My Love Hate Relationship with Periodization

Written by: Kevin Cann

I have always been skeptical.  My whole life.  I wish smartphones and Google existed when I was kid so that I could have called bullshit on a few of my teachers at the time.  This attitude has led me to be wrong probably more often than I have been right.  However, it has taught me to think for myself and to really learn.

Periodization was one of these concepts that were driven down my throat in undergrad and even in grad school.  The general idea always made sense to me, but the actual practical application seemed off.  This was even more apparent in the strength sports, where performance in the gym was the actual sport.

I remember thinking that we never planned sports practice in a periodized manner.  We practiced the skills associated with the sport.  We would actually report to school two weeks before classes started to begin our pre-season conditioning for soccer.

Anyone who has played at the college level can tell you that they do not ease you into this conditioning.  You are thrown right into the fire.  We had two-a-days on the field and a third session in the pool.  No matter how much off-season work I put in, this pre-season work would be brutal and leave me sore and debilitated.

However, the body would adapt, and after a week or so, it stopped being too bad.  Once the season hit, I would be absolutely fine, and my conditioning would be a strength.  I am not saying that we should just pile on work to lifters to force adaptation.  That is stupid but using this example as a means to be a bit skeptical about the practice of periodization in skill development.

I should define periodization for this article.  Periodization is the strategic planning of specific training phases.  We will keep it as simple as that.  This usually looks like a hypertrophy block preceding a strength block.  This would be known as block periodization.

Verkoshansky learned that elite athletes needed to use blocks to focus on each skill to get better.  They could not get better at all of the skills at once because it required too much volume.  He came up with block periodization where the lifter would focus on one aspect of training and attempt to maintain the others.

Verkoshansky was doing this with Olympic athletes, mostly track athletes.  Field sport athletes need to develop different skillsets from powerlifters.  John Kiely had highlighted some flaws in this thinking in some of his more recent papers.

He discussed the poor ability of humans to predict outcomes.  We assume that in a certain time period that we actually enhance those skills and then move on to the next part.  Chances are, lifters with experience are not building more muscle mass in 6 weeks.  Then when we look at the hypertrophy literature, we may realize that spending time away from more sport specific intensity may not even be required for adequate sport specific muscle development.

Combine my experiences with what I am reading, and you can see where my skepticism comes in.  I have even been quoted by saying that periodization is probably unnecessary in the strength sports.  

I never said that planning was not needed.  Analyze strengths and weaknesses and apply common sense load management and you will see progress.  This is still absolutely true, but I was missing the mark a bit.  This will get results, but they can be better.

One thing that I realized in our training programs was the inability to increase weights on our rep days.  We take a lot of max effort singles but get our volume with lighter weights and higher volumes.  These days tend to be programmed between 60% and 70% of 1RM for recovery reasons.  This is not adequate weight to be utilized on these days for more optimal progress.  

Using singles in the program that attack weaknesses still allows us to make progress, or at worst maintain strength if other factors are not being met.  This is one of my favorite aspects of having singles in the program as a coach.  It allows us to fuck up a little bit because we are getting enough specificity to see results.

Lifters tend to be able to bench a little heavier on those rep days.  I would progress those days as the recorded RPEs were dropping for the lifters.  So progress was very individualized.  We ended up having a lot of lifters hitting 85% of 1RM for 5 sets of 4 reps at a recorded RPE of 8 or lower.  This was then followed by quite a few bench PRs, including PPS’ first 500lb raw bench press.

I started to think about this for a minute and a light bulb went off.  Sheiko had a very specific average intensity that he would use in his programs.  We did very well paying attention to this.  In a phone call with Louie Simmons on Friday, he reminded me of something that he said in a previous conversation.

He asked me who would win, the lifter putting 500lbs of force into 1 repetition, or the lifter putting 500lbs of force into 25 repetitions?  This made sense to me, but really didn’t click until he was discussing how much band tension, they are using now for dynamic effort days.  I realized that we were not applying enough force on the rep days for squats and pulls.

We ended up being in the 75% to 85% range on bench press.  This is where the Russian texts suggest the majority of the work to be completed, and this was where the majority of Sheiko’s top sets would be.  We met the mark on bench press but are failing to do so on squats and deadlifts.

I have discussed one way in which we use bands with PPS.  Bands can decrease the loads at certain positions of disadvantage within the lifts.  This can make recovery a bit easier.  There is a strong eccentric piece to the bands that can make them more difficult to recover from, so it is a give and take here, but if strategically placed is a very valuable asset.

Bands on our rep days may be one way to get the force production of those days up a bit from where we currently sit.  We can’t just use bands though.  The bands do change the lift a bit and you can get used to the technique with them.  I learned this the hard way as well.

Also, if we are going to increase the intensity of these days, this will change how we view recovery a bit within the program as well.  This may mean some type of more strategic deload period.  This will be something that we figure out as we go along.

As a lifter gets accommodated to the weights and the volumes, the recovery of the training gets easier.  Sheiko kept my average intensity and number of lifts the same for 3 years.  My volume increased when my numbers went up.  With new numbers there would always be an adaptation process, similar to the summer pre-season for soccer.  It would take about 3 to 4 weeks to get used to the new numbers, but after that it was pretty smooth sailing.

This is something that I like to do as well.  Let the lifter adapt to certain intensities and volumes and allow them to improve.  We do not need to increase these week to week.  If we increase these when the lifter shows an improvement of strength, then we are allowing progress to happen at an individual speed.  I will also wave intensities based off of the recovery of each lifter.  They will be responsible for bringing intensity and hard work into these training sessions.

Here is an example of how these waves may go:

Wave 1

Using 25-30% band or chain weight

50%-55%-60%

(75%-80%-85% at the top)

Wave 2

Straight weight

70%-75%-80%

Wave 3

25-30% band or chain weight

55%-60%-65%

Wave 4

Straight Weight

77%-82.5%-87.5%

These are just examples.  If a lifter is taking longer to accommodate to the weights, we can add in a second wave in each phase.  We can make more gradual increases or repeat the same week for a 2-3 weeks to allow them to adapt to those loads before we increase.  There are options to individualize it here.

The next block on Patreon will show these changes and these progressions.

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