Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development

In the seminal 2002 CrossFit Journal article “What is Fitness?,” Founder Greg Glassman gave us a blueprint for our development as athletes.  Known as the Theoretical Hierarchy of Development, it’s a simple progression for how we should approach our health and fitness.  

The hierarchy is presented as a pyramid, where each progressively higher level depends on the stability of the level before it.  The very first level of the pyramid–the foundation–is nutrition.  You’ve no doubt heard some variation of the old saying “you can’t out train a bad diet.”  The hierarchy pyramid shows us why that saying is true…without sound nutrition providing a strong foundation, every level above will be in danger of collapsing.

The next level in the pyramid is metabolic conditioning.  Metcons are CrossFit’s version of cardiovascular training.  Where traditional “cardio” focuses on long aerobic efforts, in CrossFit our metcons are built most often around anaerobic efforts–short, intense bouts of exercise.  

After nutrition and metabolic conditioning comes gymnastics.  As you know, in CrossFit when we talk about gymnastics we are usually discussing any bodyweight movement.  Training in gymnastics is absolutely essential for developing quality of movement and body awareness.  Before trying to control an external object (barbell, ball, kettlebell, etc), it is important to have the strength, coordination, balance, flexibility and agility to move and control our bodies.

The fourth level of our pyramid is weightlifting.  Controlling external objects while lifting, carrying, or throwing them builds strength, develops motor control, and teaches us properly transfer power from core to extremity.  

In the fifth and final level of our pyramid–sport–we use the general physical preparedness we’ve developed to focus on specialized aspects of specific sports.  The motor control, body awareness, and power we develop through regular practice of constantly varied, functional movements at high-intensity will serve us greatly as we play basketball, hike, climb, and engage in other physical activities.  

The theoretical hierarchy of development is an invaluable tool for CrossFit athletes to use to track their training over time and make modifications as necessary.  If you find you’ve plateaued at any level of your development, take a step back and use the pyramid to see where you might be deficient. 


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