Rethinking Programming and Periodization
Learning to think for yourself and program your training effectively.
Your time preference inevitably lowers if you’re privileged enough to survive any given endeavor long enough to critically assess where you’ve been and where you’re at.
This is true in life, fitness, and in sports training. Throughout, I’ll be referring back to my specific experiences as an example, but the point and the principle should be application and assessment of one’s self.
I love it when I’m wrong, because, usually, I get to become more right. I had an 1,800 word essay written and came across an excellent journal review that made me rewrite it.
Programming vs. Periodization:
We need to establish clear language in order to communicate and I am as guilty as anyone of erroneously using these terms interchangeably. Periodization refers to a specific interval of training with a specific focus. Programming is a training design / content / structure that will elicit the psychological and physiological developments sought after within a training period.
The above graphic illustrates how an athlete’s specific programming may change respective to their “training age” and skill level. Consistently, various synthetic performance tests are used, not because the are perfect, but because they are correlative and easy to measure.
The novice requires a great deal of General Physical Preparedness (GPP) because physicality and (i)mobility are likely restrictive factors in their sport practice (and performance).
In contrast, advanced athletes also need corrective GPP in order to address overuse / sport-related injuries or dysfunctional developments — like grapplers with bad posture. Additionally, the expert has paid great dues to their sport and has impeccable technique such that modicums of physicality (strength and endurance) gains are greatly relevant because every other stone has already been turned from a specificity standpoint.
This is the “traditional” model of periodization. It has great relevance to seasonal “ball” and school / team sports. For example, American Football “official team activities” start in the late summer with light technical work (field drills) and high volumes of strength and conditioning.
The volume will decrease and intensity will increase throughout the summer’s “mesocycle” and volume of sport-specific training will build until it’s the singular focus for the duration of the 12 week fall season.
This is then followed by an active rest block and followed again by a spring mesocycle resembling the summer’s heavy strength and conditioning emphasis, and then again maybe a scrimmage or summer camp close to the end of the school year (late spring).
On the other hand, myself and many readers are not season-sport athletes. You can find fights, grappling matches, lifting meets, etc. all year round. Heck, in the south we're fortunate to be able to climb outdoors most of the year as well!
The graph above illustrates the block periodization model, where three cycles are used to progressively develop (1) Work Output, and (2) functional parameters (ref.).
This is done by “accumulating” volume in one block (do more), followed by a “restitution” block of increasing intensity (do it harder), then a sharp decrease in training volume in order to test / compete at one’s highest potential.
You can see that this makes a lot of sense if I’m talking about a fighter taking 4 fights per year and prepping for each with a 12 week camp. However, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re competing every weekend “in season” and can’t reset back to the beginning “Block A” — as in the above case of seasonal sports.
Is Progress a Matter of Recovery?
Essentially, yes. At least once per year I stir over Steve Bechtel’s “Recovery Matrix.” It’s a wonderful idea and very simple and effective to implement — it can be made even simpler if one desires, but the concept remains the same.
Over the past year I’ve been intent on “cultivating” new and different physical attributes. It’s made me realize the obvious, that not all training “hours” are created equal.
Yes, I have a spreadsheet for this too, but it’s largely misleading. For example, what’s the work out put of “1 hour of grappling?” Was it drilling or sparring? Casual drilling / exploring and “playing?” Competition pace volume drills (which I advise against, but are a common practice)? “Flow rolling?” Competition prep and “shark tanks?”
For those unfamiliar with the jargon above, allow me to simplify. My last capacity session took about 30 minutes. That’s it, a “simple” 30 minute workout.
For some people, when I say “30 minute workout” they think:
A casual jog.
Watching TV talk shows while on a recumbent bike.
“Lifting”, but mostly resting and scrolling through their phone.'
What it actually looked like was:
AirBike 3 x 5 minute rounds; 6 minute rests
Round 1: 93 calories
Round 2: 95 calories
Round 3: 83 calories
This is where (for the spreadsheet enthusiasts) an RPE scale / modifier might be a useful adjunct piece of data:
Again, as with the “30 minute workout” above, a lot of people misconstrue what their physicality is capable of. A true “max effort”, a 10, is not repeatable within the same day and likely takes at least 1 day to recover from.
There are other metrics like resting heart rate (RHR), heart rate variability (HRV), and max exhale tests (CO2TT) that all have their place as well — e.g. triangulation. However, this can quickly get away from the beautiful simplicity of Steve’s model.
Simple models are far more likely to be adhered to than complex ones.
Assessing Your Need:
What you “need” obviously depends on:
Where you’re at, and
Where you want to go.
Needing is not the same as wanting, and wanting may be more than you’re capable of of and thus distracting to where you’re going.
You need to ask yourself:
Where am I deficient?
What is relevant to my sport / goal?
What do I enjoy?
The later is the most simple. We only have a short amount of Earth-time, so you better make damn sure you end up loving as much of it as you can. Because, if you don’t, why bother with anything else?
Second, a given attribute, movement, or lack thereof may be a limiting factor in your sport development. In this case the limiting factor is what needs worked on the most.
Tests and measurement are part of assessment. When I wrote my original strength and conditioning benchmarks in 2022, and updated them again in 2023, the idea was to hit all of the “specialized” tiers within 1 calendar year.
I still think this is possible without compromising sport-specific training. However, it may require some specialized or specific work to address areas of need — or at least expose them.
In other words, I may not need another 8-Week whole-body strength block, but a 4-week squat program may be beneficial if that’s a weak movement for me (which it is).
On the other hand, if I’m chomping at the bit for an “advanced” strength tier, but am struggling to meet a “novice” level of endurance (which may be likely); then there’s a clear imbalance that needs addressed.
Interestingly, then, this has a way of working itself out when asking the question “how strong can I get while maintaining a reasonable or necessary level of endurance for my sport / activity?” The reverse may also hold true for some athletes.
Deciding How to Get There:
This is where we need:
coaching from someone who has more of it than ourselves.
You can get damn far on your own, more than most are willing to even attempt. At the same time, always / only coaching or “self-teaching” is a path to a lifetime of mediocrity — death.
When the spectrum of assessment widens from “what did I accomplish this month vs. last month” to “this year versus last year and the year before that”; we need different tools.
We need to know what feels relevant and what we’ve neglected over those time spans, in addition to our coach’s feedback in those areas as well.
What got you where you’re at likely won’t get you where you’re going. The good news is that if you’re truly performing at a high level, you’ve built a solid enough foundation that further experiences will offer far more in terns of education than their risk in detriment.
How many programs are you willing to try before deciding you’ve found “the one?” As if your goals and needs and abilities will never change…
Using strength as an example and assuming an arbitrary number of 10, and assuming you’ve accurately identified strength as being relevant to your sport (or a limiting factor for you in your sport), let’s also assume that each of those 10 programs runs from 10 weeks. That’s two years of work — minimum.
Additionally, that’s two years that you’ve addressed nothing but strength and as a result likely atrophied in other areas (endurance and capacity); hopefully not in sport proficiency!
More realistically, running all 10 strength programs might take you closer to 4 - 5 years if we’re maintaining current levels of other physical attributes and constantly prioritizing sport-skill development. All of that combined probably puts you on a Division 1 or professional athlete type of schedule. If that’s not you, and you have a job, kids, etc. then we might be in the neighborhood of 6 - 8 years.
Putting It Together:
You must learn to think beyond the status quo, the period-ization, a given block of time; be that hours, days, weeks, or years. I’m playing a lifetime game and plan on winning; are you?
To do this we need to perennially learn and adapt. We may be able to program certain blocks of training for a given period of our life, and then that time may pass.
A reasonable commitment to a training program is much more than a whimsical 30-day-challenge. For some people 30-days may be life changing. I’m saying it’s easy. It’s easy to fall of on day 31, 32, 33, and this quickly becomes the pattern for the rest of your life. The fall, rather than the peak, becomes your baseline. So, I’d say a “reasonable” commitment to draw useful conclusions from would be 8 - 12 weeks.
At the conclusion of that ask questions, conduct tests to answer questions, and evaluate the work that’s been done:
What do I need?
What’s holding me back?
What movements / attributes am I deficient in?
Which of those things above are (most) relevant to my sport?
What do I love doing?
“Death will change you if you cannot change yourself.”
~ Mark Twight
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