The Inverted Training Pyramid: A Case for Training Generalization
Everything I do I take to the absolute extreme. Examples: I train for hours every single day, I am incredibly messy in my personal life, my fine motor skills are unbelievably sloppy, I was always fairly good at academics, I get obsessed with certain subjects and immerse myself completely, I have few friends but the ones I do are friends for life, and I can eat an entire tub of ice cream in the same time it takes someone to eat one cone. My point in all this is that despite my overly obsessive behavior, the biggest thing I have learned is that almost everything in life is a spectrum. It is easy to get carried away doing certain things, especially doing too much of what we love and too little of what we hate, but the key is to have a balanced mindset and avoid the extremes at all costs. Clearly I am not perfect at this by any means, and am definitely worse than most, but I think the athletic community has taken this to another level entirely. And this needs to end immediately!
Once an athlete has reached a decent level of maturity and is past the point of free play, fun, and games, the performance training pyramid is supposed to look something like this:
Instead, I would argue it looks much more like this:
Even in cases where strength and conditioning is a primary focus, such as in many high school weight rooms, the pyramid looks a lot more like this:
Illustrations aside, this is a huge problem with youth athletics that I have seen in the short time I have been a part of strength, conditioning and sports performance. It is not any one individual or team that seems to be the primary driver of this issue, but as a whole, I believe we could do a better job of serving the athletes and clientele we work with. I think it starts with lifestyle changes most importantly, particularly relating to: sleep, nutrition, hydration, technology exposure, spending time outdoors, emotional expression, and psychological well-being. However, in this post I am going to outline strictly from a sports performance perspective how I believe we can improve the quality of the service we are providing our athletes for longevity, sustainability, wellness, and performance.
Addressing the Base of the Pyramid for Young Athletes
Once an athlete has reached a decent level of maturity and is no longer spending all of their free time playing games with friends and family, the emphasis of a long-term athletic development model should transition to teaching foundational movement skills. Before high school age, this includes, but is not limited to: gymnastics, combat sports, track and field, team sports, perception and agility, and basic strength movements. This can be done in any combination, and the ratio of each activity will absolutely vary for each individual. The primary emphasis should be on three things: exposure, creativity, and technique. An example of activities a young athlete could do to hit all of these areas would be: American Ninja Warrior Training, participating in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, playing on a soccer team, having fun with friends at a park, and attending a performance facility that prioritizes long-term development such as Acceleration Sports Performance (shameless plug). This is definitely a lot, but distributed over the course of a year is absolutely possible to do. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but the idea is to expose young athletes to a variety of activities and force them to deal with planned discomfort, gain confidence, learn new skills, discover strengths and weaknesses, and spark a lifelong enjoyment for movement. This is an excellent model for young athletes to follow until they begin to narrow down the sports and activities they would like to participate in.
Addressing the Base of the Pyramid for Intermediate Athletes
Once an athlete reaches high school, they often begin to specialize in fewer and more specific sports and activities. During this period of development, a fundamental movement paradigm still exists, but the emphasis should be different. As opposed to simply exposing an athlete to a broad spectrum of movement strategies and practices, the focus should shift to basic human movements that everyone on the planet should be able to perform at a competent level. My opinion on what these movements include changes fairly regularly, but at this point in time it is some combination of patterns that fall under the categories of each of the following: gait, bilateral hip-dominant, bilateral knee-dominant, split-stance, single-leg, upper body pushing, upper body pulling, torso control, rotational sequencing, and breathing. These are ten simple, but not easy, categories of patterns that are required both for daily life and athletic movement.
Mastery of these patterns is somewhat ambiguous, but for me I would define competency as being able to efficiently demonstrate proper position within each category during either slow tempos, high repetitions, or isometric holds. All of these methods challenge the system to minimize compensation patterns and demonstrate quality movement strategies. I have yet to see an individual who demonstrates mastery in each category, and I would argue almost everyone I have seen move hardly has competency in many of these areas at all. It is not the fault of any individual or practitioner alone, but as a result of society, we often prioritize performance improvements in the short-term over longevity and wellness in the long-term. This is in addition to our lifestyles not being optimal for movement and athletics. As a result, I believe everyone would benefit from spending more time hammering the basics, and I would argue a majority of training time should be spent addressing these qualities. I personally believe somewhere in the range of 30-60% of training time should be spent addressing fundamental movement competency at any point in the year. From there we can address more specific areas that need to be worked on and mix in sport skills as well.
Renowned sport scientist Dr. Yessis popularized the 1x20 strength training system, which is a perfect example of a systematic and simple way to address weaknesses on a somewhat joint-by-joint basis. Dr. Tommy John, a chiropractor out of California, has also put together basic movement standards that includes items such as owning a single-leg stance position, holding a push-up position, hanging from a pull-up bar, and holding a lunge position with quality joint angles. These are two example of training systems that emphasize movement quality over heavy loads or high velocities. Take the aspects of each that you find useful, apply them in your own way, and continue to refine your methodologies along the way.
Quality movement is the foundation, and as a result, essential to athleticism at all levels. The way I personally go about addressing the base of the training pyramid is a blend of methods that focus on slow tempos, isometric holds, full ranges of motion, high repetitions, and work capacity. From there the possibilities are endless and only limited by creativity. This is not to say that training should be watered down, easy, and only seek to fix every “imbalance” on an individual, but the goal should be to stay within a certain bandwidth of movement quality that meets basic standards. There is no perfect way to execute a movement, and every individual has their own unique strategies to accomplish a task; but there are definitely biomechanical laws that, when they are not adhered to, can lead to potential injuries or issues down the road. So the goal should not be to make training easy and boring, but rather, to challenge the individual to discover new strategies that better enable them to reach the goals they set out to accomplish. This is the goal of the base of the pyramid: challenge an individual to continuously learn new things and exceed expectations regularly. Strength is the foundation of performance, but if we are strengthening poor movement patterns, isn’t it all for nothing anyway?