Chariots of Fire tells the true story of two runners, one from Scotland and one from England, who had the talent and determination to achieve Olympic glory. Besides comparing the lifestyles of these athletes, the movie contrasts their radically different approaches to training.
The Scottish runner was an idealist, and he ran as he thought best for the day, allowing the purity of his spirit to guide his training. He had no use for a training log book. The English runner used training methods supported by scientific research, and he planned every detail of his workout months in advance. He needed a training log and a day planner (and he really could have used the latest Microsoft spreadsheet package).
The runners in Chariots of Fire exemplify the philosophical battle that has been raging in bodybuilding between the traditional, instinctive approach to training and the science of periodization. Ten years ago few bodybuilders talked about periodization; but now, in their quest to reach the highest level of physical perfection, today’ s bodybuilders have taken a keen interest in what strength training experts such as Charles Poliquin have to say about this science.
This interview, which was originally conducted in 1994 but was never published, discusses the controversial subject of using periodization to build muscle mass.
KG: Who were the first athletes to use periodization?
CP: Finnish cross country skiers are credited with bringing the early concepts of periodization. Then Soviet weightlifting coaches came up with mathematical models for periodization, who shared their knowledge with track and field athletes and swimmers. Swimmers shared with rowers and kayakers. Eventually every sport started coming out with their own periodization models. The last sport to try it was bodybuilding, and that could be because bodybuilding was at first mainly an American phenomenon that actually first started in Montreal, Canada.
KG: Why are so few bodybuilders using periodization?
CP: Many bodybuilders are resistant to taking any sort of advice because they think that training methods ranked third behind drugs and dieting for results.
KG: What top bodybuilders use periodization?
CP: Periodization is used more by European bodybuilders, but I believe that a lot of pro bodybuilders come to periodization indirectly. In other words, they will vary their training methods but don’t have a systematic method – you might call this approach shotgun periodization. Schwarzenegger varied his training, but he did so in a micro fashion. He didn’t map it out as athletes do in other sports.
KG: Did any old-time bodybuilders write about periodization?
CP: Joe Miller wrote an effective periodization model for bodybuilding, which was published in the mid ’70s. Very few bodybuilders have used it.
KG: Yerkhoshansky from the Soviet Union has a book on periodization for bodybuilding, one that details his theory of super positioning training. What do you think about his training system?
CP: I don’t believe that Yerkhoshansky has much interest in bodybuilding, and as far as I know, he hasn’t worked with athletes since 1980. Anything Yerkhoshansky wrote after 1980 was just repetition of his work prior to 1980.
KG: There’s a program out that details the Bulgarian approach to bodybuilding. What do you think about their system?
CP: How many great bodybuilders have come from Bulgaria? Bodybuilding in Bulgaria has been considered an antigovernment activity. In a country where people starve, I doubt that the Bulgarian government would invest in research on “The effects of tri-setting on biceps hypertrophy in teenage males.” Seriously, the Bulgarians only care about sports that give them a lot of medals.
They did conduct research on periodization in weightlifting, because in weightlifting you have potential to win a lot of gold medals because there are several weight classes. Why didn’t the East Germans at their peak invest in water polo training rather than swimming? Because there’s only one medal awarded in water polo, whereas in swimming it seems the only event they don’t have is the 50-meter breaststroke for vegetarian single mothers. There are so many medals in swimming that if you can develop an effective periodization program model, it will pay off in 26 medals, or more, depending upon if you’ve entered two athletes per event.
KG: How do you account for the success of bodybuilders using the so-called high-intensity training systems in which you perform as few as one set per exercise?
CP: There are a lot of things wrong with that type of training model. First, if it really worked, every bodybuilder looking for a shortcut would have adopted that method. Second, it defies the laws of neurophysiology. You can’t tell me that performing one set of a biceps exercise will knock off the entire motor unit pool – it’s physiologically impossible. For example, even if you used an exercise protocol that could recruit all your Type IIb fibers – let’s say, performing four to six reps concentric to failure followed by two negatives – what about your Type IIa fibers? You have to vary your repetition bracket to tap into all the motor units.
KG: How do you explain the rapid success of many top bodybuilders who experiment with these training protocols for brief periods?
CP: One reason these protocols can work for brief periods is that most bodybuilders are grossly overtrained. One thing we know from periodization is the process of tapering – that is, it is only when you reduce training volume that athletes show their true potential. In other words, fatigue masks fitness.
KG: How long can a bodybuilder make progress on these low-volume programs?
CP: This is the problem. If a bodybuilder gains ten pounds in seven days on a low-volume training program, that doesn’t mean they will continue growing at the same rate. It just means they were grossly overtrained before reducing their volume so that at last hypertrophy could take place. For a lot of people who’ve gained ten pounds on such a program, that’s the only ten pounds they’ll ever gain.
KG: Is it possible to use periodization by using the instinctive method, that is, just by how you feel?
CP: With instinctive training, if you don’t give people a set model to follow, they tend to resort to what they are good at. For example, if a bodybuilder has a primarily slow-twitch makeup, they will tend to use high reps and short rest intervals. They can make progress on such a protocol, but maybe what that individual needs to achieve optimal progress is high intensity, multiple sets and long rest intervals.
KG: Do you believe periodization is more art than science?
CP: It’s more of an art in bodybuilding, but I see the individualization of the training process evolving more towards science.
KG: Do you believe there is a basic periodization model for bodybuilders?
CP: There’s a model in the sense that most models will initially stress a higher training volume.
KG: With athletes, you believe in alternating between phases of accumulation – stressing through volume – and intensification – stressing through intensity. Would you say that bodybuilder should spend more time in the accumulation phase?
CP: Not necessarily. A bodybuilder’s intensification phase may be an accumulation phase for another type of athlete.
KG: What indicators or tests do you use when designing periodization programs for bodybuilders? Bodyfat tests? Girth measurements? What are your benchmarks?
CP: The nature of bodybuilding is that you want to increase body mass as much as possible – that’ s what they want – so I think that’ s your best indicator. The problem is that if you only did leg training, you would only gain mass in the legs – your bodyweight goes up and you may not do very well in competition because your calves look like pipe cleaners. But to answer your question, any sort of kinanthropometric data helps out.
KG: How do you modify your periodization programs for hard gainers?
CP: And the problem here is that calling yourself a hard gainer is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you’re a hard gainer, you are a hard gainer; in contrast, if you believe you’re an easy gainer, you’re an easy gainer.
KG: What do you see as the future for periodization in bodybuilding?
CP: Bodybuilders will eventually get more into it because a lot of them are training hard and not making any progress.