Is Periodization Necessary for Strength Sports?


Written by: Kevin Cann


Periodization is defined as the systematic planning of physical training.  The goal is to be able to “peak” for the most important competitions of the year.  The training usually consists of specific periods where certain physiological components are stressed more than others.


The idea of periodization came about due to Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  GAS has 3 phases, the alarm phase, resistance stage, and exhaustive stage.  Basically, the organism will respond to stress by adapting to it.  However, too much stress can lead to overtraining, and too little can lead to limited or no adaptation.


The idea of planned training is to keep the organism within the resistance stage without ever reaching exhaustion.  This is where preplanned deloads come in, usually following a period of higher workloads.  During this period of lighter resistance, the organism adapts and recovers to a new and higher level of performance.  This is known as supercompensation.


Russian physiologist, Leo Matveyev analyzed the results of Soviet Olympic athletes from 1952 to 1956.  He compared the training plans of the most successful athletes and came up with a plan for the Soviet athletes for the 1960 Olympics.


The Soviet athletes had enormous success and the world wanted a piece of these Russian training principles.  This is where the idea of periodization spread and was further developed by Tudor Bompa.  Bompa’s texts were part of my undergrad and grad school readings still today.


As periodization became more popular and was used more widely, many adjustments were made to the original ideas of Matveyev.  The Russians began instituting a longer term athlete development system.  This was known as PASM (the process of achieving sports mastery).


Children were selected at young ages to attend schools that focused on the sports that they were selected to.  These sports were run like a school subject.  Multi-year training plans were laid out to bring these athletes to the level of Master of Sport and beyond.


These schools focused on training many athletic qualities at a young age.  This is contrary to the West where early specialization dominates.  The idea is that by developing a greater set of motor skills at a younger age, athletes will have a greater foundation to build more specific skills off of.


This is where Yuri Verkoshansky comes onto the scene.  His earlier research looked at the Principle of Dynamic Organization.  He viewed sport as a problem solving activity in which movements supply the solutions.  Since movement is controlled by the CNS, training should be utilized to enhance and create more efficiency within the CNS.  These movement solutions are constantly changing as the body is always looking for more efficient solutions.  Sound familiar?  Dynamic Systems Theory and a Constraints-Led Approach build off of this principle.


Verkoshansky saw problems with the concurrent style of training, training multiple aspects at once.  The athletes required too much volume in order to address all of the qualities of athletic performance.  This is where Block Periodization came in.


Each block would focus on a specific athletic trait, while the others were being attempted to be maintained.  This was known as the Conjugate Sequential System (CSS).  This often gets confused with the conjugate method made famous by Westside Barbell.


Westside does not use conjugate periodization.  They use a concurrent training style, also known as complex-parallel training.  They train multiple aspects at once, max effort, dynamic effort, and repetition effort.  Verkoshansky describes this type of training as being only appropriate for low level athletes.


Keep in mind these training programs are being written for Olympic athletes.  These were not being written for powerlifters or weightlifters.  A lot of the ideas spread into that training, but it was not the primary focus.


Field athletes need to be fast, agile, strong, flexible, quick, conditioned, technical, tactical, and so on.  They require so many different physical qualities to be successful at the highest level.  This is why block periodization makes sense.  In order to focus on all of those qualities in the gym and also their sport specific training would require too much volume and the athletes would risk injury.


A barbell sport is not that complex.  The gym training is the sport as well.  The list of traits to train are much smaller.  A powerlifter needs absolute strength, rate of force development, and some technical skills for the 3 lifts.  The need for breaking up training into blocks does not make sense to me for powerlifters.  For field athletes, maybe.


This is most likely where daily undulating periodization (DUP) comes in.  Instead of breaking training into blocks, each aspect is given its own day.  Hypertrophy is one day, strength another, and power is another.  Sounds a lot like Westside’s conjugate method, but we can continue to argue about that on the internet.


The main difference is how each of those days is setup.  Many of the DUP programs are much higher volume and maybe higher frequency as well.  There is usually very limited maxing out on singles.  Another major difference is with the use of variation.  The conjugate method uses a lot of variation, while many DUP programs only use the comp lifts.


The argument is for sports specificity.  I have a hard time understanding this argument as a set of 6 reps is not specific to the sport of heavy singles.  It is not more specific then moving your feet out an inch or two, or the bar an inch higher on your back and hitting a max single.  Max singles are the sport, so wouldn’t that be specific?


I think the argument would be that max singles are too difficult to recover from.  People will look at the Bulgarians and discuss the burnout and the negatives of that training system.  They do this while missing the positives, they were the best in the world.


Russians were dominating the strength sports for a period of time as well.  This may just be a byproduct of time in the sport.  They started at a young age lifting weights and building very solid technique.  A 20 year old in Russia has over 10 years of learning the lifts, while here in America they may be picking it up for the first time.  Culture matters in many ways.


I wonder if the heavy singles were shied away from with field athletes and that fear of “overtraining” due to the belief that GAS is true, just filtered into strength sports?  Sheiko did not use heavy singles because the technique would breakdown.


His goal in training was to get every single rep to look the same.  This trains one stable movement pattern.  As technical efficiency increases, the athlete will lift more weight.  This gets back to what Verkoshansky said about training the CNS to be more efficient and the Principle of Dynamic Organization.


Sheiko visited Westside and spent a whole day with Louie Simmons discussing training.  He said the difference between his style and Simmons was that he focused on technique first and Simmons focused on strength first.


This does not mean that Westside doesn’t focus on technique.  They do, their dynamic days are to work on technique with lighter weights.  They also focus on attacking weaknesses, just like Sheiko, but just do it differently.  Sheiko would alter the ROM on bench and deadlifts to lift higher absolute loads and use chains on the squat.  Multiple ways to skin a cat.


The problem we ran into running a more submax type program was with the psychological component of training.  Psychological arousal can alter movement patterns.  The only way to get that psychological arousal is to put heavier weights on the bar and lift at or near maximal.


No one denies that maximal singles elicit the greatest motor unit recruitment.  Many of those Russian texts state that after a couple of weeks of maxing out, the athlete will see a decrease in performance.  This is absolutely true.  However, this is where variation becomes important.  Change the lift, and this issue goes away.


Let us get back to the original question, is periodization necessary for strength sports?  First off, GAS does not really apply to training.  Selye electrocuted mice and weighed their brains afterwards.  This doesn’t mean that it is entirely wrong, but it is definitely not a principle to base training around.


Recovery is important and that will be individualized based off of genetics, motivational factors, life stress, nutrition, sleep, and so on.  You can only train as much as you can recover from.  Powerlifting is the one sport that people seem afraid to actually practice the sport.


Nothing will build better 1RM strength than taking 1RMs.  As I mentioned earlier, this requires some paying attention by the coach as after a few weeks, we can see a drop in performance.  This is where variation comes into play.


Load management is also important here.  Some variations will require more absolute loads and others the lifter will lift less.  The lifts with high absolute loads are testers, and the lower loads are builders.  The coach can structure training in a way to limit or to push absolute loads in any way they see fit to meet the individual’s needs.


Like any coach, a powerlifting coach needs to address the skills of the sport.  This means building absolute strength, rate of force development, and technical skills.  There are physical and psychological pieces to all of this as well.


All of this needs to be structured in a way that allows the lifter to recover.  So, there needs to be structure, and it needs to be flexible and adaptable, but it does not need to be periodized.  The goal is to get as many max effort lifts in as possible over the long term.  This is the sports specific training.  Think of it as practicing for the sport.  The more you practice, the better you get.


The other days need to work on technical skills as well as rate of force development (the ability to generate force more quickly).  Think of this as more GPP for powerlifting.  These days will not directly influence the 1RM, but they help the lifter learn more efficient movements, and improve their ability to generate force more quickly.  They then can take these new acquired skills and apply it to the max effort lifts.


This does not require training to be broken up into blocks.  I have found that the longer a lifter is removed from max effort work, the harder it is to get back the psychological components of lifting heavy.  Too much time away from lighter weights being moved quickly and the lifters get slower.  Training works best if we focus on all of these aspects in a more concurrent training program.


Block training may work better for high level field athletes, as they still practice their sport which includes all aspects of their sport.  This will at least allow them to hold onto sport specific skills while training in the gym is more specific to one of those physiological components.  Every sport does have an off-season where they take a break.  This helps for mental and physical recovery.


Most lifters will get breaks throughout the year due to vacations and life circumstances.  The competition schedule for powerlifting is not as grueling as field sports.  Most lifters compete 2-3 times per year.  In field sports, 2-3 competitions in a week is very common.


I find deloads to be completely unnecessary as life usually takes care of that.  We do not need to pre-plan a deload.  This does not mean that the program should not be flexible and adaptable to individual needs.  It needs to be, and each person comes with their own set of individual circumstances.


Instead of planning a month of training, or more, we plan 1 week at a time.  Based off of how that week goes, and life circumstances upcoming in the next week, we plan the following week.  If a lifter hits a true max in one week, the following week we will use a percentage of that lift and just hit some sets and reps.  This serves as a nice psychological deload so to speak.


If a lifter’s week gets dragged out into Sunday for a day 4 where they squat, we will change day 1 from squats to bench, allowing them to get more recovery to maximize the max effort squat session.  We do all of this while rotating exercises every 3 weeks to help psychological burnout by keeping training fun and interesting, and to also follow the law of accommodation, which states that over time the organism’s response to a stimulus will decrease the more they are exposed to it.  This is why Sheiko was very adamant on load variability being very important.


Having a plan is very important for the athlete seeing continued success and staying as healthy as possible.  This does not mean that we need a periodized program.  The plan just needs to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate the individual.

One thought on “Is Periodization Necessary for Strength Sports?

  1. Really good piece man, always appreciate your work.

    Do you systematize variations based on degree of difference from the competition lift (e.g., pin squat = 1 degree, pin squat/no belt = 2 degrees, pin squat/no belt/high bar = 3 degrees, etc.)? And if so, is that something you’d manipulate over time (e.g., less specific >> more specific as comp approaches), or do really prefer no preconceived long-term direction with respect to variations?



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