Friday, December 7, 2012

Understanding ‘General Preparation’

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

 Around this time last year on the EC site I posted my series on ‘basic limiters’ – looking at the 3 things that ultimately limit the level of specific performance the athlete can build to during specific preparation.
I’ve had a couple of emails as we're heading into a new year that have made me realize that the concept of general preparation remains nebulous so I want to see if I can elaborate a little on what it means to be truly ‘generally prepared’.

The picture above  is of a Crossfit athlete. While I’ve been critical of Crossfit in the past, I want to make it clear that I am critical of the widespread poor execution of Crossfit principles rather than the concept itself. Briefly, my 2 concerns with the execution of Crossfit are…

1. The Crossfit ‘workouts’ are typically too metabolically hard to accumulate sufficient work to make big gains in strength or endurance... While cranking your blood lactate up to 20 mmol may make you feel like you’re getting some real gains. Real gains in strength and endurance sports come from frequent (as in 2-a-day) consistent solid but not maximal workouts over many years. Complete 14 WOD’s a week for an extended period and I’ll eat my words.

2. Some exercises simply aren’t built to be done fast. Decelerating a barbell loaded with 200lbs beyond the limits of your range of motion is a recipe for disaster. Power moves should be reserved for power ‘tools’ that permit a controlled follow through – medicine balls, tornado balls, exercise bands, jumps etc.

Anyhow, so that’s my beef with Crossfit execution. If I ran a Crossfit style facility, I would reserve the WOD’s for tests and spend the bulk of time doing ‘intervals’ with appropriate rest periods to prepare for these WOD’s. I would also be careful in which exercises are done ‘at speed’ and make sure technique was there before testing.
The Crossfit concept however, i.e. to develop multi-modal & multi-energy system fitness is a sound one that leads to some generally ‘ready’ athletes. What are they ready for? They’re ready to make the most of specific preparation for their sport.

This is where things get a bit confusing. Anyone who has picked up an exercise physiology text will be familiar with the principle of specificity, i.e. that training that uses movements and energy systems specific to the sport will have the greatest positive carry over to sporting performance. If this is true, where does general preparation (training in a wide variety of movements and energy systems) fit in to the preparation of the serious athlete?
The primary purpose of general preparation is to build an ‘adaptation reserve’ or, put more simply to build a buffer against (&/or undo some of) the bad things caused by the narrow focus & imbalance of specific preparation. In the case of the Ironman athlete – the negative effects of living in perpetual catabolism, the negative effects of doing millions of repetitions of three movements over a limited range of motion and in a single plane & the negative effects that come with training at one speed for a long period of time. For a strength/power athlete these ‘bad things’ may be the erosion of the aerobic base and the neural fatigue of high intensity training. In both cases, the remedy is the same, i.e. a temporary return to balanced training.

General preparation greatly benefits ALL athletes in 3 specific ways…
1. Generally FIT athletes recover faster from all types of training.

ALL athletes at the high level require a lot of training. Even for the elite lifter, 1000+hr years of training are the elite norm. In order to recover quickly from sessions of any type and accommodate such loads, a good basic level of aerobic capacity is required.
2. Generally STRONG athletes have a better training response to all types of training.

Muscle is the most adaptable tissue within the human body and, generally speaking, athletes with more of it respond more quickly to any training stress. In other words, they get more performance bang for their training buck. This effect has been witnessed by any coach who’s been in the game for a while in the difference in training response between untrained and ‘athletic’ individuals. With a similar aerobic/anaerobic quality to the muscle, athletes with more of it have a better general training response. It is no coincidence that athletes from all sports from ‘skinny’ distance runners to ‘chubby’ hammer throwers are still predominantly mesomorphic (
3. Athletes with good general  levels of STABILITY & MOBILITY get injured less frequently than athletes with muscle imbalance.

Any type of high level specific training will, of necessity, be largely devoted to training in the specific competition mode. For Ironman athletes, this means countless repetitions in 3 sagittal plane activities over a limited range of motion. The risks of spending 1000 or so hours in a limited position(s) will be obvious to any supposedly fit triathlete who decides to help a friend move house or jump into an ultimate Frisbee game during the off-season (!)
A good general preparation program will be devoted to placing the 3 objectives above as primary and any sport specific training as secondary. In fact, the Eastern Bloc countries made it a point to consciously and deliberately develop general athletes before any thought was given to specialization.

To illustrate these points, let’s look at some typical physiological and morphological parameters of 4 different types of athlete of a similar frame size.

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 The above speaks to the relative benefits of general training to all athletes. ALL specialized athletes develop areas that are very strong while letting other areas become weak. These weak points can eventually limit specialized training if ignored.

For example, elite ironman athletes are VERY aerobically fit & VERY lean. In order to get very fit and very lean, some muscle mass will invariably be lost. To account for this and still maintain an appropriate amount of muscle for the (albeit modest) power demands of the event, it is important that the athlete begins specific Ironman training from a point of having a little muscular reserve. This means, for most of the more serious endurance athletes, keeping volume moderate, eating and lifting a little more than average during the off-season.
A good general preparation program will be devoted to placing the 3 objectives above as primary and any sport specific training as secondary. In fact, the Eastern Bloc countries made it a point to consciously and deliberately develop genera'all around' athletes before any thought was given to specialization.

In the over-specialized western world, General Preparation has come to mean dropping one of your VO2max workouts from your early season routine or spending 2x30min sessions per week in the gym. In the GDR, general preparation meant spending 4 years in a general sports school (!), training 12-17hrs a week in a multitude of sports ranging from mobility and agility sports like gymnastics to aerobic sports like swimming to strength sports like weightlifting, letting natural selection determine the sport to which you were best suited.

The first goal for the GDR athletes was simply to achieve the standards to be accepted to one of these schools and at least have the chance of a better life that came with being an athlete. Ekkart Arbeit has written extensively on the process of talent identification and development in the former GDR. Here are the standards that he recounts for admission to one of the State administered Sports Schools (remember this was a basic level of athleticism achieved at an age of ~13 by ALL future athletes from marathon runners to Olympic Lifters)…

·    1500m run: 4:40

·    30m sprint: 4s

·    3x Long Jump: 6m

·    165g Ball Throw: 54m

·    3 Jump Long Jump: 6m

·    3kg Shot: 9m

In other words, all eventual world beaters from skinny marathon runners to big powerful hammer throwers were once generally balanced, powerful, fit well rounded athletes.
While it may be a bit of a tough sell to convince you to forget your chosen sport & go back to general fitness training until you see what sport/event you are best suited for, I’m hoping I can at least convince you to spend a period of this year training as a general fitness athlete as an investment in training to improve your general training capacity and athleticism.

How do we know when someone qualifies as “ generally athletic”?
This is a question that has been the source of much bar chatter through the ages – “who’s the fittest?” In fact, it was this very question that spawned the first Ironman competition to settle the argument among swimmers, cyclists and marathon runners. No doubt, if there happened to be an Olympic lifter in the bar on that day, todays ‘Ironman’ might look entirely different!

While the GDR tests are certainly a step in the right direction, they do tend to favor the power athlete. In my opinion, a truly ‘fair’ assessment of fitness, should incorporate tests that lie somewhere in the middle of the aerobic/anaerobic spectrum, i.e. somewhere in that range where an endurance athlete’s and a power athlete’s fatigue curves intersect. In other words, we would want both a power athlete and an endurance athlete to have a ‘fair shot’ at doing well in the early season before a lot of specific training (designed to alter the fatigue curve) is commenced.
It would have to include upper and lower body activities over a full range of motion in multiple planes. It would have to include some activities with a relatively high force component and others with a relatively high speed component.

Something along the lines of the following ‘fitness decathlon’ might fit the bill….
* 1 minute Push Ups for reps
* 1 minute Bodyweight deadlifts for reps (Barbell loaded to bodyweight)
* 1 minute Pull Ups (chest to bar) for reps
* 1 minute treadmill run for distance
* 1 minute Clean and Press w/barbell loaded to 25% of bodyweight
* 1 minute 'Ice Skaters' 1m distance (take off foot behind landing)
* 1 minute rowing erg (best avg watts/kg)
* Lunge walk for reps with dumbells equal to 50% bodyweight
* Sit ups for reps w/a medball throw at 10% bodyweight
* Russian twist for reps with a med ball at 10% bodyweight.
The above test is something that I’ve been playing with a little over the past year with a range of different types of athlete. In collecting data, here are some suggestions for ranking the test.

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Add up scores for each column (0 points for any scores in the first column, 2 in the second, 4 in the the third etc) Rankings based on an athletic sample…

less than 40 = Poor">
40-50 = Fair

50-60 = Good

60-70 = Excellent
70+ = Superior

No doubt some of these standards will seem pedestrian. All I can say is, do the test. What’s ‘pedestrian’ in the context of a 10minute straight effort is very different to what the athlete can do fresh as a solo 1 minute best. Related to this, the relationship between these 2 things can be revealing in a talent identification sense, i.e. the difference between a stand alone 1 min push up test and the push up portion of the decathlon is indicative of the upper body power of the athlete. A difference of >60% may indicate a natural power athlete while a difference of less than 30% would tend to indicate an athlete with better muscular endurance capabilities and may suggest what event the athlete should devote their specific preparation towards.


Some important notes for those thinking of doing the above test:
#1 Exercise are on a 1:10 turnaround, i.e. you have 10s to move to the next station and start the next minute of activity. Place all stations as close as possible to allow for this. An assistant (e.g. to crank up the treadmill, hand you the row handle, WATCH FORM etc) is very helpful.

#2: It is essential that you have practiced good technique for each exercise & that you do each exercise over an appropriate ROM (for your flexibility) and at an appropriate speed. You don’t need to do any exercise at 100%. Take the time to use control, especially on the descent. You don’t need to go at 100% to be at the limit by the end J
A key objective of the training leading into these tests is to develop the appropriate range of motion to do these exercises properly and without compensation. The importance of this to both doing the test safely and reinstating functional mobility at the end of a long season of specific work cannot be understated.

Drop me a line and let me know how it goes!


So how much general preparation is enough?

 A better question might be, at what point of fitness is an athlete truly competitive in their event? Certainly, for masters athletes, the impetus for getting involved is often to get fit/get ‘back in shape’. While there are certain ‘fun’ benefits to getting ready for different events, I think sometimes middle of the pack athletes can lose sight of the bigger picture; becoming one sided, ditching strength work, ditching flexibility work, ditching basic speed work & becoming less generally fit to spend more time going long and slow. Invariably, this lack of balance comes back to haunt them, either in the form of not feeling like they got ‘what they deserved’ out of their training input or getting injured from the lack of training balance. I would suggest that athletes specializing in the more extreme events be especially careful of early specialization.

As a minimum standard, I would suggest that the athlete makes it a high priority to get a score of 60+ in the above test each season before really focusing on specific preparation for their event. I would recommend this standard for ALL youngish male athletes who wish to train competitively for an event – sprinters, endurance athletes, strength athletes, MMA fighters etc. For all of these athletes, in my opinion, the 60 number is a good indication that they’re ready to train competitively for an event to which they’re suited & thus head off their separate ways.

Again returning to our socialist comrades for a bit of real world athletic context on how much general preparation is ‘enough’, training towards a specific event only began in the 4th year of sports school & at a starting ratio of only 3 months of the year (adapted from Arbeit, 1997)….


Athletes who were deemed ready to begin specializing were training 750+hrs per year, were able to run at ~3min/k for 9mins, were able to swim 1:07’s for 4+mins and were able to throw an 8kg shot 15m! Needless to say, when they did specialize in the event to which they were best suited, they were bringing a good bit of general athleticism to the table!

What does a “General Preparation” week look like?
So you’re sold on the idea of developing athleticsm this winter. What’s the next step? Tractor pulls, depth jumps, overspeed training on an Alter-G? Sorry to disappoint but the bulk of your week should still be focused on improving your ‘work capacity’, largely via improving your aerobic base (remember, those GDR sports school students were training up to 17hrs per week!). If you’re doing a regular triathlon program, you’re already doing a lot right when it comes to being athletic! I would simply recommend seeing yourself as a general athlete during the winter and adding a few basic week tweaks along those lines…

If you were a young East German talented schoolboy athlete, you’d be doing something similar to the above for 45 weeks a year. No wonder their medal haul per capita was so large!

In terms of specific content, it doesn’t take much. Keep your heart rate primarily aerobic during each of these sessions but Include regular short exposures within the aerobic work such as a 30s power move followed by a couple of minutes jog recovery, mobility work at the end of your warm ups. Simple additions to your usual winter routine can have a very positive effect on what you’re able to get out of your specific preparation phase when the time is right.
Train smart this early season,




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