Chasing Performance…at the Expense of Health

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”

– Richard Feynman

Below is the result of a little Sunday morning think-ering (hat tip to Brent Pottenger, of the Healthcare Epistemocrat for coining that clever word) — so what we have here is my sketched interpretation of the health/performance continuum:

First of all, I’d like to point out that the general shape of this health-performance curve/continuum is applicable across the human genome, however, it can still be “bent” on an  individual level, and “stretched” in an applicable, n=1 fashion.  The gist of the idea is, though, that health and performance track quite nicely up to a certain point (point A), at which time further increases in performance — let’s call it “sporting proficiency” at this level — do nothing to make an individual any healthier.  We might say that competitive athletics (or competitive bodybuilding) begins at or near point B — that point at which an individual is willing to forgo a certain degree  of overall health in the pursuit of bettered sporting performance.  Point C inhabits the land where the real juggle begins, and where the bulk of Strength and Conditioning work is practiced.   At this point, the athlete’s health is just another parameter (among a myriad of parameters) that must be tweaked and dialed so as to keep said athlete’s performance red-lined.  Just as in a finely tuned Ferrari though, if a single component wears and fails (as it inevitably will), the whole entity flies apart at the seams.   Performances here tend to swing between moments of absolute and stunning beauty, or gruesome spectacles of crash-and-burn grodiness.  The significance of this area is that health most definitely takes a backseat to performance — it can be no other way.  I won’t deny that the living here is exhilarating (even as it is thoroughly exhausting), but for most — whether by bad luck or genetic weak-link — the ride just doesn’t last long.  The consequences, however, can last a lifetime.

The other major point of significance here is that while 95% of Strength & Conditioning brain-power and know-how is directed unabashedly toward that heady land of peak performance in the C-zone, the vast majority of American citizenry is floundering helplessly somewhere beneath the “point zero” bottom left on this graph.  My contention is that is takes very little in the way of proper training and dietary intervention to move the general populace into that zone between “point zero” and point A.  In fact, we at Efficient Exercise proved this could be done via our recent Project Transformation.  And know this: moving the populace into that “pay-off aisle” will result in the end the of American healthcare crisis as we know it today.  Yeah, Washington, it is that friggin’ easy.

Of course “easy” and “financially beneficial” mean different things to different folks.  I’ll just leave that part of the discussion for another day, though.

Now I’m a little biased here, but I do believe that this health-performance curve ought to be taught at an elementary level, right along with the idea of personal responsibility, basic civics, and the Pledge of Allegiance.  Eat right.  Engage in a little properly programmed exercise each week.  Be a boon to society instead of a drag.  Wanna take a walk on the sporting wild side?  Sure, go for it — just know that there are going to be some trade-offs where your health is concerned, so tread carefully.  What could be more basic, or more easily taught to an elementary-aged kid?  Of course the devil is in the details.  Give this idea to government, and the next thing you know we’re back to dealing with food pyramids, jogging, and Pepsi sponsorships.

But back to the here-and-now: on an individual level, every trainee ought to begin goal setting (or reassessment) by identifying where they want to fall on this graph.  Me?  I push the B-point envelope for the most part, sometimes taking the plunge, for brief periods, into C-land.  I’m a little older (and debatably wiser?) now, so camp-out, I don’t, in the land of C.  Been there, done that, and got a few traumatized body parts as mementos of the fun 🙂  Brief forays, though?  Yeah, I just can’t help my stupid self sometimes.  And so it goes…

In follow-on posts I’ll discuss how I see time investment and protocol selection fitting into this overall picture.  As you might guess, teasing-out increases in upper-end performance requires an inordinate time investment relative to that required to bring one from 0 to 80% of potential peak.  Wanna push the performance envelope?  The first thing you have to ask yourself is this: are you willing to devote the exponential increase in time and effort required to eek-out those final few percentile points?  The next question is, are you willing to play fast and loose with your health?  I’m not here to judge, and I certainly appreciate the focus, dedication, and balls-out intensity of the competitive athlete.  I just think that potential C-land dwellers ought to go in with eyes wide open.

In health,


17 responses to “Chasing Performance…at the Expense of Health

  1. really great post. good concise description of how one’s goal will effect what one does, and what one might sacrifice, to achieve that goal. We see once again that health (perhaps best thought of as longevity with a decent level of fitness?) is not the same as athletic excellence. I would posit that certain athletic endeavors will be more inline with health than others, but thats beside the point I suppose.

    In the powerlifting world you can really see this: guys that are lifting the biggest numbers are routinely, though not always, too big and bulky for doing much of anything else. Wendler has described this very well.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I distinctly remember the days when I assumed that more was always better, that health and performance in my chosen sport were practically the same thing. I am really glad I managed to separate them before breaking myself. Kudos for getting the word out there in easily accessible format, Keith!

  3. This is a great post Keith! And, it rings so true with my current situation, having camped out in the C area for much of my life but, with my aging body (now 38), a host of mementos from past injuries (not to mention my most recent one, which has me on day 5 post-ACL reconstruction and menisectomy), my wife serving as the wiser daily reminder of past mistakes and all (also happens to work in geriatric physiotherapy!!!) and my becoming hopefully wiser (don’t know to what frequency I will be avoiding any transient “adventures” in the C area following this long rehab), I couldn’t help but smile throughout the whole thing. Ken O’Neil reminded me of the wise words of Bill Pearl, which seem fitting here, and I paraphrase: “Past a certain age, a trainee shouldn’t concern him or herself with performance anymore, but with MAINTAINING GAINS and PREVENTING FURTHER LOSSES”… Wish I had listened to this earlier although, I doubt I really would have anyways. Surely will be going through the same process as my son gets older, and I try to convey this wisdom to him 😉

    • Interesting. I never dissuaded my kids from pursuing their sporting dreams (even covertly), but I certainly tried to convey the “nothing comes without a cost” idea. My mindset as a teen and young adult was that of “the better the athlete, the healthier the person”. I’ve a living testament to the fact that God really does look out for the numbly ignorant 😉

  4. Keith,

    Another example where a dry erase board and magic marker have resulted in new knowledge and major leaps in understanding.

    Death to Powerpoint…long live the dry erase board.

    • No doubt, Doug; though I rather have an old-school blackboard. I’ve threatened to be like Faulkner, and write copiously on the my study’s walls — Meesus TTP, though, frowns at that idea 😉

  5. Great post Keith. We use a similar concept with the corporate health work we do at Synergy Health. We use an optimal health continuum – a line which at one is optimal health, but which at the other end is overt ill-health & disease. One step inside the latter end of the continuum is absence of disease (typcially as recognised by the individual). The way people interpret their health (and athletes are very much the same), is that if there is an absence of ill-health and disease AS THEY RECOGNISE IT, then they consider themselves healthy.

    It is always amazing to see how people interpret where their health is on that continuum, especially when I can pull their physical health to pieces by all the overt signs I can see (fat distribution, skin, eyes, breathing, posture, muscle mass levels, movement patterns, etc). Athletes are perhaps a bit worse at this as their external cues may not be as obvious and all of their eggs are in the performance basket… that is, ‘if I am performing my best, I must be optimally healthy’.

    • Jamie that seems like a great place to really convey this kind of message to a lot of people effectively. I imagine in a lot of corporate health work, the focus is really on the “health” of the employee and less so on helping employees get into athletic fighting shape. Meaning you have the chance to really convey the idea of health and athletic performance

  6. Keith,

    Great drawing, that’s a simple and eloquent way to state this concept. This should be in the front of every strength and conditioning textbook.

    I’ve certainly made this mistake in the past thinking that better looks and performance equated to better health. The outcomes aren’t really fun when you get deep in to the C range. Stressed out, unhappy, low sex drive, joints hurt, etc. Not cool.

    You are spot on that way too many people equate increased performance with increased health. Salient example- a girl in one of my classes is training for marathons because her dad has had three heart-attacks… I’ve told her that what she’s doing may be a recipe for disaster from what we know about chronic cardio, but she has her mind set on the idea that the faster she can run a marathon, the lower her heart attack risk.

    I’m going to show this to everyone in my kinesiology department.


  7. Super important post here, Keith. This kind of thinking will help efficient, high intensity exercise move into the arena of clinical necessity vs. vanity and performance, as long as it’s done correctly (how to do this correctly is a huge debate, but safely and efficiently is a start). Body by Science and others have really helped this process, although the “how to” is much more wide open IMO. For those trainers out there who are willing, the potential clients for this approach is endless in number (de-emphasize the vanity and super performance (C), emphasize the health (A)).

  8. The sweet spot seems to be between A and B where you’re sure you’re getting maximal health benefits while avoiding “short selling yourself”.

    Excellent post! Looking forward to more.


  9. I’ve never really been big on working out and eating all the healthy foods. I moved to Miami a few years ago and received a wake up call from people who live here. Many people are big on looks and take care of themselves by working out and eating right. I decided that it might be time (since I’m not getting any younger!) to start this routine. I wasn’t sure what would motivate me more, but always wanted to try boxing and decided it was time to throw that into the mix by going to a class or two a week at Biscayne Boxing & Fitness Club along with eating healthy. It was a tough challenge but i have been able to go from below the ‘A’ in your health curve to the ‘B’ area. I am proud to say that even though it has been very difficult and challenging, I am happy and feel a lot better nowadays.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s