By Alan Sherry CSP Gym

We are now thankfully (well, hopefully) long passed the idea that a one-size-fits-all approach is the way forward for appropriate fitness prescription. Clients are different, physiologically, psychologically and everything in between. Their goals, needs and ability to adapt to training and lifestyle stressor’s will all be different, and so their programming structure should reflect this too.

Some of the biggest factor’s that will affect an athlete’s adaptability to training will be the following:
1: Their NME rating (Neuro-Muscular Efficiency)
2: Their mitochondrial make-up & dominant muscle fibre type
3: Their own unique psychology

There are both genetic AND epigenetic factors that contribute to these three traits, and so ALL can be trained to some extent, which thankfully as a coach is where we can help. Let us take a look at the three more in-depth and see how we can help the athlete to develop each to levels that will improve their athletic endeavours, whatever those may look like.


An athlete’s neuromuscular efficiency is directly related to their genetic make-up (mitochondrial make-up & dominant muscle fiber type), their training age (the nervous systems adaptions to training whether novice/in-experienced to advanced/experienced) and their sport of choice (a type 2b dominant athlete who finds an explosive sport to compete in for example will be genetically suited for this sport and so training age won’t be AS prevalent an issue in this case, compared to someone new to the modality without the optimal genetic traits).

Because of the inherent hormonal and fibre type differences in females relative to males, they will generally have lower NME and will need higher volumes at 'higher' percentages to elicit an adequate stress response for strength adaptions to ensue. Athletes with a young training age will be less efficient, in general, because of lack of nervous system adaption’s due simply to inexperience and so do well at higher volumes and more time ‘under the bar.’ Those with a higher aerobic capacity also tend to need the same, as strength development is slower for these guys because of additional mitochondrial/fibre type adaptions’ due to environment (sport of choice having been aerobic-dominant for example).

Hormonal output is also a factor here and the use of drugs can be a game changer and is another huge reason for their widespread use throughout sport. Aerobic athletes and females can effectively ‘cheat’ physiology by using, as an example, testosterone derivatives to elicit muscle size, strength and power adaptions’ which would usually take a much longer time for those athletes to incur naturally. Conversely strength athletes can do the same by using substances like EPO (Erythropoietin) for it’s increased mitochondrial function and oxygen uptake for the working musculature, in essence allowing those athlete’s who would usually fatigue a lot faster to do a higher volume of work aerobically.

How to test for NME: Neuromuscular efficiency is probably the easiest of the three to test for. A simple Back Squat Test will suffice here and consists of the athlete finding their current 1RM and then performing as many reps as possible at 85% with a fixed Tempo. If the athlete scores low repetitions here (2-4) they are deemed to have high efficiency and can tap into their motor units sufficiently to perform nervous system demanding feats on the absolute strength end of the force velocity curve. Those who score higher repetitions (8-10+) are deemed less efficient and, depending on their goals, might need more neurally-demanding training protocols in their program.*

How to Train it: If you have an athlete that need’s more neural training to improve efficiency (1RM sports for example) there are a few different protocols that can be used, based on the athletic goals given.

A novice athlete simply needs to spend more time stressing the nervous system and it is for this reason that more volume at what would generally be considered higher percentages for trained individuals is required. Females too need to perform the same type of work, although for different reasons (mainly hormonal). Athlete’s deemed very aerobic or type 1 dominant can also become more efficient here by performing a-lactic power type conditioning work in order to produce higher power outputs in this realm (once absolute strength has been increased adequately), while those athlete’s deemed more absolutely strong than fast on the force-velocity curve can use speed-strength type exercises to improve motor unit recruitment and increase rate of force development.

Those athletes on the other hand deemed faster and more explosive naturally rather than strong can benefit similarly by performing more maximal effort work within the program. It is these athletes who are naturally more prone to injury because of the high forces generated in plyometrics, bounding and landing type movements. If a sufficient base of absolute strength isn't underlying these other strength qualities, connective tissues cannot cope with the stress.*

For those athlete’s who are deemed already very efficient neuromuscularly a need to ‘de-train’ the nervous system response is warranted if competitive CrossFit is the goal. By ‘de-train’ what we really mean is getting the athlete used to hitting more repetitions at a higher percentage of 1RM than they’re used to without fatiguing quickly, which is crucial for the sport. This can be accomplished a couple of way’s successfully. Improving overall GPP/Aerobic capacity (which will help with the onset of blood lactate accumulation and it's usage as an actual fuel source) while utilising what is commonly known as Creatine Phosphate battery work (which is working with weights at around 85-90% of 1RM for multiple repetitions regularly), will enable the athlete to do work much more comfortably here when called upon. Which in the unique sport which is CrossFit, is fairly often.**


Another determining factor is the athlete’s mitochondrial make-up and dominant muscle fibre type (type 1, type 2a or 2b). Although another factor that is directly related to genetics, these are also related to an extent to the athlete’s environment i.e sport of choice, lifestyle etc. Although you cannot make type 1 fibres into type 2b there is evidence that the middle ground fibres can take on characteristics on either end with environmental stress, or in other words, training. As a coach, it is important to realize that many times those athletes who present with more characteristics on one end of the scale might not like putting in volumes of work on the other. Type 2b dominant athletes for example (strength/power athletes) do not like high volumes of slow endurance work traditionally, and vice versa with endurance athletes undertaking high NME or Type 2b dominant stimuli. Again however, this is something that can be trained, and very successfully in our experience.

If an athlete that is type 2b (strength/power) dominant takes up an aerobic-based sport for the first ten years of their life they will make certain physiological adaptions both on a mitochondrial level and by helping to shift some of those middle ground fibre types to the side being trained, in this case the type 1 'side'. So, although the athlete’s physiological profile might suit the strength sports better, their training environment has allowed for adaptions which make them a more well rounded athlete in general.

If you are involved in the 1RM sports (powerlifting/weightlifitng), although GPP is always advised, what matters most for the sport is becoming as neuromuscularly efficient as possible and so the vast majority of your training should be centred around the creatine phosphate side of the curve, with an emphasis on maximal effort and dynamic effort work to increase strength/motor unit recruitment and increase rate of force development, and the repetition method for volume to increase hypertrophy and the cross-sectional area of muscle which will enable you to also increase force.

How to test for it: Apart from in-lab testing of vo2max and lactate threshold (which are also test/movement specific), which isn’t going to be viable for a lot of coaches, you just need to know your athlete. If your athlete is an aerobic monster who utilizes oxygen efficiently and paces everything really well, you might want to make them more well rounded by training them to learn to produce strength and power on the CP side of the energy system curve, which depending on their athletic endeavor of choice, might look like the NME examples provided above. If on the other hand your athlete is absolutely strong on the CP side but cannot breath and utilize oxygen efficiently and gasse’s quickly, a lot more low-level aerobic work should play a part in their program if the goal is a well rounded fitness capacity. On this point, a big mistake with this type of athlete can be to train aerobic power pieces exclusively as a means of building ‘aerobic capacity.’ However aerobic power and overall base capacity are not the same thing and throwing aerobic power volumes at athlete’s without a large underlying aerobic base can lead to stalling in power output’s at higher heart rates and is akin to giving a beginning strength training athlete maximal effort work in an attempt to become stronger. A pyramid is only as tall as it’s base, and in training terms your aerobic power output at higher heart rates will only be it’s most effective with a large underlying capacity to supply fuel for the demand.


The athlete’s psychology also plays a large role in their training experience and dose response. The athlete for example who is predominantly a type 2b athlete (strength/power) and does well here will generally not (but not always) like spending significant quantity’s of time doing stuff they suck at as previously discussed. ESPECIALLY if a lack of confidence or insecurity are present in the athlete’s psychological profile, in any area of life. If they need to feel good and secure they will do what they know they are already good at, as opposed to spending time and volume doing stuff that doesn’t make them look or feel as good. Also, those deemed introvert in nature tend to do well with volumes of work they are good at and/or are familiar and comfortable with. Extroverts can do well on programs offering different stimuli as regularly as possible to keep them excited and interested in the program. This area in particular is where you must know your athlete. Constantly providing training stimuli to your athlete’s that are not their strong points can be psychologically draining and lead to a decrease in mental acuity, training productiveness and belief in the program, in effect hampering the training program as a whole. This is thankfully however another area that can absolutely be trained and as a coach it is our responsibility to point those athlete’s in need in the direction of as much mental training resources as possible, whether from reading material, workshops or through the hiring of actual sports psychologists, and help the athlete to realise their potential.

The take home message when programming for your athlete’s is to understand that everybody is different and a one-size-fits-all fitness prescription is shortchanging them. Yes it is an easy option for coaches to take, but we aren't in the game for easy, we are in it to produce the best results possible for everyone that walks through our doors.

*As a side note to this there is a misunderstanding in the wider fitness industry between the benefits of maximal and absolute strength development on other underlying strength qualities. Understand that, if talking about the strength qualities associated with maximum force and velocity, i.e accelerative strength, strength speed, speed-strength, starting strength) then raising absolute strength absolutely will increase these strength parameters. If, on the other hand, you are talking about improvements in strength endurance this comes down to energy system substrate usage. Those strength qualities on the F/V curve are primarily influenced by ATP-CP, so of course it is a different thing completely to try develop endurance at sub-maximal percentages that utilise glycolysis and lactate etc as fuel sources.

**For some athlete’s however TOO much emphasis on neurally demanding protocols can be harmful. For example, employing methods that utilise the maximal amount of force and power development (or more specifically the adaptions that they create) too much in a program can have a detrimental effect on their ability to learn how to breath, pace and stay in a non-fatigued state primarily using aerobic metabolism.

Tom Barry

Tom Barry

Tom Barry is a seasoned strength and conditioning coach with over 16 years of experience. He has honed his expertise by closely collaborating with elite athletes from various disciplines, including the NFL, UFC, Track and Field, Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling.

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