Dave Van Skike
This article is not intended as an exhaustive primer on how to train nor is it meant to be an indictment of any one fitness system (calm down crossfitters/P90x’ers et al). It is really intended to clear up a significant misconception in beginner sports programming and is dedicated to Jessica Roper, the fittest/healthiest person I know who has a life training history that includes gymnastics, weightlifting, bicycle racing, crossfit and most recently Zumba. Don’t laugh, she squats better that many of you.
When we teach our seminars, a theme running through a majority of our lectures is the concept of Base. A term completely understood in the endurance community, (as in Base Miles) Base is a concept that seems to have fallen out of vogue in the rest of the strength and conditioning community. This is unfortunate because understanding and building your Base is one of the most important central principals in a person’s athletic development. Base may be even more important to non-athletes.
Many commercial training systems, boot camps, fitness classes etc., build their sales pitch on a notion of getting a person “ready for anything.” Some even use the term GPP or “general physical preparedness.” At best, this misconstrues the idea of GPP, at worst it is a scam … nearly no one need be in a constant state of readiness to train harder. Developing fitness is a process that relies on ebb and flow of condition; you develop one quality at the expense of another, gradually raising the overall level of ability. Developing higher levels of “fitness” is clearly the goal but most people lack a foundation of ability to work from, period. In short, your trainees, regardless of age of training history, need to develop Base before they can think of being “ready for anything.”
So what it Base? First, let’s say what it’s not.
Currently popular fitness memes represent our cultural infatuation with the notion of “well roundedness.” This quality, admirable in concept, is not GPP nor is it Base. GPP, as described by Dr.Yessis,
(GPP) consists primarily of general preparatory and some specialized conditioning exercises to work all the major muscles and joints. This preparation prepares the athlete for the more intense training such as explosive plyometrics. This period is also used for rehabilitation of injured muscles and joints, strengthening or bringing up to par the lagging muscles and improvement of technique.
Sounds scientific. Maybe that means it’s important? Nah … not really. GPP is just meant to describe a state where a trained athlete is ready for more intensive training. This begs the question, when considering exercise program choices for yourself or your clients: are you (or they) trained athletes ready to enter an extended accumulation block of focused training? Many (most?) people do not have enough of a base of strength and aerobic fitness to even engage in 20-30 minutes of vigorous daily exercise, let alone a base of strength or aerobic endurance to engage in vigorous sports and activities that they might otherwise want to. And yet, people do engage in these sports and activities and orthopedic surgeons enjoy full employment, buy boats and send their kids to private schools because of it.
Maybe you don’t work with a population that encounters significant or consistent sports injuries. Maybe your clients are fit enough to do what they need and are concerned with performance. Perfect. Let’s discuss why what many people consider “well rounded fitness” is really nothing more than a topical approach to the concept, and if you really want to develop athleticism in a person, most people will do well to go deep, before they go wide.
The core abilities of athleticism are of the same things that most average trainees need in their everyday lives. These qualities are simple to understand. People need the ability to express:
· Full body coordination
Here’s the rub about developing a base of strength/endurance/flexibility/power, you cannot fully develop these qualities in random haphazard fashion. It takes years – not months, not weeks – years to fully develop a foundation in the basics of athleticism because most if not all these adaptations are based in long term physical changes to the body like increased capillary networks, greater density and cross section of muscle, increased bone density, lowered resting heart rate, higher peak heart rate and an efficient metabolic system for processing fatty acids and glycogen. These are just the mechanical changes. The most profound and long lasting training effects from focused practice are neurological. Repeated focused practice builds new neurological connections; for lack of a better analogy, these connections are a sophisticated communication network between the brain and the body’s musculature. These “network adaptations” are near permanent changes to the body’s wiring. The beauty of these neurological connections is that once established (learned) they are slow to unlearn: Examples include:
- Increased muscle fiber recruitment — once you’ve “learned” to fire muscles strongly, you remain relatively strong.
- Increased coordination allows for long terms skill retention — athletic movement is no different from learning to play the piano — you may get rusty, but the base is there to pick it back up.
- Increased tone and proprioception in the postural muscles — once learned, the ability to hold the trunk and core stable in vigorous movements is easily retained.
This distinction in neurological development from extended base training is important because, as anyone who has taken a layoff from physical activity knows, peak fitness is fleeting but basic physical skills are very persistent and allow a fairly detrained individual (say a former football player or track athlete) to return to a fairly decent level of athletic ability compared to a person without an extended training background. Once you’ve been strong, you “know” what it feels like. Once you have developed endurance, you understand how to pace yourself. Once you have truly ingrained the skill of a movement, it is like riding a bike, you never really forget. But lasting adaptations take time to develop.
In cycling, the truism is Miles on the Bike is Money in the Bank, but most commercially available fitness memes are not built on this. Like most things in our culture, fast results and innovation is revered, high accomplishment equals credibility but we are rarely given the whole story. This is why, when considering the training programs of accomplished athletes, or the newest training template/eBook, ask yourself, “if this is what this athlete is doing now, what were they doing 10 years ago?” Nine out of ten times it is going to be a similar answer for similar ranges of athletes. Endurance athletes were putting in miles, (lots of them) at moderate tempos. Strength athletes were lifting and practicing their sport skills; ball athletes were scrimmaging, playing pick-up games and working on ball handling skills. All these accomplished athletes were building up core competencies in the Basic abilities they needed to do a sport. Just like investing, once you’ve built some working capital, it becomes very easy to take that accrued potential and turn it to something else.
Now it’s true that at higher levels of athleticism, Training adaptations are highly specific. This means that training for strength will optimally improve strength while training for endurance will optimally improve endurance. The degree of “transferability” will vary from one activity to another. In highly fit individuals, adaptations require highly specific training to make measurable progress. For most of the rest of us, specificity of training is less important than the depth of improvement (the amount invested) in a given discipline.
So … What is Your Base?
So you’re like most Americans. You didn’t save enough when you were young. You’re not an athlete, you’re a generalist, you just want to be “fit enough” to play the sports you want, enjoy some athleticism and camaraderie and not get hurt. What now?
This is the beauty and the curse of being a beginner. If you haven’t built up your base, you need to put the bulk of your time (let’s be explicit and say 80% of your training volume) into really developing abilities that take the longest to build: Strength and Endurance. For strength, it is simple: squat, press, pull and carry heavy weights. For conditioning it means move your body for extended periods, row cycle, run, walk, hike. For reasons that are outside the scope of this piece, the ability to go hard for short periods of time (an ability neatly termed strength endurance) can be developed to fairly high levels in very short periods of time.
So the basics of Base training sound like the goal of any commercial training programs. How is base training different from any other canned approach like crossfit? The answer is Time. Dedicated practice in the basic strength lifts will take a year or better for many people to surpass even novice levels of strength. The adaptations derived from running or low steady distance training are not reached in 6 months or even a year, it is a multi-year process. This is not to say that general fitness activities, workouts of couplets and triplets of bodyweight exercises, or high intensity cardio don’t have a place or a value. The point is that the value of these activities can’t really be realized until there is a substantial base of strength and endurance in place. This means, that to get where most people want to go, they need to start with a narrow focus and focus on moving well beyond novice levels of ability to provoke long term mechanical and neuromuscular adaption. In this way developing Base is not a program, it’s a lifelong pursuit.
In short, base can be seen as the sum total of your lifetime practice. If your total is low, the best way to raise it is to focus specifically on building it up. Get much stronger in a few movements, building an aerobic Base by significantly extending range of distance, practicing full body skilled movement: yoga, judo, tennis, baseball, even ping pong. This approach will get you further, faster than dabbling in many things at once. With a sound base, your options for exercise, play and competition increase exponentially without the accompanying risk of injury or burnout. Take your time and focus. You only have one body and a lifetime of possibility.
To understand one thing well is better than understanding many things by halves – Goethe