When I was a kid in the 80s, exercise programming was often demarcated into two distinct categories: aerobic training and bodybuilding. 'Aerobics classes' were all the rage, and gyms were filled with people doing conventional bodybuilding routines like the kind you read in the old Weider magazines. Lots of sets and reps, isolation movements, and the ubiquitous quest for the 'pump'.
Through the aughts and teens of the 21st Century, that tide has changed significantly. Nowhere was this paradigm more evident than in the rise of the famous '300 Workout' — a brutal workout done by the trainers at Gym Jones to test the conditioning of the cast for the movie 300. These guys didn't do aerobics classes and pump their biceps for 20 sets; they were pushing sleds, flipping tires, doing pullups and deadlifts, and climbing ropes. They were training in a brutal, high-intensity fashion that challenged a broad domain of skills and fitness capabilities.
Crossfit's subsequent rise in popularity in the last decade has echoed this trend. The concept behind it is simple: "constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement". Now, I'd certainly debate the 'functionality' of Olympic lifts, muscle-ups, kipping pullups, and other such highly specialized movements. But the idea of developing fitness across a wide range of modalities — becoming a 'skilled generalist' — is the fundamental concept underlying GPP, a.k.a. general physical preparedness.
How GPP Programming is Unique
We generally think of athletes as being skilled specialists. Olympic weightlifters develop extraordinary explosive power and strength to maximize efficiency at two highly technical lifts. Sprinters develop lean muscularity, particularly in the lower body, to sustain maximal effort as long as possible while developing a maximally efficient stride. Tri-athletes develop incredible endurance. In each case, the development of maximal skill entails a trade-off in other domains of fitness: sprinters and Olympic lifters generally lack high-level endurance, and tri-athletes cannot sustain lean, fast-twitch muscle mass.
GPP scraps this specialization in favor of a "jack of all trades, master of none" mentality. Rich Froning, multiple-time winner of the Crossfit Games, is not strong enough at Olympic lifts to be competitive with specialized lifters. He's not good enough at gymnastics to compete with gymnasts, and he'd be smoked in a triathlon. Yet he is very strong, with ample lean muscle; and he still has a quick sprint, great dexterity, and above-average endurance. He's unlikely to win a bodybuilding contest, but he's able to move faster and more explosively for longer periods than most bodybuilders.
GPP programming offers several benefits over specialized training. Firstly, most people do not desire a highly specialized athletic skill set. Most people do not care about how much they can squat or bench press, or how much they can clean and jerk. Few people care about developing their fastest possible 400-meter sprint, excelling in a triathlon, or winning a bodybuilding contest. Instead, most people want to be leaner, stronger, faster, more muscular, more mobile, and more athletic. They want a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. GPP produces lean, strong, athletic physiques with performance to boot.
Secondly, GPP is excellent for any profession that has constantly varied physical demands. LAw enforcement, firefighters, and military personnel all stand to benefit from GPP much more than, say, doing 20 sets of chest exercises or training for a marathon.
And finally, GPP — while absolutely brutal — is incredibly fun. With specialized athletic programming, repetition takes precedence over variation. Specialized movements require highly developed motor skills and muscle recruitment patterns that can only be attained with years of consistent practice. It's no wonder that professional acrobats and Olympic athletes often start their training as children! GPP allows for constant variation of exercises, sets, repetitions, and workout structures. While some degree of repetition is essential to monitor progress and improve consistently, the sheer variety of workouts on hand ensure that monotony and boredom never set in.
Some Basic GPP Guidelines
When I program for GPP, each workout must have three components:
The strength component is defined by heavy, compound movements that train the five basic strength pathways of the human body: knee dominant, hip dominant, pushing, pulling, and rotational. Examples of each include:
- Knee dominant — squatting, stepping, jumping
- Hip dominant — Deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, kettlebell swings
- Pushing — supine and overhead pressing (and all the angle in between), dips
- Pulling — Pull-ups, rowing, pullovers
- Rotational — Wood chops, sledgehammer, cross-body medicine ball throws
The metabolic component can take a huge variety of forms. It can be integrated into the primary strength workout; for example, one of our favorite workouts here at Styrka is a superset of 225lb deadlifts and pull-ups in a descending ladder 10 to 1, done as quickly as possible with very strict form on both exercises (we don't advocate bouncing the deadlifts or doing 'kipping' pull-ups). It can be integrated as a separate exercise within a circuit, like doing a couple of strength-based exercises with jump ropes or sled pushes in between. Or it can be done entirely separately from the strength workout, such as doing 5 sets of 5 for one or two heavy compound movements and then doing interval training on an air bike or rower.
It's called metabolic conditioning because this type of high-intensity training can dramatically elevate your post-exercise oxygen consumption and allow you to burn additional calories for many hours following your workout. The brutal intensity of it keeps the workouts demanding on your body, but not on your schedule.
Often times, GPP is left simply at the strength and metabolic components. At Styrka we like to encourage a small amount of supplementary bodybuilding work to ensure complete muscular development. This can be virtually any type of convetional bodybuilding work, though not much volume is needed. Generally, a couple of sets of one or two exercises is enough. It could be dumbbell work for any major or minor muscle group from lats to calves, or even something as deceptively simple as grip training.
This criteria allows for a practically limitless amount of variation, and there are no 'rules' for workout programming. It's best to experiment. You may design workouts that are too easy or too difficult, but you won't know until you try. Once you've got it in the books, you can make adjustments for next time. And that can't be stressed enough: you must write down all your workouts. Constant variation has an element of randomness, but it can't be purely random. You must keep track of the consistency with which you're training all five strength domains, what metabolic and ancillary modalities you're employing, and how you're progressing. Keep those simple criteria in mind and you can become a better, more well-rounded athlete than you ever thought possible.