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General vs. Specific Conditioning

When it comes to conditioning, one of the most important principles to understand is when to use different training methods and exercises throughout the training year. This is where the concept of general and specific conditioning comes into play and getting this right can be the difference between winning and losing.

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What Is General Conditioning

In simple terms, general conditioning refers the development of the central components of energy production and expenditure that are not exercise and task specific. This means that activities that are not biomechanically or metabolically similar to the competitive sport and related skills can be used to develop this area of conditioning.

On the far end of the general to specific conditioning spectrum, this is where unrelated activities are used to build general “work capacity” and what most people would refer to as “cross training.”

The most general training methods and exercises should be utilized early in the off-season, which also serves as a break from the often repetitive nature of most competitive seasons. The exact exercises, means and methods used during the period of general conditioning should depend on the nature of the sport itself.

Specific Conditioning

On the other side of the general to specific spectrum is the use of the skills, drills and techniques of the competitive sport itself. In MMA, this would be sparring, pad work, bag work, technical drilling etc. In soccer or football, this would be scrimmage, 7v7, small-side games, etc.

The most important component of a solid yearly training program is that it progresses over time from more general conditioning methods and exercises towards most specific ones. There should be a gradual and progressive shift towards the use of the competitive sport itself, as well as the individual skills, as the primary training means.

This helps avoid the overuse injuries associated with using the same exercises and movements year round, and also builds the right foundation for achieving peak performance at the right time.

Read the transcript of this video

Joel: All right, today we're going to be talking about a concept that I really discussed very thoroughly in my book, it's not out there a whole lot else, that's general versus specific conditioning. Really the idea is that conditioning is not something you work on for a few weeks before the season if you're a fighter. It needs to be more than just the training camp phase.

You really need to look at conditioning as a year-round training process, because the ability to maintain your power output and perform over the course of your entire event or your season, depends on your conditioning. It's something that needs to be focused on more than just a few weeks. So what I've done is broken down this idea of general versus specific conditioning. We'll go into what those different phases are, and what those different aspects are. This is just a way to look at conditioning from a yearly training perspective rather than just a short period of time before your season.

So we look at each different phase as having a different purpose, and a different primary emphasis on what you're trying to develop. It's really like putting together the pieces of a building block in the right order. Putting them together in the wrong order or not developing in one sequentially, and your conditioning is going to suffer and your performance isn't going to be what it could have been. We start here. I'm going to use MMA combat sports and kind of the example, but this model really can be applied towards any sport. The principles are the same.

We're going to start out with what we'd call the general preparatory phase. This is really after the competitive season. It's as far away from the next competitive season, and here you don't want to replicate the movements of your sport. You just did your sport for whatever your competitive season was, or you just got done fighting or whatever it is

You're not going to use a ton more of your sport as more conditioning. You want to give your body a chance to take a break from all that stress. You want to let any injuries or nagging things heal, and the last thing you want to be doing is going through more heavy work of that sport and those skills.

So we don't replicate the movements in our sport. We have more centralized focus, so we're developing more of the heart and the cardiovascular ability, less of the muscles themselves. That's part of why we're more general as well. You can use wide range of power output. We're not trying to mimic the work to rest ratio of the power of the sport. We're keeping things much more general.

The Combat sports, you'd be doing stuff like I detailed in my road work 2.0 articles so you can use jump rope. Just basic stuff. Swimming, biking, jogging, shadowboxing. It's just very simple stuff that is not the sport. It's not mimicking the exact movements of the sport. It's not mimicking the work to rest ratio of the sport, and it's the most general out of these phases.

How long that phase is going to last is really going to depend on what your competitive season looks like, but you're at least going to spend a month or two, generally speaking, in that phase to develop the foundation for the next phases, OK The next phase, we call this more of a specific preparatory phase. Now, all we're really doing is taking those movements and changing them a little bit so that we're using the same general muscle groups. We're not replicating the entire movement.

We're not using the skills of the sport, but we might be using pieces of those skills or pieces of the range of motion.

You're going to use some aspects of the movement, and you want to just use the same general dominant energy system. If you're a fighter or some hip dominant sport that requires hip movements, you'd use the sledge hip drill that we've done it in the other video, which you can check out. And use some sort of movements that use the same muscle groups in some aspect, but you're not copying the entire sport. You're not copying the entire movement of the sport. There again, you're just using the same energy systems, you're not using the exact work to rest ratios. This phase, again, will just last one to two months, depending on your competitive season, and these are going to be primary emphasis.

Next we move into the per-competitive phase. This is really where you're starting to get into early aspects of a training camp, which is usually a month or two out from the competitive season. If you're a fight, combat athlete, we'd call the per-competitive phase probably the early aspects of your training camp, maybe eight weeks out, ten weeks out, somewhere in that range.

And this is where we're starting to use the actual drills of the sport as your primary conditioning means, so something like pad work, bag work, rolling. You're starting to actually begin to use the skills of the sport as your conditioning means. Maybe not all of your conditioning means. These always are going to overlap to some extent, so you're not going to cut out everything you're doing here and completely change. You're going to always kind of transition gradually into that period.

You're starting to use more specific work to rest ratios, more specific energy systems stuff, and starting to mimic more of what's going to happen in the sport. For example, lets say you're doing some pad or bag work as your conditioning. Here you're going to start to use maybe five to six second bursts with little back off periods of rest and then back again. Closer to what you're going to be doing in a fight. It doesn't have to mimic the actual fight. You don't have to do three rounds of five or five of five or whatever, but you're going to start to use those more specific movements.

Finally, the competitive phase. This is going to differ depending on your type of sport. A combat athlete doesn't really have a competition phase. They just have a single event, and then a long break. Whereas a football player or a soccer player has a long competitive season where they have to maintain their conditioning throughout it. This is really where the competition exercises are really the primary training means of conditioning, and you want to be as specific as possible.

Really, we kind of combine these two phases. This one just transition right before the fight in combat sports, and this would take place throughout the season in a team sport or some sort of competitive sport with an actual training season. But here, let's say, for example, you're going to use sparring in combat sports right before the fight. You want that to be the way that you primary train your conditioning, and you want to be as specific as possible.

Three rounds of five if that's what your fights are going to be, with 60 seconds rest, or five rounds of five if it's a championship fight or two minutes, whatever your fight's going to be. You want this sparring to be as close to the fight as possible. We even go so far as, and you definitely want to do this, whatever kind of opponent you're going to be facing, if you think your opponent is going to try to take you down the whole fight, that's the kind of stuff you want to be doing in sparring.

If you think it's going to be a stand up fight, that's where you want to be focusing. Not that you won't be doing other aspects of the training, but you want that to be as specific to the fight as possible. Same rest periods, same level of workout. As much as possible be specific to the even that you're doing. Throughout the season, if you're a football player, you want to be using two man offense, you want to be using drills. You want to be doing things that are the actual sport as your conditioning.

I don't understand why a lot of times people get in the season and they're confident and their conditioning becomes completely unrelated to the sport. You want to be using the competitive drills and the competitive aspects of the sport as closely as possible for your conditioning phase. Because you're in the middle of competition and that's going to have the highest carryover of the actual performance of the sport.

Again, these aren't the only things that you're doing but these should be the primary emphasis of your conditioning throughout that time of the year. If you neglect this aspect, if you don't do the general work first, number one you could risk burnout because you've been spending the entire year doing very specific stuff at a high level, and that's where you get repetitive use injuries and chronic stuff that starts to build up. Also if you don't build the centralized focus, the cardiovascular system, the heart itself, you're not going to have the ability to develop the musculature and the overall conditioning in later phases.

So it's really important that each of these phases be developed in the right order and that you work your way from the more general phase to the per-competitive and the competitive phase sequentially, focusing on each area as you go. This is just a very broad overview of the general versus specific conditioning principal. I talk a lot about this more in my book. If you have that you can certainly find it there, or if not, you can grab the book and pick it out. This is just a much better way of looking at conditioning as a year-round training process rather than just a couple weeks before a fight or event.

So for more videos like this, make sure to subscribe to our youtube channel, just You can also find us at facebook, or /eightweeksout, and of course you can follow me on twitter,, and I'll see you again next time.

Comment 1: Joel's talk really gives you knowledge as to how to target specific energy system adaptations based on the athlete's needs.

Joel: Two athlete's have the same level of power output, the athlete who produced a greater percentage of it aerobically, their heart rate is going to recover faster than the other guy.

Comment 2: From reading Joel's work and seeing who he's worked with, you can tell that he knows what he's talking about.

Joel: Assess your athletes in their sport or in these environments where you're able to see what does their body do that's repeating.

Comment 3: I think it's really going to help me as I write programs for all the athletes I work with.

4 Responses to General vs. Specific Conditioning

  1. the nightmare says:

    Joel, in regards to American football during the season (competitive phase) organised team training sessions for us are usually planned around film study, preparing for the next game, skeleton scrimmage etc. conditioning wise outside of organised team session would you suggest basic strength maintenance work compound lifts (60-70%) maximum volume with some prehab movements mixed in during rest periods? and some aerobic recovery work or would you stick to the methods like alactic capacity intervals as the work/ rest ratio mimics that off a football play?

  2. […] read some Pat Ward, Soc Doc and Joel Jameson for more […]

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