Say No to GPP

Leave this where it is. Unless you absolutely have to.

Leave this where it is. Unless you absolutely have to.

GPP: One of the most popular buzzwords in the strength training community that’s gaining some traction among endurance athletes.  GPP stands for General Physical Preparedness, though what this actually means truly depends on who you ask.GPP, going back to the days of eastern block periodization (Eastern bloc “block periodization”, to be precise), referred to true off season “training”, except there was nothing really training-related about it.  A track athlete in the off-season would be encouraged to AVOID track workouts for a month or two, and instead engage in a completely different sort of sport, whether it be tennis, basketball, recreational weightlifting, bocci (ok, perhaps not bocci, but you get the idea), and so forth, the objective being to clear the individual’s head and both mentally and physically allow him or her to completely recover from the stresses of heavy training and competition.  GPP was generally seen as a good alternative to being completely sedentary- the body is still moving, demands are being placed on it, so the athlete then enters preseason training relaxed and SOMEWHAT detrained, though he or she may indeed have built some new muscle or addressed some imbalances through a novel and relatively low-key off-season plan.

This contrasts with SPP, or Specialized Physical Preparation.  This refers to training designed to improve sport specific skills…  most of us simply call this “training”.  Though SPP may include movements or exercises that differ from what may be observed in competition, SPP is nevertheless easily linked to direct improvement in skills and performance measures that are used when competing.  There is often confusion when individuals will refer to training of “accessory” (or not immediately obvious) measures of fitness as GPP- for example there are some well-known Powerlifting coaches who refer to mobility training as GPP. This is incorrect. Mobility is NOT optional for a Powerlifter- training to improve one’s flexibility has a direct impact on performance, as a lack of flexibility can alter optimal movement patterns, limit training volume, and indeed directly hinder performance during competition.  Therefore, mobility work is SPP, NOT GPP.

What MOST people think of now when it comes to GPP is what we might call non-specific in-season training, and it’s typically included in sentences along with the phrases “increased work capacity”, “general conditioning”, and the like.  If you ever see a Powerlifter pushing a sled or flipping tires, a runner doing burpees, or a triathlete doing power snatch ladders, typically they will explain that they are engaging in GPP.  There are several critical problems with this sort of activity, however, and “GPP” in this regard is borderline useless at best, and extremely detrimental to the athlete’s goals at worst. Those who have followed the author’s approach know that improving all aspects of performance simultaneously has long been the ideal goal, and therefore may think that this sort of cross training would be applauded, but will also have learned careful programming and specificity are the preferred ways to achieve this.  It is here that GPP in its westernized (some might say bastardized) form breaks down.

Specific versus general work capacity

“Work capacity” is a highly contextual term.  Generally speaking, “work capacity” for an athlete could be defined as “The athlete’s ability to perform sports-specific activity at a high level for an extended duration of time, whether in training or competition”.

For a soccer player, increased work capacity is chiefly aerobic (with a lower body agility component), and an improvement in work capacity would mean that a given player could train for longer while maintaining the mental and physical focus needed to ensure that these extended training sessions are still resulting in quality improvements to both energy systems and coordination.

For a Powerlifter, work capacity is highly specific- there are three major lifts that a Powerlifter will need to perform three times each during a meet (with a total competition period of exertion in the region of 20-30 seconds over a 3-4 hour meet), so one could think that work capacity is almost irrelevant- yet to maximize training benefit the ability to repeatedly handle near maximal weights with good form and recover adequately between work sets may be highly desirable.

For a fighter, work capacity encompasses many, many systems, and can refer to maintaining mental focus and intensity over an extended bout, improving general aerobic conditioning to help recover between rounds in competition (or to extend the duration of training), improving local muscular endurance in the core, arms, and legs to improve endurance while grappling, and so forth.  Do note that work capacity for a fighter encompasses far more athletic vectors than for a Powerlifter- this will be important later on.

EVERY athlete or aspiring athlete needs to understand the demands of their sport, and needs to understand specifically WHAT “work capacity” means to them before they seek to improve it.   This is their specific work capacity- their ability to perform sports-related work.

So what is GENERAL work capacity?  This term is ambiguous at best, and doesn’t truly apply to any athlete (with the possible exception of CrossFit athletes, for whom competition can often be TRULY random, and run the complete spectrum of challenges from endurance events to explosive power movements, and nearly every combination thereof).  General work capacity would be more defined as “The individual’s ability to tolerate and physically respond to multiple varying unforeseen stressors before fatigue impairs performance.”  The downside to this?  A Powerlifter with better general work capacity may be better able to run a mile than one with inferior general work capacity (going by this definition), but that in no way means he or she is a better Powerlifter.  For him or her, being able to bench heavy weight multiple times without fatigue is far more important than being able to flip a tire, or being able to sprint 100 meters, even though improved performance at the latter would indicate a superior general work capacity.

Why does this matter?  General work capacity certainly isn’t BAD- there’s no harm in improving overall conditioning in the athlete, is there?  …Yes, there certainly is.  Because athletes are human, and recovery is NOT unlimited.

We all have our limitations

You are not Dean Karnazes. Neither am I.

You are not Dean Karnazes. Neither am I.

Dean Karnazes, the famous runner, is nearly unique in his physiology- his muscle tissue is extremely resistant to breakdown, and he’s capable of exerting his system for hours and hours a day, day after day, week after week, with no measurable breakdown in skeletal muscle or real systemic fatigue.  Sadly, we are not all Mr. Karnazes- the rest of us mere mortals must be content to know that our muscles can and DO break down from training, we deplete energy stores, and require a period of time to actually positively adapt to any training stimulus.  Proper programming and diet can help optimize our limited recovery, and it’s certainly quite remarkable how quickly the body can adapt to multiple stimuli while being repeatedly pushed near the breaking point.This does not mean that athletes have the luxury of wasted effort.  EVERY activity that demands the body’s resources that cannot be directly linked to improved sport performance is technically wasted energy.  Please note that this is a useful item for ALL athletes and aspiring athletes to remember when peaking for a competition if a friend, neighbor, or spouse is looking for help rearranging furniture.  It may not endear you to them, but one’s sport must come first!

Note the athlete in the center of the picture, wisely avoiding unnecessary exertion.

Note the athlete in the center of the picture, wisely avoiding unnecessary exertion.

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point stands- an athlete should minimize, whenever possible, activity that does not benefit his or her chosen sport (within reason).   Overtaxing recovery systems in unrelated activities will negatively impact specific training, and one should never trade general training for specific training if performance is the goal. Certainly this does not mean live a sedentary life outside of sport, but it DOES mean that the athlete should not PROGRAM in non-beneficial activity.  It also does not mean that cross training is not beneficial- certainly a runner can benefit from high load weight lifting (for improving bone density, addressing muscle imbalances, and otherwise increasing their overall durability).  But this cross training should be highly specific in addressing the particular needs not met by sport training, and limited to no more than what is absolutely required.To go back to our original examples and analyze the activity being done, should a powerlifter randomly incorporate high repetition, off angle incline bench presses and deadlifts performed unevenly while fatigued with short rest intervals (i.e. tire flipping)?  Probably not, this is not optimal.  Is a burpee improving a runner’s aerobic work capacity, or taxing his or her legs enough to build significant muscle?  Probably not.  Should ANYBODY do a snatch ladder (perform a highly complex explosive movements for high repetitions to near failure while fatigued) unless it’s part of their competition?  Absolutely not.

Generally speaking, if a form of training cannot be easily linked to improved performance in some measure critical to your sport, or does not directly improve the overall health of the athlete, DO NOT DO IT.  Period.  Full stop.

Back to tire flipping

Tire flipping, for a Strongman competitor, is tremendously applicable to the sport.  There are numerous events that involve exactly this sort of movement (including, yes, the tire flip), so this is not GPP or even SPP- this is training a competition movement.

For a CrossFit competitor, hell, there might be a tire flip at the next Games, so why the heck not?

For a fighter, repeated engagement of the hips and posterior chain in this fashion may indeed be useful for competition- shooting then taking down an opponent engages precisely these sorts of muscles, and improving the athlete’s ability to perform this movement repeatedly can certainly improve one’s chances in a match, so tire flipping is actually a fairly good accessory exercise, and certainly incorporates the “imbalanced load” concept, which an opponent certainly would be.

For a Powerlifter, this movement is useless.  If it is to be aerobically taxing, the loads used would be insufficient for any strength increases in the posterior chain or chest/triceps.  If it is not aerobically taxing, then it is simply introducing a complex high load movement that is NOT being tested in competition, and is inferior to, say, the deadlift, stiff legged deadlift, rack pull, or incline bench at improving the athlete’s ability to squat, bench press, or deadlift.
If the Powerlifter is looking for an improvement in aerobic capacity, he or she should engage in aerobic activity that OVERLAPS THE LEAST with the muscles and energy systems they require in sport specific training and competition.  In other words, a slow jog or extended elliptical workout will not heavily recruit type II fibers, overstress tendons and ligaments, and otherwise hinder the body’s attempts to recover and adapt to heavy lifting.

For a runner, the movement is equally useless.  Clearly it will not be aerobically taxing.  If he or she wishes to improve local muscular endurance or power in the legs for running purposes, uphill sprinting is far more specific.  If he or she wishes to improve bone density, back strength, or improve weak hamstrings, he or she is FAR better served engaging in a carefully designed weight training program incorporating a deadlift variation or two- there is less chance for injury, a much shorter learning curve, and quite frankly he or she will be less physically devastated after a few sets of deadlifts than after moving a tractor tire back and forth across a parking lot.

So what should I do for General Physical Preparedness (Western definition)?

Simple- do precisely the opposite of what your sport requires, nothing more nothing less.  An athlete should not spend time working overlapping systems without good reason- high performance requires specificity, and an in-season athlete should prioritize training as follows:

1)      Training in the competition movements- this is anything from sparring (for a fighter), benching/squatting/deadlifting for a Powerlifter, swimming/biking/running for a triathlete, ball drills for a football player, etc.

2)      Accessory training in the competition movements- training that specifically and directly improves performance in competition movements or may benefit some portion of competition.  Heavy bag training for a boxer, box plyometrics for a basketball player, close grip benching for a Powerlifter, speed work for a distance runner, etc.

3)      SPP- Speed work, mobility work, and generally any other training that may not directly resemble the chosen sport, but has a direct and measurable benefit to sports performance.  Box jumps for an Olympic weightlifter, stiff legged deadlifts for a cyclist, band assisted shoulder stretches for a bench press specialist, lunge hops for a runner, etc.

4)      “Contrast” training- training the exact opposite of what your sport requires at a low intensity to improve overall athleticism and increase athlete durability (also called “general health”).  This could include low intensity cardiovascular activity for a Powerlifter, high load strength training for a marathon runner, or sitting on the couch for a CrossFitter (Seriously guys, learn to relax every now and then.  Have a beer.)

5)      TRUE GPP- activity that has NOTHING to do with the chosen sport, but is so non-specific that it will not appreciably tax recovery.  This could include Powerlifters playing badminton (amusing for all who may watch, certainly), wrestlers playing basketball, etc. etc.

When in doubt, think about the SAID principle- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.  The body will become what you’re asking it to become, provided you allow it enough time to recover.  If considering incorporating a new movement into a routine, ask this question:  “What is this doing for me, and is this the most specific way to improve what I am seeking to improve?”

Remember, even GPP of the old definition is for the off season.  Train for your sport, consider SPP, and ignore anything “general”.  If a given activity has to be justified, rather than being obviously beneficial, it is probably a waste of time.

 

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2 Comments

  1. jd on December 4, 2019 at 10:04 am

    Tyre flipping: “For a Powerlifter, this movement is useless”

    Apart from developing a strong lower back, glutes and hams for squatting and deadlifting ? It has a huge carryover.

    This article is absolute nonsense, emperical data exits to show the benefits of GPP.



  2. Alex Viada on January 20, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    “Carryover” is a hilariously overused term. Carryover in what way? Specific recruitment patterns at near maximal effort to increase 1RM, which is HIGHLY sport/movement specific? Hypertrophy? Certainly better movements. Conditioning? Better movements that don’t fatigue the very same muscles you’ll need for sport practice in movements that have little specific patterning in common. Empirical data that supports the benefit of GPP? Sure- there are some benefits for overall work capacity and general cardiovascular conditioning. But a) there are better options, b) nothing shows that GPP > sport practice + intelligently selected accessory conditioning.

    Bring better arguments than “It makes your lower back stronger” if you want to call an article absolute nonsense.



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