What is the “Athlete’s Hierarchy of Needs”?

The Hierarchy of Needs is a guide for athletes to determine where to start when it comes to exercise. It gives a baseline for each individual and allows coaches and athletes to see where problems may originate when it comes to pain points or the inability to perform as desired. There are five tiers, or levels, in the hierarchy.

The first level is flexibility, followed by mobility. While these terms may often be used interchangeably, they are actually different! We’ll discuss how they differ below. After mobility is strength/balance, then work/rest. The final tier is skill. An assessment of these needs will determine how training needs to be approached, as it will vary from person to person.

The hierarchy begins with flexibility. Flexibility describes the ability to be moved in a PASSIVE range of motion, showing the capability of your muscles to lengthen in that range of motion. An example could be pulling your knee up to your chest while lying on your back. Your arms are pulling your leg into this degree of flexion, beyond its natural resting position. This would be a display of your hip flexibility. If a pain point is found in the flexibility assessment, such as a less than ideal range of motion or actual pain during the movement, you and your coach would decide on your next steps.

If flexibility gets the green light, the next step is to assess mobility. The difference between flexibility and mobility is that mobility focuses on the ACTIVE range of motion, or how well you can move and control your body throughout the movement. An example would be testing your squat to see if you are able to reach parallel. If there are problems with mobility, there can be trouble with compensating during workouts which could lead to other injuries. If there is trouble with the squat, then the back could be compromised. Mobility is important to address early on, as it is something that can be worked on with the correct exercises or stretches. Working with a coach and finding what is right before moving forward will improve your chances of success.

Flexibility and mobility are good? Great! The next step is looking at the strength/balance tier. In other words, are the muscles that are supposed to be targeted the same as the muscles actually being used? Are there muscles that are being favored in certain movements, such as hingeing like a deadlift during a squat? This could be a strength imbalance between the hamstrings and the quads, which can lead to overworking muscles that otherwise wouldn’t be heavily activated. The same theory can work for things outside of the gym as well. Do you have a job where you sit all day? Chances are, your chest muscles are tight and your back muscles are loose. What causes that? The relaxed hunch that we are all familiar with. This creates an imbalance that can be fixed once acknowledged.

If strength/balance is assessed and no problems are noted, but there is still a pain point, the next tier to consider is work/rest. If you are constantly on the go (I know, who isn’t?), work, school, exercise, meal prepping, etc. and you are not taking the time to rest, you most likely are not feeling amazing. If you work full time, maybe eat lunch at your desk here and there, go to the gym, rush through dinner, and then get 5-6 hours of sleep at night, your work/rest ratio is off balance. Prioritizing rest allows your muscles to recover, reducing soreness and chances of injury. Eating well and sleeping enough are sometimes the hardest things to remedy. Setting aside the time to rest will improve your performance as an athlete.

Finally, at the top of the pyramid is skill. If the lower 4 tiers are not causing any problems, but there is still pain, then it is safe to say that the movement itself is the issue. This means that skill work is required in order to fix whatever movement pattern is causing pain. It might be time to go back to the basics, lowering the weight and focusing on the movement until the pattern is corrected.

No matter where the issue may fall in the hierarchy, our coaches are always here to help! Set up a meeting to discuss your pain points and find what is going to work best for you! Let’s get you moving better and feeling great! Click here to book an into meeting with a coach!