Fit ….. but for what?

Is an Olympic champion weightlifter fit? To lift weights, definitely. But ever seen one running 10 laps around the track?

Is a world class-marathon runner fit? To run long distances, absolutely. But ever seen one trying to clean more than 50 kilograms?

So I think we agree that for elite athletes fitness is specifically geared towards the tasks in competition, basically being the best in that specific task.

Still we are often speaking about fitness in general terms: somebody can be generally fit or not. True, but this applies to the average healthy person who does not want to win the marathon or become Olympic champion, but wants to have an above average endurance, an above average strength level and so on

Some people aren’t generally fit at all: lying in a hospital bed, coming back from an injury, being morbidly overweight or malnourished. But then we are often looking at pathology or at least sub-optimal functioning, affecting people’s coping with daily life activities.


In my concept we should sharply distinguish three levels of fitness.


1.   the specific fitness athletes need to compete at world class level. Mainly a narrow kind of fitness targeted at maximizing specific physical qualities. Improvement of this kind of fitness should be in the hands of the coach (fit to win).


2.   generalized fitness: all-round fitness that helps a person to easily cope with a wide range of physical demands in normal life, improve health, prevent early chronic disease and increase the quality of life. Examples: walking the stairs for a couple of floors,  lifting a heavy box, go for an active holiday like hiking, being able to do without a car, preventing osteoporosis, playing games with your kids or friends, etc. This kind of fitness could be acquired best with the help of a fitness instructor in a gym or outdoors. Swing kettle bells, run the roads, go to boot camp, or do Pilatus, do TRX, cross fit or circuit training, and do core stability as much as you like (fit to compete or to exercise).


3.   low level fitness: again mainly specific targeted at improving limiting factors, strengthen specific muscle groups after surgery, cardiac rehabilitation after a myocardial infarct or bypass. Sometimes people need to improve on a range of qualities, because their situation declines overall. The best person to guide this process is the physical therapist or athletic trainer (fit for daily life).


One of the issues we are dealing with in elite sports is the intrusion of general fitness-trends and concepts into elite sports. In my opinion, we should be more careful with that. I would like to state that there is a very limited application of these ideas coming from the world of fitness and physical therapy for world class athletes.

I am thinking of core stability exercises, TRX, Pilatus, movement screens, kettle bell, cross-fit, boot camp, etc. And don’t get me wrong sometimes I do this with my athletes, as a variation or for fun.

I know I am not going to make a lot of friends saying this (but I already have many friends anyhow). The knowledge and limitations that are necessary for patients or people with physical limitations do not linearly apply to world-class athletes! Their demands, their potentials, their needs and their limitations differ greatly.

You have to understand that there is a large difference in getting people ready to:

1. walk to the track instead of taking the car, 

2. to teach them to run, 

3. to win an Olympic medal in the 100 meters.


Apart from exceptions I would not do core stability on a regular base with an Olympic medalist just as I would not do 200 kilogram squat with an osteoporosis patient. I would not go Nordic walking with a world record holder in sprints just as I would not  try to run hard tempo training with a cardiac patient.


Physical therapists try to convince me that core stability is very important to prevent injuries or to improve performance. But research already proved this not to be the case.

Being able to stand on one leg is as irrelevant for a 22 meter shot-putter or 6 meter pole-vaulter as doing a somersault or turn cartwheel. General screening in my opinion makes no sense at all, that is to say ……for elite athletes.

For me, straight leg raise as a singular test has a no predictive value for hamstring injuries or for high level performance.


Here is an example from real life: who pulls a hamstring in athletics? Not the marathon runner, not the 5 or 10 km runner, not even the 800 or 1500 meter runner, seldom a 400 meter runner, but most hamstring pulls appear at running at near maximum velocity, like 100 meter or 200 meter. I don’t think doing a Cooper test (12 minute run) will tell me anything about the risk of hamstring injury, the velocity is simple too low. I also feel that sit-and-reach also does not show anything. In my experience with lots of Olympic finalists in sprints at least a few things do not tell me the risk of an hamstring injury. They are:

    hamstring length, like in straight leg raise

    hamstring strength compared to quads, measured isometrically (this measurement is angle- specific)

     hamstring strength compared to quads, measured isokinetically (this measurement is  velocity-specific)


Yes, one can find differences in quad hamstring/ratios there, but mainly after a hamstring strain from the past, the result of a former strain, not a cause!


Here are the questions one has to ask oneself in the general screening of athletes:

    is the measured limitation directly relevant for performance?

    can it be changed by exercising or training anyhow?

    how much time/effort/money would that cost?

    would that time/effort/money not be better spent more efficiently?


What is the reason for coaches embracing general fitness concepts? Simply: coaches are operating in a complex and diffuse environment, nobody knows the absolute truth and there are many ways leading to Rome.  And many coaches feel that having simple linear protocol will help guide them on the way to high performance.  Just start with A and next B and go all the end to Z. If A go to 1, if B  go to 2, if C go to 3, etc. Yes, you just spelled the alphabet, but did you just write the book of elite performance? Just accept that the road to high performance is long and winding and not always clear to us. Most people who will tell you how to get there, have never been there!.


Your favorite fitness guru will come up with a singular solution for all fitness problems, independent of the level. Unfortunately this simple solution might not be useful.

One of my favourite authors H.L.Mencken wrote: “for every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and it is wrong”. I rather prefer to be doubtful and right, than to be certain and to be wrong. 


Most elite athletes will be the exceptions to the general rules anyway.

One of the female sprinters I coached for years was right-out clumsy, she could not catch a ball, make a somersault, or jump over a hurdle. Even worse, handing over or getting a baton was a disaster, so were the common drills for sprinters. Only after many years she managed perform them decently. Did these drills help to improve her running technique? No they didn’t. Bottom line: she wasn’t good at anything just at sprinting, and believe it or not, she was very, very good at that. Her running technique was textbook material (and became textbook material too). That made me wonder about the role and function of general or even specific skills in elite sports.


My idea: if an athlete comes to me and wants to sprint, I make him/her sprint and see what is the case, what is good and what are the limiting factors and then I take it from there, a top down-approach.

Whereas the general trend is to do general testing; see what the limitations are in these general movement patterns and then hope that the sprinting will improve. Yes, hope since there is not a single piece of proof that this bottom-up approach actually works, not in real life, nor in research.


Conclusion: coaches of elite sports should be more critical about all kinds of fitness trends marketed by the fitness industry.