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  • Writer's pictureTrainer Sarah

The Fitness Pyramid

Sure, you've heard of the food pyramid of the early 1990s that has since been replaced by other iterations such as MyPlate, but I like to think that there's a Fitness Pyramid too! I arrived at this concept after finishing my training in kinesiology, looking at all the different kinds of goals that people had, and trying to conceptualize how all the elements of fitness fit together. Some of these components are more important and, much like food, some people find it easy to overdo one aspect while completely forgetting about another. So, without further ado, here is my Fitness Pyramid, followed by an explanation of each of the components and practical suggestions for how I try to implement this in my own life:

The IAF Fitness Pyramid
  • At the base of the pyramid, is ACTIVE LIVING. Active Living is moving more. Studies, such as the one discussed here, have found that people who sit more have larger waistlines, higher body mass index (weight to height ratio), and worse blood sugar and cholesterol than individuals who are much more active. While the advent of fitness trackers has pushed 10,000 steps as the ideal target, some studies suggest that upward of 15,000 steps a day may be a better target for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Active Living includes anything that gets you up off your duff to get those 10,000+ steps - walking more, such as by parking further, doing tasks on foot that can be accomplished in an easier fashion, taking sitting breaks during the day, playing with your kids or grandkids more, opting for the stairs vs. the elevator, and gardening. Active Living can be different for different people - for some fit individuals, what might be exercise for someone else is simply Active Living for them. On that note, if you do wear a fitness tracker and see that your steps are far below the recommended 10,000+, fear not - start by gradually increasing your step goal - 5,000, then 7,500, then eventually 10,000 and more. Doing so gradually and not increasing by more than 10% each week should help mitigate any discomfort in your joints. How I do this: To stay active, I wear a FitBit tracker and make sure I hit at least 10,000 steps a day, although I honestly try to average more throughout the week with some of my more active days. I also have "no sit" times, typically when I come home from work and make sure I get started right away on household tasks such as tidying up, putting in laundry, and, in the summer, watering my flowers. Next up on the Fitness Pyramid are three equally important and interrelated components: MOBILITY, CORE, AND STABILITY/BALANCE.

  • MOBILITY: Mobility refers not just to general movement but the ability to move your joints through a normal range of motion (this is slightly different than flexibility). A lack of mobility is when you feel like you are unable to do normal movements like bending down, reaching your arms overhead, or to do them, you have to make big compensations, such as rounding your back to squat down. We tend not to think of mobility a whole lot when we are young and there are few if any evident aberrations in our movement patterns. It's when we start a new running program and find our knees begin hurting or we are reaching down to pick something up and our hips just don't feel like they are along for the ride. Correcting mobility problems isn't just about stretching tight muscles - this is only part of the problem. For every muscle, there is another muscle doing the exact opposite task, such that the "tight" muscle making you feel stiff is often accompanied by a "weaker" muscle that isn't pulling its literal weight. So when your hips have trouble bending because you think your hamstrings are tight, chances are a lack of strength in your glutes (butt muscles) is just as much of a problem. How I do this: My mobility issues are most apparent when I squat and run. I started to have some knee issues on longer runs. I realized I needed to foam roll my tight quadriceps/hip flexors and calves and strengthen my glutes, particularly the ones on the outside of my hips. If you don't know where to start here, ask me about a movement assessment and I can give you personalized recommendations.

  • CORE: When we hear the term "core," we often think of 6-pack abs but core is so much more than that. It is debatable what is all included when defining "core" but what is not debatable is that it includes the entire area that wraps around one's midsection, including the deepest layers of the abdominals called the transversus abdominis, which holds the abdominal contents flat into the trunk, as well as the obliques, and the gluteals (butt muscles). The core can be thought of as the brace, the powerhouse, or the foundation of the entire musculoskeletal system and is inherently involved in ANY and EVERY athletic (and most non-athletic) movements in the body. Your core is what transmits power and force up through the body all the way from the ground. For example, when many of you box in your sessions, I talk to you about pivoting through your hips and bracing your midsection - these are both activities that help to transmit power all the way from the ground up through your middle and out through your arm and fist. A strong core is not only aesthetically pleasing, but is critical for optimal posture, spinal health, as well as the next aspect of our pyramid, stability and balance. How I do this: As many of you know, I love to train core. It is hard to get through one of my sessions without doing glute bridges and some kind of plank. I try to train core with a variety of implements and from all directions.

  • STABILITY/BALANCE: I often hear from my clients, especially those who are mature, about the desire to improve their stability and balance. Stability is the ability to keep joints that are not moving through a range of motion still while others do. For example, when doing a push up, the shoulder and elbow joints are moving to lower the body toward the ground and then push it up. It is essential to keep the rest of the body stable - including the core. If any part of the body that is supposed to be still moves, you create "energy leaks" that makes the movement less efficient and surprisingly more difficult. One of my favorite fitness experts likes to say, "You can't shoot a cannon from a canoe" - in other words, you can't do anything requiring great force while working with a wet noodle. Similarly, balance is the ability to maintain stability but in situations where it would be challenged in an unstable situation, for example on unsure footing. Again, as I discussed above in "Core," keeping the core engaged is essential for executing movement efficiently, and this becomes even more important when one is in an unstable situation. Many people are surprised how much easier an exercise like stepping up onto a tall box on one foot is when they brace through their core. How I train this: Apart from direct core training, which is essential for improving balance, I also like to do activities that the client might participate in in real life. I find that step ups to balance are an excellent exercise to maintain lower body balance, which is most important in aging. It can also be practiced using more advanced implements such as balance balls and BOSUs.

  • CARDIO TRAINING: I know that I may differ from some coaches on this, but I place an incredibly high value on cardiovascular training, perhaps more than is popular these days. While resistance training is currently prized for "booty shaping" and building a beach body (which is all great - see resistance training below), you can't do any booty shaping if your heart stops ticking. Cardiovascular training trains your most important muscle - your heart. Without proper heart function, everything else is superfluous. Your heart's job is to pump blood throughout your body, and that blood transports the oxygen that is necessary for all "aerobic" activities (i.e., "with oxygen") short of extremely hard running, sprinting, and other "anaerobic" (i.e., without oxygen) activities that are instead fueled by other fuel sources (namely glucose, which comes from carbohydrates - another reason not to eliminate them, but let's not get me started on that...). Just like any other muscle in your body, as you train you heart by increasing the demands upon it, it will actually become stronger, and start to become more efficient, thereby pumping more blood with each pump without having to work as hard. This is why walking or running at a pace that seems impossible now will, with training over time, eventually seem very doable. How I train this: I always consider brisk walking to be my staple, but I like to run a few times a week, especially when training for a race. I also enjoy using boxing to raise my heart rate (while also working upper body), and I am a big fan of cardio DVDs, such as TurboJam and Zumba. If I'm totally pinched for time and feeling a little lazy, I have a mini stepper that I park in front of my TV in the living room and get some steps in for about 20 minutes. I used to struggle to run a couple miles, but very slowly I built up my endurance and eventually I found that running long distances actually became quite enjoyable and relaxing (crazy, I know, and I seriously am not athletically "gifted" by any chance - here is my proof - not saying you can't be cool and play a clarinet, but trust me, I was not):

Your super cool trainer, circa 1999

  • RESISTANCE TRAINING: Resistance or strength training is, in my opinion, equally important to cardiovascular training. At first I considered placing cardio as more essential than resistance training, but I decided that they are like peanut butter and jelly - you can't really have one without the other. Resistance training without having a strong heart is useless since you need the endurance to walk and stay active for years to come, but what good is that if you aren't strong enough to keep yourself upright and continue to perform your activities of daily living? Resistance training starts using lighter weight and higher repetitions to build up a base (just like walking before you can run) and can then progress to work hypertrophy and strength, which require heavier weights but fewer repetitions. Finally, power is important for sports as it requires short bursts of strength but for very few reps. From an aesthetic standpoint, resistance training helps to build a shapely body and what some people refer to as "toning" their muscles. (Toning is really just building some muscle and losing some fat to expose their shape under the skin.) It also provides a mild stimulation to one's metabolism by having larger amounts of muscle mass, but one should never overestimate this increase in caloric burn when one begins strength training (it exists but is relatively slim). How I train this: I try to work all my major muscle groups twice a week (not necessarily all on the same day). I focus on using compound movements from "The Big 7 Movements" - push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, plank, and rotation.

  • PEAK PERFORMANCE: Peak performance is the exciting pinnacle of the pyramid for a reason, and I highly recommend all trainees experience it at least once (chances are, they will likely become addicted!). Peak performance encompasses many types of activities. We often think of elite athletes like college and professional sports stars, but peak performance includes anything that is a reach for YOU! It typically involves getting an idea that seems like a reach - it should be - and deciding that you are just going to go for it. It may be an event that you have to prep for or a competition, but it is time-bound and involves pushing beyond your current capacity. A common peak performance goal is to participate in one's first 5K, but other examples include physique shows, other races including those on other modalities, and preparing for a vacation destination that involves activities you would like to try but currently may feel unready for. How I train this: As you may know, I have a bit of a competitive spirit. I competed in local figure skating competitions in middle and high school and could never get enough. I often wished I had tried out for track or cross-country in high school, but never did. As an adult, I decided, why not now? I decided to start running some 5K and had a blast pushing to finish and beat my old times. I eventually decided to try different distances, including the 10K. One "Ice Cream Sundae" race I saw awarded a really cool medal that had a spoon attached, but only if you did the 15K, so I went for it (ridiculous, I know). Finally, seeing some of my friends participate in the Detroit Free Press Half Marathon, I knew I wanted to give it a shot. I trained diligently and finishing was honestly one of the most satisfying experiences of my life thus far. I never thought in a million years that my clarinet-wielding self would be able to do that. This concept largely fueled the creation of my business and name.

Finishing the 2018 Detroit Free Press Half Marathon

I know within all the clients I've worked with, there is an athlete big or small, waiting to be unlocked and I cannot wait to help you to ascend your own Fitness Pyramid! (For those of you interested in attempting your own Peak Performance, stay tuned for an opportunity in the next couple months!). More importantly, working your way up the Fitness Pyramid is neither linear nor a one-time event. Rather, it should be thought of as a constant juggle around, and at times, certain elements will take more prominence in your training than others. Remember that fitness is a journey, not a destination, and understanding the Fitness Pyramid will hopefully help to make that journey more productive and enjoyable!

In good health,

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