June 19, 2011

Periodization - Basic Guidelines To Effectively Develop A Long Term Program

Periodization is basically a fancy word that means reverse planning. All you’re really doing is working backwards from the desired end result to where you are today, and that determines what exactly needs to be done to get there within a certain time frame (assuming all goes according to plan – although it never does, so take that into consideration as well).

The idea of periodization was developed to help prepare athletes for upcoming competition and maintain a certain level of physical strength and conditioning throughout a competitive season. But, even if you aren’t an athlete you can still benefit from this type of training model as it is extremely effective at producing results (when done properly), and avoiding stagnation, AKA hitting a plateau.

The commercial gym industry generally uses a confusing rendition of the periodization model as a selling tool because of how logical it appears to be in terms of producing results, even though 99% of the cookie-cutter trainers employed by commercial gyms have no clue as to how to periodize a plan (increasing the weight every time they train someone is NOT periodization). The reason for this is simply because the education system, and certification courses in which trainers are taught, spend a great deal of time on various topics that don’t contribute to real world results (like optimal heart rate zones needed to burn fat on the treadmill, or stationary bike – not to say this information is invaluable, it just pales in comparison to teaching trainers how to get faster results by using weights in a periodized way to promote results while preventing stagnation). I wouldn’t even refer to the majority of trainers as trainers, but rather exercise instructors as most of them really just demonstrate how they want a client to perform a movement, and then count out the reps.

After selecting a goal and knowing where it is you want to go, it’s important to know where you’re starting from by revealing any muscular imbalances an individual may have, which were likely developed over a sustained period of time based on their lifestyle (sitting, running, etc), or if they’re an athlete, based on the primary movement patterns of the respective sport (hockey, basketball, baseball, various Olympic events, mixed martial arts). Their relative scores from testing their entire body with movements designated to highlight the strength of specific muscle groups will give you exactly what you need to know in terms of what needs to be focused on.

The greater amount of time you have to work with someone, the more variety there can be when selecting exercises to correct imbalances. If pressed for time, as in a short off season, the more you would want to stick to the basics which have the most room for improvement.

For example, a Peterson step up is a great exercise to help strengthen the VMO, but pales in comparison to a full range of motion squat when it comes to lower body strength and power development. Therefore, if you have a long off season time spent isolating and strengthening the VMO with a Peterson step up is a worthwhile investment in time, as it will improve the integrity of the knee and thus lead to greater gains in the squat in the long run, while also preventing the risk of knee injury. If you are pressed for time and only have, let’s say 8 weeks, before the competitive period begins, then wasting time that could be used to improve squat poundage with Peterson step ups may not provide as much of a return on investment.

When selecting exercises, you always want to focus on the ones that have the most room for improvement, and have potential for the greatest gains. There’s no secret as to which these exercises are, as the three exercises with the highest ceiling are: the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift. Hence why they are the exercises in which power lifting is based upon.

Exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and step-ups all have a place in a well rounded strength training program, but they simply do not provide the same allowance of strength and power to be developed systemically, which is why it’s important to select the best exercises based on the available time frame, and generally they are the ones that allow for the most amount of weight to be lifted. You would never hear of a program claiming to put “50 lbs. on your incline press”, it just doesn’t have that kind of room for improvement, so keep that in mind when deciding which exercises should be selected.

Obviously the exercises selected should be on the goal. In most cases the bench press would be the primary lift for one focusing on upper body strength/power/size, while the back squat performed through a full range of motion would be emphasized for those focusing on lower body strength/power/size. If explosiveness and speed/power was the desired trait to be developed, than the power clean or power snatch may be better suited as the primary lifts in which the program is built around improving.

As far as a timeline is concerned, the general population can spend as much time as needed on creating balanced development, and have no need to get better at the Olympic lifts at all, as it’s not like you’ll have some hotshot CEO needing to improve his power snatch within 8 weeks to reduce the strain of carrying his suitcase.

For an athlete the length of the off-season and competitive season, which is dependent on each individual sport, will determine what is focused on, and when. Someone like a MMA fighter will have several preparatory and competitive periods (fights) during a calendar year followed by a transitional period (for recovery, which is especially needed in the case of an MMA fighter in the case that they got badly damaged during the bout), while someone like a basketball or hockey player will have one long preparatory period and an even longer competitive period (82 games spread over 8 months, not including playoffs). During the competitive period the focus is soley on maintaining strength developed in the off-season, meaning hypertrophy work is left out, as it should have been done during the off-season. The only time hypertrophy work is appropriate during a competitive season is if there are a bunch of games scheduled back to back, or close together, as strength training may be too overwhelming for the nervous system to bounce back from and negatively affect performance come game time, in which case a hypertrophy workout could be used to promote recovery.

For the average Joe with a general fitness goal (lose fat, build muscle) and no absolute deadline, alternating between phases of higher volume and higher intensity is generally best, as opposed to a linear, or reverse linear progression, as alternating prevents gains that were made from being lost. For example, the quality that is developed from performing a high volume of work is drastically different from that which is developed from highly intensive work, and transitioning from volume to intensity, or vice versa, could result in the gains made at the beginning of a program being lost by the end of it. Alternating back and forth prevents this because over time as you begin to possibly lose the ability to perform a high volume of work, or highly intensive work, you go back to it and pick up where you left off, while having made other improvements.

Here is an example of a periodized plan which alternates phases of volume with phases of intensity in a wavelike pattern which promotes retention of gains made in previous phases:

Phase 1: 10-12 reps, Volume phase #1

Phase 2: 5-6 reps, Intensity phase #1

Phase 3: 8-10 reps, Volume phase #2

Phase 4: 3-4 reps, Intensity phase #2

Phase 5: 6-8 reps, Volume phase #3

Phase 6: 1-2 reps, Intensity phase #3

An off-season periodized plan for an athlete, AKA preparatory phase, will generally consist of two separate phases:

1. General preparatory (the very beginning of the training plan)

2. Specific preparatory (the end of the training plan before the competitive season begins)

The goal in the general preparatory phase is to get the body as structurally balanced as possible and correct any imbalances caused from the respective sport. Just as you would with a normal client who isn’t an athlete, you would alternate back and forth between phases of volume and intensity, adjusting the exercises and loading parameters accordingly.

The goal in the specific preparatory phase is to focus intently on the lifts that are most directly correlated with improved performance in the respective sport. If it’s a lower body dominant sport then the focus would be to develop strength and power in the squat (or front squat, but even that is dependent on how much one can back squat in most cases). If it’s an upper body dominant sport then the focus would be to develop strength and power in the bench press (or incline press, but even that is dependent on how much one can bench press in most cases). If it’s a sport that requires both upper and lower body power then focus should be divided into maximizing both lifts and personally prioritizing one lift over the other depending on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. If it’s more of an explosive sport that requires short duration bursts of energy then a power clean may be a better option to devote the most amount of time developing.

The primary focus during the competitive phase, depending on the sport, is to maintain the strength, power, hypertrophy (muscle mass), or endurance that was developed in the off-season training. Attempting to make gains during the competitive season, especially hypertrophic gains, would likely interfere with the athletes performance due to possibly overtraining, or being too sore to perform at their best, as hypertrophy and endurance type training incorporates higher rep ranges and prolonged time under tension, which ultimately means more eccentric contractions, therefore more soreness.

Very few sets with relatively heavy weights are more than enough to maintain strength gained, and therefore won’t negatively interfere with performance, at least not to the same degree.

In the case of a fighter, or any athlete who’s event takes place over the course of one day, like a fight or tournament, there wouldn’t really be a competitive period per se, you would just alternate between preparatory periods followed by transitional (recovery) periods (the length of which would be determined by the general health of the athlete. If they got destroyed, than focus is on recovering from injury, at the expense of lifting weights).

Following the competitive period it is advised that the athlete take time off to allow the body to fully regenerate physically and mentally before starting the next phase. Up to 4 weeks can be given off, but any more than that could lead to rapid loss of strength and power developed, and maintained, from the previous year.

If you have any questions about periodization, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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