The Five Element Training Types – A New Training Paradigm

Original article by Charles Poliquin

Famed Olympic track and field coach Anatoly Bondarchuk believed there were three types of athletes: those who respond best to volume, those who respond best to intensity, and those who respond best to training variety.

It was a lesson that served me well for many years, but eventually, I started to realize that perhaps the classifications were too limiting. I found that I might give a high-volume program to one athlete and he or she would make excellent progress, but the same program would not be nearly as effective for another athlete. Likewise, when I gave that same athlete an intensity program, he or she would crash almost immediately.

About the same time as this, I was studying Eastern medicine and herbology, and it suddenly occurred to me that these variations in training types correlate strongly with the five physical types described in Chinese medicine. These elements, as they are known, are used to categorize distinct physical types who manifest very distinct personality traits.

The elements are Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, and Water.

Amazingly, these ancient classifications predict quite accurately how different strength athletes respond to different types of training. They also predict quite accurately their personalities and even their weaknesses.

For years I have listened to people disparage this type of training or that type of training, saying that whatever they’d been doing did not work for them. Some said that the Westside style is no good or that German Volume Training didn’t work for them. The simple truth is that most likely they were performing the wrong type of training for their type, or element.

Breaking the Element Code

For instance, Fire-types are the most gifted for weight training with a high concentration of high-threshold motor units. They tend to do a lot of volume with high-intensity work. I know, I know, high volume of high intensity would be paradoxical to what Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer did in his workouts, but it is possible for this type. They can train heavy all the time without crashing, as long as they frequently change the exercises.

Conversely, Earth types can stay on a set program for a long time. You have to first stress them with volume and then stress them with intensity. Each phase is about three weeks. When an Earth-type overtrains, their immune system will suffer and they’ll come down with a cold. They are also the ones who have the most trouble reducing carbohydrates in their diet, and it is much harder for them to get lean.

None of the Fire, Wood and Earth types are necessarily disadvantaged when it comes to bodybuilding or strength sports, but it is important for them to train for their type. Obviously, pure types are not that common and most people fall somewhere in between the five points of the element continuum:

FIRE > WOOD > EARTH > METAL > WATER

The Metal and Water types are, unfortunately, individuals who will never make much progress. They have bad nervous systems, the wrong muscle fibers and poor endocrine systems. These types end up being attracted to non-weightlifting activities like yoga.

Following are more complete descriptions of each of the element types, including recommended training protocols.

The Fire Type

Fire types typically make the best strength/power athletes. They gravitate towards powerlifting, shot put, hammer throwing, discus, sprinting, long jump and the triple jump. Excitement is their middle name, and they usually have a great deal of enthusiasm. They are the type that inspires people in the gym, the natural-born salesman.

They are the most Yang of the elements; hence, willpower, confidence and excitement describe them. They are the ones who will explode if they get angry. They are also genetically predisposed to heart disease.

Fire types need both high intensity and higher volume in terms of sets compared to the other elements. In other words, Fire-type athletes will thrive on workouts that consist of 10-12 sets of 1-3RM. What’s more, their work capacity curve is phenomenal in that they can do 10-12 sets with a given weight with very little drop-off in performance. Any sets above 8 reps are a waste of time.

The amazing thing about Fire types is that you can beat them into the ground, as long as you change the program often. If a Fire-type does workout X, they will need to switch to workout Y after five days because they will already have adapted. Because they have a great capacity for training, variety in the program is essential to them, and it is better to change the choice and order of exercise and the mode of contractions. Volume and intensities do not need to vary as much.

An ideal workout for a Fire-type would include perhaps two lifts a day consisting of 10-12 sets of 1-3. This athlete could superset two antagonistic body parts; for example, the bench press and the chin-up, perhaps adding some remedial work at the end. They could easily perform relative strength work followed by hypertrophy training in the same workout. They could also easily train twice a day, six days a week, as long as they changed the exercises.

Fire-types will invariably ask, “Are you sure this is enough work for me?” If they perform a German Volume Training program (essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight), they will do fine on the first 2 sets of 10 but will crash on the third. If you give Fire types an Earth-type workout, their blood sugar will drop alarmingly. An alternate test involves testing their max, letting them rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85 percent of max. Typically, they will only be able to pump out 1-3 reps.

The Wood Type

Chinese doctors best describe Wood types as pioneers. They are very good at devising plans and sticking to them. They love challenging themselves and pushing themselves to the limit. They are bold and decisive, and they have a tendency to overdo things. That is why you have to plan recovery phases within the cycle – in other words, you have to hold them back every third workout.

Wood types are the most likely to abuse stimulants and sedatives and are most likely to complain of tendon injuries. They are also genetically predisposed to liver problems.

Wood Training. Wood types can tend to overtrain very easily when volume is excessive. Likewise, they can only handle the same routine for roughly two weeks. Typically, for days 1-15 of a program, they will thrive doing rep ranges of 6-10, but you will need to drop the number of sets by about 40 percent every third workout.

Furthermore, they need to maintain a one-to-one ratio between volume and intensity. That means that they will do best on a two-week cycle employing high volume, followed by a two-week cycle using increased intensity. They will use rep brackets of 2-5 for days 16-30, making sure to drop the number of sets by about 60 percent every third workout.

A Wood type will invariably ask, “Are you sure this is the most cutting-edge methodology you’ve got?” If they perform a German Volume Training program (essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight), they will complete the first workout, start to peter out on the second, manage only 4 sets of 10 on the third workout and then go home. An alternate test would involve testing their max, letting them rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85 percent of max. Typically, they’ll only be able to pump out 4-5 reps.

The Earth Type

In Chinese medicine, the Earth types are in the middle of the elements. Therefore, serenity and stability are big issues with them. They are well-grounded individuals, as the name would suggest.

As such, they like identical blocks of training and they don’t need variations within the macrocycle. They can stay on a set program for a long time (six weeks), but you have to stress them with volume for the first three weeks, followed by three weeks of intensity. While they don’t have the ability to tap into a lot of high-threshold muscle fibers (i.e., they don’t do well with a lot of heavy training), they have a greater capacity to hypertrophy than the average person.

If you overtrain an Earth person, they’ll come down with a cold. They are generally very particular about the quality and quantity of their sleep. They are the ones who will complain about missing an hour of sleep.

Of all the element types, Earth types have the hardest time getting lean because they have a problem with reducing carbohydrate intake.

Earth Training. Volume and intensity have to be balanced equally, as they have as much Yin as Yang. They respond best to longer cycles, typically three weeks to a month. They don’t do very well on classical maximal strength programs, as they will burn out rapidly. Earth types would progress well on routines of 2-3 exercises per body part for the first month (volume or accumulation phase), with 3-4 sets per exercise and 9-15 reps. The next month, they should do 2-3 exercises for 4-5 sets, but do sets of 5-8 reps (the intensification phase).

Metal / Water Types

Metal and Water types rarely gravitate towards weight training. Typically water types gravitate towards yoga and other “yin” forms of exercise and metal rarely like to do anything physical.

For that reason, I will not be covering them in this article.

Perhaps the best barometer of what type you are, or what blend of types you are, is whether you enjoy a particular type of training. Fire types can perform 10 sets of the same exercise without losing focus, but the same routine would bore an Earth-type to tears.

Trainees should ignore the way their heroes train and just be honest with themselves. If you have not made any progress since the first Bush administration, then it is possible that you have not been training “true to your type.” The Chinese ask, “How can you expect to find ivory in a dog’s mouth?” Likewise, how can you find success using programs that are not suitable for your physiology?

EXERCISING YOUR OPTIONS

Why dedication to a single exercise discipline (yoga, cycling, weight training, or just about anything else) isn’t healthy— and how holistic fitness programs can leave you happier and healthier in less time.

For some people, “working out” means lifting weights (preferably heavy ones); for others, cycling classes (preferably to exhaustion); yet others, yoga or pilates (nothing too strenuous).

Each and every one of these disciplines has its benefits. But also, if practiced exclusively, its drawbacks—primarily involving mechanical strain, adaptational failure, and/or constitutional imbalance/instability.

On the other hand, by mixing and matching approaches, individuals can achieve superior and more sustainable results, all the while saving time and minimizing injury.

As one goes back and forth from strenuous sessions to restorative ones and back again, one gets to know one’s own body—its strengths, weaknesses, and imbalances. One also trains and develops parts of the body—genes, neurons, muscles, hormones, ligaments, and more—in a thorough manner only cross-training can provide. But where to begin—and how to progress?

At ARM Systems of Milton, Ontario, Canada, coaches, trainers, and instructors are mandated to design, develop, and deliver programmes that consider and address all aspects of physical fitness:the mechanical (size, shape, and strength); the adaptational (speed, stamina, and agility); and the constitutional (harmony, stability, and flexibility); plus (if desired/necessary) specialized techniques and/or technologies to help clients achieve specific medical, personal, athletic, and/or professional results.

To be clear, if one were to review these concepts and categories with a clinician or practitioner, they might get critiqued as inexact and/or over-simplified. (In reality, kettlebell drills train for strength as well as stamina, only to a lesser degree. Hot yoga trains for stamina as well as stability, also/only to a lesser degree. So on and so forth.)

On the other hand, when compared to the fitness industry’s big-box, mass-market offerings, these same concepts and categories might be viewed as somewhat theoretical and/ or over-complicated. (It’s rare to find exercise authorities so insistent upon training posture, breathing, and other subtle nuances.) ARM’s middle- ground approach seeks to achieve balance between these extremes—with design, language, and technology that can help anyone become (and remain) fit, well, and vital.

MECHANICAL EXERCISE FOR SIZE, SHAPE, STRENGTH

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THE MOVE: One to three times per week, in the context of an intelligently and result-oriented programme, partake in classic weight training. Noted styles include body building, power lifting, and circuit training.

THE VIBE: Often practiced solo or as half of a duo. Look for coaches, trainers, and instructors who are intense—but not militaristic. No threats. No insults. Nothing dangerous.

THE RESULT: A body that looks the way you want it to—one that’s fit, trim, solid, and ready to take on the world—so that you can manage the strains and stresses of day-to-day life.

ADAPTATIONAL EXERCISE FOR SPEED, STAMINA, AGILITY

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THE MOVE: One to three times per week, bust a move, break a sweat, and challenge your limits with experiences that keep you moving—even when you don’t know what’s next. Options include: boot camps; martial arts; body-weight circuits; and club- and kettlebell drills

THE VIBE: Often practiced in a duo or small group. You want to feel excited, exhilarated, full of confidence and self-esteem— eventually. At first, though, you may feel taxed, confused, maybe even a bit scattered. That’s OK; you’ll adapt.

THE RESULT: Energy. Vitality. A certain springiness that, once you achieve, you won’t know how to live without.

CONSTITUTIONAL EXERCISE FOR HARMONY, STABILITY, FLEXIBILITY

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THE MOVE: One to three times per week, work on those more subtle (but oh-so-important) aspects of physical fitness: breath, posture, balance, coordination, and so much more. Modalities—yoga, pilates, meditation, suspension training, et cetera—range from the restorative to the shockingly robust.

THE VIBE: Often practiced in medium- to large-sized groups. Hot yoga, whenever available, promotes digestion and detoxification especially well. Don’t diminish the value of softer, more “yin” (or restorative) sessions every once in a while. They’re essential to emotional and neurological health.

THE RESULT: Stronger core, faster recovery, deeper sleep, better range of motion, reduced anxiety/tension/nervousness and—oh, yes—total bliss.

KEYSTONE HABITS—BECOMING A DIETER THROUGH EXERCISE

Over the years of being a personal trainer a pattern has come to light with our most successful clients – if they exercise 3 times or more per week their diets improve, they stop smoking and they reduce their consumption of alcohol; the inverse however is not true, those who fix their diets, quit smoking or reduce drinking do not spontaneously start exercising.

This is significant because when it comes to improving the quality of life, correcting nutritional habits is a bigger player than exercise. If you want to reduce body fat, which is associated with reduced risks of most illnesses, diet is a lot more effective at achieving this than exercise. For example many forms of cancer are associated with poor dietary choices and the debilitating effects of diabetes can be severely reduced by cessation of sugar in all forms.

However, bang for your buck, working out 3 times a week or more will contribute more to improving your health and health related behaviors than just trying to fix your diet alone IN SPITE of the fact that fixing your diet is actually what will help you the most. This occurs because working out 3 times a week causes you to fix your diet.

Exercise is special because it is a keystone habit – a keystone is the center stone in an arch, the final stone to be placed and the one that holds the entire arch together. Exercise serves this function when it comes to living the healthiest and the highest quality life possible. It teaches our body and brain that actions matter and this creates the momentum needed to start caring about the consequences of other actions. Those who exercise more, eat better, drink more water, sleep better, smoke and drink less, have better sex, make better decisions and save more money.

Quitting smoking, improving one’s diet, or reducing alcohol consumption, while all critical in improving the quality of life, do not play a keystone function with regards to behavior. As such, they rely on will power to maintain and tend not be self-sustainable over the first few weeks or months. Relapse tends of occur when routines are disrupted or when one is challenged outside of their normal day-to-day events. Furthermore, cessation of anything that relies on willpower alone tends to be associated with higher levels of stress which itself increases the risk of failure.

Improving your life without starting an exercise routine is possible, but it is much more challenging and relies on the creation of new habits that are rewarding in the long run but represent short term sacrifices. This is unlike exercise because exercise is rewarding almost immediately, and in the long term the benefits are undeniable.

To this end, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense for someone who is over the age of 35 to try and address their weight concerns through diet alone. In fact, the best thing they can do to improve their diet is to exercise more. Frankly, the best thing they can do to improve any aspect of their life is to exercise more.

It doesn’t take much. 3 hours of moderately intense exercise each week will quickly begin to reverse some of the signs of aging on the body and begin to motivate your brain to correct other habits that are not working for you.

Get out there and start moving more! Join a gym, start play a sport you love, take-up cycling. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you get moving. Do it for a few weeks and notice the positive changes in other all the other areas of your life.