Don’t fall into the “GPP” trap, understand Specific vs General
You know what bugs me? When I look at the world of exercise, I feel like we got led down the wrong path; a path that was signposted ‘GPP’. For those unaware, or go to gyms unoccupied by Crossfitters, GPP stands for general physical preparedness. Essentially, it’s the concept that we can build a kind of ‘all-around’ fitness, to be prepared for anything and everything. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. In the second issue of the Crossfit Journal they wrote ‘Our Specialty is not Specialising’. They contended that through focusing on GPP, they could be ready for the unexpected. In fact, the next line of the article was “Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist”. I have some issues with this mindset.
Firstly, you must be clear what your goals are. There may be situations which punish the specialist, but sports are not among them. In all sports you know, at least in a general sense, what sort of situations you’re going to get into. An Olympic gymnast will never be required to run 5km at a competition. Neither will a 5km runner be required to do a muscle-up. Now, some sports may have broader possible outcomes. But even sports like MMA, where a fight can be over in the first minute after a furious pace, or can be a 15 minute grind; and could be entirely striking, or entirely grappling, still are largely ‘knowable’. There are a finite number of capabilities required. So if you’re preparing for a sport, be very clear in your own mind what, exactly, the requirements are. As an athlete, you don‘t want to spend your precious time on things that aren’t improving your performance at your chosen sport.
Look at these three athletes and ask yourself if their training should look similar.
Secondly, and this is really important, conditioning isn’t transferable. Rather, it is to a degree, but past a very novice level it has little impact. For an untrained person, getting a better 2K on the indoor rower will improve their 5km run time. Not as much as running 5km will, but there will still be an improvement. But past the novice-level (and even for some novices), there simply isn’t any real transfer. My wake-up call came when I was doing a lot of GPP (in the form of Crossfit), and making substantial gains in my times. I went back to grappling knowing that I slightly rusty but at least in great shape, and a surprising thing happened. I gassed out. Badly. It wasn’t just because of my technical skill, it was that I wasn’t conditioned for grappling. That’s an important distinction. I was very well conditioned for Crossfit circuits. My anaerobic capacity was great, I felt fantastic during my workouts, my Fran time was improved; but I got back on the mat after a few months break and I was exhausted. I didn’t get it. Something similar happened a few months later when I went back to Thai boxing. I had spent the previous few months getting my fight fitness back. I figured that maybe circuits weren’t similar enough to truly help my fighting, but now I was back in shape. And guess what happened when I put my gloves on and started sparring? I gassed out. Badly. Hmmm, this was becoming a problem. So it turns out that all of my hard work to get fight fit by grappling had merely gotten me conditioned to grappling. Note that I’m not talking about my skill-level, merely my ability to keep my hands up and not throw up in the middle of the ring. Now, at this point you might be sneering at my ignorance, and think to yourself “Of course you weren’t fit enough to keep up. What an idiot,” but that’s exactly my point. I wasn’t ready to get in the ring, but a lot of people have made a living out of telling you I should have been. I wasn’t fat and out of shape. I was in great shape. Just not for Thai boxing. Exactly the way I hadn’t been in shape to grapple until I put in the hours on the mat. This, incidentally, was what finally pushed me away from Crossfit; because conditioning isn’t transferable.
Thirdly, they fail to make a distinction between strength and conditioning. In fact they “strive to blur distinctions between ‘cardio’ and strength training”. This is a problem for several reasons, but in the context of this article the main problem is that strength is transferable, and conditioning isn’t. Now, obviously that’s a huge generalisation, but to a large degree it’s also true. Take a really strong guy, one who’s never wrestled before, and get on the mat with him. He’s hard to deal with. He’s strong. He might not be doing a deadlift, but try pulling his head down when he’s in your guard, and you’ll see how much time he’s put into his lifting. Until he gasses out. Which he will. My point here, is that people who are good at the main lifts are usually strong anywhere. This is why we don’t ask our marathon runner friends to help us move house – we ask the lifters.
And lastly, I’ve been in combat quite a few times, and it’s not as random as you might think. Yes, anything can happen, however what I might have to do, in terms of my physical capabilities, is a much narrower list. I’m probably going to have to move from place to place, but chances are I’ll be on my feet. I won’t row between cover, and I won’t cycle there. I’ll sprint, carrying all my gear. So this tells me that running is a motor pattern I need to be conditioned to, and that rowing on a C2 rower isn’t. Conditioning is specific. I might need to firemans carry an injured mate out of there, and a big squat and deadlift really helps here. Strength isn’t.
So in summary, most GPP proponents are contemptuous of specificity. But specificity works. Am I saying that cricketers should tie kettlebells to the end of their bats because it’s specific? Of course not, but our training should be targeted to our needs. If you play football, and so need to run, jump and sprint, don’t spend all your time doing thrusters, pull-ups and kettlebell snatches for your conditioning. Run, jump and sprint. The GPP crowd needs to learn the lesson that I ended up learning via my sweat and occasionally blood: strength is transferable, conditioning is not.
Tune in next week for an article asking where the value is in your gym.