Strength 101: Part IV - Training Periodization

TAGS: Strength 101, brandon patterson, periodization

 

For New Readers

 

Welcome to Strength 101. If strength theory (particularly the Russian-influenced stuff) isn’t something you’ve put much time into, you should definitely go back and read Part III, which provides the groundwork for most of what we’ll look at below.

 

 

Athletic Improvement: Educating the Body or Exploiting Adaptation?

Parallel systems train multiple skills simultaneously, and they progress mainly by manipulating volume, intensity, and technique as a way of teaching the body what to expect from a competition. Block systems vary specificity and adaptation targets with different means and methods performed sequentially. The differences between these two forms of periodization can range from slight in strength sports, to very profound in other sports.

We’ll look at theoretical examples, then explore the complicated realities of just how these systems are periodized in the real world. I think there’ll be some surprises along the way, the first of which may be this: modern sport periodization was inspired by educational development theory. Sport scientists basically thought the body adapted by “learning” during training the same way the brain adapted by learning during classes. Since the brain learned by gradually increasing work and complexity, and could learn many different things at once, the body was the same way.[i]

A warning before I go further: I’m going to stretch this idea of “body education” into a homespun analogy. This is for illustrative purposes. You aren’t going to find any Russian texts that adapt school calendars into training theory.

Think about how your high school education progressed. You took multiple courses simultaneously during the year; as the year went on, the classes got more advanced and eventually focused on complex problems that themselves turned into tests and exams. Typical students might start out with Algebra and Life Science in ninth grade, and wrap up with Calculus and Physics in their senior year, though as advanced as those courses became, they never drop courses in English and Social Science. For our purposes, the macrocyle is like the four years of high school between starting and graduation, mesocycles are like individual years or semesters, and skills can be compared to courses.

General High School Courses Macrocycle Skills
Math Aerobic Endurance
Science Maximal Effort Training
English Dynamic Effort Training
Social Science Sport Training
Freshman Year Senior Year GPP/Novice Mesocycle SPP/Advanced Mesocycle
Algebra Calculus AE: Tempo runs AE: Intense intervals
Life Science Physics ME: Sets of 5 ME: Rest pause, max outs
English: Sentence Parts English: Shakespeare DE: Bounds, box jumps DE: Shock meth., Oly lifts
State History US Government ST: Basic steps & shots ST: Advanced play systems

If you think the body adapts to work through general accumulation of increasing loads and specificity in a way similar to how the brain adapts to education, the idea of training in blocks would never occur to you. It’d make as much sense as studying Macbeth for three weeks, then dropping it completely to spend two weeks learning how to calculate the speed of various points along a falling ladder, and then jumping to the study of tripartite governing systems.

It wasn’t until sport scientists began questioning this theory of adaptation that Block Periodization came around. Yuri Verkhoshansky was the leader of this movement, which was built around an unusual facet of athletic adaptation called the long-term delayed training effect.[ii] Basically, if you buried an athlete under an extreme load of a single-type of training style, the athlete’s progress would temporarily drop, then suddenly rebound to very high levels after the stimulus had been removed. Research into the long-term delayed training effect changed the paradigm for training high level athletes.

Regardless of your model, not every athlete will progress in the same way. You’ll find injuries, illness, life stressors, age/experience/genetic differences, and other factors that make every athlete unique in how they adapt. This means that a system has to be flexible enough to anticipate and deal with unpredictable challenges. You can head off injuries and overtraining with planned breaks and recovery periods. You can also “go by feel” and adjust an athlete’s training by how they feel on a given day; this approach is often called auto-regulation. Of course every person who’s done any amount of training has adjusted on the fly, though there is a way to systemically approach this; a good example is the Bulgarian weightlifting system, which calculated intensity based on perceived maxes for a given day.

You will see systems that rely heavily on auto-regulation are referred to as examples of cybernetic periodization. I think cybernetic periodization is more of a theoretical construct than it is a practical form of training, since any reasonable system responds to the athlete’s training state, and also because the ultimate expression of cybernetic periodization would be not having a training system at all. This isn’t to say that you should forget the concept—just treat it like a philosophical question.

Traditional Periodization

You’ll see the forms of periodization for parallel systems go by a variety of names—traditional, linear, and classical, to name a few. I’ll use “Traditional Periodization” so as not to confuse it with the many types of progressions that can occur within it. Traditional Periodization is the form that Matveyev researched and made famous. It reflects the educational model of athletic adaptation and has a few tenets:

  • An athlete’s training volume should decrease between competitive events.
  • At the same time, training intensity should increase; this can happen through increased loading, greater perceived exertion, or by increasing the rate of work. A weightlifter will lift more weight, while a runner might run short intervals at a pace faster than he would keep in a continuous race of the same total length.
  • As intensity rises, so does specificity; if it’s practical, final training activities should mimic competition, and not just the event itself. The competitive environment (geography, atmosphere, climate, etc.) should be recreated if appropriate.
  • The athlete’s sporting technique must improve as competition nears.

The variables of volume and intensity are important because a parallel system requires that all needed skills be trained at once for most or all of the training period, which means that specificity is always fairly high. Here’s how a theoretical diagram looks:

I imagine a few folks are scratching their heads right now, and that’s basically because Matveyev’s work and the systems it has analyzed and influenced haven’t been fully appreciated by most parties here in the United States. Sure, it’s easy to see that the progressions are mainly linear in that they’re either constantly increasing or decreasing. But what’s this technique thing? And where are the “strength,” “hypertrophy,” and other phases we see in bodybuilding rags and beginner’s programs?

The truth is that Matveyev’s ideas didn’t reach the Western public intact. Part of this was due to people twisting his work to meet their notions, and part of this because his best known work had a large theoretical element that invited interpretation, and not as many example programs and routines that could be followed without error. The biggest loss was the concept of improving technique.[iii] Matveyev emphasized the importance of technique, whether it was improving shooting percentage in basketball, or getting the right stride length during the middle portion of a 100 meter sprint. This focus on technique also means that as athletes neared competition, their training could become less parallel and more like a block system.

While Matveyev preferred smooth transitions between varying cycles, any of the progressions we reviewed in Part III can be used as part of a traditional periodization model as long as they are short-term progressions that allow for the overall macrocycle to increase intensity while decreasing volume. In fact, Matveyev called for undulating mesocycles to help prepare an athlete for competitions that occur in relatively short order, and undulating microcycles to promote recovery and adaptation.

Western Periodization

Western Periodization is an offshoot of Traditional Periodization. It can refer to either a loose view of Matveyev’s larger concepts, or it can refer to a simplified form of periodization that takes Matveyev’s concepts and strips away some of the nuance. The latter is done mainly by ignoring the need for technique specificity, and assuming the trends of volume and intensity were absolutes; not surprisingly, this version of “Western Periodization” was popularized mainly by bodybuilders and powerlifters who didn’t need complicated plans to get bigger and stronger; this adoption by the strength community led to the strength-oriented mesocycle names which in the Western model refer to qualities like “strength,” “hypertrophy,” or “power.”[iv] Since the powerlifter/bodybuilder idea of “Western Periodization” is most common in the strength community, we’ll focus on it.

For powerlifters especially, simpler was better because lifters who stuck to the “big three” kept their technique levels high for meets. In the cases of many, it simply applied a name, terminology, and some scientific backing for the way athletes were already training—remember that periodization and competitive peaking are as old as the hills.

This simpler model was most-widely used in strength sports; non-strength athletes who used a parallel periodization model for all of their training were using something more akin to Traditional Periodization. So, Western Periodization is an oddity in long-term training. It’s clearly an off-shoot of Traditional Periodization, which is easy to see with its volume and intensity trends. These mesocycles ended up achieving the same kind of results as those in Traditional Periodization, though with less focus and less effect. But if it’s applied only to a single style of training then it’s really not a parallel system; in this regard, it might sound sneakily like Block Periodization, although there are some qualifications to the similarity.

For strength athletes, it was simply a progression of a single means stretched out over a long period of time. For general athletes, it was an isolated weight room factor that worked independently of other skill training. But even as a strength training model, it’s not the best way to go for many athletes:

  • Endurance Athletes: If a runner lifts heavily only before a race, he may get some coordination benefits (assuming it doesn’t throw off his stride or impair his energy system training). If he lifts heavily at the beginning of the training cycle, though, he’ll improve his running economy for the entire preparatory period, which will lead to bigger improvements when the race eventually rolls around. On the other hand, the odds of even a moderately advanced endurance athlete wanting more muscle mass are low, which means that the hypertrophy mesocycle isn’t helpful: remember that muscle is relatively inefficient, and in endurance sports efficiency is king.
  • Athletes Who Rely on Eye-Hand Coordination: If you’re a baseball pitcher, basketball player, or quarterback, the last thing you want is for your throwing motion to change. Well, if you get stronger lifting maximal weights, you change the dynamics of your body, and create a learning curve for yourself in getting used to those changes. Do you really want to be relearning how to throw before the start of the season?
  • Athletes Who Rely on Primarily on Non-Maximal Strength: If explosive strength is necessary to your sport, Western Periodization will actually detrain this ability by loading up maximal effort work at the end of your training cycle. The same is true for athletes who rely on aerobic endurance, strength endurance, etc.

With all of these problems, it’s easy to say, “Damn, Western athletes and coaches were dumb.” It’s not that simple, though. Western Periodization rarely left the weight room, where it was most effective, and was used largely by the people who would benefit most from it—strength athletes, or athletes who relied greatly on strength. And of course, the broad ideas of the Western model were always tweaked and modified, or run simultaneously with other, more sport-specific ideas. Just like there aren’t many systems that are entirely parallel or entirely block-based, there aren’t any coaches out there who use a simple line graph as a periodized training plan for their athletes.

Remember that Matveyev began his work by observing what successful coaches were already doing. The truth is Western coaches and athletes not only used Matveyev’s model, but inspired it. Matveyev himself cited American runner Jim Ryun as an example of an athlete who used an intelligently periodized plan to help him set numerous world records—in 1966 and 1967.[v] Also important to remember is that Matveyev was a contemporary of the minds behind Block Periodization. While it’s not widely acknowledged here in the United States, Fundamentals of Sports Training features many specialized micro and mesocycles that can be manipulated in a variety of ways in manners quite similar to our next subject. Though these specialized cycles are bit much for a “101” article, he did note the use of “shock” and “unloading” cycles designed to take advantage of overreaching.[vi]

 

 

Block Periodization

While it’s easy to see the problems with Western Periodization, even Matveyev’s work in Fundamentals of Sports Training has limitations:

  • It acknowledges that it doesn’t have an answer to a frequent, compressed competitive cycle; an athlete with competitions every few weeks would be training at high intensity for an entire training cycle in a way that would lead to burnout.[vii]
  • At some point, all of the qualities that are developing in parallel will begin competing with each other. On the other hand, the way these different qualities can improve each other isn’t taken advantage of.
  • It’s not appropriate for advanced athletes who need high levels of stimulation to improve, but can’t handle these higher stresses if they’re applied in parallel.
  • When it comes to weight training, many of Western Periodization’s problems pop up.

These issues are inherent to just about any parallel system, which is why block systems were refined and defined. We’ve used a loose definition of block training so far, though from here out let’s raise the bar and look at the higher-end model. A macrocycle using Block Periodization is designed to hammer an athlete with a particular emphasis during a series of brief mesocycles, which causes the athlete to overreach; in this system these specialized mesocycles have come to be known almost exclusively as “blocks.”

When overreaching, an athlete basically pushes himself so hard that his performance begins to suffer in whatever capacity is being trained. Actively trying to overreach might sound like an odd plan. The beauty of it is that after overreaching, the long-term delayed training effect provides a delayed adaptation response that is much greater than what the athlete would’ve achieved under less-demanding training conditions. Yuri Verkhoshansky, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, and Vladimir Issurin are the best known proponents of periodized block systems; Verkhoshansky’s and Issurin’s works on the subject are the easiest to find, so I’ll focus on their terms and ideas.

Blocks are generally roughly arranged so that the last block before competition focuses on skills that are most relevant to the sport, or on a skill that is easily detrained and/or overtrained. Think again about how most training cycles start with building up aerobic endurance and/or hypertrophy. A big reason why these qualities usually start a program is that they’re easy to maintain over the long haul. I imagine most readers of this piece have done some kind of bulk/cut body composition work. The reason you can bulk and cut is because it takes a much smaller stimulus to keep muscle than it does to grow it, and that this small stimulus works even during a calorie deficit. Adding mass is also less stressful than going for maxes, and aerobic training is generally less stressful than movement training focused on power.

The interaction of strength and energy systems is also extremely important in Block Periodization. Think back to the weaknesses noted in Western Periodization, particularly in regards to strength training. Each block must indirectly improve the following block. Increasing maximal strength improves stride efficiency and aerobic training improves energy production. These skills work together to improve an athlete’s overall power during more specific training that occurs later on. Now you might recall that training for maximal strength and endurance strength at the same time can lead to conflicting adaptations; this is minor in most instances, and nonexistent in Block Periodization. What essentially happens is that the brief overload causes muscles to maintain endurance while also improving their strength display. It’s very similar to the “newbie” effect, where new trainees can improve multiple competing qualities at the same time; in Block Periodization, the elite athlete’s work volume and the slight breaks from means and methods between blocks allow for a similar effect.

The desired qualities are grouped into blocks that roughly correspond to usual mesocycle terms. Issurin’s system uses an accumulation block for GPP, a transmutation block for SPP, and a realization block to peak an athlete for competition;[viii] Verkhoshansky simply calls them Block A, Block B, and Block C, with the understanding that they are “basic,” “special” and “competitive” blocks, respectively.[ix] The accumulation block generally lasts between one and two months, the transmutation block for a month or less, and the realization block for no more than two weeks. Training volume rises and falls during each of these blocks.

With all of this in mind, we can see how Block Periodization is much more refined than just training in short blocks or phases. While some aspects of Traditional Periodization are retained, the following items differentiate “pure” Block Periodization from anything else:

  • Block Periodization uses several intense training mesocycles aimed at inducing overreaching and subsequent adaptation; these are followed by a single mesocycle that integrates the gained adaptations into optimal athletic performance.
  • The training blocks are arranged to take advantage of the body’s adaptation to (and retention of) one or two skills at a time, and that this adaptation and retention will influence subsequent blocks.
  • Block Periodization entwines strength and energy system improvement to improve athletic efficiency.

While Traditional Periodization can utilize overreaching, it does so by overreaching in (and then restoring) multiple skills at once, while Block Periodization overreached in a few specific areas at a time. This goes back to the idea of bodily “education” versus “adaptation.”

At the risk of a very gross overgeneralization, Verkhoshansky was a little more concerned with increasing specificity and short-duration sports, while Issurin is a little more interested in energy system interplay and longer-duration sports. Their terminology also varies some, though the spirit is largely the same. I should note here that Verkhoshansky (who I would consider to be the system’s innovator, and probably its outright inventor), refers to Block Periodization as the “conjugate-sequence system,” which you may remember from Part II.

But enough with the words already. A conceptual Block Periodization diagram might look like this:[x]

What occurs in a given block is largely determined by the sport, though we can make a few generalizations. Block A is usually focused on maximal strength and aerobic endurance, though lifters will focus more on reps and GPP. Block B taps into improved maximal strength by focusing on increasing power though strength and metabolic methods. Block C melds the new gains into functional sport technique. For more detail on what happens in these blocks, Verkhoshansky offers the following broad guidelines for cyclic sports like running, swimming and biking:[xi]

Because a block system only trains a few particular qualities of sport at a time, those qualities are what suffer most from the intense stress while the rest of the athlete’s abilities are only moderately diminished (if they’re impacted at all).  This means that when the athlete begins overreaching, his training can jump to a distinct quality without holding back his overall improvement.  These short bursts of different training styles also mean that it’s easy to arrange mesocycles to meet various sporting seasons.

Verkhoshansky recognizes six distinct variants of Block Periodization that are capable of meeting almost any sport cycle by prolonging, shortening, or even eliminating particular blocks depending on the frequency of competition.[xii] Noting that blocks can be eliminated is particularly important; when Block C is eliminated from a particular marcocycle because of closely-spaced competitions, it’s often acceptable for volume to stay fairly high throughout the short competitive cycle and let the competition itself serve as a Block C.  Sports with compressed schedules require a different approach.  Here’s what an American football season might look like:

Notice that Block C covers the entire competitive period, and is supplemented with a period of generalized training to maintain basic skills.  This set up pushes the boundaries of what we call “Block Periodization.”  In generally, I’d argue that for a sport like football, training blocks will have to meet many demands, and in this way they’re more like traditional parallel systems.  In the model above, Block C is most likely a long maintenance cycle that has few or none of the specific qualities of a pure block system, with the means and methods determined as much by players’ health as any sporting quality.[xiii]

Block Periodization and Strength Sports

You might be wondering just how this talk of energy and adaptations in Block Periodization applies to powerlifting.  The answer, much as we covered in our discussion on systems, is that powerlifting is too straightforward to fit into a purely parallel or block approach, and that trait carries forward into how its training is periodized:

  • Powerlifting doesn’t have that all-important interdependency of strength and energy systems—the lifts are just too short and spaced too far apart for energy systems to be important during competition.
  • In powerlifting, you properly sequence adaptations (Block Periodization) by reducing volume, increasing intensity, and improving technique over time (Traditional Periodization), so programs have a general air of similarity.
  • Unlike in other sports, powerlifting is always training maximal strength, whether at its periphery in early microcycles, or squarely before competition; this makes incorporating the overreaching aspects of Block Periodization tricky, since an powerlifter can’t overreach and then jump to a different focus.
  • Also unlike most other sports, the best means for improving performance are the competition lifts, so any specificity changes are relatively subtle in comparison to block systems: a runner can go from bounding runs, to tempo runs, to intervals; a lifter will go from heavy deads, presses, and squats to geared (or simply heavier) deads, presses, and squats.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that what’s defined as a Block Periodization approach for a powerlifter often looks very similar to Traditional or Western approach.  A traditionally periodized powerlifting program could go from raw benching to suited in order to increase intensity, while a block-style system could do the same thing in order to realize strength adaptations gained from raw benching-induced hypertrophy.  Both styles also train maximal strength throughout the macrocycle, starting at the periphery of max effort training.  Basically, two different approaches have come up with solutions that look fairly identical in the grand scheme of things.

In fact, Verkhoshansky himself recommends a “block” lifting program that’s quite similar to a great number of programs that feature short term volume/intensity undulations within a bigger-picture Traditional Periodization or Western Periodization scheme.[xiv] Gabriel Naspinski provides a longer-term approach that is more recognizable as pure Block Periodization due to its interchangeable blocks and manipulation of specificity,[xv] though again the limited energetic demands of powerlifting mean that it doesn’t meet our ultimate model of Block Periodization.

From a distance, Block Periodization for powerlifting resembles an abrupt and compressed version of Western Periodization, with the biggest changes involving time and flexibility.  Block Periodized powerlifting programs adhere to short mesocycles with varying interchangeability, while Traditional and Western Periodized powerlifting programs use longer mesocycles that are more rigidly arranged.  I’ll praise Naspinksi again for developing a program that exemplifies this paradigm.

Even before being exposed to academic-level discussions of parallel and block training, powerlifters of all stripes had largely settled on a fairly narrow set of rules that grab ideas from both systems.  We’ve already seen how a system like Westside mixes ideas.  On the other hand, Ed Coan’s training style was largely Western-influenced, though he threw in blocks of different training means and methods to key his progress.  A good example of this is the intense complexes of back exercises he would perform during portions of long deadlift cycles.[xvi] In fact, any of the methods of gaining strength can be used in short block fashion.  A good examples comes from Cal Dietz, Head S&C Coach for the University of Minnesota, who advocates a system built around isometric-, concentric-, and eccentric-focused blocks.[xvii]

If had to think of a strength sport that could fit into a full Block Periodization approach (one that would appear very different from a Traditional or Western model), it would be strongman competitions, specifically World’s Strongest Man-style meets.  To take a hypothetical stab at how such a program might look, I’d say the beginning of a macrocycle could include aerobic energy work and maximal effort lifts, and would progress to lactic threshold energy work, explosive strength work, strength endurance activities, and event-specific challenges.

With all of these different factors and caveats in mind, it’s safe to say that Block Periodization isn’t the ultimate solution to long-term sports planning.  It seems that pure Block Periodization is probably best-suited for medium-distance racing sports (running, swimming, hurdling, etc.) and explosive strength sports where the competitive event isn’t the best means for improving general strength (hammer, discus, long jump, etc.)  This shouldn’t be a surprise as the coaches who pushed Block Periodization forward were involved in these sports.

Even in the instances where it’s most differentiated from Traditional Periodization, Block Periodization does have its weaknesses:

  • It’s appropriate only for advanced athletes with an advanced training background who can retain skills and adjust to intense training.
  • It’s most effective in sports that lie between the complexity extremes of team sports and weight lifting sports.
  • It’s a better response to compressed competitive cycles, but still not perfect.
  • It’s extremely demanding and requires a completely healthy athlete to be effective. For that reason, Block Periodization is best-suited for sports that don’t cause much physical damage to the athlete so that the high-intensity techniques of later blocks can be kept up.
  • If the blocks aren’t timed right, overreaching can become overtraining, which will destroy athletic performance.

While I’ll end our look at training periodization here, I don’t want to suggest that the science is complete, and that we now have two perfect methods of long-term training, with one or the other appropriate for any athlete.  That’s just not the case.  It has complicated and controversial roots, and like all aspects of sport science, our understanding and practice of training periodization is always evolving.

Wrapping-Up

 

Strength is a complicated thing.  Unless you’re lucky enough to have an excellent coach at your side, reaching your fullest reasonable potential will have a considerable intellectual element.  To that end, I hope this series will help you avoid a lot of the confusion I waded through ten years ago when I first cracked open Supertraining.

Beyond what I’ve said here and in earlier parts, my best advice to readers who are getting into advanced texts for the first time is to keep an open mind.  You’ll find at some point that a solid idea you’ve had on a system or method just doesn’t apply to what you’re reading.  I’ve tried hard to make my own generalities as applicable as possible, though there’s no such thing as a lowest common denominator for sports science.  Questions and comments are welcome below; if you come to this piece late, or have questions about earlier articles, I regularly check for new comments.   You can also catch me on Twitter if you don’t mind a really short response.

Strength 101: Pt I – Strength and the Body

Strength 101: Pt II – The Methods of Strength Development

Strength 101: Pt III – Organizing Training

 

 


[i] Verkhoshansky, Y. and Verkhoshansky, N. (2011).  Special Strength Training: Manual for Coaches.  Rome: Verkhoshansky.com.

[ii] Verkhoshansky

[iii] Siff, M.C. (2000).  Supertraining.  Denver: Supertraining Institute.

[iv] In this sense, “power” correlates to powerlifting or lifting low reps in the max effort range, and not as in achieving maximal force/power production as through explosive lifts in the 70% range.

[v] Matveyev, L. (1981).  Fundamentals of Sports Training. USSR: Progress Publishers.

[vi] Matveyev

[vii] Matveyev

[viii] Issurin, V. (2010).  Block Periodization: Scientific Concept and Implementation.  Presented at Rowing Coaches’ Clinic, October 15.

[ix] Verkhoshansky

[x] The diagram is extremely simple and roughly analogous to what you’ll find in Supertraining; both Issurin and Verkhoshansky provide much more comprehensive diagrams in their referenced texts.

[xi] Verkhoshansky

[xii] Verkhoshansky

[xiii] Note that until recently, many NFL S&C coaches used HIT methods and machine-based training; the goal was to maintain strength with as little repetitive damage to the athlete as possible.

[xiv] Verkhoshansky

[xv] Naspinski, G. (2010).  “A Practical Guide for Implementing Block Periodization for Powerlifting.” USA: http://articles.elitefts.com/articles/powerlifting-articles/a-practical-guide-for-implementing-block-periodization-for-powerlifting/.

[xvi] Bryant, J., and Dobson, B. (2011).  Metroflex Gym Powerbuilding Basics.  USA: Joshstrength.com.

[xvii] Dietz, C.  Tri-Phasic Undulating Block Method.  USA: Xathlete.com

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