The Pyramid of Athletic Development

Performance & Sport

Have you ever wished that there was a straightforward guideline that told you the exact steps to take in order to improve your performance and take your training and sport skills to the next level? The pyramid of athletic development is about as close as you will get to this. Created by strength and conditioning coach, Al Vermeil, the pyramid (or hierarchy) of athletic development is a guide that outlines where to start and how to progress in your training, as well as the various athletic qualities that are vital for most, if not all, sports.

The Original Hierarchy of Athletic Development

Since its creation, the hierarchy has been adapted by many different coaches in order to fit their needs and the needs of their athletes. But let’s take a look at the original hierarchy of athletic development.

Hierarchy of Athletic Development

As you can see, there are six developmental levels. Beginning at the bottom, with evaluation and testing and ending with the last developmental level of speed, this hierarchy does a great job of outlining the areas that need to be progressed through in order to reach your full potential as an athlete.

The Adapted Pyramid of Athleticism

We believe that there are two pieces of the athletic development puzzle that are missing. So, we created an adapted version with seven levels in order to incorporate the full picture of all things that need to be considered.

The Pyramid of Athletic Development

Now, let’s go through each of these levels in detail so that you have a better understanding of the track you need to take in order to further develop your performance and excel as an athlete

Nutrition

Although not included in the original hierarchy of athletic development, we believe that nutrition is a key aspect that all athletes must learn about and perfect in order to reach their full potential. Beginning with macronutrients and ending with nutrient timing, proper nutritional knowledge and execution can take athletes from good to great.

Appropriate pre-workout nutrition can help with energy and performance and proper post-workout nutrition is integral for efficient recovery – which as an athlete, you know is extremely important. If you aren’t fueling your body properly, you won’t be able to perform at your best so this is a foundational concept that must be developed before even considering training.

Evaluation and Testing

This is another key concept that is often overlooked when athletes begin training, but its important to evaluate where you are currently at and compare that to where you want to be. This way, you can determine what areas need to be improved and what areas need to be maintained. Some main things to consider when evaluating your current fitness levels are: your training history, your sport and position, and your strengths and weaknesses.

Work Capacity

Work capacity is the amount of work that you are able to perform with proper technique over time that your body is able to tolerate and recover from. In other words, you need to be able to work hard enough that you see improvements, but not too hard that your body begins breaking down. In order to reach a level where you can increase the intensity of your workouts, you need to train your body to withstand this challenge. This can be done through general aerobic work and with higher volumes of resistance training circuits.

Strength

Increasing your strength means increasing your force production. Increasing your force production means you will be more powerful. And that’s what every athlete wants right? Its important to properly develop your strength before moving on to the next two developmental levels as having greater strength will significantly increase your ability to produce more power and more speed.

Develop your strength by performing exercises such as, squats, deadlifts, pushes/presses, lower pulls (RDL, good morning, etc.), and upper pulls (chin up, pull up, bent over row, etc.).

Power

After sufficiently developing your strength, its time to move your focus onto power. Power is extremely important in every sport. Whether it’s the power of your swing in golf, your ability to quickly change direction in soccer, or the force of your tackle in football, the most successful athletes are typically the most explosive.

There are two areas of power improvement that you will want to work on. First, increasing the amount of force produced without significantly decreasing your speed. And second, increasing your velocity without significantly decreasing your force.

With the first one, the goal is to learn how to apply the strength that you’ve developed quicker while simultaneously overcoming an external load, for example hitting or moving an object or opponent. Some exercises that you can perform to enhance your power in this area are the clean, snatch, and jerk.

With the second area of power development, the goal is to apply force quickly without the external load (i.e. just your bodyweight). Some exercises that will help you to progress are med ball throws, high rep/low intensity jumps (jump rope, line jump, etc.), and low rep/high intensity jumps (box jumps, broad jumps, etc).

Speed

Speed is the level of athletic development that all of the previous levels build up to. The goal here is to be able to move the body quickly. There are four different areas of speed training: (1) Acceleration which is your rate of change. It can be developed with the following exercises, 5-20 yard starts, change of direction drills, and deceleration work; (2) Max Velocity which is your highest attainable speed. It can be developed by performing 20+ yard sprints; (3) Speed Endurance which is your ability to maintain a high velocity. It can be developed by performing longer or multiple sprints; and (4) Specific Speed which is specific to your sport and position. This is where you will begin with position drills.

Sport Specific Skills

The final stage of the pyramid of athletic development is sport specific skills, which you may begin briefly exercising in the previous level, speed. We believe its important to add this level in because in order to improve in your sport, you must practice that sport. You can be the fittest athlete, in the best shape, and have developed all the previous levels well, but if you don’t have the specific skills necessary to excel in your sport, you won’t get very far.

Remember, it’s important to place a big focus on the first few levels of the pyramid as they are the ones that will set you up for long-term success when you begin training the higher tier areas. Its also important to note that you can train all these levels at the same time, but there should be a large emphasis placed on the specific quality during that phase of development. Now you have a strategy to guide you in your training towards improved performance.