The Pyramid of Athletic Development

Emily Pappas

Hatfield, Pennsylvania, United States

Exercise Physiology, Strength and Conditioning, Nutrition


To begin your pyramid, think of the different tools you can use to help improve your performance as situated in a pyramid shape. At the peak of the pyramid is the sport specific skill you are trying to improve. For a volleyball player, that could mean harder hits, or for a basketball athlete, that could mean a higher vertical jump.


Practicing these skills are necessary when trying to develop them, but from a physiological perspective, the rate and extent of their development depend on the physiological characteristics they are built upon (the base of the player pyramid).



At the base of your pyramid are the training tools that help develop the physical and neuromuscular characteristics needed for you to perform your sport. Although less sport specific, these are the tools that help you establish the foundational qualities of your athleticism—work capacity, strength-speed-power, and neuromuscular coordination. Think of these qualities as the necessary resources from which you develop sports skills like stronger legs and hips for a higher vertical or greater muscular coordination for harder hits.


Before you can effectively develop your sport-specific skills, you need to first establish the base of these skills. For a female athlete, you can consider building your base with these three foundational qualities:


  • Work capacity
  • Strength-Speed-Power Continuum
  • Neuromuscular efficiency


Work Capacity

Your work capacity can be defined as the total amount of work (or load) your body can both tolerate and recover from—think about your capacity as a cup that can only hold so much liquid. In order to improve, an athlete must be able to work within this threshold amount and at a certain level that introduces a necessary stress to elicit an adaptive response. This means you need to work hard enough to improve, but not too much that you begin breaking down.


The Pyramid of Athletic Development - Fitness, female athlete, skill development, goals, explosive strength, speed training, agility, training plan, pyramid


If an athlete is limited by her ability to handle sufficient workloads (she currently has a tiny cup), she will never be able to expose her body to the level of stress needed to improve.


For example, if you really want to improve your vertical, but you have been sitting on the couch since the end of last season, you can’t just jump into hard training and expect your performance improve—at this point, your cup is small. While hard training is necessary for adaptation, if your body is not ready to handle that hard training, you will only see decreased performance and eventually break down.


The athlete who is better able to handle higher workloads is also able to work harder and with higher volumes to direct improved performance—far before reaching the point of break down.

So, if you want to train hard, you have to first train to improve your capacity to do hard work.


Think of your work capacity as having three main components:



  • Your ability to tolerate high workloads
  • Your ability to recover from these workloads
  • Your capacity to resist fatigue (mentally and physically)


You can develop these components with general aerobic work (things like swimming, rowing, and walking) and with higher volumes of resistance training (full-body general strength and movement training).


By performing progressively higher volumes of activity at low to moderate intensities of training, your body is able to prepare itself for the hard training it will have to perform in order to drive performance improvements. This is the type of training that helps you increase the size of your cup so it can hold more later.


Strength-Speed-Power Continuum

Now that you have the capacity to build your athletic qualities, it's time to start stressing your body to push it to improve. If you want to improve your vertical, you must prioritize strengthening your movements long before you start adding more jumping to your program. There is clear and repeatable evidence demonstrating that an overall strong foundation of maximal strength need first be established prior to integrating speed and power based training.1


Newton’s second law (force = mass x acceleration) demonstrates the direct relationship between increased force and increased acceleration. When considering this law with a performance perspective, the greater the force that can be produced in a defined period of time, the greater the acceleration.


This means with improved strength through resistance training, the greater ability you have to produce higher forces at higher speeds. As a result, the athlete that is stronger can produce higher forces to propel her body into the air and jump higher.


So how strong is strong enough before a female athlete can start training to develop her speed and power? A review by Haff and Nimphius recommend that as minimum lower body strength requirement to realize superior power outputs, female athletes should be able to squat twice their body weight.


Of course, reviews like these vary in the types, depths, and technicality of the squats being performed in the study, but the overall message is clear: females need to develop their strength before introducing speed, agility, and power training.


Although speed and agility training are necessary for all athletes when teaching mechanics, the actual physiological qualities that can be developed through more complex drills (to actually help you improve your speed and force production) are directly dependent on the level of strength first established.4


Trying to further develop an athlete's speed and power output before establishing her ability to produce higher forces is not only a waste of time and money, but it also puts your athlete at higher injury risk.


Neuromuscular Efficiency

What is neuromuscular efficiency? It refers to the interaction of the nervous system (your brain) and the muscle firing (contractions) to produce force. Greater neuromuscular efficiency has been demonstrated to improve speed and agility performance. More efficient connections help your body produce greater force in movements such as sprinting and changing direction.


How can training help improve this connection? When we train at or near maximal intensities, we are able to help our body improve this connection. Bouts of near max intensity movements can consist of performing a heavy 1RM back squat (of course with first well-established technique), performing a heavy snatch or clean and jerk (again technique first), or performing max velocity sprints and max height box jumps.


These activities help improve your neuromuscular efficiency by developing:


  • Neuromuscular coordination (your brain-body connection)
  • Intra-muscular coordination (multiple muscle groups acting together)
  • Inter-muscular coordination (multiple muscle cells working together within a muscle)1


Training lifts like a 1RM back squat are considered high force but lower speed. They help your body learn how to recruit a lot of muscle (acting together) for production of maximal amount of force, at the expense of some velocity. Training lifts like a snatch or a clean and jerk are considered high force and high velocity because they train your body to produce pretty high forces (not as high as back squats) at higher velocities.5


Training fast sprints or performing plyometrics like box jumps are considered low force and high velocity because they train your body to move itself (lower force) at near max speeds. The application of these training modalities is all important when considering the pyramid of your player development.


If you want to improve your vertical, you need to make sure your work capacity is large enough for hard training. Your strength needs to be adequate enough to develop your speed and power, and your speed and power training should progressively train your body to showcase those athletic qualities into more sport specific skills.


Your Abilities As a Player

Transference of your athletic qualities such as strength, speed, power, and agility to more sport specific tasks, like a higher vertical, can be trained with tools that are closer to your actual sport. These are the tools that persist at the peak of your pyramid.


When considering using box jumps to improve your jumping ability, they are a far weaker stimulus in directing your development compared to tools found on the lower ends of the pyramid like the back squat and power clean. However, box jumps are extremely beneficial when teaching an athlete how to transfer her newly acquired strength and power to more sport specific movements.


For a volleyball athlete who wants to improve her vertical, implementing plyometrics and other jump training to help her improve her performance are necessary but only after she employs other tools to help her build her work capacity, strength, and power. Implementing box jumps or other plyometrics first, before establishing strength and body awareness, may help the athlete improve her jump performance at first, but not for the long-term.


Remember, higher jumps are the goal, but not necessarily the means of achieving the goal. When considering the development of a skill, you must first develop the qualities from which the skill is developed.


Your athleticism is the base. Your skills as a player are your peak. Want a higher peak? Then stop training only at the peak, and start developing your base.



1. Gambetta, V. Athletic Development. (2010). The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

2. Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Strength and Power. Marlborough: Crowood. Pp 23-57.

3. Haff, G.G. and Nimphius, S. (2012) Training principles for power. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(6), 2-12.

4. Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Speed and Agility Development for Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 73-90. .

5. Hedrick, A. and Wada, H. (2009) Weightlifting movements: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30(6), 26-35.

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