Thursday, 4 June 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART IV: first principles on periodization

“It’s tough to make predictions - especially about the future”
- Yogi Berra

If you have ever bought a mutual fund, you may have noticed the small print in the advertising reading “past performance is no guarantee of future results”.  This disclaimer exists because the past performance of money managers has statistically no bearing on their future performance. Rather than these experts having some unique ability to predict the tendency of the market, it is thought that any outstanding past results are the result of an environment that favored a particular investment strategy, and that this performance is wholly unpredictable.

Similarly, coaches and sport scientists have for decades attempted to predict future outcomes (adaptations) based on past performances (training).  This has become known as periodization.

Periodization has been defined as the “logical, phasic method of manipulating training variables in order to increase the potential for achieving specific performance goals, such as peaking at the right time” (Stone).  

Basically - manipulating a bunch of training variables, so we can better predict future outcomes. 

But how good are we really at this prediction game?  To paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb - in general, we certainly do not seem to be very adept at considering the possibility of randomness and uncertainty into our predictions. 

Periodization is one of the most analyzed - and misunderstood - topics in all of coaching.  It is one that many of us spent much of our formative years researching.  I remember eagerly  pouring through journal articles, and digesting the classic periodization texts before wasting spending hours devising my own brilliant artistic adaptions while hunched over the desk in my basement like some mad scientist.  

Twenty years later, it is hard for me to recall what all the fuss was about.  

Rather than discussing the relative merits of each periodization ‘method’, (which has been beat to death for decades), over the next three or four posts we will offer our take on how best to organize a program that fits into your philosophy, within your sport, and with your specific group of athletes.

*That being said, if you are not familiar with the traditional methods of periodization, I recommend some background reading, and point you towards comprehensive reviews from the likes of Stone, Plisk, Kraemer, Buzzichelli, and Jovanovic.  As well as excellent critiques from Verkhoshansky and Kiely. 

photo courtesy Canadian Sport Institute Calgary

By Matt Jordan

It is fitting that I am writing the fourth section of our special series focused on the integration of strength training into the overall training program for athletes after a short trip to Victoria, BC where I attended a coaching symposium that included a presentation by track & field coach, Derek Evely.  The reason it is so timely is that this section focuses on the coach’s entry point into training periodization, and this happened to be a big focal point for Derek’s presentation. This was serendipitous as I have been thinking for several days on how I would tackle this section, and Derek’s thought-provoking presentation has given me a bit of a roadmap for navigating this relatively complicated, often abstract, and highly written about subject.

Unfortunately, while there are some scientific studies done on elite athletes that support the use of periodized training, I think the belief that it is important far outweighs the evidence that it is important.  However, if the belief is based on a solid rationale, there is at least some justification for the approach – a belief based on a solid rationale is superior to an opinion.  Rather than getting ahead of this important point and jumping right into an overview of the different periodization models, I am going to try to focus this section more on an epistemological approach for establishing the need for a periodized approach to training.  To start off, I’m going to attempt to address two basic questions:

  1. Is periodization necessary? 
  2. If so, why?

As a young strength coach, I believed periodization was absolutely necessary.  Based on my education at the time, I felt it was an undisputed and unequivocally supported truth in sport science.  I took this for granted until in my graduate studies a very sharp muscle physiology professor pointed out in a research paper I had submitted that very little (if any) solid scientific evidence existed in support of using periodized training.  He further went on to point out the following in the context of periodized training for the development of maximal muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy:  

At a basic physiological level, all living cells see signals.  In the case of skeletal muscle, these include biochemical signals, inflammatory signals, hormonal signals, mechanical signals, and neural signals, just to name a few.  These signals elicit an adaptive response in human muscle cells.  The adaptive response includes the breakdown of old proteins and the synthesis of new proteins, among other specific adaptations.  This adaptive response is relatively well-characterized and occurs over a period of up to 48 hours following a stimulating event.  This adaptation causes a fundamental change in the muscle cell, and over time, if the stress is applied chronically, the morphology of the muscle adapts such that there is a net gain in new muscle tissue (i.e. muscle hypertrophy).  

He argued that with all confounding factors such as the nutritional milieu remaining consistent, if a signaling event was of a sufficient intensity and duration, and there was sufficient time following the signaling event to permit the adaptive response to occur, there should be no reason to expect an absence or blunting of the physiological response in response to the same type of loading exercise.  At a cellular level he claimed the only important elements for eliciting a training response should be to ensure a signaling stimulus of sufficient intensity and to permit sufficient time for the adaptive response to occur.  Therefore, other than these two loading parameters, there was no reason to expect any further manipulation of the loading conditions to be necessary in order to initiate the adaptive process.

Using this very simplistic perspective, the adaptive response at a cellular level might only require three elements: specificity with respect to the desired adaptation; an increase in the magnitude of the loading stimulus; and sufficient time for the adaptive processes to manifest. To put this into more salient terms regarding the development of a physical ability, I am going to turn to a practical example.  Suppose I wanted to improve my running speed for a 100m race.  If we refer to the above-mentioned example as the simple loading strategy, this approach would entail only three elements: 

  1. Specificity – this means I sprint every workout
  2. Progressive increase in the magnitude of the training stimulus – this means I run faster each time I train
  3. Sufficient time for the adaptive response to occur – put another way, this might be mean that I allow sufficient recovery between sessions.

However, let’s take this example one step further. Suppose I realize my race is going to be in the evening at the end of my training period.  I am an early riser, and evening competitions are not suited for my own natural biorhythms.  Based on this, I might want to further increase the specificity of the adaptive process by moving my sprint sessions to the PM so that I can not only obtain an adaptation in my sprinting ability but also address the interaction of my sprinting ability with my sleep cycle - a circadian rhythm.  

We have now established a few important concepts as it relates to periodization, which moves us from an opinion that it is important to having some basis to believe it is important.  At a basic physiological level, these principles are: specificity, progression in the magnitude of the training stimulus, recovery to permit adaptation, and individualization with respect to natural biorhythms such as the circadian rhythm.  

Suppose I carry on with this example, and as a result of my single exercise approach (i.e. sprinting) I begin to develop a chronic Achilles tendonitis.  Over time, I have begun to exceed the adaptive potential not of my neuromuscular system but of a related system – the connective tissue system.  New elements will now have to be introduced into my plan.  First, I will need to take a more extended period of recovery from the aggravating movement.  I could also introduce some general mobility and strengthening exercises for my ankle plantarflexors. Additionally, because I am no longer able to train, I am now a bit depressed. To address this, I turn to a psychologist to assist me with my mental performance.  Now we are interested in the adaptive response not only of my neuromuscular system and the connective tissue system but also systems related to my psychological state and emotions.  

To carry this example further, it is conceivable to identify a great many number of new training elements related to my example that might need to be introduced.  As these elements are related to my biology, it is conceivable at the cellular level that each would need some consideration for the principles of specificity, progression in the stimulus intensity and time course of adaptation.  We also have a fourth element with which we must contend: this is the interaction between all of these different training stimuli, and the interaction between their adaptive processes.  There is now considerable complexity emerging in my simple loading strategy and it appears there is a rationale for me to carefully organize and plan the training stimuli.

At a basic level, if we define periodization as the organization and planning of the training load to elicit peak performance at a known point in time, the two questions that were identified in the opening paragraphs have an answer based on the rationale provided above.  First, is periodization necessary for a training program? The answer appears to be ‘yes’.  Second, why is periodization necessary?  Periodization is important as human cells see signals, which in our case come in the form of a training stimulus that can be purposefully and strategically manipulated over time with the components: (1) specificity in the training load; and (2) magnitude of the training load.  Both of these factors affect cellular processes.  Further, the adaptive process after a training stimulus follows a time course of adaptation and may interact positively or negatively with other systems such as the different biorhythms (e.g. sleep cycle) or tissues (e.g. connective tissue system), and the other training stimuli prescribed.  As our goal is to optimize performance at a known point in time, the planning and organization of the time course of adaptation and inter-relation of the training stimuli would likely enable us to have a better chance of achieving peak performance.  

Up until this point, I have not introduced anything new to our body of knowledge.  However, there is an important point to be taken away for those wishing to embark on the process of learning about periodization – the point is to return to the first principles and the basics of what we are hoping to accomplish with periodization.  This is important as many strength coaches do not start with this basic understanding, and instead jump right to the various textbooks and articles that show in some cases old hand drawn figures and in other cases very colorful and sophisticated tables and plans that describe the conceptual frameworks that surround periodization theory.  Without a basic understanding of why the need for periodization, this process becomes more about a random selection of one model over another.  We ask the wrong questions like: which is the best model? How long does a taper need to be? Is it better to build a base of aerobic capacity before speed or develop speed first?

There is no right or universal answer to questions like this.  Most experts will give you responses like: “it depends” or “sometimes - but I have athletes who don’t follow this pattern”. These coaches understand that periodization is not about the model you choose but a process of discovery for each athlete in terms of how the elements of specificity, training load, time course of adaptation and inter-system interactions lead to peak performance at various time points throughout an athlete’s career.  

Periodization is a reverse engineering process based on a specific gap-analysis where the coach is responsible for managing, integrating, and organizing all aspects of the training load - from mental-emotional factors to musculo-skeletal and neural factors. As Brett Bartholomew described in his section of this extended post, coaches are also responsible for programming to build athletic character and elite training habits.  How is this reflected in your periodization approach?  All of this planning occurs alongside careful monitoring of the individual biological response with respect to key performance indicators in order to tease out the nuances of what works best for whom. This is how periodization-related questions are answered – not with universal dogmatic binary good or bad ‘truths’ but with highly circumstantial case studies based on what works for the individual. With this approach the coach is free to start with the basic premises outlined above - namely the principles of specificity, progressive manipulation of the training load, the time course of adaptation, and the interaction between the program elements in order to devise innovative and evolving periodization strategies.

The starting point of this process has to be a careful understanding of what is required for the sport in question and identifying the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses with respect to these demands – what are the gaps, what are the key performance indicators and how does the athlete solve problems in his/her sport?  The periodization scheme is then based on biological principles - not a selection from a menu of models.  We are trying to avoid the disconnect that occurs when structural approaches to training overrule the importance of understanding the great inter-individuality in the biological adaptation to training.  

There was one article in particular that snapped me out of my adherence to logical and structured approaches to training, and helped me to see the importance of the process of periodization being one of discovery into the unique and individual biological adaptations to a well planned training program.  This was an excellent paper and I have it on the reading list for all of our strength coaches and interns at our Institute - it has guided both mine and Stu’s thoughts on periodization ever since we first read it in 1999.  This paper, published in New Studies in Athletics and written by Professor Yuri Verkoshansky, is entitled The End of Periodisation of Training in Top-Class Sport.  Fittingly, I got this article from Dan Pfaff - who has been a great mentor of mine and who was a pioneer in the application of periodization methods for elite athletes.

Dr. Verkoshansky’s article summarizes the main pitfalls of ‘classic periodization theory’, which was devised in the mid 1950’s by the way!    These are:

  1. There is a disregard for the advancements in sport science and the related fields such as physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and medicine. These bodies of knowledge will always advance, and periodization must advance alongside these fields.  A complete understanding of periodization theory will never occur – instead it is a continual process of discovery.
  2. Periodization theory falsely claims there are training ‘laws’.  There are no laws in periodization and no laws governing the adaptive process.  This is a critical point as coaches are often in search of universal truths – the answer to the question “are there universal truths or laws in periodization?” is emphatically “no”.
  3. There is a disregard for the biological adaptive process.  This is another key point – periodization must be married to monitoring and assessment of the biological adaptive process over time.  If periodization is not grounded in biology, mistakes happen.
  4. There were attempts to turn the process of training and performance into pedagogy.  This process can be found in other sectors (e.g. education theory) that look to answer questions like: “what are the best educational models for our schools?”  This process is ill-placed in periodization as we look to obtain peak human performance from athletes who are uniquely different and who will change over time in terms of their adaptive potential.
  5. There is a lack of scholarly standard in classic periodization theory.  There are many arbitrary laws and principles that have been formulated in the ‘theory’ of periodization – these ‘laws’ or “principles’ do not have a scientific basis, yet they are often conveyed in text and teachings as being scientific. The use of complicated graphs, numbers, and scientific terminology does not mean periodization is scientifically based – to make it scientific, the coach needs to be in a constant cycle of developing hunches, planning with his/her best guess, quantification of impact and discovery of what worked and what did not work. Further, it is essential that the validity and reliability of the various tests or instruments used to measure the training variables be presented alongside the data, which very often does not occur in classic periodization theory and even in modern day periodization theories.
  6. Classic periodization does not meet the reality of modern day athletic competition.  The concepts of single-peak, double-peak, and triple-peak training cycles does not reflect the reality that athletes need to be in near top-level athletic shape for the majority of the calendar year. Further, the deviation away from specific training methods for the development of ‘general’ capacities can lead to significant detraining in specific abilities that negatively affects performance.
  7. Classic periodization uses an arbitrary organization of the training cycle into long, medium and short-term training phases (macro-, meso-, and micro-cycles) that have characteristics often defined based on our calendar instead of the time course of the adaptive process.  For example, many micro-cycles are seven days in length with one rest day - on Sunday, of course.  Is this based on the biological time course of adaptation?  I will leave that for you to answer.  In fact, the application of periodization often defaults to variables that have nothing to do with performance or adaptation like: Sunday is a typical day of rest in our society so our athletes rest on Sunday.
  8. Classic periodization has an overly simplistic method of regulating training load - namely manipulating volume and intensity.  The density of training is a third variable that is critical in this process - not only over short-term training phases but also over multi-season training phases, and is often completely disregarded in periodization schemes. Different periodization schemes may be beneficial at certain periods.  The key here is that there is not one model that is superior to the other – instead the aim is to find and maximize synergies that occur through different periodization strategies. Verkoshansky also cautioned about the search for ‘transfer’ to specific sport skills.  The idea here is that many athletes spend vast amounts of time in periodized training plans not focusing on their sport and instead on elaborately devised schemes to seek ways to develop ‘transferability’ from general skills to sport-specific skills.  According to Verkoshansky, specificity is key for developing top-level athletes – this sentiment has been confirmed to me at many junctures over my career.

It might seem at this point as though I am advocating that Verkoshansky’s paper provides a specific recommendation for how to periodize or which periodization scheme works best. Please do not interpret what I have written in this way.  This is a highly complicated area. 

Additional factors that need to be considered are:

  1. Human performance and the adaptive process are not linear processes.  In fact it is characterized by non-linear changes that have fractal and chaotic dimensions. Identifying patterns and relationships with this type of data can be very difficult – I am not suggesting it is an impossible task;  just that it is hard to measure.
  2. Human performance is also heavily affected by emotions and beliefs.  Athlete buy-in can make a sub-par periodized training plan highly successful; or conversely, can render a highly effective periodized training plan utterly useless, without it.  
  3. The periodized plan that gets an athlete to achieve peak performance at one stage in his or her career may not be the plan that gets them to peak performance at another point in his or her career.  Just like the adaptive process, humans change with time and are affected by all manner of order parameters from the environment.  This demands a lot of conscientiousness on behalf of the coach to ensure he or she is aware of the possibility for change.
  4. A coach’s intuition should never be overlooked.  The trained eye of a coach and the experience that is amassed over years and years of studying athletes’ response to training is invaluable.  It is key that the starting point of this process be the hunches and instincts of an expert coach.  Avoid the new trend of getting lost in the numbers and data.  The data helps bring understanding and perspective, but the end user of this system is not a spreadsheet with a pivot table and a graph. Instead, it is a living human being and observing behaviors and attitudes are best assessed by a gut instinct from an expert.

In summary, the journey into learning about periodization should start with a basic understanding of the whys of periodization. The coach needs to start with the classical texts and progress onto modern day periodization strategies - not to evaluate which one he or she should use, but to understand how the body of knowledge has evolved.  The coach then needs to learn how to monitor and track the key performance indicators for the sport in question, and to undertake a robust athlete gap analysis.  From here, planning can occur.  The coach is advised to consider some basic principles of biological adaptation and to consider: specificity in training load, manipulation of the training load, the time course of adaptation and the interaction between the program variables.  The coach then needs to develop this plan - in reverse - and to ensure that there are benchmarks for when the athlete will be in various stages of the adaptive process.  Armed with this plan, the coach can begin to write the program - all the while using objectively determined metrics to generate new understanding and quantify impact.  

From here, the coach will see that periodization is far less about the model he or she chooses, and more about an ever-evolving process of curiosity and discovery that leads to unique and individual approaches.

“In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind” 
- Louis Pasteur


Matt Jordan is a strength coach, the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Canadian Sport Institute-Calgary and the Director of Sport Science and Sport Medicine for Alpine Canada. He also provides private strength coaching and sport science consultation to elite athletes through his business. 

He is currently completing his Doctorate in Medical Science at the University of Calgary focusing on ACL Injury/Re-Injury Prevention in Elite Alpine Ski Racers. He has published his results in peer-reviewed journals and presented at international conferences. As an educator, Matt provides internship opportunities for developing strength coaches and has lectured for the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University. Matt continues to write for lay journals and regularly travels across North America and Europe to lecture on strength and power training for elite athletes.

Over his career, Matt has been a strength coach to more than 20 World and Olympic medalists, and has worked with elite athletes in many sports including speed skating, cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, hockey, football, volleyball and mixed martial arts. Matt has also helped many developing athletes and members of the general public with their health, fitness and performance goals.

Matt is on Twitter: @JordanStrength

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