After my “IIFYM and Clean Eating Are the Same Damn Thing” article, I ought to just go ahead and make this a regular column. Just kidding, chances are I probably won’t be able to keep finding things in the fitness industry that are actually just different names for the same thing. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the fitness industry! I’m sure I can find plenty of them. This week’s entry is going to be about “functional” training and GPP.
We’ve all probably heard the standard take on functional training at this point: all exercise is context dependent, and the functionality of an exercise should be based on their relevance to the client’s goals rather than their adherence to some individual system. Jon-Erik Kawamoto has an excellent take on the topic here. Unfortunately, as a specific style of training, functional training tends to devolve into lots of silliness of progression onto bosu balls and other movements that certainly don’t seem to be functional for much of anything.
What people tend to know less about is the topic of GPP, which refers to “general physical preparedness”, a training concept originating in the Russian training systems. In the Russian system, this is contrasted with SPP, or “specific physical preparedness”. GPP refers to a general, all-around base of strength and function that is required for the athlete to perform competently, while SPP refers to the specific skills and traits required to perform at an elite level.
In the Russian system, athletes begin by training primarily with GPP work, general exercises designed to build muscle, increase strength, enhance cardiovascular capacity, and the like. Only after a few years of training do young athletes get separated out into sports based on their individual strengths and weaknesses, when the limits of general training have been reached and these limits become apparent. Then, they begin to train using SPP methods specifically designed for their sport.
It makes sense. We all know that our training styles change as we get better with time and need to break through plateaus. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t train the way a modern powerlifter does, and certainly this was the right decision. The training required to maximize muscular development (a form of SPP when taken to that level) varies greatly from the training required to maximize strength development (that kind of specific strength being a form of SPP). As we get bigger and stronger, more efficient methods are required to maximize our progress towards our goals, and this is the point of the whole GPP/SPP system.
Let’s go back to functional training. Functional training relies on exercise progressions, moving from easier to harder versions of exercises as a way of showing that the client is improving in strength and function. As the trainee develops, there’s a focus on correcting potential strength and postural imbalances, which, if you’ve ever followed Jon Fass’s work, you’ll know probably aren’t too important.
Functional training is great at one thing: building general strength and function in untrained populations. What it’s bad at, on the other hand, and where it begins to become less defensible, is when you try and apply the corrective principles of functional training to athletic training. Getting a 300lb linebacker to try to squat on a bosu ball isn’t just a waste of time, but it’ll probably actively hinder his strength development and decrease his performance on the field simply because it’s not very similar to the demands of his sport.
Let’s look at these statements, shall we? Functional training is good for working with untrained populations, but bad at working with highly trained ones. Hmm. Doesn’t that sound like it’s saying that functional training is a form of GPP? And therein lies the reason why functional training shouldn’t be taken as the be-all end-all of training - it’s a very generalized program, and thus can’t be specific enough for advanced athletes.
There are plenty of people who can benefit a lot from functional training. Some people come into the gym with years of bad habits and some really weird posture (generally, I feel that severe postural abnormalities are probably a problem, but smaller ones are probably trivial), and in these cases functional training may be just what they need. However, it’s important to understand that since functional training is specifically a form of GPP, you must progress out of it into SPP sooner or later. Some clients/exercisers might spend years practicing functional training before ever needing to get to that point, while others might only spend a few months. However, it should be absolutely clear that functional training is not a form of SPP, and thus cannot be used forever.
Even general health and wellness clients, who may have no real performance goals whatsoever, will eventually need to be trained more like athletes if they want to keep seeing improvement. This may mean training a healthy client of 2 years more like a bodybuilder in order to keep building muscle, or adding in sets of 5’s or 6’s with squats/deadlifts/bench presses/Olympic lifts/etc. in order to keep building strength.
Whatever the case, you owe it to your client (and exercisers owe it to themselves) to not do GPP forever - sooner or later, more advanced methods are needed, and sticking with GPP methods like functional training will only mean stagnation. Functional training is great for new exercisers - not so much for advanced ones.