Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest sounds like a great name for a TV show doesn't it!  When it comes to being a professional S&C coach however, if your program resembles anything like a TV show, you may find your future limited. 

Over the years I've seen many PT's and conditioning coaches employ the Survival of the Fittest model with their clients and teams.

What is the Survival of the Fittest Model?

Very simply, the Survival of the Fittest (SOTF) Model describes a model of exercise in which there is essentially no specific end result (competition) therefore there is no definable direction in the program, resulting in a disorganized conglomerate of techniques, modes and modalities all aimed at one thing…generating fatigue.

Mark Rippetoe recently published an article on Training vs Exercise ( in which he eloquently encapsulated the SOTF model, explaining the difference between the Training and Exercise; 

Training is the process of directed physical stress, which results in an adaptation that satisfies a performance goal.
Since different performances require different physical abilities, and different tasks produce different types of stress, and since stress causes an adaptation (if you can recover from it), different physical abilities are therefore acquired by doing different physical tasks – and the training stresses that facilitate these different adaptations must be specific to the performance goal being trained for.
Duh, right?
Exercise ignores this fact. Exercise is what happens when you go to the gym and do exactly the same thing you did last time you went to the gym, or when you do P90X, CrossFit, or any other randomised program.  These activities are performed for one reason: the effect they produce for you today, right now.

While the definition of exercise given above may be a bit harsh, what is really being commented on, is the apparent randomness of programs established by many "professionals".

Randomness negates effective progression.  Randomness does not allow for development of predictable responses (within reasonable margins).

On many city parks and beaches during the summer months in Australia you can witness randomness for yourself in the proliferation of "boot camp" groups operating.  Now let me be clear.  If a boot camp is what it takes to get people off their butts so be it.  Thats the participants choice and good on them.  However, from a professional S&C coach perspective their are two things;

  • If you are a professional that engages in this type of random activity, please choose another term for what it is you do.
  • If you do consider yourself a professional S&C coach, you need to ensure that your programming is always planned and considered, part of a development process, and not aimed at simply generating fatigue.
In making the two points above I am not isolating PT's from sport based S&C coaches.  PT's can be pro-S&C coaches as much as anybody!  The point is you need to be progressively implementing a structured plan with a higher purpose irrespective of competition.  Not simply seeing who can meet "pukey the clown" as fast as possible!


Be very clear...there is a marked difference between figuring out an individual's maximum work capacity and mindlessly tearing your client "a new one".  I get it that "hole in the wall" gyms are popping up everywhere and they all have Olympic bars, Kettlebells and variations on sleds.  Using that equipment amongst other things, it's very easy to smash people who aren't prepared.  It's far harder to build an athlete (be they real athletes or weekend warriors) to sustainably achieve extreme levels of performance.

The problem with the SOTF model is that on occasion it does work and it provides false feedback to the person implementing the sessions that they actually have a clue what is going on.  My basis for this comment is my observation of a number of Rugby League programs over the years in Sydney.  I witnessed a number of programs first hand, particularly in the early 2000's, where physical development amounted to literally beating the shit out of a group of 14-16 yr olds and whoever survived goes to the next level, then repeat the process.  This was in everything from running to strength training.  The key to the success of this model (SOTF) is that the teams have enough numbers that they can afford to "burn" plenty of kids and in effect by virtue of natural selection literally only the strongest survive.

My experiences in the Wallabies in the mid 2000's with the addition of big name Rugby League athletes Lote Tuquiri, Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor further cemented the idea that they were created by SOTF.  All of them were strong, fast, powerful and fit, and to be honest virtually indestructible (rarely injured…certainly wasn't my doing…like Homer Simpson once said…"It was like that when I got here!).  All of them had limited knowledge of accepted athletic ideas i.e. flexibility, mobility, stability, but in the end they could produce physically.  These are certainly cases where SOTF has worked, however I wonder if some attention to detail had been paid to the kids I mentioned above, if they would have been able to play just as well?  

If I was to overlay a SOTF model onto my present occupation, getting 45 players from 18-32yr ready to play AFL, how do you think I would go? I can guarantee I know the answer…I would go!  Some of my athletes are kids and will not be capable of doing some of the stuff my senior athletes do for 2-3 years.  Equally, some players with issues based on chronic injury can not be subjected work that many of their peers tolerate very well.

In summary, whether you work in the health industry or the sporting environment, if you consider yourself to be a PROFESSIONAL S&C coach you must ensure the following;

  1. Each session must form part of a progressive plan, not a "one-off" bashing.
  2. Our job is too ensure physical progression of the individual, not simply apply modern day torture!
  3. Every session can not address all the needs of the individual, so don't cram so much into your session that you lose all sense of purpose.
  4. Often physical development takes time, don't be in a rush to provide entertainment by variety, rather than sticking with a quality training thread that is generating effective gains.
  5. Randomness should be avoided at all times.


Hope this helps PT's and Sport S&C coaches equally.


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1 comment

Paul Batman

Great article Jason. More recent research is now emerging that if clients are not subjected to a progressive developmental program on their way to HIIT they are at an increased risk of toxic reaction oxygen species as well as a decreased release of nitric oxide. Reaction oxygen species can cause significant damage to the cell membrane rendering it like Swiss cheese while a decrease in the release go nitric oxide can cause a stiffening if the arterial wall. The HIIT programs without a progression to get there can have significant detrimental effects for the older client, overweight client and the unfit client. In particular HIIT programs need to be reviewed as an intervention for weight loss, the results might be scary. Paul B

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