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DEFINING FITNESS - PART 1

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DEFINING FITNESS - PART 1

Patrick Rahm

For more than five years, I've had the pleasure of teaching several exercise science courses for The George Washington University. At the beginning of most courses I've taught, I ask my students to give me their definition fitness.

The typical answer I receive is something along the lines of being able to sustain a moderate to high level of exertion for a prolonged duration… (most often associated with running). This isn't a bad answer. Actually, as you'll see later, in some instances... it's a good answer.

Then, I propose and ask them to consider this common, more inclusive definition of fitness:

“The aggregate measure of performance in a variety of physical tasks that demonstrate the range of human physical abilities.”

If I'm lucky enough to have gotten a lively group of students, the first question I'll often get is "what is the range of human physical abilities?" If my luck continues, a fun discussion ensues. Regardless of how it goes, I make sure that I introduce to them six components of fitness .

I tell them that with these six components in mind, it should be easier for them to identify and distinguish between the various physical abilities that humans can train to improve or allow to deteriorate. Here's how I categorize the six components for them:

  • Neuromotor Proficiency
  • Muscular Strength
  • Muscular Endurance
  • Muscular Power
  • Cardiovascular / Cardiopulmonary  (“Cardio”) endurance
  • Mobility 

With the six categories representing the range of human capabilities introduced, we then return to the definition of fitness that I initially proposed. Finding "The aggregate measure of performance in a variety of physical tasks..." suggests that we would need to do some testing to determine someone's fitness.  

Considering the definition as a whole, someone who scored above average in six different valid and reliable tests would be considered “fit”. At this point, a student will occasionally point out that this sounds like the Presidential Physical Fitness Test they took in middle school. And I say, "Yes... but, hear me out." In addition to measuring the fitness of middle schoolers, there are a few valuable things that this test should remind everyone of.

The first is that everyone (not just middle schoolers) possesses some level of proficiency in EACH of these components. The second is that we all maintain some level of capacity to improve ANY of these components, even long after we’ve graduated from middle school.

Because it's likely that you weren't in my class, I'll now give you an introduction to these components. Before I start, let me clarify several things:

  • To promote understanding, I will present examples of highly specialized athletes demonstrating extreme levels of proficiency in each component. I'm not suggesting that attaining these extremes is appropriate or worth your time and effort. 
  • Because this is meant to be an introduction, I’m offering only an abbreviated definition of the components and the abilities that they represent. Keep in mind that there are entire textbooks that describe the intricacies within each component and the large grey areas in which they overlap. 
  • Body composition and many psychological components that can influence health, fitness and performance have been left out … mostly for the sake of brevity.
  • Because there is much overlap between components, I may use one or two components to describe another. This means you may have to read through the descriptions more than once for it to begin to make sense. 

Here we go... (in no particular order):

Component 1 - Neuromotor Proficiency: characterized by a general or skill specific balance, coordination, and ability to appropriately accelerate and decelerate that results in precision, fluidity, and efficiency of movement.  

Here is one example of someone who possesses a high level of neuromotor proficiency. Notice how precisely he can control his body at high speeds. Later, you may also suspect that he possess a decent level of muscular power...(given the speed of his movements):

Here is another example of someone possessing a high level of neuromuscular proficiency. Instead of the potential muscular power that was demonstrated in the previous video, this guy is utilizing great mobility to demonstrate his neuromotor proficiency:

This is an example of someone who is using both muscular power AND mobility to demonstrate her high level of neuromotor proficiency. In other words, watch how quickly and forcefully she moves while maintaining precision and control; resulting in accurate and fluid movement:

Lastly, here is an example of someone using their lack of muscular power and mobility to demonstrate his low level of neuromotor proficiency. Notice the absence of precision, fluidity, and efficiency in his movements:

Component 2 - Muscular Strength: characterized by an ability to recruit and utilize a large percentage of one's available muscle to perform a task.

Here’s an example of someone possessing a high level of muscular strength. Because the muscles must collectively produce enough force to overcome that of the stationary weight (1003 pounds), this task is often considered the most apparent demonstrations of muscular strength. 

Here is another example of muscular strength. While he may not be as "absolutely" strong as the man moving the 1003 pound barbell, he IS utilizing a large percentage of his available muscle to control his body in some very mechanically challenging positions. 

If you suspect that this guy also has good neuromotor proficiency, I'd agree with you. Also, you may later come to notice that he also possesses moderate levels of muscular endurance and mobility.

Component 3 - Muscular Endurance: characterized by an ability of a group of muscles to repeatedly move through cycles of contraction and relaxation and / or sustain a contraction for a prolonged duration. 

Here is an example of someone utilizing muscular endurance that is rooted in his high level of muscular strength. In other words, moving a 175 pound dumbbell once would be considered a muscular strength effort for many people. However, because this man moves it 33 times, for him, it can be considered an effort of muscular endurance.

Here is an example of someone possessing a high level of muscular endurance. This man's efforts and training time devoted to improving his muscular endurance also resulted in a concurrent increase in his "cardio" endurance.

Component 4 - Muscular Power: characterized by an ability to move one's body or an external object at a high velocity or specific distance in a short amount of time.

Here is an example of someone using muscular power to propel his body high into the air:

Here is another example of someone using muscular power to move a weight high enough in space to get underneath and catch the falling weight:

Component 5 - "Cardio" Endurance: characterized by an ability of one's heart, lungs, and vascular system to deliver large amounts of blood to and from working muscles. Efforts requiring high levels of cardio endurance are typically continuous, dynamic, and cyclical efforts that utilize a large percentage of one's available muscle.

These athletes possess the highest levels of cardio endurance:

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Component 6 - Mobility: characterized by an ability to move one's joints through their available ranges of motion. Available joint ranges of motion are determined by the flexibility and control of one's muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other structures influencing joints.

Here is an example of someone with an EXTREME level of flexibility and mobility. I'm assuming that you would agree that she also possess a decent level of neuromotor proficiency.

I hope that viewing these extreme examples has helped you to begin to better understand and distinguish between different components of fitness. If not, I hope it at least made you question our initial definition of fitness.

In part 2, we'll look back at said initial definition and reconsider it with these extreme examples in mind. In the meantime, consider these questions:

  • Which component, if any, do you believe you possess the greatest amount of and / or potential to improve?
  • Which component(s) would you consider to be more or less important for success in some  of the popular sports (i.e american football, soccer, baseball, basketball, etc.)?
  • Which component(s) would you say are being utilized most amongst the various popular fitness brands and athletic disciplines (i.e yoga, pilates, spinning, zumba, bodybuilding, powerlifting,, etc.)?