Nutrition & Health OnLine Magazine
By Davey Dunn
In order to achieve maximum results from your training it is essential that you employ some form of periodization. First developed by the Russian sport scientist Matveyev in 1961, periodization was the cornerstone in the training philosophy of the eastern bloc athletes who dominated International sports competition for so many years.1  The secret behind periodization is its ability to optimize training by varying intensity levels to effectively avoid the overtraining syndrome.
The ability to avoid the overtraining syndrome is really the key to long term success for all athletes and most especially drug free athletes. In order to completely understand the concept of "overtraining" it is necessary to have some understanding of how the body handles and adapts to stress. Dr. Hans Selye first came up with a principle called the "General Adaptation Syndrome". In a nutshell the general adaptation syndrome says that the human body will undergo three distinct phases of adaptation when subjected to stress. The first phase is called the "alarm phase" and corresponds to the initial response from training. Everyone who has ever trained is aware of this phase because it is usually marked by soreness and a decrease in performance after beginning a new training program.
The second phase of the general adaptation syndrome is the "adaptation phase". The adaptation phase is characterized by muscle growth, structural changes, psychological adjustments and an overall improvement in performance. This phase is what training is all about. Your body responds positively to the stimulus placed upon it and you see marked improvements in your performance.
The third phase of the general adaptation syndrome is "overtraining." If you're training exceeds the ability of your body to recover then you will become overtrained. This phase is characterized by fatigue, injury, illness and an overall decline in performance. The problem with overtraining is that even experienced coaches do not always understand the warning signs of overtraining until it is too late.
Avoiding overtraining is probably the most important key there is to attaining athletic excellence. Athletes that consistently improve become champions; not a tough concept to grasp. Unfortunately most athletes do not consistently improve and rather are plagued by fatigue, injury and illness. All the classic signs of overtraining. So if overtraining is so detrimental what can be done about it. That brings us back to periodization. The only productive way to train that also effectively avoids overtraining is periodization.
The reason that periodization works is because it varies the volume and intensity over a period of time. Periodization works best for athletes that need to "Peak" their performance for a particular day like at the Olympics. Periodization can, however, be adapted to just about any sport and help to optimize performance. When compared with traditional modes of training, periodization was demonstrated to be far superior in producing long-term performance increases.2
I have told people for years that they need to change something about their exercise programs every month if they want to continue seeing improvements. This is periodization at the most rudimentary level. A more effective way to utilize periodization is to set up a 12-14 week program where you slowly increase the intensity while decreasing the volume. Figure 1 shows a graphical representation of this process.
Such a program is further broken down into several distinct phases. (Figure 2 shows how the phases of periodization are actually broken down in reference to sets and repetitions) The first phase is the "hypertrophy phase" phase (hypertrophy refers to growth in muscle size) and should last about 3-4 weeks. The repetition scheme should be in the 8-12 range and the weight should be relatively low. For example if a powerlifter squatted 550 in their last competition then they will want to train in the 375-425 range for 10 repetitions.
There are two distinct physiologic changes that will occur during the hypertrophy phase to a larger degree than will occur in later stages of periodization. The first is an increase in lean body mass with a corresponding decrease in body fat percentage. This is desirable because an increase in muscle mass will usually translate to increased performance later. The second distinct change is an increase in anaerobic capacity which increases the athletes capacity to handle the demands of training. Both of these changes are important in order to build a solid foundation from which to handle the higher demands of later training phases.
The second stage in periodization is known as the"basic strength"phase. The basic strength phase should last approximately 3-5 weeks and involve repetitions on the order of 4-6. During the basic strength phase the training weight should increase substantially. For our same lifter who performed 425 for 10 during their last week of the hypertrophy phase they will perform sets of 5 repetitions with 450-500 pounds.
The most notable result during the basic strength phase in an increase in strength. Strength by definition is the ability of muscle to exert force. By increasing the basic levels of strength during this phase an athlete is much more likely to be able to demonstrate a higher level of performance when they peak for competition. The basic strength phase builds upon the foundation of hypertrophy and prepares the athlete for the next phase of training which is known as the "strength-power "phase.
The strength-power phase is characterized by a further increase in intensity along with a further decrease in volume. At this point in training our same powerlifter who performed 500 pounds for 5 repetitions during his last week of the basic strength phase will now increase his weight to the 530-550 range and perform 2 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
During the strength-power phase the performance level of an athlete should continue to improve. Power in this reference should be thought of as the ability to produce an effect. The desired effect of course is an increase in performance which is seen during this phase due to a reduction in workload and an increase in strength.
The final phase in periodization is the peaking phase. During this phase an athlete will begin to reach their maximum level of performance by using 1-3 repetitions for 2-3 weeks. Our same powerlifter who performed 550 for 2 during the last week of strength-power will do a sample meet with attempts of 530, 555, and 575. They will perform a light week of training and then they will go to competition with attempts of 530, 560, and 580.
For sports that do not require a definite peak like football or basketball the athlete will go into a maintenance type of training to maintain as high a level of performance as possible during the season. A good maintenance routine would consist of 3 sets of 3-4 repetitions for major exercises and 4-5 repetitions in assistance exercises. The goal in maintenance is to do enough work to maintain strength and power levels but not enough to interfere with performance in the sport.
Once the competition is over or the season ends it is recommended that the athlete go into a period of what is known as "Active Rest" that will last 1-4 weeks. Periods of active rest interspersed throughout the year actually help improve performance overall by giving the body a chance to completely heal. Periods of active rest are also consistent with the principles of the GAS and periodization in that it effectively changes what the body has become use to in regular training. Active rest is also preferable to complete cessation of training because it prevents as dramatic a loss of performance and muscle mass that occurs from complete stoppage.
Figure 3 shows the squat routine that we used as our example when talking about the different periodization phases. A routine such as this can be adapted to just about any type of sport. The key is to systematically increase the intensity while simultaneously decreasing the training volume. In our sample program this is accomplished by increasing the weight lifted (intensity) while decreasing the amount of repetitions performed (volume). The end result is that such a program should increase our maximum squat by about 30 pounds over 12 weeks which is a substantial gain for an experienced lifter.
Further examination of Figure 3 shows that change between one phase to the next is fairly dramatic. This helps to shock the body in order to effect greater results. One of the biggest mistakes made by people unfamiliar with the implementation of periodization is that they change from phase to phase too subtle. Instead of sharply decreasing the repetitions from 10 to 5 as shown, they instead decrease only from 10 to 8. Research has shown that sharp changes produce the greatest results especially in advanced athletes.3
Another mistake that is made is to increase the intensity, or the weight, to rapidly when switching to a new phase. Experience has taught me that it generally takes about 3 weeks for the body to adapt to a different repetition scheme. By gradually increasing the weight the body has time to recover from the previous phases peak and also to effectively adapt to the new muscle involvement pattern required by the different repetition scheme. Figure 3 demonstrates how the weight should be increased each week until the maximum is reached for a particular number of repetitions.
The above routine is an example of a "mesocycle." In order to train year round this cycle must be repeated several times. In the span of a normal powerlifter's year this cycle will be repeated three to four times. The length of the mesocycle can vary depending upon the personal preference of the lifter. The microcycle encompassing the individual phases can also be varied in reference to length. The best policy is to change the cycle somewhat each time so as to assure that the athlete does not become stale using the same one over and over. An example of how this would work is given in figure 4.
By now you should have a basic understanding of periodization and what it can potentially do to improve your training. You can design a sophisticated year round program similar to what has been shown or simple decide to change your training in some way every month. The biggest thing to take away from this article is that change is good for the human body. Far too many people get stuck in a rut because they are afraid to change anything about their training. The good news is that it really does not take much change to shock the body into making new gains.
If you are serious about achieving athletic excellence then periodization is an invaluable tool that will help you achieve your goals. Even if you are just interested in making small improvements in your physique you can still derive tremendous benefits from periodization. Think of your old way of training as driving a Ford Escort. I have just given you a brand new Ferrari so now it is up to you to drop the hammer. Give periodization a try and let me know what you think.
1Matveyev, L.P. Perodisienang das sportlichen training. Berlin, Beles and Wernitz, 1972.
2Stone,M. O'Bryant,H. Garhammer, J. A hypothetical model for strength training. J.Sports Med. 1981; 21(4): 342-351.
3Stone,M. O'Bryant,H. Weight Training: A Scientific Approach. Minneapolis, Burgess Publishing Co., 1984.


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