The growth of Crossfit, Bootcamps and other GPP (general physical preparedness) programs have truly erupted onto the scene over the past 5 years. Crossfit, or the sport of fitness, serves as a great example. It started as a simple website back in 2001 with no affiliates, and now can be seen on ESPN and has thousands upon thousands of affiliates scattered across the world. This fast paced growth merits a deeper look at what fitness truly is, whether or not you need it, and if you should want more.
What Makes Up Fitness
For starters, let's take a look at several of my favorite attempts to define fitness (these are the first definitions listed by the way):
oxforddictionaries.com: "the condition of being physically fit and healthy"
www.merriam-webster.com: "the quality or state of being fit"
Hopefully you find those as comedic as I do, and want a better answer.
When attempting to define fitness, you must first determine the separate pieces that form the whole. An easy way to think of this is to consider what grouping of general physical skills added together most adequately forms fitness. Mel Siff goes into great depth on this subject in Supertraining, but to keep things simple we'll turn to the Crossfit Training Guide because it's user friendly and provides a well rounded list. There are more technical lists out there, but this will get the job done.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I'm neither endorsing nor telling you to do Crossfit. That's a topic for another day.
But on page 19 of their training guide they list the following as the 10 general physical skills that make up fitness:
- 1. Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance
- 2. Stamina
- 3. Strength
- 4. Flexibility
- 5. Power
- 6. Speed
- 7. Coordination
- 8. Agility
- 9. Balance
- 10. Accuracy
If we think long and hard we may be able to come up with one or two items to add to the list, but top to bottom it's pretty solid. We can say with a fair amount of confidence that an individual displaying adequate ability in each of these categories is physically fit.
A Definition And Why It's Important
Knowing the components, let's consider an adequate definition. I'm personally a huge fan of Tadeusz Starzynski's and Henryk Sozanski's definition of physical fitness in Explosive Power and Jumping Ability For All Sports: "Physical fitness is movement potential that determines an athlete's readiness for solving tasks (1)." This makes perfect sense and immediately answers the question of whether or not you should care about fitness or GPP.
If we slightly re-word the definition it may become clearer: your overall fitness level determines how suited you are at solving different athletic tasks.
Think of fitness as a toolbox. The greater your fitness level, or the better you are at the 10 general physical skills from above, the more tools you have in your toolbox. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more prepared you are to solve various tasks.
Likewise, if you focus on only one of the above general physical skills, say cardiovascular endurance, then you turn into a one trick pony with limited ability to perform any other task. BUT...that's not necessarily bad depending on your goals. If you want to be an elite distance runner, you HAVE TO SPECIALIZE, or else you'll never be able to compete at the highest level.
And the same goes for powerlifters, olympic lifters, and every other sport on the face of the earth--in order to be truly great at something, some form of specialization must occur.
We're going to talk more about that in a minute though, so let's come back to why fitness (what I prefer to call GPP) is important in the first place: it builds a foundation for continued success.
The Pyramid Approach
Think of your training life as the above pyramid. Fitness or GPP goes on the bottom and must be broad, or else the pyramid will be built upon a faulty structure.
It's your chance to build a movement foundation by playing and performing a large variety of tasks, so that you're brain has a chance to learn.
This is opening up an entirely different can of worms, but it's a travesty the number of kids now who start playing one sport and one sport only from the time their 8 years old.
Where's the variability? Where's there chance for them to learn how to move? It's no wonder injury rates are through the rough in youth sports these days because kids are skipping the foundational stage and going straight for high level performance.
Sorry, but you're 8 year old kid will get way more out of participating in multiple sports, and engaging in unstructured play.
The base of the pyramid is also where you build up work capacity. Think of it this way: you want to have a large gas tank that can refill itself rapidly so you can train hard, recover, and push the envelope more often.
To review: your overall fitness level dictates your propensity for long term success and performance. The people who skip this step entirely usually see some moderate gains in performance on the front end, but typically get injured or fail to see continued progress because they have a faulty pyramid.
You Want More
Over time, however, it's natural to specialize in certain tasks over others. People will naturally gravitate towards tasks they perform well or enjoy doing. It's at this point in time people begin to move up the pyramid. They take whatever the end goal is and put it at the top.
The rest of the pyramid will be filled with whatever specialized tasks are important and necessary to move up the levels of the pyramid.
For example, say somebody wants to be a competitive olympic weightlifter. The clean and jerk, and snatch will fill the top spot because that's the final goal, and the other levels of the pyramid will be filled with more specialized traits like absolute strength and strength speed.
Although specialization is necessary to truly become exceptional at something, you must first build a base that gives you an adequate chance to succeed. You can't skip over levels when building the pyramid. You have to be methodical and fitness/GPP is the first step.
But herein lies the problem: fitness may make you good at a lot of things, but in order to be truly exceptional you have to specialize. Tradeoffs have to be made between certain fitness qualities because physiologic adaptations are incredibly specific.
This is why you train a football player different than a soccer player, and a baseball player different than a basketball player. There's just no such thing as an "athlete" program that will prepare you for any and everything.
Now you may be reading this and saying: "James, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm very happy with just training for overall health and fitness"... And to you I say awesome. Whatever your goals are I encourage you to pursue them.
But I know there are many people out there, and maybe even you, who are tired of the general fitness trend. You have specific high performance goals that you just can't seem to reach, even though you bust your ass in the gym x times a week. And for this I blame the fitness trend.
99% of the time these people come to us with questions about why they haven't been able to reach a certain goal it's because they're trying to be "everything" all the time. I can respect your desire to be well rounded, but you have to remember there will always be tradeoffs in training.
Are there genetic freaks out there who tend to be pretty damn good at a lot of things? Absolutely, but I'm not throwing my programming methodology behind the top 1% of the human population.
So...what's the point of today's post? Be specific with your goal setting, and then draw out a pyramid that'll get you there. Start at the bottom, and then get more specific over time until you have acquired/built up the necessary skills and fitness qualities to allow you to succeed at your desired skill.
Oh, and be willing to call B.S. on the fact that everyone and their mom trains "fitness" since it's technically everything. Ask more questions, and demand specific answers as to why you're doing what you're doing, and why you're working on what you're working on.
Now that my mini rant is complete, go have an awesome weekend.
about the author
1. Starzynski, Tadeusz, and Henryk Sozanski, Ph.D. "What Is Fitness Preparation."
Explosive Power and Jumping Ability For All Sports
. Island Pond, VT: Stadion, 1999. 3.