The Economics of Performance, Health and Longevity

Guest Post by my hubby:  Robb Wolf

Most folks that know me will not be surprised if I say “Hi, My name is Robb, I’m a geek.” My name is in fact Robb, and yes, I am a geek. Most folks (other than my wife) might be surprised if I say “Hi, I’m Robb, I’m super lazy.” Now, people might be surprised by this because I do a fair amount of blogging, podcasting, traveling, tweeting and facebooking. So, I am in fact doing a lot of stuff, but I’m lazy in that I’m always looking for the easier way. In economic or business terms I’m looking for ROI (return on investment). If you put $100K into investments, do you want 10% return or 15% return? 15% return seems pretty obvious, right? What if the ROI options are 10% and 15% but to get the 10% you can live a happy, healthy fulfilled life, but in order to get that 15% ROI you have to work so hard you are miserable, depressed, immune compromised and will likely shorten your life? How much shorter might that life be? Average lifespan in North America is about 75 years, so let’s say for you to get that 15% ROI your average lifespan will likely drop to 55-60 years. Does that give you pause? For most people it should, but the (possibly) interesting thing about this is that what I’m describing here is the difference between recreational athletics/ “fitness” (10% “easy” ROI) and ELITE performance (15% costly ROI).

There are a number of concepts that describe this process, perhaps the most popular is the “law of diminishing returns.” In athletic or fitness terms what this means is we can typically get reasonably “fit” or competent at a given activity with relatively low time and effort investment, but if we want to climb to the top and be “elite” it’s going to cost us. I’ve been thinking about these concepts for quite some time and wrote about it in the Performance Menu back in 2005   and did some blogging on the topic in 2007 . The basic idea is this: We can make decisions in life that will accentuate one of these 3 variables: Performance, Health & Longevity.

Performance is the ability to “do stuff”. This is NOT exclusively work capacity, as the Performance of many tasks requires a high degree of technicality, and virtually no work capacity. Olympic archery is a good example.

Health is the moment to moment likelihood that you will continue to live. Do you have cancer, low immunity or are so weak and compromised that if you trip and fall you will break a hip and die from the complications?

Longevity is simply Health, extrapolated over time.

Now it’s important to recognize that we can tweak how we live to alter probabilities of how Performance, Health and Longevity will manifest in our lives. If we practice severe calorie restriction with adequate nutrition (CRAN) we will increase our likelihood of living a long time (we have great data on this in animal studies ranging from fruit flies to primates) but our Performance will be terrible and interestingly, our Health may be impacted. Organisms undergoing CRAN cannot be exposed to significant temperature variations, injury or infection or they are actually MORE likely to die. Individuals practicing CRAN must severely limit potential stressors or they may actually die early, all while having terrible overall Performance due to low muscle mass and compromised fitness due to low calorie intake. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum is the hard training, elite athlete that shortens lifespan and compromises health due to a blistering training volume, wear and tear and a large food intake. The net effect is a large oxidative load which damages DNA, and negatively alters both hormonal and immunological function. If we consider the Performance, Health and Longevity of our hunter-gatherer ancestors  we observe good levels of fitness (strength, muscle mass, endocrine & immune function) but certainly not ELITE performance levels as compared to modern top-tier athletes. Modern athletics literally pushes the envelope of human performance with the difference between 1st and 10th place often being fractions of seconds, kilograms or centimeters.

Ok, What the Hell does this have to do with me?

Running a gym for over 8 years I’ve observed many folks are not aware of the Law of Diminishing Returns nor the costs involved with going from “good” to “elite.” Let me qualify this a bit before I go on: If I’m approached by an athlete who WANTS to compete at a high level (I’m coaching folks at the Olympic Training Center, elite levels of MMA and world caliber level in their respective sports)  I keep in mind these ideas of Performance, Health and Longevity and I make recommendations to minimize the negative impacts of training load, stress and all that goes into elite performance, but at the end of the day the name of the game for these folks is WINNING. We run with training volumes and intensities, food amounts and types (maltodextrin shakes?) that I know are not great for the health and longevity of my athlete but are integral to optimizing Performance. 99% of my clients (and I’d guess most coaches and trainers clients) do not fall into this competitive athletics bracket.

Folks want to look good, have community and be challenged. What I see happening however is a tendency for coaches to prescribe “more” instead of Quality. Coaches lose site that folks can be just as excited by the acquisition of new skills (front levers, hand-stands etc.) as improvements in mixed modal metabolic work IF we create a culture that VALUES skill based work, periodization and planning.  Even if people want to compete in something like the CrossFit Games (which is certainly pushing the limits of human performance…with all the potential downsides we see in other sports) we can tackle programming in such as way that minimizes burnout and actually optimizes performance. Strength and technical work should make up the lions share of training for most of the year with capacity being maintained/expanded by alterations in Accumulation phases and Intensification phases followed by Competition and Recovery phases.

See work by Siff, Zastiorski and  Verkoshanski for concepts of block periodization and athletic peaking. I’d also recommend reading what OPT has written on the differences between Training and Testing.

The role of the coach or trainer is always to support the client in his or her chosen endeavor, but it’s helpful (Ethical? Moral?) to also remind clients of the inherent costs of climbing the ladder of Elite performance. This may seem like a stifling, kill-joy type attitude and if you are an Uber-elite coach who only deals with folks endeavoring to be world champions then ignore this whole post, but when you see clients who have made remarkable progress in your program begin to burn out because the only metric of progress is another 5 seconds taken off their “Rosanne” WOD, you as a coach are likely going to lose that client and all the hard work, transformation and history they bring to the table. Not all businesses can be run as a Ponzi Scheme and at some point, if you want to be successful AND do right by your clients, you need to create a culture that allows for progress to be measured (and celebrated) in different ways.

This idea of balancing Performance, Health and Longevity is actually much of the driver behind the curriculum we offer at NorCal Strength & Conditioning. We offer:

1-The OnRamp! This is initial iteration of the beginner’s class developed by my wife, which was published originally in the Performance Menu and given away for FREE to help the community of gyms that we used to be a part of.  May a thousand desert fleas inhabit the nether regions of the folks who have published a plagiarized version of this curiculum. Fracking Wankers.

2-Elements- The class most folks graduate into after completion of the OnRamp! or personal training. Strength work is combined with metabolic conditioning, but only a limited skill set is introduced to ensure safety and proper athletic progression. “Scaling” is a limp-weenied approach to coaching vs PROGRESSION.

3-Level 1- Similar to the Elements class but requires completion of various skills and achievement of performance benchmarks.

4-Level 2- This is a highly technical class with an emphasis on strength work and gymnastics. Some Metabolic work occurs, but it is of a short and highly technical nature (this is a fun recent WO: 3 muscle ups with full turn out at top & bottom, NO KIP, 5 OHS with body weight, handstand walk 30 feet, rounds in 12 min.)

5-Strength Class- This is a block-periodized class that runs in 8 week increments. Volume and intensity are varied over the course of the training, appropriate de-laoding is prescribed to optimize peaking. After the testing week the class does not meet for 1-2 weeks to allow for recovery, then a new block of programming is introduced. PR’s abound.

6-LIFT (a terrible name, Low Intensity Functional Training) This class offers a mix of strength work and metabolic work but no names go on the board, no specific time is prescribed for the WO. A coach takes folks through a typical warm-up, then describes the elements to be trained that day. Perhaps it is DL’s, rope climbs and 50M sprints. After a form review folks begin working their way through the WO, perhaps they perform 3 reps of DL at 75-80% of 1RM. They then work a rope climb (with or without feet based on strength & skill level) then they will walk to the end of a 50M course, and sprint to the other end. That’s one round…but no one cares because we are not keeping track. The class is about fun, community and getting some work done. When you remove the competitive element form errors magically resolve because people are not worried about being “beat”, they are concerned about doing it right. This is our fastest growing class and everyone from beginners to seasoned veterans love it. Men will indeed “Die for points” and not surprisingly they will also ignore coaching and safety at the same time. LIFT addresses this issue while allowing folks to get an outstanding workout.

7-Personal training. Many gyms do not offer this service…you are leaving money on the table if you do not, but what do I know?

This is the current incarnation of our gym, it will likely grow and modify over time but it is again an outgrowth of wanting to be both financially successful AND to do good by our clients. The Performance, Health & Longevity orientation combined with Dave Werner’s Athletic Skill Standards has driven our development and I’d say it’s been pretty damn successful thus far. A wisely constructed program really does offer amazing ROI and I believe optimizes not only Performance, Health and Longevity but also profitability. Perhaps this will be the 5th component of fitness “being profitable so you can remain in business and continue to help people…”



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12 Responses to The Economics of Performance, Health and Longevity

  1. eva T. says:

    fantastic bit of light from Robb. Spot on.

  2. Tim says:

    Super article Robb!!! Thanks for posting!!

  3. Joanna says:

    Haha! Love that last bit in your explanation of OnRamp, Robb.

  4. Paul says:

    Right on the money Mr. Robb! I have been following this business-model for the last several years. I am only operating in a private/semi-private situation. I basically follow a M.E.B.B. template, but tweaked it so that my clients know exactly what they are doing in regards to improving strength. I firmly believe that the stronger you are, the easier life is for you. My clients couldn’t care less about “The Games”, they are leaner, meaner, faster and stronger and love having a quality of life that doesn’t revolve around how “everyone” else is doing…and yes, I still follow the original “ON-RAMP” program!

  5. /clap /clap /clap
    Amen sir, amen

  6. Robb Wolf says:

    Thanks folks! Just trying to help folks cut some time off the developmental period. It’s tough getting a business going. Small insights can really help at times.

  7. James says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights Robb, they are incredibly valuable. I plan to open a gym at some point and it’s so good to have an outline like the one above. Teaching fitness as a skill progression is something that is missing from the majority of gyms / programs out there. Maybe because it requires a certain kind of trainer, a movement fanatic that himself / herself exercises to get into “flow” and experience the rush of exceeding his / her own limits, of mastering something new each time. I don’t know but it sure is good to know that it also pays off business-wise.

  8. Robb Wolf says:

    Most of our largest decisions (do we move the gym, do we buy this equipment…do we add MBO?) were couched with these three questions in mind:
    1-Will it be GOOD for our clients? Will their experience improve? Will they get more out of the program?
    2-Will it be good for our trainers? This is a funny one as we often get resistance (initially) from our staff on change that will ultimately be good for them, but we always ask that question and changes must improve the quality of their work environment. I can be kind of a heavy handed prick at times so I doubt the staff actually believes that we think a ton about them…but I think this experience is like having kids, you always love them more than they love you!

    3-Does the decision at hand make sense financially? Do your projections look good? Don’t have projections?! That’s a problem, which Nicki will be talking about a ton in the future.

    With these ideas in mind we do the best we can to make qualitative changes to the gym, our training and systems. We are far from perfect, but it’s been built from scratch with love and a commitment to continue to make things better.

  9. Wayne says:


  10. This is a super article. I love the progressive class outline that you have at NorCal S&C. I wish I lived nearer to you and could participate! This seems like an extremely sensible approach that leaves plenty of room for challenging one’s self.

    As to the “diminishing returns”, this happens with nearly everything, but I don’t know if that is the best way of describing the issue here. The way it is described above, and I completely defer to your experience training athlete’s of all levels, it seems to me that it is a matter of a new variable being introduced over time that changes the cost/benefit equation. That is, as one climbs the ladder of elite performance, I would imagine that almost everyone would recognize that more effort is required for smaller gains (diminishing returns). However, I would not be at all surprised if, due to the inability of the athlete to see or experience the future, that she is not considering the costs of such efforts to her long-term health. This would be quite understandable and why guidance from someone, like yourself, that has experience with what the “true costs” are of climbing the ladder of elite performance would be so valuable.

  11. Robb you bring up some great points ! I see more and more people that have done less and less growing up in terms of activity/play. This cause some serious issues if one is to try and teach power cleans to a large group if the person has never jumped.

    Keep fight that battle against weak American Robb !

  12. Rob Resnik says:

    Robb thanks for doing most of the homework for us. I love the different level and kind of classes you offer. I am really glad I found Nicki’s website today, yes I need to “chop wood and carry water”. Thanks for you do and have done for the community!!

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