What is the Foundation of Fitness?

Written by Dave Thomas

I feel one of the biggest areas of failure in today’s fitness and athlete psychology is the premature insistence upon reaching the upper echelon of achievement.

Invariably, if you skip important steps, the lack of foundation will reveal itself. Guaranteed. It’s like taking a leaky boat out to sea. Once you’re there, there’s no going back and you’re filling holes the entire time you’re out there just trying to stay afloat.

So, what do we mean by foundation? “Build the foundation” is a buzz phrase that gets tossed around the fitness industry, but very rarely do we go into detail on what exactly that means. We’ve talked about it here and here, and recently here, but today we want to zoom out and give some idea on how we handle athlete development, and why we think this model is king.

The P360 Fitness Continuum

Moving left to right, the progression of a successful athlete should develop as follows.

Muscle Endurance  → Strength Endurance → Absolute Strength/Power/Intensity

You often hear that strength is foundation to fitness. While this is true, it is a bit of a misnomer as in order to build strength you must have the structural foundation and integrity of your soft tissue to support it.

Athletes who are strong are athletes who will ultimately achieve the best fitness results. Period. However, the cost to get in the door to even build strength begins first with muscle endurance, then moves to strength endurance, and ultimately arrives at absolute strength.

Muscle Endurance

Muscle endurance is our entire foundation for movement.

To begin to strength train in the range of 1-5 barbell reps in the 50-75% range, the slow and steady strength training that we all know, without first addressing muscle endurance would be a catastrophic failure. We define muscle endurance as the development and endurance of complete motor control under load. Within this broad description includes strengthening of connective tissue, mobility and stability specific to the demands placed on the athlete for a particular movement.

What good is it to train a heavy back squat if your body has not first logged thousands of reps in the squat pattern?

After all, where do we think tolerance to back squatting comes from?

Another prime example would be watching a brand new athlete attempt to perform dips on the rings? The rings are the ultimate whistle-blower of our own lack of motor control in a position where we need stability. New athletes will hop up and shake and within a few seconds the rings are nowhere near their control.

To put this into perspective, in what other form of athletics would you immediately start at the highest level? Professional baseball players must develop and progress in the minor leagues before getting a shot at the major leagues. Jiu Jitsu starts you off at a white belt. Freshman football exists before varsity football. In the corporate world, you start out in entry level and must go to business school if you want to become a CEO.

What is the Foundation of Fitness?

If you do not own basic pressing strength, how can you expect to succeed in weighted overhead pressing?

You get the idea.

Why would developing the human body be any different?

Muscle endurance is where we build muscular stability, where we strengthen tendons and ligaments. It’s where build motor paths and establish mind muscle communication. I’ve said this before and caught some flack for it, but its why I feel yoga serves as an excellent foundation for new strength athletes. The proprioception and motor control are there, just the patterning is different.

Beneficial training for athletes in this phase of the progression include.

  • 8 – 12R at a time. Anything that exceeds this will likely develop faulty movement pattern due to fatigue. Anything less is insufficient to build requisite muscle endurance.
  • Longer Duration, Low Intensity – If All Level athletes are performing an 8 minute density circuit, athletes in this range will benefit much more so from 20 minutes at reduced intensity. Again, volume is king. Not intensity.
  • Load at 50% or Less – it is premature to build strength via the CNS with new athletes. They must first establish patterning, and the strength byproduct that comes with building their structure.

In all reality, what this resembles is a bodybuilding and circuit training hybrid, where the rep doses is just high enough to focus on what we want, yet low enough to not create faults. This is why our Phase 1 is focused on muscle endurance, and why all tests for Phase 1 athletes are volume-based series of measurements.

Aerobic endurance is developed here, but it is a byproduct of focusing on muscle endurance in this kind of low intensity format.

Strength Endurance

Once the athlete displays complete motor control and has created a level of structural integrity, it is appropriate to begin targeting strength endurance, where the athlete is focused on developing strength at submaximal.
Beneficial training for athletes in this phase include.

What is the Foundation of Fitness?

  • 5 – 8R at a time. Slowly and steadily using a 5R marker for progress, not concerning yourself with the one or even three rep protocol.
  • Medium Duration, Moderate Intensity. Intensity increases once muscles have proven they can endure it and not develop pattern faults.
  • Load at 50 – 75%.

You will notice that the majority of workouts at our facility have the mid-range rep prescription at five for all barbell lifts. Remember, this model is a continuum, so it makes sense to have the middle ground training be a point where all levels of athletes can take themselves to, left or right, and see progress.

Absolute Strength, Power and Intensity

Only once the athlete has displayed proficiency in the first two arenas should they start training at their maximum levels of strength, power and intensity.

Beneficial training for athletes in this phase include.

  • 1-5R
  • Short Duration, Higher Intensity
  • Load @ 75% – 95%

This is where we start to see some real struggle. A functional example of this would be the IWT style of workout, where are going extremely hard for roughly 90 seconds, and following with rest of approximately 6 minutes. Performance360 athletes are familiar with this protocol, as you cannot make mistake it for any other day. While this type of true glycolytic, anaerobic training is highly beneficial for the athlete conditioned to sustain high output, it is borderline worthless for novice athletes because they have not yet even developed the necessary foundation to allow them to train with intensity.

Their bodies literally do not know how to reach threshold, so why take them there?

This type of training is also not sustainable to comprise the majority of your program. Hence, another reminder of the continuum approach.

Closing Words

This model is not representative of every capacity you develop as an athlete, but I do feel it is the foundation for which other capacities such as aerobic and anaerobic endurance develop, as well as agility.

While it could be argued that this is more suited for a pyramid shaped due to its hierarchical structure, the reason for its labeling and presentation as a continuum is because the athlete will always return to these phases of development once they have achieved a high level. It’s not as if you stop at the top and stay in absolute strength, you are periodizing training focus to ensure plateaus are overcome, the body stays healthy, and most importantly, training stays fun.

While “foundation” is always relevant to the task at hand, to me, this is what building a proper strength and conditioning foundation encompasses.