In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes around the world have been scrambling to pull together home-workout solutions to maintain their capacities. During these tough times, unless the athlete has access to a fully kitted out home gym, the chances are the training effects have taken a decline.
So, what does this mean for most athletes when it comes time to return to the weight room?
If your athletes are anything like mine—hungry, aggressive, and chomping at the bit to run 100mph through everything once those gym doors re-open—you are in a similar state of thinking where do we direct their training now? A reality for both the practitioner and the athlete is that they are still likely a good chunk of time away from returning to full competition.
I work with athletes from various sports, but a significant proportion are MMA and combat athletes. Having no set date for the majority of future events makes for an uncertain return-to-play time period—and as mentioned, the majority of these athletes will want to bulldoze their approach to training as soon as the doors open. Consequently, we as practitioners should have an understanding on how we want to re-integrate their training schedule.
In this article, I’ll take a generalised approach to discussing GPP with practical implications drawn out.
GPP or Bust (a Synopsis of GPP)
GPP stands for General Physical Preparedness, a term that almost every strength coach interprets in their own way. Seeming to first emerge from the former Soviet Union, the concept was westernised primarily by Louie Simmons and his efforts to bring it to light. As the name suggests, in athlete development realms, the intent behind GPP is to generally prepare the body for further blocks of more intensive training.
In Tudor Bompa’s words, GPP is the “time to build a solid physiological foundation in order to enable the athlete to tolerate training loads seen later in the season.”
We are talking about foundational blocks that allow for better training effects in the latter stages of SPP (Sports-Specific Physical Preparedness, meaning in an athlete’s given sport), at which time the focus turns to direct training protocols for specific outcomes, closer to the spearhead of their season/peaking.
GPP is a time in periodisation that allows for the athlete to really hone in and work on weak links: if you know your athlete is lacking in certain capacities, a GPP block is a low-risk time to address them. Since these blocks are usually laced into a macrocycle as a preparatory/foundational phase of training, you are normally a decent chunk of time away from when the athlete needs to really bring their A-game. These blocks are also great for adding in as a return-to-play measure after rehab, time-off, or even a worldwide virus outbreak.
Pick Your Path
Every well designed, fully comprehensive, and inclusive strength and conditioning programme for athletes should carry elements of GPP laced appropriately throughout a macrocycle.
From a practitioner’s standpoint, traditionally a GPP block of training requires the least amount of energy investment in terms of planning and thought…because it’s pretty difficult to get wrong! Whether your athlete is a wrestler, a swimmer, a linebacker, or a pitcher, a GPP block of training could still look pretty identical even given the different nature of each sport.
As this block is general by design, the exercises and protocols selected should look at improving the athlete’s basic motor qualities, such as improving their ability to perform an ample range of activities surrounding strength, speed, power, and endurance.As this block is general by design, the exercises and protocols selected should look at improving the athlete’s basic motor qualities: strength, speed, power, and endurance. Click To Tweet
As the focus on the specifics of the sporting demands (SPP) only comes later, a general training block allows the practitioner to stand back and look at the athlete’s overall capacities and look at general, structural, positive adaptations that would later benefit the athlete in future training cycles. Beyond that, this block should make them more robust and resilient across a broader spectrum. If 20-30% of your weight room training throughout the year is dedicated to GPP, you as a practitioner are providing the athlete the foundation for the qualities of movement which are going to yield them greater training effects.
So What Does GPP Traditionally Look Like?
A quick Google search on this and you’ll find beefy powerlifters dragging sleds around a parking lot, or possibly someone taking their dog for a walk, loaded up with a Zercher harness (okay, I’m thankfully kidding on that second one). Generally speaking, though, the term GPP originates from strength sports. When taking those concepts and modifying them to suit athletic populations, it’s important to keep the core elements whilst keeping the intent high.
Strength coaches around the world have begun to see growth in the popularity of strength circuits. Strength circuits are now widely being used in the search for improving cardiac output, as a result of elevating:
- Heart rate (how fast the heart is beating)
- Stroke volume (the amount of blood being pumped with each beat)
Improving cardiac output is critical for the development of energy systems, and strength circuits will be detailed and shown below.
What do we mean by fundamentals and foundations? Fundamental, from a strength standpoint, would take the form in an in-depth understanding and implementation of solid movement patterns, consistently. Those being: hinge, squat, pull, press, carry (and arguably lunge). A block dedicated to a central emphasis on these fundamental movement patterns will likely yield larger, more global adaptations for the athlete.
The Beauty of Programming
As discussed previously, given that this block of training is generally more open to interpretation, there is a beautifully artistic element to it—allowing the practitioner to further develop their athlete’s fundamental capacities whilst having a bit more creative freedom in their programming. Once again, this is due to the naturally intertwined low-risk element of this block, allowing a broader scope of practice. In short: identify their “weak links,” facilitate general adaptations with a gentle bias towards these, and have fun with it.
Those last four words lead to a supplemental topic: Buy-in.
If your athletes are driven and competitive (which one would presume, they are athletes!) there can sometimes be an element of concern in GPP blocks relating to monotony. Usually, this is because the design of the blocks themselves and where they are positioned within a bigger picture are purposefully less intensive than training blocks later in the programme. Athletes who are chomping at the bit 24 hours a day and 7 days a week don’t always like to ease back into training—they want to hit it hard, right away. To a certain degree, your role as a practitioner and communicator is to articulate the importance of such training blocks as part of a bigger picture (and how to do so is a entire topic in itself).Athletes who are chomping at the bit 24 hours a day and 7 days a week don’t always like to ease back into training—they want to hit it hard, right away. Click To Tweet
“Return To Play”
This is an ambiguous term for both returning to play (competition) and returning to the weight room (post COIVD-19, injury, or any other significant break). Athletes face an inherent risk when returning back to a normal weight room routine. The urge to just jump back in where they last left off is all too real for some athletes (and, sadly, some practitioners).
Lets look at this through another lens: assume your athlete had minor surgery (call it unrelated to their sport for our purpose here), and then has to spend two months away from training. The natural path of progression that you would take is to ease back into a specific programme, beginning generally. So with that in mind, now that we have all been locked away from our beloved gyms for a significant amount of time, an approach back into training should be treated accordingly. Would you really want your athletes devouring extensive plyometrics if they were not properly acclimated or meeting the prerequisite movement standards? I’m hoping not.Athletes face an inherent risk when returning back to a *normal* weight room routine. The urge to just jump back in where they last left off is all too real. Click To Tweet
Let’s say that here in the UK we are given a three week warning of COVID-19 lockdown release. Hypothetically, we will have a rough idea on when in the near future lives can return to some of their normal routines, with gyms re-opened and training allowed to resume. If that were the case, intelligent coaches with a creative eye for programme design (which has been tested through this period!) could have the foresight to expedite the return-to-play model by implementing home-based GPP blocks.
Given that these blocks are non-specific and nonlinear by nature, a benefit of this hypothetical situation is that all it takes is some ingenuity to prepare the athlete with a means of kick-starting their return, even with minimal-to-no equipment. Examples of gym-based workouts are outlined below, so in order to adapt protocols to suit home set-ups, look at the movement patterns involved, figure a way of implementing these at home, and you’re on the money.
What History Can Teach Us
Not many of us can remember a time in which the world was going through anything like this, which is why there is so much head-scratching and uncertainty. But there are events we can retrospectively learn from, such as the 2011 NFL Lockout. A much-debated topic at the time, the 2011 lockout was, in short, a large wrangle about money. Players ready to play, but with nothing to play whilst this went on; and the uncertainty of the season lead to stop-gap styles of training whilst this mess was carried out (such as we see right now). Sure enough, once all was said and done, normality resumed—but with one caveat: injuries skyrocketed.
There has been much discussion surrounding the injury rates post-lockout, but in terms of empirical takeaways, we must draw upon likely causative factors and draw from this what we can. Players becoming injured at an astonishing rate, largely pointing to one general factor: lack of preparedness.
If we extrapolate this to the wider athletic and sporting community, it’s written in the stars for us to not let history repeat itself. NFL players in the lockout weren’t able to train at team facilities, and it’s been anecdotally noted that many athletes stuck to home-based workouts (or didn’t train at all)—sound familiar? The model at the time was to just carry on where they left off, and after speaking with many top coaches, a general consensus is that this model was the root cause for the spike in injury rates. It would be foolish, dangerous, and an absolute lack of duty-of-care if we approached our athletic populations with this mindset. From this, let us acknowledge what was wrong, and ensure we mitigate the risk as best we can.
Aerobic GPP Conditioning & Lactate Retention GPP
In the examples below, you will see detailed examples of a day’s training from Phase 1 and Phase 2. The first being aerobic GPP strength circuits, and the second being lactate retention. Both of these concepts take form in a sufficient GPP block, layering one on top of the other (and are primarily inspired by the works of Cal Dietz and Matt Van Dyke).
The main purpose of this block of training is to increase the athlete’s functional reserve range. This is in essence the difference between their resting heart rate and their lactate threshold. The concept is to facilitate these adaptations by means of cellular adaptations, with muscle cells having the ability to build more mitochondria and thus improving the vascular system accordingly.
This training effect is imperative, as all energy systems rely on the aerobic energy systems. This block plays a fundamental role in energy system development and prepares the athlete for more intense blocks of training to come. Layered upon this, we have lactate retention GPP, which after attaining the desired outcomes of the first phase, aims to build lactate-specific qualities. Per Van Dyke, lactate—despite common impressions—is a positive for athletes and improving lactate tolerance (kinetics) should yield the effects of delaying fatigue and increasing repeated bout ability.
Throughout both phases, I also place an emphasis on nasal breathing. Nasal breathing may look weird in the gym—and prepare for funny looks if you use this method!—but it is proving to be potent.
We can manipulate our nervous system response so that we shift into parasympathetic dominance, which is imperative for efficient oxygen uptake and deeper breathing. Mouth-taping isn’t always necessary, but works effectively—if you can bear it, it’s worth it. Specific to athletic populations in combat sports, this method is particularly useful for those wearing a mouthpiece (and for more in-depth information on nasal breathing, I suggest reading more of Van Dyke’s work or The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown).
I program a strength circuit in the first phase of this intended GPP block, which serves the aforementioned purpose of improving vascular capacities. Seemingly ever-popular, the use of compound movements (fundamental movement patterns) with a loading of between 60-70% for a continuous circuit of 1 rep of each movement. For example, on a 4 minute continuous timer, perform one perfect rep of each movement back-to-back for the duration of the desired timeframe. The two variables you can manipulate and progress are:
- Load (within the guided ranges)
- Time (between 3-10 minutes per block)
Video 1. A short time-lapse of a 7 minute block, nasal only breathing strength circuit in a GPP phase. The BJJ athlete performs 1 rep of an RDL, (attached to a jammer attachment here) and a neutral grip chin up. 1 rep of each, continuously.
You can perform two more of these strength circuits in a given session, following different movement patterns, such as hand-supported, SSB split squat (L&R) and bench press with roughly 5 minutes between each bout. After this, long duration isometrics, such as floating heel split squat extreme iso for 4 x 25s, or a long duration suitcase hold (4 minutes per side)
Easter Egg: To better utilise your limited time in the weight room with your athletes (whilst maintaining nasal breathing) use the 5 minute recovery window for 2 things:
- Have the athlete attentively focus on reducing their breathing rate (via large, filling breaths) nasal only,
- Perform exercise fillers, such as joint mobility work, soft tissue work, auxiliary rehab work, neck or wrist training (for the combat and collision athlete), etc. Use whatever is specific to your athletes to fill in the gaps and strengthen those weak links.
Video 2. Lactate retention: bodyweight squat and hold.
Alternatives to the bodyweight protocol in the video might be a single-modality form of work capacity, such as assault bike, sled walks, rowing, or compound movements loaded around 35-45% and holding the movement at the contractile end range of motion (such as a squat hold at the bottom or a chin up at the top).
The protocol is as follows. 4 sets of a 30s bout, with quality movement of a squat (be it a Zercher, back, front, or bodyweight, so long as it stays within guided ranges). Then, holding the bottom of that position, bodyweight alone, for 30s—in essence trapping lactate and preventing its distribution.
These protocols should be programmed into a day’s session along with strength circuits similar to those above, with variance in loading and reps, changing them but keeping the movement patterns to 10 reps of each movement at 35-40%
2-3 weeks focused around developing via the means of Phase 1 and 2-3 weeks of Phase 2 would generally be suitable for a return-to-play GPP block.
General Physical Preparedness should serve as a base of fundamental movement capacities executed to facilitate fundamental adaptations. A lengthy period away from the weight room, for any reason, should be met with due care and attention when it comes to returning our athletes to a properly structured, well-designed strength and conditioning programme.A lengthy period away from the weight room, for any reason, should be met with due care and attention when it comes to returning our athletes to a properly structured strength and conditioning programme. Click To Tweet
For all intents and purposes, methodically layered GPP protocols such as those discussed in this text lay the foundation for greater training effects being rewarded in future training blocks, regardless of the athlete and their sport. If we are provided with warnings of post-COVID-19 lockdown releases, we can better prepare ourselves for the return itself. Contact me any time if you wish to discuss more about returning to the gym, training parameters, anything strength training related, or return-to-play remote coaching.
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