The 4 Primary Attributes: Fitness Goal-Setting Concepts
When I work with my clients, I usually start by encouraging them to do some careful introspection about where they’d like to be physically 6 months from today. To help these folks get very clear about setting meaningful physical goals, I recommend framing their goals around 4 primary fitness attributes that are mandatory for achieving true longevity:
- Body Composition
- Work Capacity
Now of course, occasionally some people (high level competitive masters athletes for example) might have a pressing need to focus on other fitness characteristics, such as agility or power, but in the vast majority of cases, attending to what I call the 4 primary attributes, will address most people’s needs very successfully. Let’s examine each attribute in a bit more detail, and then a bit later, I’ll make suggestions about the goal-setting process, as that’s the first pivotal step in prioritizing a longevity:
Simply put, this refers to how much muscle and fat you carry. Generally speaking, the more muscle you have and the less bodyfat you carry around, the healthier you’ll be, and the better you’ll perform, especially with a longevity mindset. In other words, improving body composition, especially if it’s poor to start with, results in numerous secondary health and fitness gains: simply by getting leaner, your blood pressure improves, your blood chemistry (cholesterol, blood sugar, etc) normalizes, sore joints become less painful, and relative-strength tasks such as sprinting, pushups, pull-ups, dips, and lunges improve. When you’re leaner, pretty much everything you do becomes easier, stronger, safer, and less likely to cause injury.
For these reasons, when I have new clients with relatively poor body composition, we typically make this attribute the overriding goal — all training and nutritional decisions will be based upon generating more muscle tissue and reducing stored bodyfat levels.
Strength is usually defined as the ability to overcome external resistance, but in reality, there are several ways to define and think about this important attribute:
- Maximal (or “absolute”) strength: This refers to how much resistance you can overcome with a single, “all out” effort. Think powerlifting. Note: Personally, I find it quite fun to do heavy singles in the gym (and in powerlifting competitions), and apparently, my orthopedic structure can tolerate heavy weights better than most guys my age. However, with that said, from a health and functional perspective, working on other forms of strength (especially relative strength) is a safer and more productive training strategy.
- Relative strength: Your “pound for pound” strength: if you lose 10 pounds of excess bodyfat, but maintain your squatting strength, your maximal strength remains unchanged, but your relative strength has improved. Whenever a task requires the ability to move your own body through space — running, jumping, fighting, climbing, etc., — relative strength becomes important. Note: if you’re carrying too much bodyfat, simply getting leaner will improve your relative strength.
- Speed-Strength: This means your ability to overcome significant resistances faster. Imagine that you can squat 300 pounds for 1 (but not 2) reps — 300 is your maximal strength on the squat in other words. If you took 85% of that weight (255 pounds), your concentric (upward) speed would be relatively slow of course. But, if through training, you could eventually squat 255 faster, this would mean that you improved your speed-strength (also called “power”). Note: the various strength qualities are inter-related — improvements in one often lead to improvements in another. When you can move 85% of max faster, it typically means that your max has also improved as well.
- Strength-Endurance: Your ability to overcome a significant resistance repeatedly. As a familiar gym example, if you can improve the number of chin-ups you can do from 12 to 15, you’ve improved your strength-endurance.
I hate the term “cardio” because it’s vague and sometimes fraught with negative connotations, but you can think of work-capacity as “functional cardio” I suppose. Different people have different needs, so a competitive ultra-marathoner needs a very different type of work-capacity than a powerlifter. That said, everyone needs to have sufficient endurance for the physical demands that commonly present themselves in life. Imagine that you pretty much just lift weights for example, and further imagine that you typically need to rest 4 minutes between sets. Nothing wrong with that per se, but if you can develop the ability to reduce your rests to 3 minutes between sets, you’ll be able to complete your workouts faster (or, alternatively, do more work in the same amount of time).
Needless to say, training focused on improving work-capacity (which could entail anything from running to simply reducing rest intervals in the gym) can also play a key role in both health and body-composition. Additionally, from a real-life “functional” perspective, thoughtful people will take the time to consider how much endurance they really want or need. Personally, I literally despise jogging/running, but I consider it unacceptable if I can’t run a mile in 12 minutes or less. Thankfully, my current training activities and fitness level allows me to do this without jogging, but if and when that day comes, I’m prepared to incorporate jogging into my training schedule if need be.
Note: work-capacity is somewhat unique in that it can be developed with an almost unlimited number of modalities and tools, including high-repetition resistance training, swimming, cycling, jump roping, rowing, running, skating, calisthenics, snow shoeing, skiing, dancing, hiking, and climbing, just to name some of the most obvious options.
Defined as your ability to move through a specific range of motion. Mobility tends to be joint-specific: you might have good hip mobility, but poor shoulder mobility for example. As with the other 3 attributes, peoples wants and needs for mobility can vary greatly. Dancers, gymnasts, and martial artists will need great mobility, whereas a powerlifter would need relative little. In some cases, insufficient mobility can make people more injury prone. For example, short hamstrings expose the lumbar spine to greater risk, while short quadriceps often lead to (or contribute to) chondromalacia of the knee. So, as a bottom-line recommendation, we all need enough mobility to live our lives (whatever that might entail) without significant risk of injury which could negatively impact longevity.
Setting Personal Goals For The 4 Primary Attributes
As a quick primer on goal-setting, effective, actionable goals must be:
- Challenging, yet attainable: Going from 20% to 10% bodyfat in 1 week is challenging, but not attainable. Eating properly for 1 day is attainable, but not challenging. It’s all about finding the sweet spot — something that will take us out of our comfort zone, but not too far out of it.
- Specific and measurable: If your stated goal is to “get in shape for summer,” I have no idea what that means and neither do you. If, on the other hand, your goal is to reach 12% bodyfat as measured by DXA imaging, now you’re getting somewhere.
- Time-referenced: Completion dates are essential for urgency. Most of us need external pressure to complete challenging tasks, and deadlines are the best way to provide this pressure.
- Meaningful: Many people fail to consider this vital aspect of goal setting. I’ve often heard someone say something like “My goal is to bench 225 for 10 reps.” What they really mean is, “Man, it’d be so cool if I could bench 225 for 10!” Hey, I agree, but a better approach would be to carefully consider how your life would be better if you achieved your stated goal. If you’re overweight with high cholesterol, achy knees, and a shitty love life, losing 40 pounds of excess bodyfat will make your life a LOT better. Knowing this, you’ll work harder to achieve that goal.
Whenever you’re trying to get fitter, a large number of variables are often in play, and some of these variables are not within your control. We all have varied genetic makeups, health histories, social environments, access to resources, and so on. However, all we really have full control over are the behaviors that give us the best chance to achieve our goals. Using fats as an example, it’s much harder for some people to get lean than it is for others. When you first initiate your footless efforts, you cant really know how lean you can get until you’ve put in a sustained effort. While you can’t control your genetics or immediate social environment, you can control your daily behaviors. These might include, but are not limited to the following:
- Not bringing tempting, high-calorie foods into the house
- Tracking your daily calorie intake
- Controlling hunger with highly satiating, low calorie foods.
- Getting in at least 10,000 steps per day.
Assuming that these behaviors are in fact valid for your goal, you can set goals based on these behaviors, rather than the outcomes they are intended to produce.
Similarly, you might have the goal of bringing your deadlift from 315 to 400 pounds in 6 months. There’s no way to know if this is possible or not, but you can frame goals around behaviors that will make the outcome more likely:
- Finding a coach or training partner
- Joining a better gym (i.e., closer, better equipped, better atmosphere, etc)
- Committing to 3 workouts a week, no matter what
- Starting a proven program designed for strength acquisition.
Hopefully, these examples get my point across: Establish a training target for each of the 4 primary attributes, and then assign a handful of behavioral goals to support the pursuit of each outcome.
4 Primary Attribute-Specific Goal Setting
Now let’s look at some ways we might successfully apply the goal-setting process for each of the 4 primary attributes to gain true longevity:
The gold-standard for measuring body composition is DXA imagine, but this method isn’t available everywhere, and it’s on the costly side. The simplest and most practical proxy for bodycomp is bodyweight of course, and when combined with a few other datapoints (photos, how clothes fit, etc.) it tends to be perfectly adequate for most peoples needs. HERE is a useful article comparing the most valid measurement methods. Pick one, and use that same method every time you re-measure.
There are no hard and fast “rules” regarding what level of bodyfat is optimal, but generally, 10-15% for males and 14-24% for females is a good starting point, give or take. Whenever you drop a significant amount of bodyfat, you’ll lose at least a bit of muscle along the way, so monitor your strength levels of well-practiced strength exercises as an additional way to monitor lean bodymass status — if your strength on key lifts is at least maintaining, you probably haven’t lost significant muscle tissue.
So pick a measurement method(s), and re-measure regularly until you reach a bodyfat level that’s optimal for you.
Select one key lift from each of the primary movement patterns (squat, push, hinge, and pull) and formulate a strength goal for it. Currently, my strength goals are framed about the 14” box squat, the flat dumbbell bench press, the conventional deadlift, and the pullup.
The next step is to measure what type of strength you want to frame your goals around — there is no absolute “right” way to do this — it depends on your unique needs and physiology. You could test maximum strength, or (even better for most guys in my opinion), you could test a 10-rep max on each of these 4 lifts. This type of testing is likely safer, and encourages both your body composition and work capacity goals along the way. Personally, my 4 strength goals are as follows:
- 14” Box Squat: 300×10
- Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: 100’sx10
- Conventional Deadlift: 425×10
- Pullup: Bodyweight +45 pounds x10
In my way of thinking, if I can manage to improve my 10RM’s on these 4 lifts, I’ll at least have maintained my current level of muscle mass (not a bad outcome at age 58), and the training required to hit these numbers will not only improve my strength, they’ll also support my body composition and work capacity goals.
When selecting your 4 key lifts, choose exercises that are well-practiced, safe (for you) and meaningful. Furthermore, not all 4 of these goals need be super-aggressive. For example, if you’re already a great bench presser, but your squat sucks, I’d recommend a very modest bench press goal and a challenging squat goal.
How good should your endurance levels be? Again, there is no hard and fast rule about this, so you’ll need to create a standard for yourself, and couple that standard to a measurable test that you can perform regularly. If you’re a competitive runner, I’d obviously suggest a running test, such as a 5km timed run. If you’re big and heavy with achy knees, not so much. Endurance (sort or long term) can be measured in a large number of ways, including:
- John Rusin’s Goblet Squat Challenge (1/2 bodyweight for 25 uninterrupted reps)
- Farmer’s Carry: This can be done for time (how long it takes to carry a given weight over a set distance) or distance (how long you can carry a given weight)
- Kettlebell Swing: How many times can you swing a heavy (1/2 bodyweight?) bell in 1,3 or 5 minutes?
- Airdyne Bike or Concept II Rower: These devices both allow tests for a wide range of durations. You could for example, see how many watts you can generate or how much distance you can cover for a specific length of time.
- Walk, jog, run, skate, ski, cycle, snowshoe, crawl, stair climb, row, or swim for time and/or distance.
As you consider this goal, remember that long-distance endurance work tends to work against your strength and muscle-building efforts. If you’re already happy with your strength and muscle development, no need to worry, but if you’re skinny and weak, stick to shorter duration (3 minutes or less) endurance tests.
When thinking about how to test your work capacity (or the other attributes for that matter) try to think about what you need, rather than what you like. In other words, don’t choose a short-duration test just because you “hate” longer intervals — after all, this is about identifying weaknesses, not further improving your strengths. For example, I occasionally test myself on a one-mile run (which I detest) just so I don’t wake up one day and find that it takes me a half hour to run a mile).
Like the other 3 attributes, you’ve gotta make your own rules for this. Dancers, gymnasts, martial artists, and circus contortionists will require great mobility, whereas powerlifters and “regular folks” need relatively less. If you hate mobility training, I feel your pain, so here’s a tip to make it more palatable: identify areas of your body that have poorest mobility (hips and thoracic spine are common problem areas) and just focus on those areas, until they are no longer your weakest links. In terms of a measurement tool for mobility, I suggest the Functional Movement Screen as a great starting point.
Time To Unlock Your Longevity Potential
Everyone is an individual with unique histories, goals, and circumstances. I urge you to engage in some introspection about the various physical attributes, which ones you excel at, and which ones you need some work on. Create a small handful of meaningful tests, and then gear your training efforts around those tests. Use the suggestions I’ve made here as a way to expand your thinking rather than taking them too literally. Finally, if I can be of further assistance, please leave a comment below!
About The Author
Charles Staley calls himself “The oldest, skinniest guy you’ll ever see deadlifting 500 pounds.” More seriously, Charles is known as an iconoclast and a leading influencer in the fitness arena. His reputation and self-effacing style have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show, along with numerous radio and podcast appearances. He has authored more than 1000 articles for leading fitness publications and websites, and has lectured to eager audiences around the World. Charles is not only a thinker, but also a doer: At age 58, he competes in the sport of raw powerlifting, and is a 3-time World Champion (220 and 198-pound weight classes). His popular Staley Strategies online coaching program allows people to train under his expert guidance, regardless of where they live.