Before we start unfolding complicated mathematical models with fancy graphs, let’s take a step back and think about what periodization really is. Periodization is simply the method used to plan your workout to achieve your goals. As applied to athletes, it’s a method of manipulating the variables of training (which I call loading parameters) so that an athlete performs their best at the appropriate times.
If you’re a football player, for example, your periodization program would not include starting a 10x10 German Volume Training squat workout the day before your team competes for a state championship. For a competitive bodybuilder, periodization means that you need to start emphasizing protocols to decrease your body fat at least a month before a major competition (and often several months before if you’re a female bodybuilder or figure competitor). Even “boot camp” programs that claim not to use periodization do employ a form of planning, as two of the same types of workouts are usually not performed concurrently to ensure a greater variety of training stimulus.
Periodization is called for because due to time restraints you can’t work on all components of athletic fitness at the same time – at least not to a high level. The body simply does not recognize what it is supposed to adapt to. If a weightlifter needs to improve their leg strength, one of the most effective ways to do this is by emphasizing eccentric contractions with squats. The problem is that it can take considerable time to recover from eccentric squats, perhaps 7-10 days in many cases. If you perform 8 sets of heavy eccentric back squats on Monday, you cannot expect to exceed your max snatch the following day – in fact, the soreness from such a workout might make it uncomfortable even to bend down and grasp the bar!
A better approach would be to focus on leg strength for a few weeks, and then focus on heavy Olympic lifts. This was the problem with the so-called “Russian Squat Program” that was popular many years ago. I heard that it was designed not for a team but for a single weightlifter whose leg strength was severely lacking, and that the lifter was supposed to cut down on the volume of snatches and clean and jerks and other aspects of lifting to avoid overtraining while performing the squat program. Likewise, one research study on college swimmers found that adding weight training to their program had no effect on swimming performance. The issue here is that the coaches added several hours of weight training to the athletes’ program without reducing their training volume in swimming; swimmers are notoriously overtrained anyway, so if you want to add something to their training you need to take something away.
To give you an idea of how exercises could be periodized, here is a program that is discussed in my PICP course that is designed to increase power clean results for a beginner. Each phase builds upon the strength qualities developed in the previous phase.
Weeks 1-3: Standing Good Morning
Weeks 4-6: Clean Deadlift, Podium with Chains
Weeks 6-9: Snatch Pull
Weeks 10-12: Power Clean from Mid-Thigh
Week 13: Active Rest
Weeks 14-16: Isometronic 3-Position Deadlift
Weeks 17-19: Snatch Pull with Bands
Weeks 20-22: Clean Pull on Podium
Weeks 23-25: Power Clean from Mid-Thigh
Week 26: Active Rest
Weeks 27-29: Snatch Pull from Floor
Weeks 30-32: Power Clean from Floor
Although many people associate periodization with weight training, periodization can be used with energy system training as well. The movie Chariots of Fire
contrasts the instinctive approach to training of a Scottish runner, who ran as he thought best for the day, to the approach of an English runner, who planned every detail of his workout and used training methods supported by scientific research available to him in that era. Today’s runners not only plan time and distance but also continually monitor their workouts with heart rate monitors.
For elite athletes it only takes about 6-8 weeks to build the aerobic system, so all that’s necessary during the rest of the year is a maintenance program until the body is ready to adapt to a higher level of V02 max. This idea is supported by a study published in 1982 in the Journal of Applied Physiology
, which showed an athlete can significantly reduce training volume but still maintain aerobic capacity for several months as long as their intensity level is at a high level. The issue, again, is that you only have so much training time, so why spend it on a factor that cannot improve? My colleague Yves Nadeau, whose speedskaters won medals in four Olympics, understood this concept – and his athletes had exceptionally high V02 max levels despite doing minimal aerobic training.
Although periodization is attributed to Russian weightlifters, Finnish cross-country skiers were responsible for introducing the early concepts of periodization. After that, Soviet weightlifting coaches came up with mathematical models for periodization; thereafter, they 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.
In the US, many strength coaches have favored a periodization model proposed by Russian sport scientist Leonid Matveyev in 1964. This model suggests that training should gradually progress from a high volume of work performed at low intensity to high-intensity work performed at low intensity. An example of the repetition protocols for a 17-week workout program based on this model was presented as follows:
Weeks 1-6: 8-12 reps
Weeks 7-11: 5-6 reps
Weeks 12-16: 3-5 reps
Week 17: 1-2 reps
Physiologically speaking, such a workout is not effective for functional hypertrophy that will help an athlete perform well. For example, performing sets of 8-12 reps will generally develop the slower, Type I muscle fibers. Further, much of the hypertrophy developed in the first six weeks will be lost by week 17.
In recent years the trend among many strength coaches has been to use a system called nonlinear periodization,
in which the repetitions vary every workout. So on Monday an athlete might do 12-15 reps, on Wednesday 6-8, and on Friday 1-3; and then repeat this series for several more weeks. The problem here, again, is that the body does not know what it is supposed to adapt to.
In the 1980s I began writing about the value of alternating between phases of accumulation and intensification, with accumulation emphasizing volume (how much work is performed) and intensification emphasizing intensity (how much weight is lifted). This model was popularized by German sport scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher. Here is an example of the repetition protocols for an 8-week workout program based designed to improve relative strength:
Weeks 1-2: 5 x 5 reps (accumulation)
Weeks 3-4: 6 x 2-3 reps (intensification)
Weeks 5-6: 6 x 4 reps (accumulation)
Weeks 7-8: 3 (3/2/1) reps (intensification)
One of the advantages of alternating between the two phases every two weeks is that you prevent nervous system fatigue. You also don’t lose muscle mass and energy system conditioning – in fact, you will find that these qualities continually improve with this system.
There are many excellent books on periodization, and it is a subject that is discussed in detail in my PICP course. However, if you understand the basic concepts presented here, you will have taken a big first step in mastering the art and science of program design.