When is the foundation strong enough?


By: Gym Jones

Upon reviewing Outcome and the discussion of purpose based training I had to ask myself, "When is the foundation strong enough? When is it still a house built on sand?" I understand the definition of fitness changing according to the task. At one point I understood athletes to be in a foundation building phase until they achieve a high level of fitness accross the board and begin to plateu and THEN specific training is needed to improve further depending on the direction of the chosen athlete.

Do you use specific guide lines / tests to determine when an athlete is highly capable in the areas of strength, power, endurance, work capacity, etc. If I am not mistaken I read some where (might of been an older session or post on the regular website awhile back) that formal training did not start in the gym until an athlete could deadlift x2 his bodyweight. What is the goal when looking for a balance across the many facets of fitness before more depth is needed in a specific area.

What markers would one use to tell when an athlete reaches the fork in the road of general fitness? Or is even general fitness / foundation a little specific in itself when it comes to the athlete?

Also coming back to definitions: How do you personally define work capacity?


The writer posed several questions, all of which are related. We think about the answer(s) - and there are as many possible answers as there are individuals - a lot because determining when to shift from general to specific focus often decides whether work is useful, redundant, or may have negative consequences.

"When is the foundation strong enough?"
This is an ongoing process, first of development, then broadening/deepening, then maintenance and repair. As you noted, our usual path is, in the beginning, to work with the individual in a very general sense, testing, noting imbalances, injuries, habits, patterns, and striving to "fix" these or at least make the player aware of them. Once the development curve produced by general work begins to flatten we focus on more specific areas of fitness. When the body stops responding to general messaging, more consistent, stronger messages must be sent like, "get stronger" or "develop better endurance." This may be viewed from a very wide perspective, i.e. in the context of one's life, or from a narrower point of view, in the context of annual or seasonal development. So, we might use a so-called plateau (when honestly assessed) as the cue to focus or we simply run out of time and are forced to shift emphasis as the real task approaches.

For the time/season example, Josh was out of the gym sooner than Nate because his racing season started earlier in the year. Nate's important races all occur months later so he could keep a strength and conditioning focus for longer. On the other hand, the jiu-jitsu season usually starts for our guys in February, with the most important events in April and June, and another, sometimes attended in the September or October so the Foundation and Strength/Power cycles occur from November to the end of January and the objective thereafter is simply to maintain/repair what we developed over the 12-week cycle.

For the plateau example, we go by feeling and this is true because the project itself and all of our instructors share a similar, organic temperament. We track numbers and might refer to them for confirmation but usually it is obvious when it's time to focus. We just "know." However, there are signposts (see the next answer).

"What markers indicate when an athlete reaches the fork in the road of general fitness?"
When an athlete can Deadlift 2x bodyweight we figure that for virtually every sport or task outside of the gym he or she is "strong enough" (in that particular lift). If the standard is achieved we move on, perhaps focusing on another movement like the Overhead Squat. Once the player has a 1x bodyweight OHS, again, we move on. However, strength tests are less useful as guidance because slow, grinding strength is relatively stable: once one has a 2x BW DL it is hard to lose it. The varied characteristics of endurance are perishable, as are any movements dependent on highly refined neurological skills. These are the quickest to change and must be tested and reinforced with consistency. We have some standards, the achievement of which tells us something about a person's fitness. Ours are high enough, and varied enough that no one can achieve all of them simultaneously. On the other hand Dan John developed a set of standards for his football players, all medium level lifts, and knows that if all of his payers can hit all of the marks in a single workout the team can/will win the state championship. These standards are more specific to the task than those we use.

The point here is that, if you know the objective and have accurately assessed the dominant contributors to success, then the standards you must achieve should be clear. If you have had a couple of years of experience with task-specific performance the characteristics of your fitness will have been further clarified. Use that feedback as future guidance. Not strong enough? Fix it. Lacking technique? Focus on that. Etc. Standards in the gym are useful only to the degree that they are tightly tied to the task itself, and the more technique-dominated the task the less useful gym standards are as performance indicators.

"Is even general fitness/ foundation a little specific in itself when it comes to the athlete?"
The answer here is a resounding yes. Because if the subject plays a sport then what constitutes a foundation for practice and play is affected by the demands of the sport itself. We don't insist that our fighters develop a wide aerobic base and we don't ask the endurance athletes to become as strong as the fighters. So an outcome-bias influences the characteristics of each athlete's foundation. On top of that, an athlete with great technique can overcome some degree of fitness deficiency in a sport where technique plays a major role, i.e. many jiu-jitsu guys are out of shape (in a general sense), some very good rock climbers (especially female) can't do more than a few pull-ups, etc.

"How do you personally define work capacity?"
I'll take the easy way first and say, I know it when I see it. I wrote in Extreme Alpinism that, "the goal of physical training for alpine climbing can be summed up in one phrase, to make yourself as indestructible as possible." If that means being able to do more work at a lower cost then it could define "work capacity." I actually like the term "work tolerance" better because I find it more descriptive of the actual characteristic(s) in question, i.e. increased tolerance means the body and mind can sustain more output and one is less affected by a given level of physical stress (from having developed a higher threshold), and/or one recovers within and after an effort more rapidly, etc. In the gym setting this is characterized by the fact that the workouts being done by our top guys now would have been impossible three years ago, and by the fact that the stressful workouts done back then hardly tax them today. In the mountains our trajectory went from managing the 12-hour day, to easily digesting 24 hours non-stop to, eventually, 40 and 60-hour "days". Put a fit, athletic city kid on the farm and he'll break the first day but with some attention and discipline he will eventually become equal to the demands of the job - by increasing his work capacity. Suffice to say the term can cover a lot of ground and still fail to accurately define or describe some psycho-physical characteristic to a person who has not already seen or experienced it.

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