Issues with Periodization
Periodization can be defined as "The logical sequencing of training variables for the purpose of eliciting maximal adaptations, reducing injury rates, and peaking the athlete for best performance at a particular time." (1). The concept of periodization has been a staple amongst strength & conditioning coaches for decades and more recently gained popularity in general population trainers and small group coaches. It is the accepted norm for coaches to follow a style of periodization when designing and planning athletes' or clients' training cycles.
This article is me offering my opinion on the subject, developed through personal experience and delving into the literature in the area, and offering some critiques and hopefully some useful, actionable points for coaches.
The theory of periodization is based on the traditional Super Compensation Model of Adaptation(2) & General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) (3). This model suggests that if a stressor is consistently and methodically placed upon a system (in this context, volume, and intensity), predictable response from that system will occur (positive adaptation). The human body will 'super compensate' to the applied stress meaning you come back stronger and better equipped to handle that situation/stressor next time. This model has been applied and found very successful over the years in many different athletes and situations. It only makes sense right? Although this model, until recently, has rarely been questioned and improved upon. This is in part due to its own success along with the particularly high levels of tradition lead practice in the industry. Following what others have done just because they have seen it to be successful.
In the same time frame that training periodization has stayed static, almost stuck in this 'tradition'. The concept of stress and adaptation in the medical world has changed massively. Although this is beginning to filter into the fitness industry slowly but surely. The more recent professional opinions and findings coming out of the research is that the 'stress adaption' model is much more complex than once thought (4). The human organism is incredibly interrelated. To assume that the only factors that can modulate adaptive responses to physical training are volume and intensity would be doing the complexity of human physiology a disservice.
As an example, take an athlete that is following a particular training program. For simplicity's sake let's say they are looking to improve their performance in 1RM Back Squat. Would this same athlete respond in a similar fashion to the same training program when:
A.) They are comfortable for money, they are sleeping 8-10 hours per night, their nutrition is dialed in 24/7, their home life is happy and healthy and their support network both professionally and socially is fantastic.
B.) They are struggling to make ends meet financially, they are going through troubles with their significant other, their sleep is subpar at best, nutrition is poor and they have no support from anyone but themselves?
This traditional model of periodization also 'assumes' that all facets of fitness or adaptation have the potential to adapt at the same rate under similar levels of stimulus. Just from observing enough people train it is clear that some people seem to adapt so fast to some types of training, without even seeming to try. Yet struggle to progress at all in other areas while putting the same, if not more work in! Within the same individual, the size of the stimulus needed to cause adaptation and even the potential to adapt can vary to a huge degree between different modalities of fitness (Power, Aerobic Capacity, etc). This degree of variability between individuals and even within the same individual are just some examples of when the traditional simplistic model of periodization, with its predictable outcomes and responses to specific demands, probably won't quite hold true.
Now, is this me saying planning and progression aren't important? On the contrary.
Having structure and progressions designed to move an individual towards their specific goal is vital. It in my opinion a completely non-negotiable. But... and this is an important BUT, expecting a specific outcome from a program based purely off the 'prediction of progression' is unrealistic at best.
While I can see the potential flaws in the traditional model of periodization, I do not have the 'answer' or a better holistic model to suggest. All I can say with certainty is that while everyone is governed by the rules of human physiology, every athlete is an individual and every case will be slightly different. Every situation is unique and deserves to be treated that way.
This is when the art of coaching becomes as important as the science of coaching. Having a plan but being ready to change it, improve upon it, or even throw it out completely if the situation requires it. Knowing when to dial back and when to push the throttle with an athlete is the difference between success and failure.
There are a couple of methods to use that can give us clues or hints that its time to change things up. The more formal method is having structured metrics to track performance and readiness. Great examples of these are readiness questionnaires, which you can get athletes to fill out session to session and exercise litmus tests, built into the program, such as building to a heavy Power Clean or a pre-session vertical jump test. These can give you an idea of the athletes' fatigue levels and readiness to perform.
The less formal but just as useful method is to really learn about your athlete's lives. Build relationships with them so they can be candid and open with you about how they feel. And you can start to learn the telltale signs of when that individual truly needs to dial back or are just after a get out of jail free card! Only then can you start to make the program work for them, not the other way around.
Become invested in helping the athlete through the process of training and progression, not the style of training or the program.
I will go into more detail on the importance of being adaptable as a coach in another blog soon!
My thoughts on this area are hugely influenced by the writings of John Kiely & Evan Piekon (Training Think Tank) along with the first hand experience of my own coach Micheal Bann (OPEX) helping me understand the myriad of things that come into play in the stress - adaptation equation.
Koutedakis Y, Metsios GS, Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou A. Periodization of exercise training in sport. The physiology of training, Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier. 2006 Jan 1:1-21.
Bompa TO, Haff G. Periodization: theory and methodology of training. Published in 2009 in Leeds by Human Kinetics. 2009.
Selye H. Stress in health and disease. Butterworth-Heinemann; 2013 Oct 22.
Zachariae R. Psychoneuroimmunology: A bio‐psycho‐social approach to health and disease. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 2009 Dec;50(6):645-51.
Buckner SL, Mouser JG, Dankel SJ, Jessee MB, Mattocks KT, Loenneke JP. The general adaptation syndrome: potential misapplications to resistance exercise. Journal of science and medicine in sport. 2017 Nov 1;20(11):1015-7.
Kiely J. Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven?. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 2012 Sep;7(3):242-50.
Kiely J. Periodization theory: confronting an inconvenient truth. Sports Medicine. 2018 Apr 1;48(4):753-64.