Is Periodization Necessary for Strength Sports?

Written by: Kevin Cann


I was listening to the newest Reactive Training Systems podcast with Dr. Mike Israetel and John Kiely.  I highly encourage everyone to listen to the discussion.  This was not a debate, but a conversation between 2 coaches that tend to differ on how they see some things.


The topic of periodization and strength sports has been one that has always interested me.  I have multiple degrees in this field.  Periodization was taught to me like it was a sure fire thing.  As I continued to get more and more experience, especially in the powerlifting world, I began to have a lot of questions.


Periodization is defined as the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) in order to maximize training adaptations and to prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome.  I think in the discussion on the podcast there was some misunderstanding here.  Kiely was using this academic definition and Israetel manipulated it to fit his coaching needs.  With that said I think it is important that we use a definition for this discussion.


The breaking up of training into blocks came about because Olympic athletes had so many different physiological components to train.  To attempt to train them all at once was making it too difficult for the athletes to recover.


Again, this was for Olympic athletes.  The majority of them are field and team sport athletes.  These athletes practiced their sports and were also in the gym.  I think that this changes quite a bit when being in the gym is the sport.


Every sport I ever played was broken up into a season.  You have pre-season, competition season, and playoffs.  This was followed by a very brief off-season because most of us were on teams that played some games in this off-season.  For soccer, it would be an indoor league, which plays vastly different than our typical outdoor games.


Each period of the year served a purpose.  The pre-season was to get in shape and get in sync with the tactical plans of the team.  This was also a time of analysis by the coaching staff to see which areas the team needed the most work and begin to plan on how to improve upon those areas.


The season would start and you would get to see how well everything was stacking up against legitimate competition.  From there, the coaching staff would continue to analyze strengths and weaknesses and put a plan into place.


Hopefully throughout the season you see weaknesses get stronger and strengths continue to be redefined.  This will hopefully occur right at conference tournament time.  Once the playoffs begin, the speed of the game and the competition is heightened.  This brings about more analysis by the coaching staff to attempt to quickly sure up some weaknesses to make a run for a title.


This is not a periodized plan according to the definition.  However, it is a plan.  Planning training is very important.  In a very simple nutshell the plan is, get started somewhere, analyze strengths and weaknesses, adjust as needed and work on weaknesses, re-analyze, repeat.


I view myself as a sports coach, not a strength coach, and this is important, I think.  A strength coach is a coach that takes field athletes into the gym.  The sports coach is the one that coaches the athletes in their sport.


In powerlifting, I am doing both, but ultimately, I am coaching them in their sport.  One thing I have begun to improve upon before this whole pandemic hit, was creating a season for powerlifting.  Nationals is in October of every year, but there is no structure to the local meet schedule.


This leads to a lot of lifters randomly signing up for meets and attempting to “peak” for each competition.  No sport works like this for a reason.  Also, breaking it up into a year to year thing as opposed to every few months allows for the lifters to have a longer term viewpoint of the sport.  This makes it easier to see progress because we know things are not linear.


As we push for competitions, motivation increases, and psychological arousal in general.  This allows for harder training to occur, but I feel this needs to be harnessed and used at the appropriate times.  It is very difficult to get amped up for the “biggest meet of your life” 3 to 4 times a year.  That becomes too much.  Harness that attitude for the bigger and more important competitions.


Sheiko was big on competing frequently, but only peaking for 1 to 2 meets a year.  I think this is very good advice and something that PPS has already begun to implement.  This also helps to guide expectations of the lifters as every lifter seems to think they should add 50lbs on their total every 3 to 4 months.


Planning needs to happen in both the short and the long term.  In a well-run college program the freshman are redshirted and a plan is in place to get them to where they need to be over the next few years to make a run at a national championship as juniors and seniors.  You do this with every incoming class and that is how you build a national powerhouse.


The thing with powerlifting is you are not just competing against lifters in your age bracket.  You could be that freshman in college, but competing against Tom Brady, the best in the world.  This can also hamper expectations quite a bit.  Each lifter needs to understand their own current place in this sport and not compare themselves to the ones we see with a lot of followers on IG.


Every year we will start with a “pre-season.”  This will be just a starting place.  We will attack weaknesses and build a large base for the rest of the year.  Our first meet will be one we are just getting on the board to see where we are at.  Not something that we will necessarily “peak” for.


From those results we will analyze strengths and weaknesses and continue to target those weaknesses.  We want to see the weaknesses really improve in the next competition.  For the final competition of the year, we will put our best foot forward.


That is more of a long term plan.  Short term, I tend to keep volumes very similar.  The only way the volume increases is if you hit a PR, or I manipulate the max effort work to use higher or lower loads.  The number of lifts and average intensities stay the same.


I like this because it allows me to gauge recovery based off of the RPE scores that the lifters give me.  Our percentages are usually based off of the max effort work in the same week so that they are more accurate.  I will adjust volumes and intensities based off of these RPE recordings.


If they begin to float upwards, we are not recovering as well.  If they begin to go down, we are recovering well and/or adapting.  In these cases I will sometimes increase volumes and/or intensities for a short period of time until the RPEs begin to level back off.  If they get too high, we pull back again.  It is very flexible and adaptable.


Training is this game we play where there is a fine line between stimulus and recovery.  I feel training the aspects of the sport should be the focus of training.  We take a lot of heavy singles for this reason.  We can’t just do that every day though, so we need to have medium, and lighter stress days in there as well where we work on other skills within the sport.  This could even be GPP work only for a beginner if the coach wanted.


There is a plan in place, with monitoring and analysis just like any sport.  I do not understand the thought process of trying to take a field athlete’s gym plan and schedule and turn it into a sport.  They are 2 entirely different things.  Powerlifting is a sport and coaches need to look at it through the lens of a sports coach.  Would you periodize the actual football practice of a football team?  No, you would adjust based off of your constant analysis of the team.  The strength coach would periodize the gym work around those practices.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s