Complexity in Periodization

If attempting to complicate training protocols too quickly, an athlete can be placed in a dangerous and potentially harmful situation.

Intensity and volume are the most popular variables in periodization. Exercise selection, however, can play a crucial role in determining how these variables actually affect the training process. Complexity, by far, is the most important aspect of exercise selection, therefore, today’s topic for our coaches explores complexity in periodization.

Antonio Squillante

Complexity in periodization is a relatively recent concept. Regardless of what model of periodization we decide to take into consideration, both qualitative and quantitative variables are manipulated over time to create adaptation. This is, in its very basic, the essence of periodization itself.

Intensity, volume, frequency, and density affect what is called “external load”, namely the amount of stress placed upon the body to induce adaptation; it is a quantitive assessment of the training process, easy to monitor. At any given time during a microcycle, a mesocycle or a macrocycle the external load is calibrated to accommodate the process of supercompensation, the increase in functionality of the main physiological systems, neuroendocrine and muscle-skeleton in primis.

The “internal load”, the individual response to the training load based on the level of fatigue, ultimately dictates adaptation, the delicate equilibrium between success and failure in the adaptive response of the organism. Where does quality come into play when it comes to periodization? Quality, in training, is synonymous with “transfer of training” – sometimes called “transfer of learning”, a relatively new concept in sport psychology and neuroscience – the process of improving performance in the sport arena by bridging the gap between general and sport specific training.

How can we measure quality, then? Well, quality reflects a very delicate topic: motor learning and control, the “behind the scene” in the process of acquiring mastery in sport. It is more than just progressing from general to special exercises, and from special exercises to sport specific exercises.

It is progressing from general, fundamental motor skills (FMS) to sport-specific motor skills (SSS), a process that involves the learning, practicing and mastering of complex motor patterns that reflex the kinematic and kinetics features encountered on the field or the court of play.

Complexity, therefore, pertains to the process of selecting and implementing exercises, moving from general to specific motor patterns, from closed kinetic chain (CKC), slow controlled movement to open kinetic chain (OKC), fast action-reaction, from discrete to serial skills, from predictable to unpredictable environment in the effort to promote optimal motor development and carry over from training to competition.

Let’s reframe our approach to periodization then so that movements can actually be considered as skills; let’s implement a pedagogical approach in training that takes into consideration not only the physical development of an athlete but also the fascinating process of learning and mastering new skills.

Complexity calls for a more comprehensive approach to training that considers performance in a sport as the end result of a myriad of factors including the acquisition of new motor patterns and the strengthening of those physical attributes necessary to execute them in an efficient and more effective way.

Ted Sloan

Complexity in training can be defined by a multitude of factors. A semi-new common phrase that many experienced coaches use is to “K.eep I.t S.imple” and with the “S.tupid” occasionally thrown in.

Sport coaches and parents often want the advanced, more complicated movements to be performed with their youth athletes immediately, however, it is important to take an athlete’s training age into consideration before becoming too complex with their training.

Complexity can be defined as the difficulty of movement being programmed, it can be defined as the goals being trained for, it can be defined as the factors being taken into consideration when programming for a client, such as their strength, their training age, their understanding of movement and how to manipulate their bodies.

If attempting to complicate training protocols too quickly, an athlete can be placed in a dangerous and potentially harmful situation. The KISS principle is a very important approach to live by and as your experience increases, your coach’s eye and your art of coaching will improve to the point that you will understand better, exactly when it is ok or important to complicate the training process.

Safety, better movement and strength/power are all goals of training, but you should take all of these factors into consideration in this specific order as well.

Giulio Palau

There are several relevant variables in designing a periodization program for your training. Intensity and volume are among the most commonly measured and manipulated for hypertrophy and maximal strength gains.

Here we introduce complexity as another acute variable in manipulating the training stress placed on the body. I like to think of complexity as the level of difficulty of the movement or movements being performed. In other words, we are considering the demand of the task in terms of neurological fatigue.

Movements that are highly dynamic and require intense focus would fall under the category of high complexity, specifically multi-planar or compound-joint movements like the kettlebell Turkish get-up. This is significant because complex movements may be more taxing on the central nervous system, and therefore effect the capacity for volume or intensity that could otherwise be performed.

However, incorporating highly complex tasks in your training can be instructive. It will teach you to approach your training with the intention of practicing movements, not aesthetics. It will encourage you to think of strength as a skill by emphasizing quality and efficiency of movement, or neuromuscular efficiency.

Kettlebell exercises like the swing and the get up, or Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch are excellent examples of what I’m describing. As always, we have to qualify that these exercises may not be for everyone, and the “complexity” threshold may vary greatly from person to person.

Just as performing a push up correctly may be a complex exercise for one person, a 32kg Turkish get up may be too simple for others. This is where other training variables like volume and intensity can be tweaked to ensure that the body has to continually adapt to new stresses.

Keep this in mind when selecting for exercises. You can adjust the complexity depending on your goals and limitations, but don’t stop challenging yourself. Thinking about your training as a practice in movement will give you both longevity and functionality.

Theodore Sloan, Antonio Squillante, and Giulio Palau are three up and coming young coaches, part of a vanguard of new minds coming into the industry. They will approach a coaching tactic or strategy from a different perspective and share their insights here. If you have a training subject you would like to see addressed by these guys, send an email to [email protected] with #ThinkReps in the subject line.

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