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Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development

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ByCrossFitAugust 12, 2019

In the 2002 publication “What Is Fitness?” CrossFit suggested a theoretical hierarchy for the development of an athlete. This hierarchy starts with nutrition and moves to metabolic conditioning, gymnastics, weightlifting, and finally, sport. Our progression largely reflects foundational dependence, skill, and, to some degree, a general theory of development.

Nutrition is the foundation of the pyramid. The quality and constituent elements of an athlete’s diet influence metabolism and therefore the molecular foundations of muscle, bone, and the nervous system. For this reason, any training system that does not consider and duly correct an athlete’s diet will be suboptimal. Long-term training depends upon a solid base of nutritional support.

The second level of the pyramid relates to cardiovascular sufficiency. Without effective metabolic conditioning, an athlete will fatigue prematurely. As a result, the athlete’s strength and coordination will not reach their full potential, and further development can become blunted. A baseline of cardiovascular capacity must be present for success in most sports and other physical activities.

Moving up the pyramid, the third level — gymnastics — focuses on an athlete’s spatial awareness and body control. Before attempting to control an external object (barbell, ball, opponent, etc.), an athlete should first possess the strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and agility to move his or her own body through many different body positions and movement combinations with sound mechanics and confidence.

The fourth level considers the control of external objects — e.g., weightlifting and throwing. The capacities built at the metabolic conditioning and gymnastics levels can next be applied to an object beyond the confines of the athlete’s own body. Controlling external objects often relies on gross motor patterns that act as gateways for transferring power from the core of the body to the extremities. Once mastered, this skill can be refined for the nuanced and specific patterns necessary for individual sports.

With this foundation developed, the athlete can then safely and easily focus general physical preparedness on the specialized tasks required of specific sports. The novel requirements of sport — new body positions and movement patterns, dynamic control of external objects, fatigue, and other physical and psychological stressors — further serve to refine the athlete’s skill set and general capacity. For this reason, athletes are encouraged to regularly learn and play new sports.

While we may not deliberately order these components, nature often will. Despite the theoretical limitations of this model, it is a highly useful tool for analyzing athletes’ weaknesses. An athlete with a deficiency at any level of the pyramid will eventually find the components located above this deficiency will suffer in turn. If an athlete is struggling with a skill or movement or has hit a plateau in sport or training, this hierarchical model can be used to investigate and determine where the athlete might be deficient in one of the foundational components of athletic development. From there, an athlete can troubleshoot and continue to improve in terms of both capacity and performance.


To learn more about human movement and the CrossFit methodology, visit CrossFit Training.

Comments on Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development

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Karl EaglemanAugust 13th, 2019 at 2:03 am

Regarding this pyramid, I’m interested to hear any feedback on the “Revised Theoretical Hierarchy of the Development of the Athlete” we discussed here (link is safe for work): https://www.instagram.com/p/B0w-1xkAM6s/?igshid=97vlpcbrimz3

Juan AcevedoAugust 13th, 2019 at 2:47 am

I love the additions Karl!

Kornwit DamrongwisetpanitAugust 13th, 2019 at 10:35 am

I was coming here to states that sleep should be a foundation part of an athlete development but the pyramid in your link already shows that. Also, I agreed that character or mindset is important. What about mobility? or is that already part of gymnastics and weightlifting?

Russ GreeneAugust 13th, 2019 at 12:46 pm

We certainly could add to the pyramid. Everything costs money, so maybe finance should be at the bottom. And even having this discussion presupposes that life, and the topic, are valuable, and that our thoughts pertain in some way to reality. So maybe the foundation should be philosophy. Athletic development is probably impossible absent a minimal degree of political stability of freedom. Try working out during a civil war or in solitary confinement. So peace and freedom should be at the bottom! How much would the above suggestions help coaches and athletes? Make money, develop a personal philosophy, and acquire freedom prior to engaging in athletic development - check! The question is not which pyramid best covers reality, but which is the most useful. If we put character at the bottom, does that imply that coaches need to address character first prior to nutrition or exercise? But is it not the case that achieving commitment to nutrition and exercise first can promote the development of good character? So maybe character should be at the top? Adding significant but poorly defined, understood and measured variables to an already full pyramid may impair rather than help.

Karl EaglemanAugust 13th, 2019 at 1:56 pm

I sincerely appreciate the feedback Juan, Kornwit, and especially Russ. Regarding adding layers to the bottom of the pyramid, I completely understand your perspective, Russ. You ask the question, if we put character at the bottom, does that imply that coaches need to address this aspect first? Maybe they do. Perhaps it's something that should be addressed in an on-ramp and integrated within the culture of the gym. Maybe it's already established in part by the individual taking the first step to get off their butt and make the effort. Regardless, I feel that character is the basis for any future efforts to subsequent or advanced layers of the pyramid. However, to your final point, although it may be significant, how is character defined or even measured? For the most part, we can measure each layer, aside from this one. Adding to the pyramid may impair rather than help, but it's definitely healthy to discuss. Again, I sincerely appreciate the thoughtful feedback!

Michael LibbieAugust 14th, 2019 at 10:30 am

Regarding metabolic conditioning, is that things like rowing, biking, running (monostructural) etc. or would a workout include weightlifting and gymnastics (Fran)?