What the Heck Is "Fitness" Anyway? Part 2

TAGS: Sam Leahey, Patrick Ward, defining fitness, Bryan Smith, Mel Siff, Ryan Williams, mark Mclaughlin, fitness

Now that we've defined fitness, we interviewed several well-known coaches and trainers about the topic of fitness. Below, some of the top professionals in the fitness industry give insight as to why you must have a complete understanding of fitness. They also further explain the difference of fitness for each sport, activity, and individual.

Mark McLaughlin of Performance Training Center located in West Linn, Oregon, has a very biological view of fitness. Mark is known for being one of the first in America to use the OmegaWave system. He has worked with many American football players from the high school to professional level. Here's what Mark had to say:

“I agree with both Mel Siff and Dr. Verkhoshansky on their definitions of fitness. The philosophy with our training system is to develop the biological power (create a bigger engine for the machine) of the athlete and change the functions of the body by:

  • increasing cardiac output
  • creating hyperplasia of endocrine cells
  • creating hyperplasia of mitochondria in slow/fast twitch muscle fibers
  • optimizing autonomic regulation of the central nervous system
  • achieving an increase in protein resynthesis of all cells

We want our athletes to display their skill at the highest level without fatigue in both practice and games. Fitness is a broad term to me, so first we must define if we're talking about cardiac fitness, aerobic fitness (capacity or power), or anaerobic fitness (alactic or glycolitic), and which of these biological systems needs major consideration when looking at the sport-specific fitness of the athlete or client.

Next, you must establish test protocols (HRV, lactate testing) to see if you're moving closer to your fitness goals based on the protocols that you've established. How are you tracking your 'fitness' goals? While the Patrick Makaus of the world might use lactate testing during sport-specific training, the powerlifter might establish a one-rep max testing procedure for his bench press, squat, and deadlift, and the mother/father looking to stay active and live a long, productive life might use the OmegaWave or BioForce to check heart rate variability and see how their autonomic system is adapting to stress. All of these goals are, in my opinion, appropriate and can give great feedback on performance and what the next step is to move closer to the 'fitness goal' of the individual.

With our athletes, we have several 'fitness' goals that are based on the athlete's sport and training history:

  • Fitness of the autonomic system (we want our athletes to have parasympathetic dominance)
  • Central nervous system fitness via a score of 20–40 mV on the OmegaWave
  • Sport-specific 'fitness' such as alactic power (determined by jump assessment)

We constantly test and retest to determine if we're moving the athlete closer to his/her goal (if you don’t test it, how can you move toward improvement?).”

Similar to Mark’s response, Patrick Ward of Optimum Sports Performance views fitness as being specific to what your sport or life entails, along with what goals you're trying to achieve. Patrick says:

“In my presentation, Strength in Motion, I have a slide with a big question mark with the word 'fitness' over it that says, 'what is fitness?' During the presentation, I explain that fitness is dependent on the individual and what he or she is attempting to accomplish. To be 'fit' as a powerlifter isn't the same as being 'fit' for a marathon runner, and it isn't the same as being 'fit' to play defensive end in the NFL.

This is precisely why being a 'strength coach' who focuses on 'strength' and only worries about getting people strong is completely flawed. You have to understand what the individual in front of you needs in order to determine what fit is for him or her. Then, and only then, can you begin to create a training program that focuses on that goal.”

Sam Leahey of Optimal Sport 1315 has a slightly different yet similar view of fitness from the definitions of Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky, as well as the other coaches, trainers, and experts in this article. Sam says:

“I don't think there is an absolute, level, or universal definition of 'fitness.' Society overall is very unsettled about what 'fitness' actually is. Heck, the fact that we’re having this roundtable on 'fitness' shows that there is disagreement and confusion surrounding the term.

My athletes compete in a sport/activity. Each sport/activity has its own biomechanical and physiological demands. I train my athletes to adjust their physical profile to match their chosen sport/activity. The closer your physical profile matches the demands of your sport/activity, the more prepared you are. The less your physical profile matches that sport’s physiological and biomechanical profile, the less prepared you are.

Not all sport demands are exactly the same, and they can vary greatly between positions. Some may view my articulation of 'preparedness' here as their view of 'fitness.' Sure, it’s all semantics. In the end, I want to know what someone does with his working definition of 'fitness' rather than how he defines the word.”

Anthony Mychal, who is probably the most unique individual in the fitness industry, comes from a background of tricking, interning with the University of Pittsburgh’s football team, and teaching physical education. He gives more insight into the fuzziness of fitness:

“Fitness is filled with ambiguity—‘Become a powerlifter to get strong.’ ‘Play football to become more athletic.’ Fitness itself is ambiguous, as it technically means the ability to perform a task. There are many tasks in the world. Being fit for carrying groceries is different than being fit for chucking a back flip.

What is athleticism? The word ‘athlete’ in itself means ‘someone who competes for a prize.’ Yes, sumo wrestlers are athletes, but so are marathon runners and sprinters. What does it mean to become more athletic?

What are ‘aesthetics?’ Ronnie Coleman competes in bodybuilding, which is a purely aesthetic sport. Yet, how many people want to look like Ronnie? This may seem like an anal argument, but without defining where you want to go, you’ll never get to where you want to be. If your idea of athleticism is running a marathon, and my idea of athleticism is sprinting one-hundred meters, there’s a void that will never be filled. Details matter.”

Joel Jamieson, world-renowned MMA physical preparation coach and founder of 8WeeksOut, agrees that fitness needs context. Joel says:

“I agree with Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky that 'fitness' can only be defined within a specific context. When someone asks if a person is 'more fit' or has a higher level of 'fitness' than another, the real question that has to be first answered is, 'what measuring stick of fitness is being used?' For example, a marathon runner will certainly be using a much different measurement of fitness than an Olympic weightlifter or powerlifter. Is a world champion in one of these sports inherently more or less 'fit' than the other?

I think that fitness should always be defined in a task-specific manner. Someone’s fitness should be judged against his or her ability to complete a given task, whatever that may be. A marathon runner who completes a race the fastest is the most fit marathon runner. A powerlifter who totals elite is more fit than one who can't. An Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting certainly isn't less fit than an amateur marathon runner. It’s meaningless to try to compare fitness levels across different objectives and ask questions about which athletes have the highest levels of fitness outside the context of their specific sport. Fitness is always task-specific and context dependent and should really only be measured and discussed accordingly.”

In our next and final installment, we will put all of it to use and talk about the practical applications of this information.

To be continued...


  • Marathon world record progression. (2013). Retrieved: January 11, 2013. From: Wikipedia: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon_world_record_progression.
  • Siff M (2003) Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. 6th Edition. Denver: Perform Better.
  • Verkhoshansky Y (2009) Supertraining. 6th edition (expanded). Rome: Ultimate Athlete Concepts, USA.

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