The Golden Triangle: The Secret to Human Performance

There are three legs to the human performance monster, no matter what sport you train for, no matter what level.

Okay, it’s truthfully not a secet. It’s something that all of us strength and conditioning coaches have known about for the entirety of our careers. What do I need to do to prepare my athletes for competition? How can I fully optimize their various engines (aerobic/anaerobic, strength, power) so they can dominate in their given sport? Where am I going wrong?

Okay, it’s truthfully not a secet. It’s something that all of us strength and conditioning coaches have known about for the entirety of our careers. What do I need to do to prepare my athletes for competition? How can I fully optimize their various engines (aerobic/anaerobic, strength, power) so they can dominate in their given sport? Where am I going wrong?

Over the years we have seen a ton of ideas come pouring into the strength world. In the old days, we had bodybuilding magazines in the forefront of the strength culture. Unfortunately, if you were seeking performance, magazines were the last place you wanted to look. Much of the true strength training was happening in the dingy old weight rooms in the back of some rundown building with the true strongmen of the day. Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters never really saw the light of day, and that style of training was so obscure that it was reserved for the true specialist and the circus sideshow.

And then, in 1978, a group of strength coaches from all over the US formed the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). A think tank of sorts to get the most up to date and cutting edge strength and performance discussions rolling. In 1987, they created the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and published the first true scientific research on strength training.

If you go into the archives, they published quarterly and the first issue had four studies in it. Four. One of which looked at the ventilation pattern of middle-distance runners… something that I’m sure all strength enthusiasts are clamoring to get their hands on. Since then, they have been going strong, published monthly and the most recent issue has 39 studies featured. A true revolution in the industry and the backbone of science for the profession.

Once you sift through all the research and block out the foolishness that often infiltrates the fitness side, there are three legs to the human performance monster: running speed (which encompasses both linear and multidirectional), absolute strength and strength endurance. No matter what sport you find yourself training for, no matter what level you’re playing at, if you can systematize those three elements into a seamless program, you are going to have the upper hand come game day.


“Speed kills.” It is a notion that I came up in the game believing, and still do to this day. If we are going to win, we must be faster than our opponent. The days of being the biggest and strongest no longer exist. If you can’t run, you are dead. I’ve spent my entire career working on and perfecting my approach to speed. Regardless of what you might have heard about me, I am a speed freak. Everything I do, from programming our weights to how I periodize my entire program revolves around my teams learning the most nuanced running techniques ever taught and peaking them so the enemy spends the afternoon chasing.

The problem with speed is like most athletic cultures, the ideas are old. They are outdated. The techniques are dead. I know I might be taking a stab in the dark but my personal feelings around the prevalence of the usage of PED’s, particularly in the track and field world, is partly to be blamed by their complete unwillingness to evolve the sport.

“We swing our arms—okay got it. Stride frequency and stride length—yep, I understand. Relax your face, lean your body, push push push the ground away—roger that”.

It’s the same cues that have been taught for eons and the ideas are as groundbreaking as the mechanical ins and outs of the 1967 VW Bug engine.

Then, one of my coaching heros made discoveries and programmed a high school sprinter into the record books. Barry Ross took a simple idea that looked at elements of sprinting techniques and turned the track and field world on its head. For the first time, someone had focused their energy on what was happening when the foot was on the ground during a stride cycle. He took Allyson Felix and tinkered with the notion that if he could increase her force production while her foot was on the ground, without increasing her bodyweight, he could make her faster.

Absolute Strength

Which brings us to the second leg of our triangle. How much can you bench? One time? The heaviest load you can muster? Or deadlift or squat? Absolute strength is the bread and butter for powerlifters but should be considered a prerequisite for anything athletic.

If you are going to be competitive, especially in this day and age, you need to be strong. What I want you to think, though, is that strength is relative. Relative to a task. Whatever your athletic endeavor is, all of the other qualities rely on foundational strength so they can be expressed.

Speed, explosiveness, power, agility, balance, mobility, flexibility—they all count on a solid strength base to be the rich soil so they may flourish (poetic, I know). I’ve seen thousands of athletes and worked with hundreds of general population people and time after time, a lack of anything mentioned above quickly becomes remedied once a base of strength is established.

When working with any athlete, this is where we start. Teaching them the most organic, multi-joint, compound movements we have is where all of our heads should be. Movements like deadlifts and squats fortify the body miles beyond simply strong legs and powerful hips.

Those exercises are phenomenal for teaching an athlete how to organize their structure, create appropriate tensions and systemically work as one unit to move the weight. As the athlete gets stronger, the whole structure upgrades. Their ability to brace gets better and from top to bottom, their neurological control increases. This is where money is made on the field, the court and on the track.

A great example of how working for absolute strength pays off in all areas is in my prep with NFL Combine guys. The 225lbs bench press repetition test is a featured test at these events giving the powers that be some indication of the athlete’s physical strength. One might think that it’s an endurance event since the footballer is asked to press to exhaustion, but you would be surprised how this test is actually, for many, conquered by training only absolute strength.

Stay with me… I had one wideout a few years ago who was blazing fast. Dude ran a 4.27 on NFL clocks. Problem was, he was so slender and slight, the concern was would he be durable? At the beginning of our prep time leading up to the testing, he successfully hit 2 reps.

Conventional thinking might lead you to believe that we drop the load to say, 185lbs, and develop some stamina that way. But our approach was something very different. We worked triples, doubles, and singles at their respective maximum loads for the duration of his preparations for the Combine, loading progressively, never going for stamina. Guess what? He hit 12 reps come test day and all because his absolute strength skyrocketed.

Time after time, we see good athletes peter out early because they have to work twice as hard as the strong guy in a game because their movement sucks or is inefficient. They can’t change direction abruptly because they don’t have the physical strength to work against the momentum they’ve created only seconds earlier. They can’t deliver a blow because they are unable to harness enough tension to overcome their opponent. By the end of the game, any game, they are exhausted and have likely taken an L.

Strength Endurance

Once you have laid a foundation that is appropriate for your body and the job you are tasked to complete, how long do you have until your ability to produce high amounts of force is sucked from your soul?

This is what separates the good from the great. The great ones can still perform at near maximums at the end of a competition. Think about a starting pitcher who is hitting mid to high 90s in the first inning. What is he touching in the 6th? Do we see a stark drop in his velocity as his pitch count climbs or can he still deliver the goods when he is reaching the end of his outing? This is strength endurance.

Take a basketballer, for example. You have a team that plays a fast-paced offense and a pressing defense. Their transitions up and down the court to most people are a result of “conditioning”. And in part, that is true. But the weakling’s conditioning is going to be tested at a much larger scale because they are going to have to work harder (from a strength perspective) doing a general thing: banging down in the paint, fighting for possessions and enduring the physicality of playing aggressive defense. This is strength endurance.

Perhaps the best examples of a team or individual needing strength endurance are the linemen in football, wrestlers and mixed martial artists. The hand-to-hand combat of all three puts man versus man in an unending grudge match. Fighting for position, the need to overcome the enemy at every moment or on every play and the continual heightened sensory stimulus of knowing that the other person is literally trying to kill you puts enormous demands on the athlete. All three are grueling tests fitness and the best-prepared athlete from the strength endurance perspective is going to come out ahead in most cases.

You see it all the time in football. I tell my friends and family not to get too excited about the first half of a game. It’s not a real picture of what is going to unfold. It’s the middle of the third quarter and the 4th where you see the cream rise to the top. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve seen teams come out fast, look fantastic in the beginning but run out of steam. Slow and steady wins the race.

This is where kettlebell training and much of the high tension ideas that pervade that style of training comes in handy. I’ve been a kettlebell guy for nearly 15 years now and my teams are infinitely better prepared for the long grind of a game as a result. Kettlebell training systems, ones like the RKC, provide the exact framework for a coach to utilize the most effective strength endurance driven training money can buy.

A PhD in Strength and Speed

I’ve spent the last 20 years in the trenches evolving my approach. The good news for me is I have had enough hours in the weight room and out on the field where I fully understand how to prepare my athletes for success. But trust me, it’s been a very long grind of making decisions and spending the time to see if they are the right ones—or not.

See, I’ve made some epic blunders in programming. The athletes continue to evolve, their needs fluctuate as time goes by and you have to have a solid base of understanding of the Golden Triangle to navigate these sometimes turbulent waters.

The Kettlebell, Speed, and Strength Summit

The good news for you is, you don’t have to burn the next 20 years figuring it all out. Come to the KS3 Kettlebell, Speed and Strength Summit in San Diego this July 14th and 15th where I am going to be working with an incredible collection of athletic minds to demystify all three unicorns featured in this article.

Breaking Muscle is the media sponsor for the event as part of their program to support independent coaches. I won’t be alone on the podium and am joined by a stellar line-up of strength and conditioning experts. First, there’s Marty Gallagher, a legend in the strength game. His contributions to the weight training world spans back for decades and his laundry list of athletes he’s trained into immortality is a who’s who in the world of strength.

Then, there’s David Weck and his speed system. It is not only the best thing I have seen in athletics over the course of my tenure as a coach but the most progressive approach to developing true, raw running speed I have ever found. David is a once in a lifetime coach who transcends the game by shattering conventional thought with some of the most practical science that you can find. His program alone is worth the price of admission.

Mike Krivka is a kettlebell expert. Hearing this guy’s martial arts resume will leave your mouth gaping and watching him move is something to behold. Kriv has taken the kettlebell doctrine and successfully implemented it into developing the fighter, the athlete, and the tactical operator. And he’s done what I consider to be nearly impossible.

Chris White works for LSU. If you know anything about anything, you are well aware of the storied history of Tigers Athletics. If there is any program in the country who has it figured out, it’s LSU and Chris White is a cornerstone to their strength department. A physical specimen himself, Chris’s approach to training athletes mixes genuine expertise of the sciences coupled by a unique approach to coaching the athlete. He’s an “athlete whisperer” and I am privileged to know him, to call him a dear friend and to have been able to watch him coach for the past five years.

And then there is little ole me. I feel with exposure to all four of these guys and countless systems for decades, I can create a tremendous amount of clarity around all three concepts. We know how to train athletes at Cal Poly, and I’m going to give you all my secrets. And, if that is not enough, for reading this article, use the code BREAKINGMUSCLE when you sign up for a $100 discount on the entire event.

Looking forward to seeing all of you in San Diego this July!

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