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Putting A Period On Periodization

February 27, 2006 08:45 AM

Period: A point or portion of time at which something is ended; a completion or conclusion.

In their book on the subject of periodization, Periodization Breakthrough! , Steven J. Fleck,Ph.D. and William J. Kramer,PH.D. state: "In sum, planned training will help ensure continued gains, prevent injuries, keep the training from becoming boring, and help you avoid training plateaus."

Periodization (planned training) is simply breaking down a year-long training regime into smaller intervals with varying intensity and volume. Intensity pertains to the difficulty of the lift in relation to a 1RM, with 95-100% at the upper end. Volume can be either the number of reps or total amount of weight lifted in a given time period, with the latter most often used.

On the surface, the concept of periodization looks like a winner but examination of standard periodization plans reveals a major problem.

Fleck and Kramer cite the results of earlier studies of standard periodization versus non-periodization strength programs, then make an observation of their own: "Importantly, the periodized training resulted in a significant increase in lean body mass, indicating both an increase in muscle mass and a significant decrease in percent body fat".
Resulting in an increase in lean body mass? No thanks, not for me ? and not for you if you participate in almost any sport, indoors or out.

What's the harm in a little extra mass?

Gravity. It likes to be in the middle of a tug of war between two masses, such as your body and the earth. But Gravity doesn't play fair; it always favors the bigger mass. Therefore, in the battle between your body mass and the mass of the earth, you lose.

Research has shown that, because of the effects of gravity, it takes up to 10 times more energy to move vertically then to move horizontally, and most sports require vertical movement. A soccer player may appear to be playing an entire match horizontally but every stride she takes running down the field requires a powerful vertical movement along with the horizontal one. That seemingly harmless extra mass requires a lot of extra strength to overcome the effect of gravity.

Contrary to the idea of keeping mass to a minimum, Fleck and Kramer's brand of periodization promotes a "significant increase in?lean body mass" as a goal!

Since Fleck and Kramer's periodization plan follows the standard concept of the majority of periodization plans currently in use, the lack of recognition of gravity's impact on performance should cause you to take a much deeper look into periodization.

Periodization plans generally include four phases: Phase 1 is the active pursuit of hypertrophy in order to gain lean body mass, followed by strength and power gains in phase 2, performance peaking during in-season competition in phase 3, and active rest in phase 4, the off-season.

There are numerous variations of periodization plans. Some plans include macrocycles, microcycles, and mesocycles, and various other cycles (sounds more like a washing machine!). Depicted in powerful looking pyramid style drawings, periodization plans offered by many trainers and coaches generally include these phases:

Phase 1. Work to the point of muscle exhaustion with high reps/low weight to increase sarcomere hypertrophy (mass).

Phase 2. Work to the point of muscle exhaustion with medium weight/medium reps to increase strength and power (but actually create more endurance).

Phase 3. Work to the point of muscle exhaustion with high weight/low reps to peak performance at season end.

Phase 4. Take some time off to rest from the muscle-pumping, nerve?burning, ghastly ordeal of the first 3 phases.

Even the few trainers and coaches who avoid having their athletes lift to exhaustion generally allow depletion of the phosphagen pool, which some researchers believe increases muscle size by disrupting the equilibrium between consumption and remanufacture of ATP.

Referred to as the ATP deficiency theory (Hartmann and Tunnemann, 1988), the protein content of muscles used during maximum strength training becomes very low or even completely exhausted by the depletion of ATP. Recovery between training sessions helps protein return to previous levels ? or go to even higher levels. A result of the increase in protein could be correspondingly greater muscle size. In other words, more mass.

Is the failure to recognize the effects of adding mass just an oversight? Is it simply a misunderstanding or is it a contextual problem of periodization plans? I believe it is the latter.

Here's why: Periodization must be viewed in the context of how the strength training aspect of a workout is approached. In other words, if strength training for sports is a modified version of bodybuilding, then current forms of periodization are planned to provide for the rest and recuperation needs of muscles subjected to a bodybuilding routine.

If that is the case, what form should periodization take when a typical bodybuilding training regime is not pursued?

What if increasing mass is never a goal?

What if there is no work to exhaustion, even with workouts of 90% or greater 1RM?

What if lactic acid is avoided like the plague?

What if there is a planned program of preserving the phosphagen pool built into the program?

Pavel Tsatsouline, in Power To The People!, endorses the concept of periodization but provides several simplified versions of periodizing that he refers to as "cycling". He describes cycling as, "?a gradual buildup of intensity to a personal best, and then starting all over with easy workouts." Since Pavel is a strong proponent of building myofibrillar hypertrophy, none of his versions of recycling include phases of increasing useless mass.

In a previous article, "The Holy Grail In Speed Training," I presented a non-bodybuilding method of strength training.
The "periodizing" format (termed "recycling") used for our system is simple: attack the 100% 1RM often, but not in a linear fashion, vary workout sessions in no particular pattern while never dropping below 85% 1RM and let current performance dictate the plan for the next 1 or 2 sessions.

This may sound disturbing to anyone who looks down the road to a particular event, then plans a workout in phases to reach the peak of power on the exact day necessary.

If only it was that easy. Of course, it would be easy if there were no injuries or illness, no bad weather, no problems in getting to the gym, workout area, field or venue; no other challenges or outright failures. But, there are - at least, that has been my experience.

Our recycling plan may not be far-reaching, but the effects of it are. We focus on what happened in the previous 2-3 sessions, not what might happen 3-6 months from now. There are no fancy pyramids in our system. We don't build a base of mass geared toward endurance instead of strength. We recognize that it is important to vary volume and intensity for each training day through changes in sets, reps and weight. We strictly limit the number of exercise in order to maximize neuromuscular adaptation.

We don't add exercises to our system to stave off boredom in the weightroom because we don't spend much time in the weightroom. We don't spend much time in the weightroom because we aren't building pyramids - we're building superior strength with minimal mass.

Standard periodization does not work for a large percentage of athletes. Multi-sport athletes, such as those in high school and some collegiate athletes, don't have enough time to complete each phase adequately.

Weight training for them must be continuous because there is neither the time for an active rest phase between sports, nor the time to build a strength pyramid. Standard periodization does not work for those who realize that building mass creates a tougher battle against gravity.

Perhaps standard periodization should not be standard.

Barry Ross has been coaching for more than 25 years, initially a track and field throwing events and general strength training coach. His focus in the last 10 years is on increasing the strength and speed (power!) of athletes in a variety of sports including football, baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, rugby, cross country and track.
Coach Ross has had a solid percentage of his athletes receive NCAA Division 1 and 2 scholarships in a variety of sports (including volleyball, football, soccer, and track) at UCLA, San Jose State, U.C. Berkley, University of Southern California, UNLV, Washington, and the Naval Academy. Among his most well known athletes are Jessica Cosby, winner of Pac 10 titles in the shot put and hammer, as well as a NCAA Division 1 title in the shot put and Allyson Felix who, as a 17 year old high school student in 2003, broke all of Marion Jones high school records in the 200 meters and went on to run the fastest 200 meters in the world that year. Ms Felix also became the first track and field athlete to go directly from high school into professional track.

His strength training methods are used by high schools and college athletes as well as professional baseball, tennis and rugby players.

Barry has recently released the book, Underground Secrets To Faster Running, describing his training methods as well as the science behind them. He can be reached at