Periodization sure is interesting, isn't it?
If you're like a lot of lifters, your initial exposure to the subject was your first confirmation that lifting is a touch more scientific than the lay public gives it credit for. And, if you're like me, you experienced a visceral sense of justification for your sick little chalk-infested passion in life when you first started reading about phases and cycles and peaking. Am I right?
But the problem was, when you started to design a periodization plan for your own training, I'm betting it didn't work. I'm betting that, even though you wouldn't dare admit it, your old "what do ya wanna work today?" spur of the moment type "planning" worked a whole lot better than anything the Soviet Ministry Of Sport managed to cook up behind the Iron Curtain back in the 50's and 60's.
Ever wonder how come? Follow along. If what you know as "periodization" has never worked for you, this article will explain why.
Problem #1: Reverse Planning Only Works For Competitive Athletes
Athletes, by definition, need to "reverse plan" to (hopefully) be in peak condition on competition day.
So for example, let's say that I'll be competing in a weightlifting meet 23 weeks from today. Assuming that I use a linear periodization format, I have 23 weeks to stuff however number of phases I plan to use. So it might look something like this:
Hypertrophy Phase: 6 Weeks
Maximum Strength Phase: 6 Weeks
Power Phase: 6 Weeks
Peaking Phase: 3 Weeks
Taper Phase: 2 Weeks
Now, don't get too wrapped up in the way I named the phases. I just want you to grasp the bigger point, which is that there's a competition date looming, and I don't have the luxury of staying in a certain phase until I reach a particular benchmark (which I'll cover in more detail in just a bit).
Assuming that I use a hypertrophy phase in the first place (many athletes, including weightlifters, wouldn't use one), it's going to have a certain timeline, no matter how well or how poorly I do during that phase. Then I have to move to the next phase.
Take-Home Point #1: If you're not a competitive athlete, don't hobble yourself with the limitations of reverse planning.
Problem #2: No Benchmarking
At this point it should be obvious that there are no benchmarks when you use reverse planning. You just have to hope for the best. Now it's true that smart coaches try to schedule competition dates for their athletes based on predictive equations, but it's still just an educated guess at best.
The good news is, when you use forward planning, you do have the luxury of establishing benchmarks for each training phase. So for example, your hypertrophy phase benchmark might be the acquisition of five pounds of new lean mass. Once that benchmark has been achieved, it's time to move on to the next phase.
I'll provide examples of phases and benchmarks later in the article, but for now, learn to think in terms of results. When you plan a phase, what's that phase expected to achieve? And, how does achieving that benchmark fit into the bigger picture?
Using my own competitive example provided earlier, does gaining five pounds of lean mass help me to realize my overall goal? If I'm trying to move up in weight class or if I simply need to improve my body composition, a hypertrophy phase is prudent. Otherwise, it might not be.
Take-Home Point #2: If you're not competitive, stick with forward planning, where training phases are associated with specific, quantifiable benchmarks that, once achieved, bring you closer to your long-term goal.
Problem #3: Lack Of Controls
Periodization, as most people are familiar with it, is based on old East European talent-identification and modeling programs. In the former Soviet Union for example, scouts regularly tested kids for various indices that were predictive of success in specific athletic events.
The Soviet model worked great in Russia, but when transplanted into a completely different culture, it doesn't work at all!
When I was working on my sociology degree way back in the Reagan administration, we learned something called "Structural Theory." The idea is that a societal "structure" (for example, crime) can only exist in a society if it successfully fulfills a "function" (for example, to justify law enforcement jobs). When you move a structure to a different society, it may no longer fulfill any function at all.
Classical periodization is just such a case in point. In Western societies today, it's very difficult to control all the various confounding circumstances that most of us need to deal with: families, jobs, money, competent coaching, lack of talent, etc. When these circumstances can be controlled, classical periodization models work great.
In defense of classical periodization however, it should be noted that the basic concept of planning your training to make it as objective and measurable as possible is extremely valuable. For this reason, the concept of periodization in general is a worthwhile exploration for any athlete or fitness enthusiast.
Take-Home Point #3: If you don't live in the East-bloc, don't try to train like an East-bloc athlete.
Problem #4: Misinterpretation of Linear Periodization
Arguably the first real attempt to organize training into specific periods was Russian sports scientist L.P. Matveyev in the 1960's. It's most likely from this pioneering work that the entire concept of linear periodization emerged.
From Russia, periodization concepts quickly made it over to the Eastern bloc countries, most notably East Germany. These early periodization principles sparked the creation of some key pioneering texts (i.e. those from Frank Dick of Great Britain and Dietrich Harre from the former East Germany) written in various languages including the landmark text by Tudor Bompa.
If you haven't read Bompa's text on periodization, you should. I think Bompa takes a bad rap from a lot of people who misinterpret the "linear" periodization model that he espouses in his work.
And maybe that's his fault: it's easy to gain the impression that when you're in an "anatomical adaptation" phase for example, that you'll be 100% engaged in "unidirectional work." Meaning, you're pretty much ignoring all other training means, such as work for maximal strength, hypertrophy, and power. Bompa's strength periodization format for athletes looks like this:
Phase One: Anatomical Adaptation
Phase Two: Maximal Strength
Phase Three: Conversion (to power, endurance, or both)
Phase Four: Maintenance
Phase Five: Regeneration
A few notes on this planning model:
1) Anatomical adaptation refers to low-intensity, high-repetition sets (typically circuit training) for the purpose of "adapting the anatomy of the athlete to a new strength program" after the completion of a previous macrocycle (usually a rest or regeneration cycle). This phase is also referred to as a General Physical Preparation (GPP) phase in other periodization texts.
2) Bompa does use a hypertrophy phase prior to the maximum phase for athletes who need additional lean body mass.
3) Maximum strength is a dependant or "root" motor ability for the subsequent development of muscular power and/or endurance.
4) Conversion refers to the gradual "switching over" to methods that develop the athlete's target motor ability(s): power, endurance, or both. For the speed or strength athlete, this phase usually means a conversion over to power, since the rate of force development (RFD) is crucial in high speed sports.
5) Once the target motor ability has been developed, the next phase aims to maintain this ability through the competitive period.
6) After the competitive period is finished, the athlete embarks upon a short period of regeneration and/or rehabilitation.
(Ref: Bompa, T., Theory and Methodology of Training, 3rd Ed., © 1994, Kendall/Hunt, pp178)
Critics of linear periodization rightly point out that when you abandon a particular direction for several weeks, the gains that you made in that direction will all but evaporate. Well, I may be wrong, but I think Bompa never intended his work to be interpreted this way.
I think it's very clear that all good training plans have a degree of continuity. Even when using a forward planning model for example, additional maintenance work must be performed, even if a particular benchmark has been achieved. This graph, adapted from Bompa's Theory and Methodology of Training, clearly illustrates the recommendation for maintenance work for maximum strength:
(Ref: Bompa, T., Theory and Methodology of Training, 3rd Ed., © 1994, Kendall/Hunt, pp159)
Take-Home Point #4: When developing one quality, strive to maintain the others.
Problem #5: Most Athletes Have Narrower Goals Than You Do
An elite level sprinter may have a goal of hitting a very specific time in the 100 meters, which will qualify him for the World Championships.
A weightlifter's goal may be to make a certain total (combined results in the snatch and clean and jerk events) at a certain bodyweight in an officially-sanctioned competition by a certain date.
A professional tennis player's goal may be to break the top 100.
Many people — probably including you — have broader, more generalized objectives than these athlete examples, however. In fact, getting bigger, stronger, and/or leaner is a very common, almost universal goal in the male non-athlete population. And in terms of long-term health and functionality, this is an excellent goal in my mind.
But don't try to apply traditional periodization models to achieve this goal! You'll be sorely disappointed.
Take-Home Point #5: Don't use specialization methods when your goals are general.
In Search Of Solutions: A Forward Planning Model With Benchmarks
What follows is a hypothetical periodization scheme based on a forward-planning model employing both developmental and maintenance benchmarks. It's a "modified linear" approach that recognizes the importance of year-round training on all of the needed/desired motor qualities (i.e. maximal strength).
Hypothetical Scenario: You're an experienced, serious weight trainer but not a competitive athlete. Your goals include being big, strong, and lean, but you're also hampered by recurring episodes of shoulder impingement and IT-band issues.
Periodization Model: If you were to use linear periodization, the phases you'd use might be Anatomical Adaptation (AA), Hypertrophy, Max strength, and then Conversion followed by a Regeneration Phase. This traditional sequence of cycles actually makes sense since each cycle prepares the body for the next.
But problems arise when you literally and blindly follow the protocol without any thought of the potential decay of specific motor qualities (if at least some work isn't done to preserve them year round). This is the primary reason for maintenance benchmarks: to ensure that a specific motor quality/ability isn't going on vacation while you're busy working on another.
Phase One: Orthopedic Integrity/Anatomical Adaptation
Desired Results: The ability to train hard with little to no pain and without exacerbating current shoulder and hip (IT-band) symptoms.
Developmental Benchmark: Decreased O-Rating (less than 2/5)*
*About O-Rating: The O-Rating, or "Orthopedic Rating," is a subjective scale from 1-5 where a "1" represents no pain or orthopedic dysfunction and a "5" means a lot pain and dysfunction. Put another way: you're injured!
This scale could also be modified to a 1-10 scale if that works easier for your brain. Whichever way you choose, it must make sense since it's your scale. This O-Rating should become a part of every lifter's training log if he/she has any desire to train long-term.
Maintenance Benchmark: N/A*
* Since this is the first phase in the sequence, there are no qualities from previous phases to maintain.
Phase Two: Hypertrophy
Desired Results: Gain lean body mass (LBM) without accruing significant body fat (a 70/30 ratio of muscle to fat gain is considered healthy and realistic by nutritional experts such as Dr. Lonnie Lowery).
Developmental Benchmark: Increase current LBM by five pounds. (This might equal 7-8 pounds on the scale. Caliper reading can be taken before, during, and after the hypertrophy phase to ensure most of the mass gained was lean tissue).
Maintenance Benchmark: Maintain O-Rating of 2/5 or less. In order to achieve this goal, some prehab/rehab exercises will need to stay in your program along with any needed soft-tissue and mobility work.
Phase Three: Maximum Strength
Desired Results: Improve Maximal Strength of key lifts: Bench Press, Back Squat.
Developmental Benchmark: Improve Back Squat and Bench Press by 5% each.
Maintenance Benchmark #1: Maintain LBM (maintain at least 4 pounds of new muscle attained in hypertrophy phase).
Maintenance Benchmark #2: Maintain O-Rating of 2/5 or less. In order to achieve this goal, some prehab/rehab exercises will need to stay in your program along with any needed soft-tissue and mobility work.
Phase Four: Speed-Strength
Desired Results: The ability to express maximal strength more rapidly
Developmental Benchmark: Vertical Jump
Maintenance Benchmark #1: Maintain 90% of maximal strength developed from the last phase. Example: If you started out with a 365-pound squat and improved it to 383 pounds during the pervious maximal strength phase, the goal would be to be able to squat at least 381 by the end of the speed-strength phase.
Maintenance Benchmark #2: Maintain LBM (maintain at least 3 pounds of new muscle attained in hypertrophy phase).
Maintenance Benchmark #3: Maintain O-Rating of 3/5 or less.* Again, some prehab/rehab exercises will need to stay in your program along with any needed soft-tissue and mobility work.
* Ideally, we'd hope to maintain a 2/5 O-Rating throughout the macrocycle. However, logic and experience dictate that as other training targets take the front burner, others will tend to decay. The overriding idea however, is that you don't allow these qualities to completely erode.
Here's a nifty little table to organize everything I just mentioned above:
Orthopedic Integrity (AA)
Maximal — Strength
(Strong Like Bull)
↓ Shoulder and Hip Pain, Full ROM
↑LBM without excessive body fat
↑Back Squat and Bench Press 1RM
Recovery from Previous Phases
O-Rating of 2/5 or less
5 lbs. of LBM gain
Possibly 7-9 pounds on scale
5% or greater ↑in 1RM for Back Squat and Bench Press
↓O-Rating and ↑ desire to return to gym
O-Rating of 2/5 or less
O-Rating of 2/5,
Keep 4-5 lb. increase in LBM
O-Rating of 3/5,
Keep 3 lb. increase in LBM, 90% of strength gains.
Dependent on Achievement of Goals; anywhere from 1-4 weeks
Dependent on Achievement of Goals; anywhere from 6-12 weeks
Dependent on Achievement of Goals; anywhere from 4-12 weeks
Dependent on Achievement of Goals; anywhere from 1-2 weeks
Many possible problems may arise in any type of training program so it's important to know what to do when things aren't working out like you planned them. Here are some questions and answers that might be helpful to examine:
1. What if I don't hit the desired benchmark(s) for each phase?
In this situation, you need to look at your initial goal(s) and decide if they were realistic in the first place and whether or not you truly mapped out the right training, eating, rehab, stretching, etc. to achieve those goals.
If you don't personally have the knowledge or capability to solve the problem, seek out someone who does. This could include anyone from a PT, a massage therapist, or MD for a rehab issue to a nutritionist, a strength coach, or an Olympic lifting coach for a training/eating issue.
The best and most knowledgeable minds in this field have gotten there by asking tons of questions. He who thinks he knows it all knows nothing. Ask questions and start improving!
2. What if my O-Rating goes up during a phase?
If your O-Rating increases during a training session it could be due to numerous factors. Did you warm-up sufficiently? Is your technique sound? Are you mentally prepared for the session? Are you actually just bearing the sour fruits of an ill-advised lifestyle?
Many people are far more injurious to their bodies through occupational hazards such as sitting all day long or failing to take breaks during repetitive movements such as typing or performing one's profession. Dentists, for example, might bend all day to the left looking in patients' mouths and then end up with a serious muscle imbalance that might interfere with their squat workout and cause significant pain. The problem isn't with the squat per se, but with the lack of awareness during their typical daily activities.
Become more aware of your common recreational and vocational body habits/mechanics and see if you can eliminate and/or reduce unnecessary stress. Your O-Rating might be more affected by your outside of the gym activities than inside the gym!
3. What if I achieve my goal(s) really quickly?
Then you're very lucky and fortunate. You have two options in this case: 1) you can continue for a few more weeks in this phase and try to milk out more progress, or 2) you can move on to the next phase. You might also be setting some fairly easy goals and might need to raise your expectations a little bit.
I hope that with this article, I've managed to restore your faith in the concept of periodization. Additionally, you should now have a better understanding of why traditional Eastern Bloc periodization might not be the most effective form of programming for the average non-competitive weight-training enthusiast.
Finally, the concepts of reverse and forward planning should profoundly alter the way you view the programming of your training, which should result in much more effective and efficient training!