Tactical Periodization: What It Is and How to Do It

We’ve all heard about periodization, but who can arrange their entire life around training? Here is a method Pavel Tsatsouline called “tactical periodization” that anyone can use to create growth.

“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing. And what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while pursuing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, 1st Century AD

There are many things I do daily in the course of my job. One of the things I’m best at, courtesy of having some of the best mentors in the field of exercise science anywhere in the world, is writing training plans. I’m not talking about workouts. Those are single shot deals that get you hot and sweaty and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. I’m talking about the kind of thing that takes you from a skinny, weedy kid and turns you into a powerful juggernaut that can crush your opponent’s head like a grape.

This is one of the most misunderstood areas of training for most people. They seek to constantly change things up, to vary. Unfortunately for most people what they fail to realize is that this is actually slowing down their progress. Yes, I know bodybuilders have been telling you for years that you need to “confuse the muscles” and split the body into parts. But they also think ingesting truckloads of steroids and standing onstage in your underwear with a bunch of other guys in their underwear is okay, too.

So let’s try to map out some sensible ways to program to actually prosper from your training rather than just get sweaty. Because any idiot can you make sweaty. It takes intelligence to make you improve. And isn’t that the whole point of training? To improve? To build the body?

Continuity of the training process is vital to long-term success. And continuity implies daily, or near daily training. The first thing to realize is that the body can be trained wholly every day. As Dan Gable said “If it’s important, do it every day; if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.”

However, trying to train daily means that load/effort needs to be cycled up and down. You can vary the load, the proximity to failure, the volume, or the density. It is simply a myth that you can go all out every time you train. People who propagate it have never competed at elite level in strength or endurance events, nor trained for combat. Top athletes hit their max only once or twice per year – when it counts. And you should consider the same.

So enters periodization. So few people truly understand this word, yet everyone knows it can give a massive performance boost if used correctly. Periodization is all about planning, about cutting the year up into chunks to focus on individual qualities of performance. But what if your life defies planning? What if you’re a soldier or a single parent?

tactical periodization, tactical periodisation, workout planning, training planThe answer is tactical periodization. Tactical periodization takes advantage of certain laws of adaptation that Russian coaches keep in mind when they plan their athletes’ training. The important element is that adaptation is cyclical in nature. Every complex system operates the same way – lower valleys tend to be followed by higher peaks and vice versa. Even the stock market operates this way, as discovered by Ralph Elliot over a century ago.

In order to be controlled, nature must be obeyed. A friend of mine, a guy who has been around the training world even longer than me, Mark Reifkind, has this to say:

  • If you seek your limits, you’ll always find them.
  • The next step off a peak is always down.
  • One should step down and not fall off.

He also has makes fun of “tough guy” periodization, as in “heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light, light, heavy…” Take note from a man who has been counted amongst the best lifters and strength coaches in the world.

In Russian there is no word for “periodization” they refer to it as “waviness of load” and it is this concept that is most useful to a tactical athlete, whether they be combat or sport oriented. It’s a classic wave loading method that has been around for decades and works exceptionally well to pack slabs of muscle onto even the hardest gainer. In my work with grapplers I found that near random weight changes led to less muscle soreness and less fatigue the next day – essential for those who need to be on the mat. This simple method allows the trainee to experience the chaotic nature of combat without actually having to go to war every time they train.

A side benefit of this type of training is that it almost virtually guarantees occasional overtraining. While many may think this is a bad idea, the fact is that the body adapts to stress such as this and learns to recover and adapt faster. Not only that, but remember what I said about peaks and troughs? A dip in ability is swiftly followed by a new peak.

Consider the candidate during Special Forces selection. If he were to wait until full recovery before every PT session he would still be in bed while his teammates were out busting their humps. And not only that, but by the end of the course, despite sleep and food deprivation, these same candidates are not only fitter than previously, but they have often gained muscle, too.

This deliberate decision to train in a state of incomplete recovery at least some of the time is necessary for any combat training personnel. But how do you plan this all out and not wind up tearing yourself to pieces? Let’s put this in martial terms:

tactical periodization, tactical periodisation, workout planning, training planLet’s say you’re an avid MMA competitor and train five days per week in striking, grappling and MMA where you put it all together and spar. An easy sparing session on Wednesday wouldn’t destroy you for Thursdays BJJ class, provided you kept the tempo easy and went at roughly 70%.

However, if you did go all out Wednesday you would be sore and stiff for Thursday. Now, this option can be useful, as you could then elect to go all out again on Thursday. While you would be likely to perform sub-optimally on Thursday you could then have an easy day Friday and the body would likely recover. This back-to-back hard session concept can be used once a month or so to see how recovery improves, as well as performance under fatigue.

Let’s look at combinations of volume (sets x reps) and intensity (load lifted):

  • Medium/Medium – Pavel’s “to a comfortable stop” or as Joe Lauzon’s trainer, Steve Baccari, says, “putting money in the bank for fight nights.” These workouts are the bread and butter of training.
  • High/ High – can lead to great gains if followed by a taper, however be cautioned by Mark Reifkind’s sage advice and do not stay on High/High for long.
  • Low/High – sets PRs in strength.
  • High/Low – sets foundations for stable gains.

Intelligent application of these concepts will bring far more improvement from your training than random changing of exercises. In fact, the exercise itself is the very last thing the body adapts to.

“Tactical Periodization is short term training planning characterized by sharp and near random variation of intensity and volume and showing a bias towards high density. Its purpose is greater fitness, reduction of injuries and simplification of the training process.” – RKC Manual, Pavel Tsatsouline

It must be stressed that tactical periodization does not apply to beginners. They will make better gains on low volume/low intensity, nearly daily practice for a long time.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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