Fitness is confusing. In order to understand it, and achieve it, you need a framework. Everyone has a framework to pursue their fitness. In this blog, I will detail mine. It isn’t the only one, or the “right one.” It’s the one I’m following currently. Take it for what it’s worth.
A framework for complex things builds a better understanding. Having a framework to think about fitness will ensure better programming and achievable goals. It will also prevent injuries because you know what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t. I’ll append sports examples to visualize what kind of fitness is required.
Fitness, to me, is comprised of five facets.
Each element is important. Some are derivatives of others. Workouts or sports can have a single element or all of them. No matter how many ways you slice and dice the term “fitness,” what remains is these five elements. Whatever you’re pursuing, be it a workout or sport, a facet(s) from this list is present.
Most people prioritize the first two — Strength and Endurance and don't regard the last one — Skill. The middle two — Speed and Power, are seen in the light of Strength and Endurance, and hence they aren’t given much credence. Hopefully, this blog will give you a sense of why each element has its place. Choose your facet(s) and pursue them.
A reason why I’m writing this is to understand which element compliments which. While building your training program or setting a goal, we often want everything. I did too.
A fast and strong body. While this is not impossible, it is hardly achievable. Knowing what kind of fitness you’re chasing puts things in perspective. You can train accordingly, eat accordingly, and rest accordingly. The worst thing is having two fitness goals pulling you in either direction and leaving you in the same place.
Base facets and layered facets
With fitness, there are base facets and complementary facets. Base facets are — Strength and Endurance. These can be pursued independently of the rest. You can be really strong or having really good endurance. But having both is difficult. Show me a man who can deadlift 300 kilograms and run a marathon in under three hours. This might be possible, but improving one comes at the cost of the other. However, Strength and Endurance are not the only goals.
While training for Strength and Endurance, you can optimize for Speed and Power. I see these as “layered facets” applied over base facets. Speed and Power can be built only on either a Strength or Endurance base.
Strength is a base facet. It can be pursued independently and can be used to build the other facets.
I define Strength as being strong, at high intensities, low duration, and with zero momentum. This means being able to move a heavyweight for a short period of time using no added momentum. You can apply this to any exercise by increasing the load, decreasing the repetitions, and taking it as slow as possible.
You can have your own definition of strength, this is mine.
There are several exercises that build strength. To me, three exercises emphasize strength more than any other. They are:
These exercises, in my opinion, are true tests of strength. They are compound exercises, meaning they target several muscle groups at once. More importantly, they are performed at high intensities, for low durations, and with zero momentum.
I have designed a strength program keeping these exercises in mind. If you are building a strength program, I suggest you incorporate these exercises (or variations of these exercises) into your program.
You should also figure out how strong you want to get. The formula I use in order to classify myself as strong is simple. If I can deadlift twice my body weight, and back squat and bench press my body weight, I’m strong. You can use this formula or change it depending on your goals and exercises.
Strength is unique. It can be pursued without any other facet. There are lots of pure-strength athletes. Powerlifters and Strongman come to mind. The point being, strength is at the base of fitness.
In my opinion, this is the first part of fitness you should start with. Always start by being strong first. If are strong you can build endurance, acquire speed, become powerful, or develop a skill. A strong body is less prone to injury. You have to have a strong body in order to do anything. Prioritize strength.
Endurance is another base facet. It can be pursued independently and can be used to build other facets as Strength can.
I define Endurance as being tireless, at low intensities, high duration, and with zero momentum. This, in many ways, is the opposite of Strength. This means being able to move for a long period of time. You can apply this to any exercise, but its most often done by moving the entire body for a long period.
The most common pursuits of endurance are -
These can be pursued independently or in combination through a triathlon. While these can be performed in short bursts (e.g.: sprints), the endurance aspect only comes in when the duration is long. This is because the intensity decreases when duration increases. And the most important element becomes surviving, not tiring out, and enduring.
The above three exercises or sports (whatever you refer to them as) are the foundation of endurance.
Endurance can be prioritized but not pursued without strength. In order to be good at either — running, cycling, swimming, or all three, you have to have strong muscles. You’ll see every runner, cyclist, swimmer, and triathlete incorporate some form of strength training. This builds muscle strength, keeps the joints healthy, and keeps the athlete injury-free. Strength training is especially important because these sports require high-volume training.
If you’re looking to enter endurance sports, do so after building a decent strength base, or incorporating a strength training program. Consider the example of David Goggins, an ultrarunner. He started ultrarunning after building a strong Strengt base as a powerlifter. Granted his first race was a horrible experience (an example of transitioning from pure Strength to pure Endurance), he managed to finish it. Now, he’s regularly running ultramarathons. In my opinion (apart from his armored mind) this is possible because he built a Strength base before taking up Endurance training. I’m not sure if he could so easily transition if it was the other way.
Speed is a complementary facet. It is a combination of strength and endurance. I’d argue, it requires more strength than endurance.
I define Speed as being strong, at high intensities, low duration, and with high momentum. This means being able to move a heavyweight for a short period of time quickly.
The exercises that I think build Speed are compound exercises performed in combination. This means that they involve several muscle groups working in tandem performing different exercises in momentum.
This sounds confusing. Let’s look at an example. The exercise that I am learning to build Speed is the snatch, it’s an Olympic lift. I am writing about my progress here.
A snatch is a lift performed to put the bar from ground to overhead in one movement. It requires Strength, but more than that it requires momentum, generated through Speed.
From head to toe, several muscles are used. Each part of the snatch can be broken down into a compound movement — the deadlift, the high pull, and the overhead snatch and performed separately.
Another aspect of building Speed with strength is longevity. Specifically when you get older. Peter Attia spoke about the importance of building fast-twitch muscle fibers as you get older. Here’s a quick explainer on fast vs slow twitch muscle fibers if you’re unfamiliar. As you get older, you get slower. But having a good Speed and Strength base will allow you to retain some amount of fast-twitch muscles. Old people tend to fall often and get incurable injuries. In order to prevent falling, you need fast-twitch muscles that will force limbs to stop falls. This is how speed training can increase longevity and why I am trying to build it.
Speed is a by-product of Strength. Once strength is sufficiently built it can be layered with Speed. That is my intention of learning the snatch. Building Speed enhances Strength. The two can be trained in tandem. While Endurance is required to build Speed, it isn’t required beyond a base.
If Speed is the goal, I think, overly focusing on Endurance does not help. You need a base layer to avoid ‘gassing out.’ Build Strength, and Speed will come.
Power, like Speed, is complimentary. It is a combination of Endurance and Strength. I’d argue, it requires more Endurance than Strength.
I define Power as the generation of immense force through Speed. It is explosive for a short period, and at regular intervals. But it has to be sustained through these intervals. And in order for that, Power requires Endurance. It cannot be sustained at high intensities all the time.
A sport that has a perfect Power element, in my opinion, is boxing. Boxing requires the athlete to generate immense power through a punch. It forces displacement through velocity. But a boxer cannot give all his power in one punch. A boxing match is rarely a one-punch knockout, like those high-punch boxing machines seen in arcades. The boxer has to sustain his punches through 12 three-minute rounds. This requires Endurance.
Although I am no expert in martial arts, I think this is the same across other forms of martial arts. Striking art forms like kickboxing, Muay Thai, Taekwondo, and even grappling art forms like wrestling and jiu-jitsu require immense power. This is developed through both Strength, in order to force and displace the opponent, but sustained through Endurance, in order to last the full match.
Skill is completely different from the four facets mentioned above. It can include just one, a few, or all. It all depends on the skill in question.
There is no one definition of skill, like the other four facets, it all depends on the workout or the sport. Skill is better developed once the base facet is well drilled.
For instance, the skill of Olympic weightlifting is better developed when base Strength and Speed are better developed. In order to learn the skill of moving the barbell, you need to be both strong and quick.
This point is debatable when it comes to something that does not require pre-requisites. I was talking to a friend about the pre-requisites of combat sports, specifically jiu-jitsu. I think a base level of Strength and Endurance is required to excel. He partially disagreed and said all that is required is Skill, which is learned through practice, practice, and practice. This point is made by UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre and his coach Firas Zahabi advises.
In traditional sports, Skill is based around the other facets. Take the square cut in cricket. You need to know the facets — Strength to hold the bat and Speed to cut at the right time. You require Power to apply a good amount of force and Endurance to run between wickets. These are different facets all working in unison under Skill.
The point is — Skill cannot be seen as a combination of any facet, but, perhaps, an evolution of each with an objective. The objective to lift the weight correctly, to punch the hardest, and to play the perfect shot. Try as I may, I cannot segment and define it away like the previous facets. It will always be different.
Why the five?
As I said, fitness can be confusing. I’ve listed down these five facets — Strength, Endurance, Speed, Power, and Skill, in order to have a framework to think about fitness.
Chasing two opposite goals will leave you in the same place. I remember I was chasing a pure Strength goal and a pure Endurance goal. It was leaving me with little progress in either. That was not helping my workouts, and more importantly, not improving my fitness. You can avoid this.
If your goal is to get strong, then get strong. Build a program and set a strength goal. Do not add an unachievable endurance goal like decreasing your marathon time or running an ultramarathon. Similarly, if you do want to decrease your marathon time, you cannot increase your one-rep max deadlifts. They work in opposite directions.
What you can do is build complementary goals. Building Strength and Speed is possible. Endurance training and Power training are possible. Layering either of the four to enhance your Skill, whatever it may be, is possible.
Thinking about Fitness through a framework, whether this one or another, will ensure your goals do not work against each other. Once that’s done, the only thing left is to GET AFTER IT!