My first introduction to well thought out periodization was from Tudor Bompa’s book Theory and Methodology of Training. I still have my copy, which is pretty old. It’s one of the few books on exercise science worth reading in my opinion. I learned more from that book about how to be a successful coach than probably any other single work. Periodization is one of the most important aspects of training for any coach to consider. Planning an athlete’s progression over time is what separates a coach from some friend of yours giving you iffy advice.
That said, to me, much of Bompa’s book and the concept of periodization is akin to Descartes’s Discourse on the Method. In the latter, Descartes wrote probably the most famous sentence in the history of philosophy, “Je pense, donc je suis.” I think, therefore I am. It was one of the most brilliant and influential works in philosophy ever. But ultimately, Descartes was wrong in much of what he wrote. Similarly, and not in any way to discredit Bompa, but much of Theory and Methodology of Training is brilliant but flawed.
Before continuing on, let me clarify what is meant by periodization for those who may not be completely familiar. Simply, periodization is dividing training goals into blocks of time, usually a month or longer in length. For example, many athletes have diverse needs like strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance. To prepare for competition, coaches who use periodization might focus on developing mostly strength for a month or two and then switch to another goal afterward.
Periodization is rooted in the concept that you can’t effectively develop competing fitness goals simultaneously as well as you would if you separated them out over time. The criticisms of periodization, however, center on the loss of those attributes while not working them. In other words, when I stop my strength cycle to focus on cardio, I won’t be as strong once my cardio phase is done. Considering the success of the conjugate method, so named for working two athletic traits within the same week of training, alternative methods such as this have all but squeezed the life out periodization.
A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning would agree with eliminating periodization, at least where similar exercises are concerned. In the study, researchers looked at three methods of training athletes. One in which they periodized exercises into 3-week blocks for some athletes, 1-week blocks for others, and another group in which they trained each exercise daily. The tested the athletes before and after on a series of exercises and each had made similar improvements.
I have a few thoughts on this study. First, some of these results could be accounted for by what Bompa calls General Physical Preparation (GPP). The researchers took active soldiers who, to some degree, were already trained, but probably had some general acclimations as a result of the study. In the study also, the exercises trained were not as diverse as the goals I listed above. The study used various jumps and weighted squats – a little different from periods of “strength” and “cardio.” These exercises likely had some carryover for each other due to their similarities, reducing the impact of separating them out over time.
Ultimately for athletes who focus on basic lifts, such as powerlifters, periodization is probably all but unnecessary. For athletes in sports with larger skill sets such as ball sports, combat sports, or CrossFit, periodization could have some legs under it still depending on how effectively the sport itself maintains the traits you aren’t working on. However, as an example anecdote, I need to keep up my cardio work for my own training all year or it will suffer. Depending on your sport, your goals, and your genes, periodization may have a small place in your training but mostly needs to be left in the dust.
1. Irineu Loturco, et. al., “Distinct Temporal Organizations of the Strength- and Power-Training Loads Produce Similar Performance Improvements,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning, 27:1 (2013)
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.