This article was originally written for and published on Reactive Training Systems, home of Mike Tuchscherer.
What the heck is Periodization anyway?
I don't watch TV. At least not in the amount I used to. I am not old either. Somewhat I feel that I should spend my time reading the stuff that interests me and watching more documentaries, which I do. Also, I need to reduce my Facebook time and internet dating too. But, that's life, right?
So, I was watching this extremely good lecture on Biology and Human Behavior by Robert Sapolsky (author of the famous book Why Zebras don't get ulcer?) and the author goes into the problem of categorical thinking. He showed that categorical thinking (Sapolsky mentioned light continuum as an example, and how we humans mark certain parts of the continuum as separate colors, although the borders are fuzzy) improves memory (classifying and categorizing things is what I usually do the best and helps me put the things at their own place), but at the same time it reduces the ability to recognize similarities between different categories and differences within categories. In other words, it reduces your ability to see the forest from the trees.
I am not saying categorical thinking is bad (“Sorry officer, but the light was greenish, not reddish!”), but it has some flaws during some specific situations (everything is about the context). I guess we should be more pragmatic and not dogmatic, and use categorical thinking when appropriate and/or fuzzy thinking (the truth is a matter of a degree) when that is more appropriate.
People usually ask me whether I use linear periodization, linear progression, or conjugate periodization with my athletes. I don’t know. In real life it is hard to put things into categories, and the truth is very context dependent and usually in the shades of gray. What I do is pick up a pragmatic solution to a particular problem (athletes characteristics, performance/outcome goals, context) based on the knowledge and previous experience. I am trying to use my brain instead of being dogmatic and/or use certain dogmatic categorical solution. I guess, it is similar to learning how to fish compared to getting a fish.
So, instead of just getting/buying the fish, I get a decent lure, so to speak. That means being pragmatic – finding a solution to a problem by analyzing what you have, what you want to reach and within what context, taking into account knowledge of management, theory of training, biomechanics, physiology, motor learning, psychology, training effects and previous experience and other 100 dangerous words.
Even if I said that people need to be more pragmatic I will again return to categorical thinking and try to explain my thoughts on periodization. So, what the heck is that word that my Word spell checker keeps marking as typo? Yes, I am talking about periodization.
I know some coaches who love to coach about coaching and they are 21. If you really want to know about coaching go to someone who has coached for 30+ years under the following criteria that make him good coach:
1. Consistently produced champions over years with the same athlete pool and within same environment as his fellow coaches
2. Consistently improved average performance of all of his athletes with the same athlete pool and within same environment as his fellow coaches
3. Consistently doesn’t screw up the athletes, their mental health and health in general (it is easy to succeed as athlete/meat grinder when you have huge pool of talents – somebody just have to succeed no matter how much of them you destroy; some athletes continue to dominate in spite of their training)
I am not that kind of coach. Hopefully, I may become that kind of coach one day if God is righteous. So, honestly, what do I have to offer? Yes, I read a bunch of books, finished Faculty, worked with some Olympians (which were Olympians before I realized that strength training doesn’t make you slow and bulky), but I am at least honest here. There was a time during my faculty years where I thought I knew something and I wanted to write about it. Now, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Sounds confusing? Try reading Socrates. What I want to say, it that now, compared to before, instead of trying to hunt fame by writing on internet message board and forums about what I have read, I now seek experience and fulfillment working with real athletes and seeing them improve. I guess I am getting older and wiser.
Basically, what I want to cover in this article is categories I use in my pragmatic solutions. Yes, complementarities between pragmatism and dogmatism, categorical thinking and fuzzy logic. This is called squiggle sense and there is a book about it called Complementary Nature. Get it.
The goal of the coach is to manage the Athlete Preparation System, a technological process so to speak that brings the athlete from point A to point B under certain amount of time and under a given context. This Preparation System can further divided to (1) Training, (2) Competition and (3) Recovery.
Coach needs to juggle with much more components (like budget planning, recruitment, assessment and evaluation, talent identification, legislative issues, etc), yet these three are the most crucial for the discussion on periodization.
In my opinion, there are three separate, yet connected phases in organizing of the Athlete Preparation System (APS): (1) periodization, (2) planning and (3) programming.
You can look at this as Zoom Levels to the problem, like a Google Earth: Globe, USA, New York. This way we can see the forest from the trees.
Periodization level. Periodization level compromises of defining what you have, where you want to be and when (goals) and context. Basically, periodization level of organization is seeing the big picture. Defining competition dates and competition calendar, number of peaks and their durations, basic evaluation of athletes, amount of performance increases (performance goals), outcome goals, analysis of previous seasons, tests, meets and everything else that precedes more concrete planning. It is also important to take into account weather, available facilities, training camps, available budget, etc.
To keep this achievable, it is necessary to have training theory knowledge and experience (well, duh!). Knowing the athletes, discipline and analysis of previous season, along with the knowledge of theory of sport form and having realistic goals in term of performance increase will guide you to devising optimal number of peaks and their durations and/or optimal competition calendar.
Planning level. When we set up the big picture with previous level, now we have to further analyze what we have and how to get the things done. That means planning the journey to your realistic goals that were set up in previous phase. Knowledge of the factors that are ‘underneath’ of the performance and thus outcome goals (technical skill, tactical skill and decision making, physical preparation, psychological or mental preparation, character and team culture, strategy and game plan) is of crucial importance here. Planning of the development of mentioned factors should be based on scientific principles and theory of training. You can basically set up goals for each of these factors of success and preparation components
When deciding what to do and when, you can basically utilize two different planning strategies. Suppose you have the three jars you need to fill with certain amount of sugar, salt and water.In the first case you can fill the jars with equal amount of sugar, water and salt, or for nerds 33,3% of each.
You can decide to put more of each at one jar, and /or less in another, like in the following picture.
Please note that you have certain amount of sugar, water and salt that you can/should use. Another option is to organize the content of the jars in different way – basically putting all the water, salt and sugar in certain jar, like depicted.
What you can change with this strategy is the order of the jars or fillings. Certainly there is a continuum between these two cases, where you can mix and match different amounts of the sugar, water and salt. There is infinite number of possibilities.
Now imagine the following – the jar size can be different or change over time, some of the fillings that goes inside the jar mix better in a given amount, there are different amount of fillings available or certain cap and/or threshold that need to be in a given jar. Yes, I know – this complicate things.
Why did I mentioned the jar example? Because jars can be considered periods of time defined by Periodization Level, while the salt, water and sugar can be considered amount of training load aimed at achieving certain goal also defined by Periodization Level. See, Periodization level defines number of jars and the fillings along with their characteristics, but Planning Level goes into finding the best possible organization of the fillings and the jars.
In real life example, let’s say you want to improve speed, strength and endurance for a given amount under given time. How would you approach this problem? How would you mix and match the ‘fillings’ in the jars?
To do this ‘correctly’ or better say optimally coach need to know certain interconnections of the ‘fillings’ (training components that develop certain performance factor needed to reach performance and outcome goals) and the effects of the ‘filling’ in one jar to the another. He also needs to define the best number and size of individual jars and the best fillings. Here comes the theory of training, theory of training effects (especially cumulative, delayed and residual effects), physiology, etc.
I am getting sick of jars, yet I still need to continue to use this hypothetical example. If you are still here, we call these two mentioned strategies Mixed-Parallel and Block approach with a huge continuum in between.
Historically, mixed-parallel approach originated first, although some of the internet gurus still try to push that sequential approach (Block) originates first, which creates a huge confusion which I will try to solve in couple of pages.
So, mixed-parallel approach, sometimes also called concurrent or traditional, originated first. Athletes were utilizing all of the training components and aiming at improving all the factors of success at once (in given time frame, which can be defined differently from system to system, like same training session, same training day, one week, etc). Basically, putting salt, water and sugar in same percent amount in all the jars. The problem with this approach, is that with advanced level athletes, certain amount of sugar, water or salt was not enough to bring up or increase a given performance factor. So, the coaches tried to push more and more of each into a single jar. In reality, jars can become bigger and bigger over time (the size of the jar is actually a work capacity of the athlete) but there is a final size that can be reached. The characteristic of those programs was huge amount of training load, which could be sustained only by drugs.
Some of the coaches and sport scientists saw this limitation and started thinking in different ways of filling the jars, without breaking them by overfilling. That’s when they ‘invented’ block approach, or filling the jars with different percentages. Again, some of internet gurus think that block approach is overfilling of the certain jar with certain filling, but it is not (or at least not always). Total amount of fillings (training load) is lower compared to mixed-parallel approach, but level of certain filling in a given jar is bigger. We call this concentrated loading, which is basically concentrating certain amount of available filling in one jar, compared to spreading it equally to all jars. Experience showed that filling the jars in this way, by concentrating it, improved aimed success factors in the advanced athlete without killing him or utilizing drugs.
There are also couples of methods of progressing from one concentrated loading phase to another, namely (1) abrupt or sharp transition and (2) smooth or gradual. Another term for the second strategy is conjugated-sequence system, that utilize couple of other principles (like superposition of training effects) other than smooth transition.
For sure, there are much more details and principles underneath and the interested reader is directed toward the recommended sources at the end of this boring article.
One thing I should also mention is that for some reason, to reach certain success factors there should be more details in the filling. For example, having a sugar is not enough – we need to differentiate between brown sugar, honey, splenda, etc. Here lies the Devil – in the details. In real life, this means difference between strength training for team sport athlete (just give me sugar please!) and strength sport athlete (what kind of sugar and in what combination?).
Programming Level. No really, enough of jar examples. We are now clear that with Planning level we organize training components and training factors aimed at improving certain performance goals at certain time defined by Periodization level. I guess that is clear enough explanation. What we do in Programming level is programming (well, duh!) and determining progressions for each training component or training factor defined by Planning level. We do that by manipulating (1) training load, (2) training methods and (3) training means and taking into account training effects (especially immediate and acute training effects). Training load can be further broken to training intensity, training volume, training frequency, although that depends on the author and the time frame by which we analyze load. Training means are basically exercises which can be put on a continuum from general to specific based on couple of criteria of similarity with competition. Training methods can be numerous, although we can differ between continuous, interval, blah, blah.
Here is where we determine hard days, easy days, hard weeks, deload weeks, loading schemes, like famous 3+1 scheme and different kind of progressions.
In strength training, for example, we can utilize linear progression (where we increase the weight on the bar every training session with same reps and sets, like 3x5 w/80% to 3x5 w/82,5%), double progression (first increase number of reps done, then increase the weight), triple progression (famous ladders, or increasing the number of sets, then number of reps, then weight, or something like that – I forgot). Of course this depends on the level of the lifter, phase, basically by everything defined by previous two levels of organization.
In mixed-parallel approach, coaches often utilize “high volume-low intensity” programming and progress to “high intensity-low volume”. This is one of the ways of programming/progressing in mixed-parallel approach. There can be numerous other ways of course.
What is important here, is that with advanced athletes this form of progression/programming is one of the strategies that bring results, again depending on lot of other factors. What is wrong with this is that some western researchers, while analyzing programming of East Europe Olympic lifters in the Olympic lifts noted that they progressed from lower intensity-higher volume (something like using 10 sets of 2-3 reps with 60-80%) to lower volume-higher intensity (something like using 2-3 sets of 1-2 reps with 80-100%). This is the progression they used in the Programming Level, to improve their specific strength/strength speed (Planning Level) during certain part of the competition calendar (Periodization Level). What those western researchers were able to do is to utilize this programming/progression principle and somehow applying it to the Planning level, by recommending progression from high reps and low intensity (something like 4 sets of 12) to low reps and high intensity (something like 5 sets of 2). This is how Western periodization (or linear periodization) emerged on the scene. Again, what is wrong here is the fact that western researches applied progression principle from Programming level of a certain training components to Planning level as a general concept. So, now we had a strength endurance phase, hypertrophy phase, maximum strength phase, power phase, etc., in a sequential manner (aka Block). This kind of strength training planning is still used with beginners and with team sport athletes (Bompa’s scheme).
After the emergent of this “Western periodization”, which was used as a method of planning of the strength development in general, numerous critiques started to be heard. Notably, the famous critique by Louie Simmons, who criticized sequential development of Western periodization, and proposed mixed-parallel system (ME, DE, RE) which he, erroneously termed conjugated periodization, now famous as Westside. The confusion was born and spread over the journals and later over the internet. Why you ask? Couple of reasons. First, mixed-parallel approach to strength development PLANNING was not new kind of periodization, but the traditional one, while sequential/block are younger in its development. Basically we have re-invention of the wheel here. Second, term conjugate is similar term with conjugate-sequence system, a form of Block approach developed by late Yuri Verkhoshansky, so it is a misnomer. In a defense of the term conjugate there is the concept of conjugate exercise, again term coined by late Yuri Verkhoshansky, where he meant coupling technical movements and strength development, which basically means utilization of special exercises that mimic competition activity/technique with external loading. Westside powerlifters utilize and rotate a large amount of special exercises during the ME and DE days, which basically may justify the term conjugated, but still it created confusion.
Please note that I am not trying to reduce the great importance of work by Louie Simmons, but rather trying to explain the big picture and fit the thing where they belong.
It can be seen lately that Westside lifter started to utilize accumulation (high volume-low intensity general/specific exercises) and intensification (high intensity-low volume specific exercises) principles in their PROGRAMMING of maximum strength development (ME) and started to emphasize development of certain limiting factors one step at a time, which is basically concept from block/sequential approach to planning, and the things started to go in circle again and increased the confusion. Hopefully, with this article, the confusion is less and we now see the big picture.
Seeing the big picture, seeing different categorical phases of organization of training process (athletic preparation system) and utilizing it in a pragmatic way is the aim of this article. So, instead of training to fit certain ideas (western periodization, undulating periodization, conjugate periodization) to your problem, use you pragmatic and critical thinking to solve the problem you have with smart periodization, planning and programming of training process. If you have lemon, make lemonade and enjoy in the process.
Still, I have not answered the question – what is periodization. Well, it should be obvious: it is a tool in your toolbox and only one part of the organizational processes.
For further information on underlying principles of periodization, planning and programming, curious readers are directed to the following material:
1. Bompa, T., Haff, G. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training 5th edition. Human Kinetics. 2009.
2. Issurin, VB. New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. Sports Med. 2010 Mar 1;40(3):189-206.
3. Issurin, VB. Generalized training effects induced by athletic preparation. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009. 49:00-00.
4. Issurin, VB. Block periodization versus traditional training theory: a review. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008 Mar;48(1):65-75.
5. Issurin, VB. Principles and basics of advanced athletic training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. 2008.
6. Issurin, VB. Block Periodization. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. 2008.
7. Jovanović, M. Planning The Strength Training. StrengthCoach.com. 2009.
8. Jovanović, M. Concurrent strategies in strength training. EliteFTS.com. 2008.
9. Jovanović, M. The sport form phenomena. PowerDevelopmentInc.com. 2006.
10. Perryman, M. Maximum muscle: The Science of Intelligent Physique Training. AmpedTraininig.com. 2009.
11. Verkhoshansky, Y. The Block Training System in Endurance Running. Verkhoshansky.com. 2007.
12. Verkhoshansky, Y. Special strength training: A practical manual for coaches. UltimateAthleteConcepts.com. 2006.