Periodize Focus, Not Just Intensity

Specialization has its place, but should not be your entire training program.

Minimalist training plans can be great. By virtue of intense focus, they allow you to improve a few things quickly. This is how elite athletes get so good at their sport – by minimizing the extra noise.

However, unless you’re an elite athlete, a more well-rounded program may serve you better. Specialists in a single sport tend to suffer injuries once they pass their mid-thirties. Diehard runners will add cycling or swimming because some part of their body “just can’t handle it anymore.” Likewise, the old-school iron monk will add yoga or bodyweight exercises because some part of their body “hurts all the time.”

If you aren’t competing at an elite level, you would be better off with a more generalized training program.

The Diminishing Returns of Specialized Programming

Many new athletes begin training with a sensible, well-rounded plan. At first, progress is abundant, hence #newbiegainz. But sooner or later, progress stops and the search for a “program” begins. This new program usually has a tighter focus and kick starts progress once again. With each plateau, the athlete searches for a more refined program. Progress resumes, slower and slower each time, yet still clawing forward. This trend can continue for a long time, until suddenly the wheels fall off.

Progress halts for this simple reason: we aren’t designed to do just a few things. When we reduce our movements, particularly loaded ones, we begin to lock down our body. Don’t believe me? Go find a lifelong distance runner and ask her to touch her toes. Or find a 600lb squatter and ask him to squat unloaded. These specialized athletes may excel at their sport, but they’ve lost some of their baseline abilities in other areas.

Are You Fit Enough to Train That Hard?

When we train for a specific goal, we instinctively look to what the top performers are doing. It seems to make sense to follow a similar path, but we fail to recognize the level of performance required just to undertake their level of training.

When I was preparing for Ironman, I did exactly what all the experts suggested: I started running. The only problem was that there is no such thing as a “couch-to-Ironman” plan. All Ironman training plans assume you have at least a base level of running fitness, and that includes the tissue adaptation to deal with running in the first place. The lungs and muscles adapt quickly to endurance running, but the tendons and bones take much longer. In my case, the result was six months on a constant merry-go-round of injury, rehabilitation of that injury, and then a new injury.

What I needed was a beginner running plan, as well as supplemental gym work to protect my body from the reality of running. This experience formed the foundation of the Run Strong program. As I got closer to Ironman, other elements of my training plan fell away. My strength training was reduced to spending the minimal amount of time at the gym I could get away with to unwind the damage from running and riding. And anything that didn’t involve training was cleared from the calendar in an effort to keep myself as fresh as possible.

Once Ironman was over, my body was all out of whack. I was stiff and sore from the epic race itself, and the months of hard training leading up to it. My body needed a break from swimming, riding, and running. So I adapted my training program to reflect a new, wider approach to fitness that my body craved. 

226kg Clean Pull

The search for progress can result in escalating specialization, to the peril of your athletic longevity.

Vary Your Training Around Your Life

Traditional programming consists of cycles from volume, to intensity, back to volume. Most people can handle 3-6 weeks of intense training before they need to deload. Life is a series of ebbs and flows, and training has to follow the same progression, or the demands of life will force it to take a back seat.

Most people think of periodization in terms for training for a specific goal while varying volume and intensity, but not many people think of it in terms of variety and focus. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to focus your training on only a few things, to be fast and effective in the gym so you can tend to the rest of life.

While on vacation, for example, it would be silly to spend most of your time tucked away in the gym because you’re following a rigid program. In these situations, I like to choose quick workouts that hit all my needs, like fifteen minutes of as many push ups and pull ups as possible, followed by a twenty-minute run. The next day would include thirty minutes of mobility work before spending the rest of the day relaxing as a tourist.

Once back home, you can ramp up into your regular training protocols, volume, and intensity. But at some points life gets in the way, as it always does, and those are the times to use that get-in-and-get-out, hard and fast, minimal training.

Focused Training in Blocks, Not All the Time

Block training is a type of periodization used by the old Soviet sports machine. In Return of the Kettlebell, Pavel Tsatsouline talks about using two-week blocks, as does Kenneth Jay in Viking Warrior Conditioning. I find two-week blocks to be a little short, especially if you have an external sport focus. But if your goals are strength- and gym-based, you may find that after 10-12 workouts you are in need of a change. For me, using the calendar is an easy way to organize training blocks. I dedicate a month at a time to a particular goal.

Right now I am training for a BJJ tournament, and my sole focus is competition fitness. Each session includes one strength lift, an assistance exercise, and conditioning work, usually on an Airdyne as it spares my back and knees. Here’s what a week of training looks like in this specialized phase:


  • Morning stretch
  • BJJ
  • 30 minutes easy Airdyne


  • Morning stretch
  • BJJ drills only
  • Power cleans and pull ups
  • Airdyne sprints – 6 x 30:30 (3 sets)


  • Morning stretch
  • BJJ
  • 30 minutes easy Airdyne


  • Morning stretch
  • Front squats and rows
  • Airdyne sprints – 6 x 30:30 (3 sets)


  • Morning stretch
  • BJJ drills only
  • Freestyle wrestling


  • Morning stretch
  • BJJ
  • 30 minutes easy Airdyne


  • Morning stretch
  • 60-90 minute easy ride

Once this tournament is finished, my program will expand to a more well-rounded approach with greater variety. My next major competition is in August, which leaves me plenty of time to cycle through another volume and intensity phase before narrowing my focus once again to competition-specific preparation.

Focus When You Need To, Generalize When You Don’t

Minimal training plans have a time and place in everyone’s fitness routine, as they allow you to improve specific qualities quickly. However, sooner or later, spending too long with an intense and narrow focus will whittle away your overall movement skills and you’ll find yourself in front of a doctor wondering why something hurts.

We’re born to move in a variety of ways. Don’t get sucked into believing that there is only one way to move for the rest of your life. Allowing certain periods of more variety and less intensity is a good thing for your health, fitness, and especially your longevity.

More Tips on Creative Programming:

Photo 1 courtesy of André Zehetbauer | Wikimedia Commons.

Photo 2 Copyright Breaking Muscle/Bruce Klemens.