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  • Writer's pictureChris Cooper

Hierarchy of Success

Whether your goal is to lose fat, build muscle, or gain strength, there is a pyramid or hierarchy to the things you need to do in order to successfully reach your goal.

Exercise gets a lot of attention for the success we see in the gym, and yes it does play an important role. However it is not the most important part, and you could argue it’s not even in the top 2-3.

When we struggle to see results, our go to is to pack on more exercise, more intensity, because if one hour a day is good, then 3 hours a day must be better, and will get you to your goals quicker.

Over the course of 15 years working with clients, priorities were often put on cardio, strength, and sometimes nutrition. What was often overlooked were the roles sleep and stress management played in whether goals were met or not.

The hierarchy for success that seems to be the most beneficial is:

  1. Nutrition

  2. Sleep

  3. Stress Management

  4. Strength

  5. Cardio

This is pretty spot-on when it comes to prioritizing what you'd need to see success, no matter what the goal is. Each one plays off the next level in the pyramid. For example, when our sleep is honed in, it makes our training better, and we also tend to eat better.


Food is neither good nor bad. The choices we make either align with our goals or they don’t. The more choices we make that align with our goals, the better. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorites (for me it’s ice cream, PB&J, and beer).

You’re not going to be able to out train a diet that’s made with less than optimal choices, nor can you exercise away your choices. Extra exercise won’t make up for what you perceive as past mistakes.

There are so many ways to dig into nutrition, the key is finding the one that works for you.

Nutrition doesn't have to be perfect 100% of the time, because 1) that's boring as hell, 2) you'll just end up frustrated and 3) you'll never enjoy life. Whatever nutritional strategy you take, it should match up with what you need to get out of your training whether that's fat loss, improved strength, or increasing muscle.

When you do this, you also enhance your recovery, as the food you eat is able to help repair your muscles and give you energy throughout the day. Where we tend to go wrong is cutting too much out, or demonizing certain foods.

Think of everything you eat on a scale of 1-10, 1 being garbage that takes you further from your goals and 10 being perfection or bringing you closer to your goals. The more you can stay above 5 or 6, the more success you'll have.

Solution: Keep it simple with lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, carbs (yes carbs are necessary) and healthy fats. And water.


Progress comes with rest, and rest means sleep. Sleep is when our body has a chance to repair all the ‘wear and tear’ we experience throughout the day.

Whether that's repairing muscle tissue after an intense training day, letting soft tissue heal, or letting the nervous system recharge, sleep is our next priority.

Sleep is going to be a cornerstone on which our next layers will be built as without a solid 6-8 hours:

  • Recovery doesn't occur, which means poor training sessions

  • Decreases in satiety hormones, TSH, and testosterone

  • Increases in hunger hormones (hence why we crave carbs when we don’t sleep)

If the choice is between needing to sleep more or get in a training session, you'd be better served to sleep.

Solution: Prioritize sleep, set a sleep schedule and create a night time routine.

Stress Management

Stress is a normal part of our day. Without it, we wouldn’t adapt and change. Everything we do has a degree of stress, work, school, even exercise, but when it lingers over the long haul, it can become problematic.

This is where how we manage the most stressful parts of our day becomes so important.

How can we wind down, decrease the stress we go through, and come out the other side

Does this sound like your typical day?

  • Wake up to screaming kids, trying to get them ready for school?

  • Rush around to get ready for work and go, with a deadline looming

  • Leave work to go to the gym to do a super intense workout

  • Come home, and end up staying up late because it’s your only “free time”

That stress cycle just piles on top of itself and you get stuck in a loop

Stress, on top of stress, on top of more stress and the cycle continues. This can lead to many different coping mechanisms, that may not be the best for us.

Solution: Find ways to unwind during the day or at the end of the day. Meditation, breathing exercises, or just going for a walk can bring down stress levels.

Strength Training

Strength Training makes other things better. We build muscle, we move better, we experience less aches and pains (outside of DOMS), and improve things like bone density.

Why is it this far down the list? Well, if the top 3 aren't flowing smoothly, then your strength training is going to suffer.

Not enough sleep and you’ll be tired for training.

Not managing stress and you likely won’t have enough mental resources to put towards training. Plus you’ll just compound stress levels.

Solution: Prioritize multi joint movements, using loads that are challenging. Rep ranges from 3 up to 15+, but no matter what, it should challenge you.

We rely on our fundamental movements of squats, hinges, pushing (pushups), pulls (rows), single leg exercises and sprinkle in core exercises (pallof press, side plank,etc).


The first thing we go to when we want to get in shape is some form of cardio. That if we just run or walk or ___, it’ll get us there.

Low level cardio, like walking, is a good tool for recovery between workouts. It’s also beneficial for our cardiorespiratory health.

However, when we rely on it solely for the calorie burn, that’s where we run into issues. Do cardio because you love to do it. Not because you feel you “have” to do it.

On the flip side, if your goals are cardio in nature, like running a marathon or anther endurance kind of event, this is gonna be an area of focus as well.

So that's it. Your hierarchy to fitness success.

  • Eat to perform

  • Get some sleep

  • Manage your stress

  • Train smarter

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