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What’s the goal here, Health or Performance? – Pt. 1

Performance Training Personal Training

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The underlying reasons behind why many of us make the decision to begin or return to physical activity, acts as a powerful motivator in our quest for change.

We’ll cite reasons such as a need for weight loss, to increase fitness and offset certain health markers, increasing movement post injury, or an improvement in life quality as we begin to age.

Others however, may be motivated by intentions of improving strength for a sport they take part in, possibly wanting to improve cardiovascular conditioning ahead of pre-season, or get quicker in a discipline for an upcoming event.

Within our reasoning lies an important distinction. One we often fail to either recognise or consider within how we approach fitness and exercise both in our own training, and when working with others.

Here in lies the challenge. Are we training for health, or are we training for performance?

Over the next two training insights, we will take a look at why this distinction matters…

Many possibly believe that there isn’t a differentiation between the two components. If we improve our health, performance goes up. Likewise if my performance improves, so does my health.

Whilst there may be some element of truth in the matter, the distinction requires far more thought when we’re coaching individuals.

Health and performance are fundamentally NOT the same thing…

Put simply to begin, training for improvement in health, involves the increasing of adaptability of the entire human system. Not just our musculoskeletal system as we typically associate with training, but our respiratory, endocrine, digestive, immune, lymphatic, cardiovascular and nervous system, amongst others.


Because, we’re quite literally a system of systems, constantly in a state of fluctuation and interaction.

It’s the adaptability of our systems to remain resilient in the presence of change, that allows us to cope with our individual internal and external environment.

Our goal with health is to improve adaptability of as many of these systems as possible. We aim to provide the body with variability and alternatives in which it can safely function.

Therefore, the individual before us with some moderate weight gain, early stages of hypertension, digestive complaints, a compromised immune system, has a very clear issue regarding the resiliency of not just their capacity to lift heavy weights, run distance or sprint quickly. This is system wide…

Is this a performance client or a health client?

We in the Strength and Conditioning or Personal Training world, are clearly not healthcare professionals capable of making direct changes at a level so far outside of our field of practice as to immune, endocrine, or lymphatic systems (often in spite of our perceived beliefs).

Yet for those of us within the field and similar professions, we have the unique capacity to directly influence the movement system of the human body. This is the gateway in how we influence the health, fitness and performance of individuals we work with.

The power of the movement system enables a vital insight into the state of many systems within the body.

In our previous training insight, Movement Variability and Degrees of Freedom, we proposed the the idea that when under stressful conditions, the body will revert back to it’s simplest operating system for both protective and energy saving purposes. This often involves a bias towards extension and a reduction in degrees of freedom within the body.

We will subsequently limit the available motion at joints that the body perceives as being unnecessary in the direct face of immediate survival. Away therefore, goes our ability to extend, flex, adduct, abduct, externally and internally rotate, as the body locks into a state of protection and hyper-vigilance.

Under acute situations this response is ideal. When needing to sprint to make a bus, or confronted with a max Deadlift attempt, we WANT a reduction in degrees of freedom, a bias towards extension, and high sympathetic drive to provide the energy needed to complete the task at hand.

However, the negative effects of this bodily state on our long-term health when it can’t be down regulated, leads to a host of negative health consequences… (click here for a more in depth look)

Our individuals with wide-scale health complaints, can often present in this manner. Limited in their ability to perform simple actions such as toe-touching, squatting, rotating and the like, without some form of pain symptom or high-threshold, compensatory strategy that’s significantly limiting their capabilities.

These high-stress, chronic “over-extenders”, often struggle with actions that require movements such as flexion and rotation. They begin to experience “tightness” through proximal areas such as the lumbar and thoracic spine, pelvic-hip complex and the shoulder girdle. The body has temporarily stolen movement in multiple planes (click for more on Triplaner Movement) to provide the mechanisms needed to cope with the overworked, overstressed, internal system.

We must remember however that training and exercise itself, is a stressor.

In the same way that financial worries, social stress or a lack of sleep are stressors to the body. Our system is indiscriminate in how it responds in the face of any stress imposed.

Whilst we in the profession may see training and exercise as a outlet for stress reduction through imposed physical activity, who is to say our client feels the same?

Yet as was earlier caveated, stress is in no way a bad thing. We need it for the development of further resiliency, it simply remains dose dependent…

We need enough stress in the right way to elicit positive change and develop resiliency without decreasing the ability of the individual to recover.

If the goal therefore is improving the health of an individual, imposing fitness with highly specific, performance-based measures and protocols, often taking the musculoskeletal or cardiorespiratory system to the point of failure, is limiting further the adaptability of not just these system but ALL systems.

We simply cannot separate this interaction.

The manner in which we intervene within the human system is naturally dependent on the method imposed and the needs of the individual. However, often when presented with a client, we simply don’t truly know what the exact system is in need of change…

Is our clients weight gain a digestive issue? Hormonal? Or maybe even a more serious medical condition yet undiagnosed?

Is the reason they can’t touch their toes a muscular issue? Joint pathology? Respiratory?

Possibly a change in nutritional strategy may reduce this individuals chronic systemic inflammation by increasing variability and adaptability of the digestive system and reducing the internal stress response. By removing this hyper-vigilance, we may even see a change in the movement system in turn. (for a more in depth look on stress and appetite, click here)

Possibly, it’s a healthcare check needed that may indicate something hormonal thats contributing to this individuals health issues…

It may even be a change of job thats needed…

Often however our own biases, knowledge base and background, leads us directly to what we know.

“When all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail…”

As Strength Coaches and Fitness Trainers, this naturally brings us to performance training.

Improve strength, muscle mass, conditioning, capacity, and everything will be OK again… It’s our job to get people sweating, lifting load, pushing themselves in the same way we’re happy to.

Nonetheless, just within the boundaries of our profession we have the capacity to influence a host of systems just through physical activity alone;

  • Musculoskeletal: Through applied progressive resistance and biomechanical form
  • Cardiorespiratory: Development of multiple energy systems
  • Neuromuscular: Understanding and applying principles of motor control in skill development
  • Respiratory: Recognising the respiratory influence of heart rate and stress management
  • Digestive: Applying nutritional principles that take into consideration the uniqueness of the individual

Yet our target in restoring health is to try to increase variability in the systems that we ourselves have influence over. Excessive physical activity without sufficient recovery only assists in limiting these systems.

But it doesn’t stop there, we also have the capacity to provide health strategies through recommendations in improving aspects such as sleep quality, stress reduction, training load management, as well as utilising methods of biofeedback that provide an insight into the internal state of an individuals system, increasing awareness and altering behaviours.

But we considerate of how these system interact however?

Do we fully appreciate how if we take an individuals cardiorespiratory system to the max with a soul-destroying metabolic workout, it influences the muscular, neuromuscular, digestive and respiratory systems?

We’ve all heard a friend story of how they decided to take up an activity such as Yoga and indirectly end up losing a large portion of weight and improving health as a result.

It’s clearly not the intensity of training, the volume of repetitions, or time under tension that Yoga is providing. It’s the understanding of how stress impacts degrees of freedom. how multiple systems interact and how the stimulation (auditory, visual, olfactory…) or suppression of systems can provide outlet for stress management.

System interplay and integration.

The issue with our health client is this chronic narrowing of the overall human system. Too many negative health choices and too little positive.

But how do we apply this in practice?

Within Sessions

  • Load Management

Appreciation of Training as a Stressor: Understanding session intensity. With individuals new or returning to exercise, 1-2 sessions MAX of a high intensity activity is enough. Whether this be from a strength and/or conditioning standpoint, depending on client/trainer goals.

Apply appropriate stress and allow for recovery. Clients do NOT need to be taken to failure to gain a positive training response. Use tools for feedback such as Heart Rate Monitoring and RPE to begin to understand how sessions are impacting on the individual taking part.

  • Exercise Selection

Regression and Lateralisation: Are you developing movement quantity or quality? 

Exercises requiring high motor control shouldn’t be used for conditioning purposes. Technique is important, yet if 90% of the session is the coach amended technique something has gone wrong somewhere.

Health clients still need to develop strength and fitness. Why can’t we therefore regress the exercise to it’s simplest level of competency for the individual, taking some of the need for high level motor control away, and give them the opportunity to push and enjoy the training experience once in a while?… 

The body doesn’t distinguish whether you’ve loaded with a Straight Bar Deadlift or a Trap Bar, what it recognises, is the imposed levels of demand on the body…

  • Influence on Movement System

Formal and Informal Movement Screening: Whether this be with a periodic re-evaluation of a movement tool such as the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) or simply a standardised Warm Up that takes the client through progressive, variable activity, how are we influencing the movement system? 

If our health client has lost the ability to toe-touch, balance on one leg or rotate due to the imposed stress of training, have we made them better or just tired??

  • Appreciate the Individual

Have a Back-Up Plan: Lack of sleep, dehydration, skipped meals, low energy, high stress, traffic on arrival… There are 101 ways in which the best laid plan can unravel. How do we adapt under the circumstance. 

Do we need to decrease total volume or intensity to accommodate fatigue? A more regenerative session format to allow for greater recovery for the next session? A change in session time or rescheduling without cost?

  • Neuroception

Initial Impressions are Subconscious: You’re face-to-face with another human being that has paid for your time, and given up their own, believing that you can help them. Appreciate the influence and opportunity you have to help another person. Consider how the environment you create for your client, or as a client yourself, can dictate whether a session is a positive or negative experience for those involved.

Outside of Sessions

  • Understand the Clients Environment 

168 Hours a Week: A client attending 2x 1hr sessions a week is only in your company 1.2% of their available hours. The role of a coach doesn’t start and end when they walk through the door. 

What’s the environment around your client outside of sessions? 

An appreciation for the client as a person, the stressors they occur, things they enjoy, activity outside of training sessions, family life, provides an opportunity for scope of influence to extend way further than the 2-3 hours a week.

  • Organisation of Training Week

You may not believe that your clients weekly visit to Zumba is the best possible option, but if your client finds benefit from it holistically, who are we to say otherwise?

How can this be factored into what we do on a weekly basis?

Where do the activities our clients take part in outside of sessions with us, influence the blend of Development, Stimulatory and Regenerative sessions across a week or month?

If your client attends a Running Group with friends on a Thursday evening and they see you Friday AM a heavily fatigued, what benefit do we have from pushing this individual further into the ground… This is about your clients long-term health.

Would they benefit from adding in a Yoga class, gentle swim or cardiac output session instead?

  • Flexibility of Programming

Building on weekly organisation, what can we actually do in this scenario?

Plowing whole-heartedly forward with the intended high-volume resistance session with glycolytic finisher you’d planned, when the physical readiness of the individual in front of you is incredibly inappropriate is nether beneficial to the individual or coach. Nor is the subsequent patronising discussion when they fail to meet the outcomes of the session.

What benefit do we gain from imposing stress on an all ready under-recovered, fatigued individual?

A change in intensity, reduction in volume, emphasis on cardiovascular recovery and regeneration, can have the individual leaving the session with an appropriate training response for the day, improving their readiness for future sessions. A change in the short-term to meet the client at where they are on that given day, leads to greater outcomes in the long term.

  • Health and Wellness Tracking

Whether this be in paper format or via some type of online tracking system, if health is the outcome, behaviour change is the process. Raising awareness of behaviours in day-to-day life is a big starting point in enabling individuals to recognise the cue’s and habits that lead to the negative health choices they undertake.

Below are a variety of the basic measures used with clients in their training diaries;

Health and Wellbeing

Sleep: Quality (1-5) and Quantity (No. of Hours) 

Energy Levels: How ready do you feel to take on the day (1-5)

Muscle Fatigue: Did you train yesterday? Do you have any soreness? (1-5)

Resting Heart Rate: Are we eliciting a positive cardiorespiratory effect?

Heart Rate Variability: How well are you handling life’s stressors?


Training Session Rate of Perceived Exertion: How hard did you work today? (1-5)

Heart Rate Average: If using HR, what was the average total?

Kcals Burned: If using HR, what was the estimated kcal burned?

Daily Step Count: Using a fitness tracker? Whats your daily total?

Nutrition and Hydration

Kcal Intake: If measuring, what was your kcal intake for the day?

Macro Breakdown: Aiming to increase/decrease a Macro, whats the total?

No. Glass of Water: Hydration is paramount to all aspects of health, whats your total?

Improving health is an endeavour that requires the understanding of the unique individual in front of us. What works on one day may not for another, we each are unique in this aspect.

Yet the take home message is simple… training for health is about increasing, not decreasing, the adaptability and variability of as many systems we as Strength Coaches and PT’s can influence.

In our next Insight, we’ll take a look at the performance aspect of training, discussing how we can impose and manage stress for the benefits of performance enhancement.

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If you truly want to make a change in your health and fitness, get in contact, tell us your story and see how we can challenge you to reach your goals.

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