September 27, 2012 posted by

The Map Of Athletic Performance

This is a great article for those who enjoy geeking out about fitness. For anyone interested in what I do for a living here’s a taste. I’m always evaluating the latest data and techniques looking for ideas we can incorporate into what we do. It’s from an elite climber and strength trainer Rob Miller and titled The Map of Athletic Performance.

Articles like this are what opens the door for training advancements. I can’t say that I learned anything new, exactly, but certainly helped my thought process. I mean, we’re all working off of the same science so new aspects about training tend to come from experience and trying to think outside the box. This is why breakthroughs in training rarely come from scientists and usually from athletes and trainers (Rob is both) who experiment outside of known templates–why we call exercise physiology an “applied science”. This is similar to what Charlie Francis was doing with runners and Paul Rogers is doing with cyclists.

Anyone interested in last week’s articles on customizing P90X should consider investing some time, so bookmark this article for reference. While techie, it summarized a lot junk you’re forced to learn in school and is much more fun to read than most text books. That’s because it stays focused on a subject, which is training for climbing, though its scope if far beyond that particular sport. The theories discussed here can be applied to any type of training.

I’m going to try and break this down a step further for the layman by adding notes and perspective on various sections. Miller begins with the climbing aspect and goes into the general exercise phys stuff later, which I’m reversing for readability in my analysis.

Getting “generally” strong is just smart. Whether it is to increase lean body mass for health reasons or to gain an edge at the sport you love. Full range of motion basic barbell movements performed well will have the farthest reaching impact in support of all athletic endeavors. Essentially, strength improves the body’s capacity to perform at a greater intensity. This is true for all developing athletes and remains true for even the most advanced.

This is a great paragraph but it needs to be noted that Rob is a barbell trainer (how he makes his living). Of course that are others ways to accomplish this, but barbell training is his bread and butter. He knows it very well and can teach is safely, which everyone cannot do. He addresses that fact but he doesn’t explain that there are other ways to safely do compound lifts (he has no reason to) that are easier to learn.

What became very obvious while dwelling on the ramifications of the Map (above) is that there are many trajectories from the inside ring toward the outside that can naturally be pursued over the course of an athlete’s career. But the closer an athlete is to expressing most of his genetic potential – the further out from the center of the Map – the greater the need for the effort to become more focused. Deliberate choices need to be made with regard to which, and how many, outward trajectories from the center will benefit the athlete most. Because training is a deliberate approach to systematically achieving one’s goal, after 5 years of “Elite” distraction the first deliberate thing I did for my training as a climber was to stop pushing out in all directions on the Map at the same time in the pursuit of “increased work capacity over broad time and model domains.”

This is a challenge faced by any athlete who practices many different sports (hence most weekend warriors). He’s specifically addressing Crossfit and its misguided emphasis when it comes to sports (he has a long history with CF’s founder, discussed at length) but the challenge he’s addressing—-efficient sports specific training to leave time for sports specific work—-is the meat of what all athletes are after.

The activities may be listed along the Map’s perimeter but the process of athletic development begins well within the Map’s interior. The activities being listed on the outside have to do with creating a trajectory for development. Reaching the outside limits of the Map means that you are up against your genetic potential in that sport. It is a rare individual that has exhausted all means to achieve greater abilities and capacities in his sport. But more importantly, an athlete on the outer reaches has developed other “supplemental” trajectories either by exploring other sports or deliberately pursuing physical qualities that his primary trajectory will directly benefit from. And this is one of the more significant implications of the Map.

He’s just defined the concept behind “muscle confusion” from P90X, which we’ve taken to a much deeper level in X2. What’s so important in this paragraph is that you can’t change your genetic potential but within your genetic make-up you can improve your capacity for improvement and efficiency. That is what any trainer’s goal is with an athlete, to maximize their genetic capacity for performance.

Prioritizing training time is weighed against the timeline of the upcoming season, event or competition in every stage of athletic development. Advanced training takes on a laser-like focus the further out on the Map one is, and it and becomes less tolerant of any superfluous training “noise.” Each training session has a clear purpose and all available resources go into achieving that purpose. The ratio of work to rest that productively drives adaptation no longer has a forgiving margin of error. The work is focused and deliberate, so that the body can be left alone to do its thing during recovery.

The single biggest challenge most of us face, especially when life (job, families, etc) enter the equation. Efficiency is king but, let’s face it, most of us would rather do what we enjoy. Sometimes, especially if you want to maximize your potential, you need to put that aside and make decisions about what is best for you to reach your goals and not just what you like to do.

There is no parallel to the barbell in its ability to meet an athlete exactly where they are now in terms of neuromuscular efficiency and begin the process of progressively applying higher demands on the entire system. The neglect the barbell receives from both regular folks and athletes is something of a mystery, given its potential. Still, given that we live in a culture that sells products offering quick fixes or a “silver bullet” for most everything people are interested in, it is understandable that training with the barbell is undervalued or ignored. It takes time, like anything worth doing thoroughly.

Obviously, as a barbell coach, this is his opinion. Almost nothing you do with a barbell can’t be done using something else—-though a barbell can be very efficient. What he hasn’t addressed is the injury potential when doing his exercises, which is very high. His angle is that if you learn the moves right they are safe but he also states it took him many years of devoted study and training to do this. Thus…

Because of the previous collective move away from barbell training in the fitness industry, few trainers have appropriate knowledge of its value or how to teach people to utilize it.

What’s he’s saying is to take his camps or train differently. I can’t argue. If I can find the time I’ll take one of his camps. If not I’ll train differently. I’ve been around these lifts my entire life but have never devoted near the time Rob has to learning about them, even though…

The squat is the single most important exercise there is. Nothing else recruits more tissue doing more work than this one movement. The full range of motion squat done properly is the most potent tool in the gym. The other four add balance and support to this central movement. The time it takes you to learn something in the gym has a lot to do with how long it will remain interesting and effective, no matter what your goals are. Correctly performed squats take some time to learn. Even if your sport does not require squatting, and most do not, there is enormous benefit from becoming fluent in this basic human movement.

…this paragraph sounds exactly like one of my mentors, Fred (Dr. Squat) Hatfield.

In an endurance setting, strength and power will always be expressed at a fraction of one’s overall potential due to the lower strength and power demands of endurance sports. Therefore, the increase in strength and power will directly benefit one’s endurance simply by increasing that overall potential, and thereby increasing the reservoir from which to pull that fraction.

This is very important. My biased definition as to why P90X2 is so important for all athletes, even endurance athletes.

Perhaps the misguided emphasis on cardio-respiratory endurance will shift when more people try alternatives to mainstream ‘trendy’ workouts. Maybe the idea that “more” is not better will begin to sink in.

Very true but he’s talking about elite athletes. The emphasis in their training has been moving this direction now for more than a decade. The exact point is discussed in the X2 guide when addressing why there is no “cardio” in that program.

This is a quick synopsis of a broad topic. In the article he provides a nice discussion of energy systems and how training them applies to everyone. It’s very important to understand that no matter what kind of sport you want to train for.

miller walking the talk on el capitan

Now off to more specific things…

I’m saying that if you’re training, then it’s time organize your climbing into a weekly period of work-to-rest for the best results. To get the most out of the climbing you are already doing, we’re going to organize your week around a primary session called the Heavy Day. This is the day, or a combination of days if you go climbing for the weekend, that will be driving your intermediate rate of adaptation. This is the stressor that your body will need a full week to recover from.

It doesn’t mean the intermediate climber takes a week off. He needs to engage those skills during the week of active rest. This way, skills stay sharp and are ready to ‘neurologically fire’ when fully recovered. To accomplish a full intermediate recovery, you’re going to follow the Heavy Day with one Medium Day and one Light Day during the remainder of the week.

The A,B,Cs of training. I’ve written on this a lot and it’s the focal point of my latest training article for DPM Climbing.

Your body is conditioned to climbing. So some climbing, even at your limit, won’t inhibit your recovery. It’s when you don’t understand how to actively recover, or that it’s necessary, that so many climbers eddy in a performance slump way longer than necessary.

Interesting in that this is what the Spanish do, and they have the most strong climbers in the world, by far. They call it tranquillo y a muerte (you mostly relax but when you do climb it’s “to the death”) and, I think, many traveling Americans have trouble with such a small volume of climbing—-myself included (we’re on limited holiday time fer crissakes)—-but those who do embrace it generally improve.

So why do climbers do the same thing as the example tennis player, and climb routes that don’t really challenge their abilities – a bunch of sub-maximal work that doesn’t challenge the skill set? Since there is no specific motor pathway being practiced – because the sport consists of myriad ways to climb any route – there is no point in the sub-maximal repetition. The worse case scenario is that the sub-maximal work at higher volume sets them up for injury when they do ramp up the intensity, like ‘junk’ miles on a bike for a cyclist.

This is key. Most of us waste a lot of time like this. It’s why you see people climbing for years and years and never really improving. Maybe they get slightly better when, say, they lose a few pounds for a redpoint but never by much. Focused systematic training out of your comfort zone is the only way to reach your body’s capacity for strength.

What he leaves out, which is important to less serious athletes (most of us) is that “junk miles” (or its sports equivalent) is important for season athletes as a way to condition the body when you haven’t practiced a sport in a while. Skin conditioning of the hands for climbers, feet for runners, and saddle area for cyclists are simple examples. Re-engaging neuromuscular patterns is another. This should not detract us from his main point, which is that creating a strong foundation of fitness minimizes our need for “junk” volume.

The difference at the advanced stages is that the athlete is so developed in his specific sport that it’s really difficult to apply enough of a stress that the body will have a hormonal response.

That stressor doesn’t have to come from the sport you’re training for. That’s what happened to me when I got into CrossFit. Not identifying the unfamiliar stimulus was unfortunate. I could have saved a lot of valuable training time.

Great point, but are different stresses the climbing causes that should be addressed individually depending upon the type of climbing you do, which he gets into…

Strength takes the longest to develop but it also sticks around the longest. Endurance comes and goes almost by the week. Strength is persistent and has the greatest training carryover, like in our bouldering example.

I think he’s underselling endurance. As any cyclist/triathlete knows it does take a while to bring all of your various “endurance” parameters up to speed. You improve by the week but it takes many weeks to have everything humming along perfectly.

However, his main point, that strength takes the longest to train (he means power or “absolutely strength” or muscular efficiency) is not only valid it’s the one essential key to improving performance even as an endurance athlete. It’s harder to train, takes both focus and specificity, and, mainly, to truly address it you must curtail your endurance training, which is a hard sell for most of us who are addicts, especially true of runners, cyclists, surfers, and climbers.

It’s really the key to the entire article: that we neglect full body strength training in favor of random volume. It’s not a coincidence that Francis and Rogers, who coached a stack of Olympic champions, were thinking along the same lines.

above: note no cyclists on the map. This is because those sports are hard to define this way. A road racer, for example, is an endurance athlete whose entire success is dependent on the anaerobic pathways, or the ability sprint or climb a hill at key points in an otherwise aerobic race. this means both areas must be trained with specific focus on the individual depending on the type of races they want to do well at.


  • Good friggin' post.Josh

  • Been struggling hard with this stuff lately. Especially interesting is that my biggest limiter to climbing is my legs/technique/mental game post accident. Hard to commit to this from a training perspective since I'm a certified power addict. Something tells me a refocus on my yoga practice would reap huge benefits. Or maybe I need a quick trip to SB to circuit problems at the mouth…. Great stuff here Steve.

  • Steve- this is really great. In only 30 days doing X2, I’ve noticed great improvement in my tennis game. I particularly like the following paragraph: “He’s just defined the concept behind “muscle confusion” from P90X, which we’ve taken to a much deeper level in X2. What’s so important in this paragraph is that you can’t change your genetic potential but within your genetic make-up you can improve your capacity for improvement and efficiency. That is what any trainer’s goal is with an athlete, to maximize their genetic capacity for performance.” I can’t change the fact that I’m 5’3”, a female and pear shaped (all genetics!), but X2 is helping me maximize my flexibility and balance (things I already genetically possessed, but were dormant). Last week, I was able to get to those difficult balls a lot faster, with a lot more balance and reach with my arms and legs. I also realized how true the statement below is. In the past 3 years, if I’ve had a minute to spare in my busy life (work, kids, etc.), it’s been playing tennis. Tennis has been my only form of exercise, but I also hit the wall with my performance and my ability to advance in the game. My selfishness and desire to do what I enjoy most, had stopped me from doing other forms of exercise…until YOU and Steph convinced me to try X2. Of course I reluctantly had to decrease my tennis hours and dedicate time to X2. Thank goodness I listened!!!!!!! I can’t wait to see how things elevate after the 90 days! Thank you! “The single biggest challenge most of us face, especially when life (job, families, etc) enter the equation. Efficiency is king but, let’s face it, most of us would rather do what we enjoy. Sometimes, especially if you want to maximize your potential, you need to put that aside and make decisions about what is best for you to reach your goals and not just what you like to do.” Sincerely,Ani

  • Awesome, Ani, just wait 'til phase 3!

  • Yeah, Micah, power is certainly the only thing that matters and, really, he's not discussing a lot of angles, just his own. It's a good one but there are obviously other things that matter, especially when those things are limiting factors. Yoga, for sure, will help. What was it you said, "it's like cheating for climbers". I should go do some right now.

  • I totally follow the point of diversifying one's training, and using programs like X2 (or something that works a slightly different energy system than your sport) in the off season to achieve gains. Been keeping up with your "Customizing the X" articles. But what I would love to see is where all of Beach Body's programs fit on a chart like this. I recently read an article about how an Olympic Volleyball player got into shape pre-season after having a baby by using the Insanity program. I think that's awesome. Also other pro-athletes like Apollo Ohno have been featured on the Insanity/Asylum page which is really cool. But obviously the Insanity programs, while providing drills that aren't necessarily one-sport specific, are definitely more geared towards sports that require a high degree of speed and explosiveness without much muscle gain. If you are a "Strong Man" or Football player, I'm guessing something like Body Beast or X2 would service those athletes better? Beach Body has so many programs now and so many of them are total body conditioning that there would probably be a lot of cross-over. But would still like to see where they all fit on the wheel. My guess X2 would be the WHOLE Circle because it's so variable. Anyway just a thought. Might be a good marketing tool to entice "weekend warriors" as you put it.

  • Steve, what a wonderful article. It was a nice read for me since I am currently doing a hybrid round of both p90x2 AND "big 3" lifts at the gym (barbell chest bench press, barbell squats, barbell deadlifts). I was able to do 2 rounds of p90x2 and got great results. Now, I am tinkering with this new routine and wanted to get your take. Could I really benefit from doing both x2 stuff and barbell strength workouts? Or, does it slow down my progress/potential? Of course, this is all with good nutrition (tracking at 2200 cals 40p/40c/20f energy boost macro)… I am 163 lbs 14%bf looking to get to 8%bf… THANKS STEVE! – Les

  • There's no reason you can't mix the two together. I would not do X2 as a full schedule but use elements that compliment what you're doing in the gym. 8% bf is about diet. What you want to do with that is make sure you're not seeing a drop in performance to get it because that means you're not eating enough and, while you make look better for a while you'll eventually break down.

  • Thanks for your feedback, Steve! Much appreciated! Your blog is a great reference. BTW, Jeremy Evans had an insane block and dunk last night… he's probably still doing some PAP/P90x2 stuff still LOL.

  • Great post, I love this stuff. you pretty much could use elements from X2 to address your weakneses in your main lifts. Or use as supplement work. great thing about X2 is that it wakes up your nervous system fire up those pathways that have laid dormant for so long px2 is great because in the off season it could address weaknesses that occur from lack of training & time during a season.

  • google…


  • Steve,

    What are your thoughts on obstacle racing as a sport and where do you see it fitting on the map?
    I think this is a budding sport that combines a lot of disciplines… Would you consider it part of multi-sport? There so many variations out there too that are lumped into the OCR/Mud-Run category.

  • Steve, I have a question regarding combining p90x classic and 5×5 strength training.

    As a student of Exercise Science, we have really dove in to many studies regarding strength, programming for strength- all the way to the endurance spectrum and what type of programming is needed to improve in that realm. Two totally different beasts. Being an avid p90x user, as well as an inspired powerlifter, I always find myself torn at choosing which one i want to focus on. Strength takes many months and a lot of patients and I always find myself getting bored and jumping back into a 3 week block of p90x classic. However, I’ve been doing some thinking and after finishing up my last fall semester at my university I had an idea. Why not combine the two in separate blocks? I enjoy using p90x over any program I’ve completed, however taking time to work basic movements in a heavy matter (5sets X 5 reps) in the squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press very much help my movement and have fixed many muscle imbalances I’ve had. Not to mention, going from high volume like in p90x to a heavy lifting block really helps to avoid overuse injury and ensure I’m still using proper mechanics. It’s also a good change of pace and greatly improves all my numbers in p90x.
    I want to start experimenting with a 3 week cycle of p90x followed by a recovery week which would then be followed by a 3 week block of 5X5 training.

    My goal is to be very versatile with my training an develop a very strong and functional body.
    The 3 week 5×5 block would look something like.
    mon- flat bench 5×5, incline bench 3×8, weighted chin ups (3 sets good form), inverted row 3 sets 8-12 reps & ab ripper x
    tuesday-sprints/p90x3 mmx workout/plyometrics (whichever one in the mood for)
    thursday-p90x2 shoulder arms & ab ripper x
    saturday- deadlift 5×5, weighted pull ups 3 sets, rows 3×8 & ab ripper x.

    Each week the goal would be to increase reps and weight over time. After the 5×5 training block, I would then take a recovery week, then start another p90x classic 3 week block.

    Wanted to know what you thought of this!!!
    Thank you for your time and help!



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