Since this article is my first as a columnist here on I want to begin by clarifying what you can expect from this column. The column title is The Flexible Periodization Method and in general I will share the principles behind The Flexible Periodization method and techniques and strategies applied in The Flexible Periodization Method.

Principles can be more powerful than examples because a principle can guide your decisions in many possible scenarios, while an example may help you understand a specific topic but has limited additional application. The principles might inspire you, inform you or make you see things in a new perspective. The specific techniques and strategies and exercises, often what the coaches I speak with seek the most, will be “ready-to-use” with your athletes—REGARDLESS of the Periodization System that you choose to work with.

I strongly feel that everything we learn as strength coaches should improve our ability to create, instruct, supervise, evaluate and adjust training programs. If what we learn stays as knowledge in our heads and/or we are not able to put the knowledge to systematic use, our athletes don’t benefit. Therefore, each column will have a strong tie-in to program design or evaluation.

In general, the articles will be referenced—including any valid resource from original scientific study to really strong athletes or coaches who share how they train. While refinement and development is ongoing, the foundation of The Flexible Periodization Method was developed from 2000-2007 during my years in the Danish Sport System, where it was my job description to create individualized training programs for a small group of athletes with high priority.

As a strength coach for high level athletes (or any athletes for that matter), there is really only one thing that counts and that is to create the best possible results for the athletes in an effective, safe and ethical responsible manner. To create the best possible results for the athletes that you work with, we must focus completely on the key working process that is relevant for our job—the creation, instruction, super-vision, evaluation and refinement of the training programs.

One way to describe this working process is that it is a process of decision-making: Which tests are relevant for this athlete? What periodization system should they use? How many times per week are optimal? Etc. Viewing the process of creation, instruction, supervision, evaluation and refinement of the training programs as a process of decision-making, really interesting questions arise: On what basis do you make your decisions? How do you back up your decisions? The world of strength and conditioning consists of many subcultures with very different ways of making decisions about training.

A significant distinction between these subcultures is the emphasis on “evidence-based” training vs. empirically experienced training. There are slightly different views on what evidence-based training really means:

Evidence-Based Training

Evidence, in general, refers to the thought that all practical decisions made should 1) be based on research studies and 2) that these research studies are selected and interpreted according to some specific norms characteristic for evidence based practice. (1)

But as evidence-based practitioners, the recommendations we made in our paper are solidly in line with current research, personal experience, and the needs of the individual. This is the essence of evidence-based practice. (2)

As for the first quote, “basing all practical decisions on research studies” seems to me to be more evidence-DICTATED than evidence based. The second quote that includes research, the personal experience and the needs of the individual in the decision-making process will - in my experience - lead to better results for your athletes.

Basing all practical decisions on research represents one extreme of the spectrum. On the other hand basing all practical decisions on experience represents the other extreme of the spectrum.

I grew up with the axiom that “no one is 100% right and no one is 100% wrong” and this view has shaped the way I look at training in two particular ways:

  • When I read or hear about a training principle or training technique, I first look for what is RIGHT about it. How COULD I use this with the athletes I work with? That is the physiological mechanism that COULD make this program effective? Second, I look for what’s wrong about it? What are the risks? What are the drawbacks?
  • As a strength coach, it is a disservice to our athletes if we turn away from a potentially effective training method, just because this method is not researched or not used by the right people (experience).

Problems with attempting to base all practical decisions on research:

  • Many of the questions that you need to answer in the process of creation, instruction, supervision, evaluation and refinement of the training programs are not researched at all.
  • Some questions might be researched, but not on the type of athletes that you work with or not under the conditions that your athletes work. X strength program works for high school students. Does it work for world-class athletes? Does it work for world-class athletes who combine it with speed training? Researchers always finish with “we cannot say if this protocol for other groups, other exercises etc. More research is needed!
  • You risk treating your athletes like a statistic. When I lived in Denmark, I occasionally had the fortune to interact with an—at that time 80 something year old—extremely skilled physiotherapist by the name of Birthe Carstensen, who, in her younger days, had worked with the legendary Wladimir Janda. She had read a lot of research but used it with discernment, “I don't want to be treated as a statistic,” she said. If someone comes to you and say that they want to gain X kilo on their squat in X weeks and you say, “that is not possible, the evidence shows that only Y kilos per week is possible, then you are treating your athletes like a statistic.

Abraham Maslow said, “When you label me, you negate me.” This is exactly what we risk doing if we aim to base all our decisions on research. If someone comes to you with a crazy goal and you say that it can’t be done, you are basing your assumptions on averages and no one wants to or deserves to be treated like an average.

  • You are ignoring the experience and training methods of some of the strongest athletes in the world. One of the most interesting books that I have ever read on strength training is Steve Justas’s “Rock, Iron, Steel.” No research at all, but filled with a profound understanding of productive training!
  • In some cases, aiming to base all decisions on research almost creates a situation where the practitioner exclusively refers to “what the research says” and has stopped thinking independently.  I don’t know about you, but a great deal of the fascination for me is the ability—and permission—to read, combine and create BASED on research and others experiments.Empirically-Experienced Training:
  • The number one issue here occurs if you train athletes based on what worked for you when you were an athlete. History has proven over and over again that great athletes do not necessarily become great coaches. If you want to be a great coach, focus on becoming a great coach!
  • You might not be able to explain WHY your training is working. Knowing, or at least having an idea of why your training works can be helpful in several ways. Athletes are more motivated to do something when they understand why they are doing it. In my experience, the ability to explain—using physiological and bio-mechanical terms and immediately translating it to terms that the athlete understands—the program to athletes or clients increases their motivation for the program.
  • You might have a weaker position when you explain your programs to directors, managers etc., if you can “only” back up your suggestions with experience.
  • You might not be able to expand your client base because you can’t generalize what you do to other sports. OR, what’s worse, you train all athletes like an Olympic weightlifter, powerlifter, gymnast etc.

There is one situation where a strong emphasis on experience is valid. If you have trained a large group of similar athletes for similar goals, then you essentially have done your own “research”(even thought not by scientific standards).

It is worth noting the difference between experience and opinion. Experience is “I have trained 80 college athletes with program X. On average they gained Y percent in their 1RM power clean.” Opinion is “I don’t like to use power clean with my athletes.” Opinions generally should be backed up (see below).

Now that I have given examples of potential problems related to working from either extreme of the decision making continuum let’s take a look at what the mid position might look like. How does a strength coach, who works from the middle of the continuum, make decisions?

The strength coach that works from the middle of the continuum does not ask, “Where is the evidence?” The strength coaches that work from the middle of the continuum, first of all, ask the questions: How do I back up what I am doing? On what basis do I any aspect of the training program?

In my experience, the following three main ways to back up a specific decision in the process of creating, instructing, supervising, evaluating and refining training programs is an extremely useful framework that will support you in your work with creating the best possible training programs.

They are very explicitly NOT in prioritized order, because the best strength coaches smoothly and in a balanced way make use of all three.

  • Research
  • Experience generated from you work with athletes
  • Fundamental physiology, anatomy and bio-mechanics

We have covered what it means to make decisions based on research or experience. Here is an example of making decisions based on physiology, anatomy and bio-mechanics.

If you read about a program and you realize that training with that program will place maximal or near maximal tension on the muscle-tendon complex, then you can assume that—if you offer the athlete the correct balance between training and recovery—the program can lead to gains in maximal strength.

Our athletes deserve the best programs possible. In order to give them the best program possible we must apply the broadest possible basis for making decisions, but we must do so with discernment.

We typically require our athletes to commit to be the best they can be. The ability to make the best possible decisions come from our commitment to be the best we can be.