January
30

Understanding the 4 Quadrants of Training

Something I will readily admit to is that I am not the smartest guy in the whole world… BUT I am smart enough to learn from the best and “borrow” liberally from what they do. One of the brightest guys in strength and conditioning is Dan John, and I have been following his articles and books for many years. He has an uncanny ability to boil complex subjects in the strength training world down to a couple of simple points that make you wonder why you didn’t think of that sooner.

Once you understand what quadrant you are in and what qualities you are looking to improve you can both look for others who are the same and also understand why someone else’s approach may not be the best for you.

One of my favorite concepts of his is the 4 Quadrants of Training. In a nutshell, Dan says that there are 4 Quadrants of Performance and that understanding where you land in those 4 Quadrants is the key to understanding what you need to focus on to get better.

Here is a brief description of each Quadrant:

Q1: Lots of qualities at a low level of relative max

As Dan puts it, this is where beginners should, well, begin. In this quadrant you are after a low level of exposure to a lot of different things in order to develop a well rounded base. It also exposes you to a lot of different ways to use your natural fitness and will help point you in a direction should you want to get more serious about your training and participation.

Q2: Lots of qualities at a high level of relative max

This is a funny quadrant. It is the domain of team sport athletes and those who need strength, size, speed, power, agility, endurance – in other words, everything. It is a natural extension of Q1 and most people should pass through it but the reality is that very few should stay there. Everyone likes to think that they need a high level of everything but the truth is that, as you will see, the truth is that they don’t.

Q3: Few qualities at a low or moderate level of relative max

Dan points out that on first glance most people think that this is the loser’s quadrant – you don’t do much and you don’t do it very well. However, the key is to understand the term “relative max”. When you look at the rarified air the absolute best of all time you start to realize that you can be pretty freakin’ fit and still be at a “low level of relative max”.

For example, I can deadlift around 360 pounds at a bodyweight of 170-180. At first glance this seems pretty strong – most riders can not do a double bodyweight deadlift. However, when you consider the best deadlift of all time is 1000 pounds it looks pretty small. For most people there is a relatively narrow band of qualities that they should focus on and improve, however they will never approach true world class status and that is alright – using my deadlift example, while it is relatively low it is more than enough to let me ride as hard, fast and long as I want.

Q4: Few (or one) quality at the highest level of relative max

This is where God’s freaks hang out – those people who are able to take one thing to such a high level than the rest of us simply can’t fathom what it must be like. Running a sub 10 second 100 meters, pulling half a ton off the ground, riding a World Cup DH course at breakneck speed and riding in the Tour de France are some examples of the people who live in this quadrant. They need to do very few things but they need to do it at the highest levels in the world.

The downside to this is that things like “balance” and “symmetry” get thrown out in the laser like focus on the few things that will make or break their performance. The old saying “where good sport begins, good health ends” was speaking about this quadrant of performance. What you do to your body to achieve the levels of performance needed here takes a heavy toll and unless you really belong in this quadrant the lessons learned from athletes here can be limited.

In fact, this idea of the 4 Quadrants can really help you filter the advice that you get on how to improve in any aspect of physical performance. Once you understand what quadrant you are in and what qualities you are looking to improve you can both look for others who are the same and also understand why someone else’s approach may not be the best for you.

For example, if you are a new rider (Q1) then you need to stick to the Q1 approach of being exposed to a low level of a lot of things and avoid the temptation to jump into specialized bikes and equipment too soon. Understand that all the well meaning advice you are getting from more seasoned riders is coming from their view as a Q3 rider. They are in a different place in their journey and sometimes they forget that there is something in the journey through the quadrants that needs to be experienced.

If you are an average trail rider (Q3) who likes to go out on a fast paced 1-2 hour ride most of the time with the occasional 5+ hour epic and/ or casual race thrown in then don’t get enamored with the training plans used by pro riders (Q4) or Crossfit (Q2). While these people are certainly “fit”, they are in different quadrants and therefore need a different training approach.

You can learn lessons from the other quadrants or types of athletes within your quadrant but be careful about “cutting and pasting” a training plan from a rider or athlete with different needs. One of the hardest things for riders to grasp is that just because someone has built an impressive level of fitness for their needs does not mean their approach will automatically provide what they are looking for. Dan John’s 4 Quadrants are a great way to understand this subtle concept and help provide some clarity to your own training.

-James Wilson-

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. Burgess says:

    Hi James,
    I tried to ask a question earlier but my comment never seemed to show up. It’s not precisely related to this article but I’m just gonna throw it down here:
    At the end of long rides I typically have issues with neck (from my full face helmet) and lower back strength. Do you have any recommendations for how to work on this?
    Thanks,
    Burgess

    Reply • January 30 at 11:18 am
  2. Jose says:

    relative max of human performance?

    Reply • January 31 at 11:30 am
  3. Stephan says:

    Hi James,
    when I read Dan John’s original text about the 4 Quadrants I couldn’t quite figure out where to put the different types/ levels MTB riding.
    As always you made things clear in very easy way. Your way of putting things into perspective, that is TRUE GENIUS.
    Thanks a lot for your contribution to our beautiful sport. More than once you made my day.

    Reply • October 24 at 7:53 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad you liked my explanation, trying to bring the best training info to our sport is what I’m all about.

      Reply • October 24 at 8:43 am
  4. Gors says:

    Not to get into wordsmithing, but don’t you mean lots of quantities or few quantities? Few qualities would mean you are doing it poorly.

    Reply • October 25 at 7:56 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      As it is used the term Qualities refers to things like strength, power, flexibility and endurance.

      Reply • October 27 at 1:19 pm

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James Wilson
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James Wilson