General physical preparation is a common term in all facets of strength and conditioning - it’s simply the development of a well-rounded athlete across the spectrum of strength, conditioning, speed, and agility.
What seems to be frequently misconstrued in many functional fitness facilities is the different brush strokes that create the portrait of general physical preparation and how to properly develop it.
Let's talk specifically about the conditioning side.
Walk into your local group fitness facility (brand name doesn’t really matter) and I’m willing to put money that the day’s training session will consist of some kind of strength work, followed by an intense 5-20 minute gym-based conditioning circuit. Intervals, AMRAPs, etc.
More often than not, the conditioning is random. Crossfit emphasizes the random structure of the conditioning as a component of the overall design. That’s fine in the short term for newer athletes looking for fat-loss type results.
For more advanced athletes with a training objective or competition, it’s less than ideal. If you want proof, take a look at what Regional and Games level Crossfit athletes are doing... it's not random.
Without some kind of overarching planning structure to the programming (aka periodization), all of that work is equal to going to any other boot camp, cycle class, etc.
You’re going to burn some calories, get a good sweat in, and if attended regularly (in conjunction with proper nutrition), might lead to a better body composition… but you’re not really getting better at anything, and certainly not improving outside-the-gym performance.
Ideally, the conditioning portion of the programming developed a macrocycle (think year long) which builds upon itself through mesocycles (think 6-8 weeks). This may be broken down further into microcycles (1-4 weeks, depending on the coach).
For example, the initial mesocycle may be focused on building the athlete's aerobic endurance base for two months with increasing intensity. Begin with low-intensity work, increasing the time domain slowly over a period of weeks. Then, decrease the volume of work and increase the intensity. Repeat as needed.
Next, we move on to aerobic power, expanding the duration of time in which the athlete can maintain a certain level of power or work in a given time frame.
Next, dependent on the athlete, we may focus on anaerobic energy systems which is generally consists of intense work done in the 1-3 minute time frame.
From here, one could move into a sport specific conditioning cycle. For example, an athlete preparing for an Olympic distance Triathlon needs to focus on the specific demands of that race. His or her general purpose conditioning is solid - now it's time to hammer down on swim, bike and run with a focus on increasing sport-skill efficiency and speed.
Each cycle compliments the following to ensure training is maximized safely and may be complemented with strength and/or power development.
As a rule of thumb in the development of macrocycle or mesocycle, it's highly recommended to start with a relatively high volume of work conducted at a low intensity (both dependent on the athletes capabilities). As we build our aerobic system, we can start to decrease the volume of work, but pick up the intensity.
The method can vary. There are tons of periodization models that depend on the objectives of the athlete. In terms of General Physical Preparation, the conditioning employed by the coach should have as much purpose as the strength work.
Pick an energy system modality focus for conditioning, develop assessments to measure the athlete's capabilities and scale the progression based training accordingly.
One last important note: Be smart about intensity - no one needs to go dry-heave in the corner after every training session. Don’t underestimate the vaule of a low intensity, 45-minute aerobic session. It has great benefits for the heart, recovery, and improves the body’s ability to remove acidosis when it is time for the high-intensity work capacity/conditioning effort.
Quit doing random. Have a clearly defined purpose.