You’ve likely seen or heard of the hierarchy of needs within fitness in some capacity. In my Built by Annie program my clients get access to something called Annie’s Secret Laboratory of Brain Gains. And in that lab, I have a video training on the two hierarchy of needs that I see and use in working with my clients. I have also seen other ones that are different than these. So I don’t want you to think that these are some gold standard. This is just my professional take on fitness and movement hierarchies.
Cardio respiratory endurance, strength endurance, strength, power, skill.
Flexibility, mobility, strength, power, skill.
These hierarchies obviously begin to cross paths at strength, power, and skill. But the point of today’s episode is to look at how these hierarchies show up in your strength training. Or really, in the higher tears of either hierarchy.
We know how hierarchies work. Picture a pyramid and the foundation of these hierarchies would be the bottom level. So on the movement side, that’s flexibility and on the fitness side that is endurance.
A lot of people in the strength and bodybuilding world poo poo on low intensity steady state cardio. If you’ve ever seen anyone on social media post about LISS, they’re talking about low intensity cardio respiratory endurance. Training in an aerobic state for long durations. At least 35 to 60 minutes and even well beyond that.
Your cardio respiratory endurance is essentially your capacity. It is your aerobic capacity, not your anaerobic capacity, but your aerobic capacity lays the foundation to build your anaerobic capacity as well as your ability to recover between sets.
I can speak to the power of building your aerobic capacity in my recent return to the gym after seven months off. I have taken several breaks from lifting in my almost 15 years of strength training. And I died far less in this come back compared to others. The only factor that changed for me, was that I had been doing some level of steady state cardio the last three months before heading back into the gym.
I hadn’t lifted more than 25 pounds in seven months, but I didn’t feel like throwing up after three sets of squats simply due to having a better aerobic capacity and base to work with.
I will say I think I am the weakest that I’ve ever been during a come back phase, but at least I’m not weak and completely deconditioned.
That’s all thanks to the bottom tier of the fitness hierarchy of needs.
Do you want to lift more for longer periods of time? Then don’t poopoo on your aerobic capacity. It’s the basis of all fitness.
Feel like you’re dying during your lifts and your lungs are your limiting factor? Add in two days of low intensity steady state cardio and tell me how you feel a month later.
This is essentially how long you can go for without the presence of oxygen. Your aerobic capacity is your ability to exercise for a long duration in the presence of oxygen. The longer you can do that without passing over to an anaerobic state, the higher your aerobic capacity is. Once we cross over into the anaerobic state, we are now working that in aerobic capacity.
Think about things like thresholds or cardiac power intervals, where we are working at one and a half minutes to three minutes over eighty percent of your max heart rate and then attempting to recover as quickly as possible from that. Again, the better your aerobic capacity is, the more of a head start you will have in the anaerobic training.
How is your ability to function at high intensities? This will be a reflection of your in aerobic capacity. Elite CrossFitters likely have very high anaerobic capacities. They can train at high intensities for repeated bouts. They also likely score well in all other areas of each hierarchy, which is getting back to my point.
We are not robots. You may increase and improve your aerobic capacity by also working in anaerobic states. But aerobic is still the foundation.
Aerobic and anaerobic threshold will show up in your strength training. When you are in better aerobic and anaerobic shape, meaning you have a higher work capacity, you’ll be able to do longer supersets of high intensity strength training. So some thing like hip thrusts, Romanian deadlifts and walking lunges could be feasible for you. That might take 3 to 5 minutes and get your heart rate well above 80%, but your body can function in that state. Whereas that would thrash someone from a conditioning standpoint if they had low aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.
Where aerobic capacity is the basis of all fitness, flexibility is the basis of all movement. You can only be as mobile as you are flexible.
Flexibility is passive range of motion whereas mobility is active range of motion.
Just to give you an example, flexibility would be the middle splits, while mobility would be a straddle leg lift. Gymnasts are a great example of both flexibility and mobility. They are wildly flexible but can also use that range of motion in an active manner.
In Mike Boyle’s joint by joint approach, we know your mobile joints should be your big toe, your ankle, hips, thoracic spine, shoulder, wrists, and fingers, While stable joints will be The foot, knee, lumbar spine, scapula, cervical spine, elbow and hand.
With that, all joints should be mobile. But from a movement standpoint the joint by joint approach stands true for efficient movement patterns with the least amount of energy leaks.
If you are lacking range of motion somewhere in a strength exercise, it might be worthwhile to look at your flexibility and mobility of joints involved within that movement.
Or, if you can’t squat to depth, how is your ankle mobility, hip mobility, and thoracic spine mobility? If the mobility is limited, how is the flexibility?
Meaning that someone could have a weak hip flexion yet have full passive hip flexion. This would present itself with someone only being able to lift their leg to 90° with knee flexion in a standing position, but be able to pulled her knee all the way to their chest with out hip rotation in a supine position. Full flexibility, limited mobility.
That would further tell us that we need to work on mobility, not flexibility. That simply means that this person has the capacity to move through full range of motion but doesn’t have the strength in those end ranges. And that limitation is manifesting itself in their squats.
Hopefully by this point we are seeing how the foundational pieces of these hierarchies affect and show up in our typical strength and hypertrophy style of training. There really could not be a better and more literal illustration of “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
And this is all not to say that you can’t work strength, power, or skills without a solid foundation of flexibility and cardio respiratory endurance. It’s just to say that if you aren’t working on weak links that you have in those foundational areas, it’s going to limit your strength, power, or skill at some point.
But they can by all means be worked on in tandem.
How this works is that strength is simply the maximum amount of force that one can produce. Well Power is force produced over the shortest possible time span. So where strength does not include a time limit, Power does. This is where velocity comes into play.
We can move more weight at lower velocities then we can at high velocities.
Think about strongman versus an Olympic weightlifter.
An Olympic weightlifter can front squat far more than they can power clean. Strength proceeds power.
A strong man can lift a heavier object than he can throw.
This applies to both hierarchies. Which again, both have skill at the top of the hierarchy.
Skill is very vague. A power clean is a skill and so is a golf swing or shooting a basketball. Walking on a balance beam is a skill, the breaststroke is a skill. A box jump is a skill. The dead lift or a pull up is a skill. A back handspring is a skill. Running is a skill. This is where the mechanics of specific movements come in to play.
Within the skills we have mobility, strength, power, balance, and so many other factors of these hierarchies. Which is why scale comes last, but is also being developed along with these other factors. You don’t play soccer once your work capacity has hit a certain point. You don’t do a box jump only once you can squat double your bodyweight. We can develop skills while also strengthening weaknesses down the hierarchy.
I just want to make so clear that this is not a robot or linear spectrum. That wouldn’t be realistic. But, it is important to note that the hierarchies do exist and leaks in the lower foundations of your hierarchy are going to show up in the upper levels.
Maybe you were aware of this before this episode, maybe you weren’t. Or maybe you just never thought of it like this. But whether you’re a trainer or a trainee, I hope that this helped you understand your training and the way the body functions a bit better. Maybe you can relate to one of the scenarios I mentioned, and maybe I changed your mind about low intensity steady state cardio.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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