity, this is the one that either thrills or scares folks. Competitive athletes in most sports readily recognize that it’s usually the fast people who win. They understand and seek speed. But a lot of people fear it because they either have never gone to max velocity, or it’s been a very long time since they turned on the jets. They are right in their caution but there is a way to safely progress toward high velocity. Without being overly comprehensive, I’ll list out a few key points around speed development/maintenance.
- An adequate warmup is key. This might mean some general warmup work that raises core temperature and tissue extensibility. Then a specific warmup which recruits the appropriate motor patterns in a progressively challenging manner is important. Once readiness has been established, it’s important to hit speed training early in a workout, as fatigue limits the body’s ability to truly express speed.
- Sprinting is the quintessential representation of speed. This activity is either highly indicated, relatively contraindicated, or absolutely contraindicated for trainees.
- Sprint training is highly indicated for anyone who is capable of running, has some consistent general training under their belt, and is free of injury. However, and very honestly, it may take months, or even years, to reach the point of going all-out. But it’s totally worth it. There are actually just as many health and functionality benefits to sprinting as there are those in fitness and performance. One mega-bennie is a body composition effect unique to sprinting. Running all-out (or nearly so) sends a powerful hormonal message to our bodies, and it’s this: “keep the muscle because we need it to go this fast but dump the fat because it’s extra weight that’s slowing us down.” Genetics and hard training aside, this is one reason why most sprinters are usually jacked and ripped. Even small amounts of submaximal sprinting is beneficial. We just have to manage the risk-reward relationship very intelligently.
- Sprinting is relatively contraindicated for absolute beginners, and even those who have spent years, or decades doing only variations of “slow” fitness. They will get hurt if they try to jump into speed too quickly. Several months of comprehensive athletic conditioning (like T2) will be necessary to facilitate their successful entry into the world of sprinting.
- Unfortunately, sprinting is absolutely contraindicated for those individuals with any orthopedic, systemic, or congenital conditions for which max velocity bipedal locomotion is inappropriate. That’s OK because we can get most of the benefits of speed by using alternative approaches that I’ll talk about next.
- Speed training can be effectively accomplished on the bike, in the pool or through the careful application of explosive activities like medicine ball throws or Olympic lifting variations. The important consideration is to select the proper exercises for the individual and dose them appropriately. Speed training is crucial for preserving fast-twitch (Type II) muscle fibers and this has a very positive association with longevity and functionality. Righting reactions, or the ability to quickly catch yourself after a tripping incident to keep from falling, require speed and benefit from proper training.
- Speed training is alactic. Because the bouts should be only 1-7 seconds, you supply most of the energy required via your phosphagen system. If we go for the burn, we’ve gone too long. Done correctly, speed training is extremely excitatory and energizing.
- Probably the most critical physiologic phenomenon to understand with speed training is that the reps should be brief in terms of distance or duration (e.g. 10-30 meters), the rests long to allow for complete recovery (or nearly so, such as 1-2 minutes for every 1-2 seconds of max velocity) and the total number of reps (session volume) low. More is not better…faster is better. The rookie mistake is to apply a “grinding” work ethic model to sprint training. Doesn’t work. Seeking exhaustion can provide other conditioning benefits or mental toughness, but you only stimulate speed when you reach peak potential.
- For most Lifetime Athletes, max speed doesn’t need to be trained too often. Once or twice per week, for some but not all of the year, is perfect.
- Speed training requires more preparation, careful thought, and gradual progression than any other type of training. That’s why it’s always been a hard sell in the genpop for me, and this is even true among a lot of recreational athletes. They either just don’t believe it’s useful for them, or they are overly wary because they may have had negative experiences due to poor program design. Some, or many people, get nervous when you ask them to give a 95+% effort for just a few seconds, then tell them to mill around for a couple minutes. They worry that it’s a waste of time and are convinced they just have to keep moving moderately. Not when you want speed! But there is always a way, and speed must not be left out of a comprehensive long term athletic development plan. It is the fountain of youth!
Power: The relationship between strength and speed is often graphically represented as the force-velocity curve. Hybridized terms are commonly used when an exercise is identified by its location along that curve. When we train closer to max strength, such as with a very heavy, relatively slow sled push, that’s termed strength-speed. And when we go lighter and faster, like pulling a light drag rig and moving quickly, that’s speed-strength. If we motor above what is tempo or threshold level, delivering an output we can hold for less than double-digit minutes, we are developing aerobic power. Here are a few secrets for successful power training.
- Keep in mind that strength, speed, and power are all complementary, so we should not try to do all three on the same day or in the same session. Probably two at most and that’s on a day when you are well rested, totally fresh and focused, and able to get a recovery-based day (or several) afterward.
- Related to the last point, you don’t need to hammer in power mode all the time. Touching on it occasionally, or dedicating a block, cycle, or season to it is most effective. That’s how the pros do it, and we should too.
- Power training differs from speed because it is more glycolytic. In order to produce enough energy (adenosine triphosphate, or ATP) we have to combust stored sugar in the muscles. All exercise, no matter what we are doing, uses ratios of the creatine phosphate (CP) or phosphagen, anaerobic-glycolytic, and aerobic-oxidative energy systems. But power produces more lactic acid than other forms of training. This is quickly buffered into lactate (recycled as a fuel source) and hydrogen ions (causes the burn). Reps may be anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes with varying rest intervals.
- More than any other type of training, power work is a gasser. Those sustained efforts of glycolysis can bring us to barf-level until we get used to them, or if we take them too far. But we don’t always have to take long rest breaks in search of near-complete recovery. It just depends on what we are targeting. If our goal is high-quality performance along that force-velocity continuum, longer rests are indicated. But if we are shooting for more conditioning and acidosis tolerance, compressing rest intervals (known as increasing workout density) is a valid training tool.
Agility: As I alluded to earlier, agility is the realm of the MOVEMENTSMITH. Here’s where I’ve got a beef, or a bone to pick, with many current fitness and longevity experts. Hardly anybody is including agility training in their recommendations for the optimized human. The medical world is naturally very “sciency” and is fixated mainly on strength and endurance. This is a shame but I’m sure it’s going to change as momentum builds around the value of agility. A shout out here to performance coaches, physical therapists, and similar professionals. We are trained in movement analysis and optimization and emphasize it with our clients. Form and technique matter so much. Preserving multidirectional movement competency helps to normalize stresses across muscles and joints, and makes everything we do easier.
- Probably the single best indicator of agility is “The Onlooker Test.” Put simply, if a bystander or onlooker (or yourself in the mirror) observes you moving and reflexively responds with a pleasant “Ahhhhhh,” you are moving well. If the response is more like “BleeaauuuwwwGGaawwddd!” there is work to be done in improving your MOVEMENTSMITH characteristics.
- Because agility blends mobility, stability, reactivity, and fluidity…here are a few elements that should be incorporated into your training.
- Stretching, both static and dynamic, is often surrounded by controversy. Essentially, if a person has good range of motion and easy access to it, he/she may need very little stretching in their regimen. But most people benefit from at least a modest amount from time to time.
- Developmental Sequence: Those positions and movement progressions we all went through as infants (rolling, creeping, crawling, kneeling, etc.) are great to sneak into a workout here and there. You can simply do some of those activities or use the position from which to perform an exercise.
- Resistance training can also be used very effectively for mobility work. While some resistance exercises may be partial-range, explosive endeavors…those slower, full-range moderately-loaded reps are great for improving mobility.
- Think of training more in terms of movement patterns than muscle isolation when working on agility.
- Isometrics are excellent for that position ownership ability. Practice holding all sorts of positions, some under load, and not blowing past points that challenge you.
- Be aware of the human tendency to use muscle substitution and movement compensation patterns. Sometimes this is called “self-organization” and it’s basically just your body figuring out how it moves best, or to avoid stressing an injured area. But in most cases, defining ideal movement and striving to get closer to it is well warranted.
- Games, especially court, field, and ball sports really help with that reactivity component. Plus they are FUN, and we should PLAY. We don’t need to take any of this training, or ourselves, too seriously.
- Jumping, landing, throwing, catching, balancing, tumbling, grappling and many other skills are incredibly valuable for the athletic human. Proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness is enhanced when we fully inhabit the environment around us.
- Change of direction: Many people fall into the trap of being “straight-line critters.” They walk, run, or bike in a straight line and primarily do bilateral, symmetrical, saggital plane lifts. Preserving that ability to cut and move diagonally, horizontally, and backwards is important. We need this multi-directional access.
- Agility work can be incorporated into almost any workout, and at practically any time. Conventionally, it’s popular to do it as part of a preparatory or warmup phase.
Endurance: This is the capacity that needs very little introduction, although a little explanation is forthcoming. Aerobic fitness and fatigue resistance are components of cardiovascular and metabolic health, longevity, endurance sport performance, and daily productivity. It even improves “trainability” in the other capacities as the aerobically fit person tolerates more volume and recovers faster. Endurance training can be done in a wide variety of modes. Sports specialists like cyclists and runners will concentrate their training in their specific mode, but mixing it up is also very popular. Hiking, rucking, riding, rowing, swimming…the list goes on and on. There’s also a significant aerobic benefit to playing many sports, such as soccer, tennis, and basketball…even golf if you walk 18!
- If you refer to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you’ll find some recommendations for how much weekly volume is indicated in aerobic exercise (as well as some other categories) for good long term health outcomes. This amount varies depending on the relative intensity level. That information is pretty good, but it’s also fairly generic. Lifetime Athletes using the 5-Capacity model can look at things slightly differently. There is, to some degree, a crossover effect between the different types of exercise training. For example, when you do power training, you are also getting aerobic effects, and this can actually be said to some degree about any training depending on how it’s put together. Some Lifetime Athletes are very endurance-oriented and they do lots more than what the Guidelines recommend. Others actually do less, but because they do so much other training, they are no less healthy. It’s good to keep an open mind here.
- Effort, or output, in aerobic training is often classified using a variety of 5, 6, or 7 Zone models. These are generally based on percentages of functional threshold power (FTP), lactate threshold (LT), maximum heart rate (MHR), or maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). Interestingly enough, these scales also correlate quite strongly with simple rates of perceived exertion (RPE) and “talk tests” (the harder you go, the less you can talk).
- Because we are addressing the higher zones of training in the Power category, our emphasis on endurance for Lifetime Athletes is focused in the lower zones. Zone 1, being the easiest, is often equated with recovery effort. Zone 2 is the classic “cardio” intensity that you can sustain for potentially several hours, all while being able to converse relatively comfortably.
- Endurance can certainly be trained with steady-state activities and a variety of low-moderate intensity intervals, but it also is developed with high-rep (15+) resistance training, circuits, and carrying activities. The latter also get at the muscular fatigue resistance goal most effectively.
- At a minimum, I like to have my clients do 30-60 minutes of Zone 1-2 cardio, 2-3 times per week. Endurance athletes obviously go much higher than this level, but in the context of all the other training we are, and should be doing…the aforementioned amount is great.
- Most people are pleasantly surprised how easy and comfortable (for the most part), endurance training can be. Many thought they had to go harder and suffer but when they actually strap on a heart rate monitor (at least for a few sessions) they are happy to get dialed into the proper Zone. This is even true for a lot of accomplished athletes. When we get them doing much of their endurance work a little easier, and then going a bit harder in some interval (aerobic power) sessions, they often have performance breakthroughs.
Balance is a relative term. It was also a great Van Halen album (as they all were). I mentioned the physical quality of balance in the Agility section, but here I’m referring to the balance, or juggling act, we may want to achieve between training for all 5 Capacities. The first thing to say is you don’t have to do everything, all the time. In fact, trying to do that is a recipe for disaster. Instead, concentrate your energies where you want to, perhaps in only one or possibly two categories. This could be honing a strength, or shoring up a weakness. Then do a small amount of the other types of training. See how that works. If you are enjoying your training, and looking, feeling, and performing great – you’ve found the mixology that works best for you. At least for a while. Assess things over time, and if some changeups are needed, embrace them. Interestingly enough, we just want all 5 Capacities at reasonable levels in The Lifetime Athlete. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every person will train in the same ratios because their genetics, goals, and lifestyle are different. Comprehensive athleticism can be viewed like roads to Rome. It’s not how you get to Rome we care about…it’s just that you get to Rome!
Interference is a popular topic. This is basically saying that one type of training can interfere with the adaptations of another. An example might be too much jogging can make a sprinter slow, or lifting a lot will put excess weight on a runner. There is some context here. Interference is true and real, but probably only at the higher levels of sports performance and in the greater volumes of training. In other words, as long as you are doing most of what you need, and a moderate amount of the other capacities, there are generally only positive effects. You actually have to do a LOT of something to have it start biasing your metabolism and muscle fiber physiology. So my advice is not to worry too much about interference, unless you are in super-serious mode at this time. And be sure to continually assess, reevaluate, and modify your programming as indicated.
Recovery is not something I’m going to dive into here deeply. Just suffice to say that fitness, or conditioning, is the result of training PLUS recovery. All the program design, sleep, and restorative practices we have available are necessary to get the best results from your training, whatever the outcome you are seeking.
Same thing goes for nutrition. It’s critical. It’s been a topic of past articles and podcasts. It will be again.
Wrapping up, whether you are training for strength, speed, endurance, or anything else we discussed, making your program sustainable is the key. Work with a coach or coach yourself, but do so with a quest for knowledge, results, and enjoyment. Those things tend to run together. When your program is dialed in, it’s easy for you to be consistent and training is sustainable in the long run.
I hope you enjoyed today’s discussion. Thanks for joining me! If you need help with your programming, sign up for some coaching or join one of our groups.