Hours upon hours are typically spent on developing the true masterpiece that is the training program. Typically, great detail is given to every movement housed within the program. Each lift is carefully chosen to address a certain need. Every aspect of the intensity and volume is delicately manipulated to place the focus of the training day on the specified target.
Great artists have some sort of vision that drives their art. In their mind, they have a map to guide them through their processes. Great coaches are no different, they understand the physical demands that are being placed on the athlete's body, and they feed from this.
They manipulate the training variables to develop a program that will address all the needs of the given athlete or team. They know that the finished masterpiece better not only improve the athlete's skill, but also decrease their potential for injury.
This brings me to structure. Every coach brings something different to the table. Whether it is a new set of exercises, new twists on old lifts, or different philosophies on implementation, no two coaches sit down and create the same program. Yet almost all successful training programs have one thing in common-structure!
The old adage, failing to plan is planning to fail, comes to mind. Without knowing the intimates of the season and the athlete, you will not be able to properly address the athletes needs. Once you do know theses intimates, you must develop a plan of attack, or you will get lost in the processes.
Learning From The Past To Improve The Future
The first truly documented periodized programs came from the Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union and East Germany in the late 1950s early 1960s.
These countries needed to develop an edge for the politically biased events such as the Olympics and other worldwide events (Siff 2000).
At the time when the United States found it more beneficial to focus its science on the aerobic aspects of training, these countries started to develop strong scientific roots in strength training. They decided to focus on strength and power, since this seemed to be the basis for many of the sports that were showcased at events like the Olympics.
Hundreds of scientists based their existence around the development of strength and power techniques that would be used to bring these countries to the top.
At this time, the U.S. was diving deeper into the philosophies of Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics. This resulted in the nation wide endorsement of the Cardiovascular Doctrine. At this point, the U.S. decided to adopt the notion that health and sport depended primarily on prolonged endurance or that which is developed during aerobic exercise.
At this point in time, the general U.S. consensus was that weight training did little for health, but rather made the muscles "pretty" and nothing more.
During the fall of the Iron Curtain and of the concurrent stronghold on their studies, the mass quantities of strength research that had been hidden away in the Eastern Bloc vaults started to be released. Along with this research came the truth behind the secrets to their success that had puzzled many for so long.
Even though the Eastern Bloc countries are given credit for the advent of periodized training, there is some evidence that the notion has been around for much longer. Strength training dates back to 3600BC where ancient Chinese emperors made their disciples exercise daily (Webster, 1976).
There is also abundant documentation of its use during the Chou dynasty (1122-249BC) and in ancient Egypt and India.
The 6th century BC, which was known as the Age of Strength, is represented by many Greek sculptures depicting the muscular male physique (Siff, 2000). In closing, we cannot forget about mythological character Milo of Croton who carried a baby calf around on his back. As the calf grew, so did Milo's strength.
Periodization, or a training paradigm that changes the training stimulus in a structured way, exists in many forms and mutated variations. Although there are many different types of periodization, I am going to outline the three most prevalent types "Western" style, Conjugated, Undulating, and one that I have developed which I call the Hybrid method. Before I dissect these four methods and discuss their differences, let's highlight what they all have in common.
No matter what form of periodization you subscribe to, the components are all the same.
All programs are going to address:
- Recovery and any variation there of.
How these types of strength are addressed is going to be similar. Hypertrophy is typically going to be trained with 3-6 sets of 8-20 reps at 65-80 percent. Strength is going to be trained with 3-6 sets of 1-6 reps at 85-120 percent.
Endurance is going to be trained with 1-3 sets of 10-30+ reps at 15-60 percent. Recovery usually mimics the loading of endurance with the reps and sets of hypertrophy training.
There are also similarities in the location of certain loading patterns. For instance we know that athletes cannot handle large amounts of volume (from strength training) in-season. We also know that the off-season if the best time to improve strength, power, and increase size.
Western Style Periodization
Western Style periodization got its name because it was influenced by western training philosophies. This type of periodization has three cycle classifications.
The Macrocycle is the term given to the overall training cycle. This cycle is either one year in duration as is the typical sport season, or four years long, as is typical of the Olympic cycle. The Macrocycle is broken down into smaller parts called Mesocycles.
A Mesocycle typically consists of 4-6 week training phases. These phases usually have a specific focus such as anatomical adaptation, maximal strength, conversion, maintenance, or transition. The Mesocycle is broken down into the smallest components know as Microcycles.
Microcycles are typically 7 days long, but can be manipulated to fit the training need. The Microcycle is the "meat and potatoes" of the training program, and must reflect the goal of the Mesocycle. It is within this component that the means to the end are illustrated.
I previously stated five types of Mesocycles. Each cycle is designed to develop a specific need.
Anatomical Adaptation Cycle
The anatomical adaptation cycle is usually placed first in the off-season. The goal of this phase is to prepare the structures of the body for the heavier and more dynamic loading that will be experienced in the next few Mesocycles. In this cycle, athletes focus on increasing muscle mass and decreasing unwanted fat mass.
Maximal Strength Cycle
During the maximal strength Mesocycle the training emphasis switches to the development of absolute strength. The goal is to elevate absolute strength, which in turn will elevate the ceiling barrier for the other types of strength. Characteristically this phase consists of heavy loading and lower volumes. The lifts in this phase are typically performed as low velocities due to their intensities.
The conversion Mesocycle is used to turn the new found strength that was developed during the previous cycles into explosive power. This phase usually focuses more on the speed of the movement and less on heavy loading. Explosive power is addressed through velocity training, Olympic movements, plyometrics, and other "quick" movements.
Transition phases are typically low in volume and low in intensity. These Mesocycles usually consist of game type activities, light aerobic activity, mobility training, extra flexibility, light lifting, and massage. The focus here is recovery and to prepare the body for the next set of training stimuli.
The maintenance Mesocycle is designed to help the athlete retain the new found strengths that were developed during the off-season. This cycle usually lasts the duration of the in-season and may be inter-dispersed with transition phases when needed.
Since the intensity of the load ultimately dictates the physical adaptation, western style periodization is strictly based on each athlete's one repetition maximum (RM). The one RM is used as the basis to calculate all the loading used throughout the year. Typical practice has been to test absolute strength during the early off-season, at the end of the strength Mesocycle, and prior to the preseason. Many coaches only test absolute strength at the bookends of the off-season.
Even though this type of periodization if the staple of many strength coaches across the world, it is not perfect. First, as the athlete progresses through the program, their level of strength is going to change. What typically happens is a coach will create a six-week protocol using the latest maximal strength test. As the athlete adapts to the program their strength level will change.
I have found that it is not uncommon to have female athletes experience 50-pound increases in their squat max during a strength cycle. In some instances, this has been an increase of over 33% in their maximal strength.
By the end of this cycle, a percentage that was calculated using their previous max is completely wrong.
For instance, one athlete tested in with a 175-pound box squat. By the end of the six-week cycle, she was squatting 225 off the box. If I were to calculate 85 percent of her max (lets say for five-six reps) to focus on strength according to her previous max I would prescribe 150 pounds. However, she can now squat 225, so 150 is only 66 percent of her true instantaneous max. This would be a sub-maximal stimulus for the given training adaptation.
The next problem is that strength changes from day to day particularly due to psychological stimulation and environmental influence. Common things such as not sleeping enough, eating poorly, experiencing stress, or just coming into the weight room with a negative mindset can change an athlete's instantaneous max. This can create situations where the body cannot adequately deal with a volume that typically would not be a problem.
We must also take into account minor injury. Minor injury can alter the course of a training program for seemingly small periods of time. Even though these injuries may only last for a few days to a week, detraining can occur while the injury heals. Once the athlete is placed back into the normal training program, they can no longer hand the prescribed intensity and the potential for an overtraining syndrome presents itself.
The final problem I have with this type of periodization is that each Mesocycle focuses on a specific component. It is typical to separate strength, power, and hypertrophy into separate training Mesocycles, but these components need to be constantly addressed. While one component is being developed, the other components are not adequately stressed. This may cause other components to stagnate or detrain.