Powerlifting a systems-based approach Part 1 – why we know next to fuck all about periodization and training “science”.

When it comes to programing and perodisation there is only one thing that is certain. That is that what works, when, where, how and why it works is completely uncertain.

Periodization is without a shadow of a doubt the single most important topic when it comes to the success of a sports program. Periodization is the top-down organization of all the moving parts that make up a sports program. The number of moving parts will depend on the level of the program and the funding available to it. This only increases the logistical part of the problem.

What is coming out of load based research and injuries in sports science is that high loads aren’t bad in themselves, low loads aren’t bad in themselves it’s the swing and change in the that is bad and has been shown to be a pretty big risk factor when it comes to injury.

When it comes to injury mechanism outside of traumatic injury (dropping a 260kg barbell on your foot say) the primary mechanism is when tissue is exposed to training stress (load) and isn’t allowed sufficient time to recover. Or it is exposed to a stress level it hasn’t been conditioned to tolerate. These factors lead to overuse and a lot of the acute injury that doesn’t have outside extenuating factors.

An example of a strength training overuse injury would be patella tendinopathy from someone who went from a program like 5/3/1 and then started doing Smolov. An example of an acute injury would be someone who started taking steroids and on week 14 of their cycle they rip their bicep tendon during a stone session or deadlift session with a weight that is well above what they could have lifted 14 weeks ago.

Both of these examples it is the tendon that is the culprit it recovers and adapts on a different schedule than muscles which have a much higher cell turnover rate and greater blood flow. One of the reasons it takes so long to rehab from tendon ruptures is because it takes tendons so fucking long to do anything.

When there isn’t top-down oversight over factors like this, regulating the big picture this is when we run into a lot of the problems that occur during training.

Periodisation is incredibly poorly researched and misunderstood.

A fundamental question – is periodization better than no periodization a topic that used to gain quite a lot of attention in the strength training literature and considered by many experts to be solved was the topic of a recent Systematic review and metanalysis.

A systematic review is a process where researchers will look through the entirety of a body of research on a specific topic and then disqualify studies they find if they have poor controls or study design.

They managed to find 21 studies on this topic. The whole body of research on one of the most fundamental questions about the use of periodization (i.e. is it effective). 21 Studies do not a body of evidence make.

Much less the findings of the study suggest that the two metanalyses they found and looked to utilise didn’t even answer the original question or hypothesis

The meta-analyses included in our review did not incorporate studies contrasting periodized approaches to non-periodized, varied approaches, and predictions concerning the timing of adaptations were not tested. Therefore, two concepts that are transversal to all periodized approaches have not been properly evaluated.


12 Weeks of training is not a periodization model it is a collection of a few loading patterns at best.

Other common topics in periodization such as linear vs non-linear are essentially straw men pitted up against each other for the sake of knocking out studies for grad students and to sell E-Books for trainers with more sales sense than training acumen.

The language used in training and lifting circles is indicative of what people actually understand the training process to be.

Dude I love this new program I stalled out doing starting strength now I am doing 5/3/1.

Starting strength or “stronglifts” the training program are at best 1 week’s worth of training that is rinsed and repeated by n00bz who know fuck all about training but all of a sudden know everything because they read a book or a website made by a guy who has achieved the square root of fuck all with themselves or the lifters they train.

Some n00b lifter discovering internet programs circa 2012-2016

They are successful because they are simple to do and simple to adhere to and if a beginner does something consistently then they get progress. However, they lack any kind of sophistication or long term plan. The plan is the same workout but with more weight squire. There is no feedback loop in place if you fail a workout try again, or maybe make it light but do THE SAME SHIT AGAIN BRO! Sound mate.

Typically people will do this sort of routine for 3-24 months or maybe longer and make slow but steady progress. Sometimes high responders do a routine like this and get great results but more common than not people make steady progress and then stall out and maybe even regress.

They then look for something to help and a lot of them run into another successful strength training meme. 5/3/1.

5/3/1 as a training block is decent as a recurring loading cycle it is decent. For intermediate lifters or people who just want to get a bit stronger, it works for quite a few people however it is not periodization. It is a block of training more specifically it is 4 related weeks of training (microcycles) that make up a 4-week block of training (mesocycle) there is no plan past the 4 weeks other than to do the same thing again with MOAR WEIGHT.

Much in the same way, lInEaR PeOrIzAtIoN vs UnDuLaTiNg PeOrIzAtIoN is not a real reflection of what actual planning and execution of training is in the real world. It’s a strawman pitting two approaches to loading a program for a finite peroid of time (usually for however long the study is or you can manage to make the study).

In the real world a lifter or athlete wants to get better at their sport and they probably want to get better at their sport for a pretty good length of time by the time there is a coach involved they are either invested enough to pay for one or they are good enough that someone somewhere is paying the coach on their behalf.

Linear perodisation’s routes at least in powerlifting stems from guys like Ed Coan or Bill Kazmier in the 80s and 90s who would plan their training cycles around their steroid cycles.

When the guys where on blast (taking a significantly larger dose that they would expect to see a performance increase) they would work back from the numbers they wanted to hit at a meet 8-12-16 weeks down the track and then go from their they know if they are doing X weight for Y reps Z weeks out they are on track. This is where linear blocks of x amount of weeks come from. In between comps when they were taking lesser doses or off completly they would change lifts, do more pump and fluff type stuff and follow a simple workout plan that would make sure they were still in good enough shape to peak for the next meet and reduce the chance of injury. This is where the powerlifting off season comes from as well.

Daily undulating periodization is a scheme throught up by researchers where every strength characteristic was trained in the same week – strength, hypertrophy, power and endurance and progress on the FoReVeR gAiNz approach. This has been shown to work pretty consistently better for college-age kids who presumably aren’t raming 500mg of test-E into their arse cheeks every 5-7 days v a linear approach.

What does periodization in the real world look like?

  • In the real world in a sport like powerlifting we have a year-long season. The big competitions come around in an annual cycle with their proximity in the year being basically the same time. For instance, in Edinburgh, our annual cycle looks something like this for our natty IPF open athletes.
  • February – District Championships (Novice or lifters looking for a comp) can be the focus of the cycle.
  • March – British Champs (women) – (advanced or intermediate lifters, those looking to qualify for international competition) can be the focus of the cycle.
  • June/July – Scottish Classic (open) – (intermediate lifters looking to advance or advanced lifters who don’t have bigger comps to work towards) can be the of the cycle.
  • June/July – Classic Worlds (open) – (advanced/elite lifters who compete at the highest level available focus of cycle).
  • August – Push/Pull Scottish Champs – can be a good fun comp or first-timer comp.
  • European classics (advanced/elite lifters, not likely to be the focus of cycle for lifters who can make worlds level competition)
  • September – Scottish Open (Novice or lifters looking for a comp) can be the focus of the cycle.
  • September – British Champs (men) – (advanced or intermediate lifters, those looking to qualify for international competition) can be the focus of the cycle.
  • September – Western European classic (advanced/elite lifters – for lifters who are borderline for national team selection can be the of the year after British).

As you can see above there is not a lot of rhythm or reason to the season and depending on the lifter it is going to skew what we do and when we do it. No two lifters periodisation of training (what they do and when they do it) is not going to look the same and it sure as fuck isn’t going to be a question of if we do lInEaR PeOrIzAtIoN vs UnDuLaTiNg PeOrIzAtIoN for the next 52 weeks.

Block training getting towards a more sensible look at the training year.

Block training isn’t the only kind of perodisation out there in the wild used by people who actually coach people for longitudinal peroids of time but it is certainly one of the most commonly used and understood methods of planning training in sport. For sport, wide planning blocks are probably the best and most utilized way to conceptualize and organize a training plan. It allows for a more global training plan that pretty much anyone can understand we can look at the physical qualities are wanting (or the sport qualities) we are looking to target for improvement and to organize how we carry those training adaptations into the year.

Block training or the concept of block training comes from 1970s-1980s sports science. The common understanding is taken from the work of Dr Verkhoshansky, Dr. Bompa and Bondarchuk.

In powerlifting circles, the concept of block perodisation was lifted from books and some translated texts from the mythical soviet sports science. More commonly you have probably come across Block periodisation from the writing of David Tate or more recently Juggernaught Training Systems.

Block training basically splits the year into Mesocycles of training (blocks or weeks) and aims to target specific sports fitness attributes within powerlifting typically the following classification is utilised.

  • GPP, Hypertrophy or Volume
  • Strength
  • Accumulation
  • Peaking or Realisation
  • Detraining, Deload or “off-season”

Block perodisation in strength training used the concept of “Block or phase potentiation” to organise blocks of training in such a way to best take advantage of the physical attributes being developed in each block of training.

Hypertrophy or GPP blocks help to increase both the cross-sectional area of the muscles involved in the lifts but they also help a lifter to develop their “lifting fitness” and mental toughness. These characteristics mean when they enter into a strength or intensification block they will make better progress directly after a volume block then they would if they just went straight into a strength or peaking phase with outperforming a GPP or volume block beforehand.

The length of the block can be anywhere from 3-12 weeks in length some even longer. It depends on how the year is laid out.

The two main arguments for the use of block perodisation is that it chunks up the training year in a sensible and easily understandable manner and it also allows you to organise training in a manner that makes sense and allows you to take advantage of quirks of physiology that we know produce better results than not taking advantage of the training sequencing.

The main argument against using Block periodisation is that it tricks us into thinking we know more than we do, encourages us to use a one size fits all approach to planning, makes the training process almost too simple and it doesn’t work all of the time. Never mind what if you get injured and fuck up the 5 hours I just spend micromanaging your training year.

Everyone has a perodised plan until some stupid cunt gets punched in the mouth.

In the real world, people are hugely variable bundles of unpredictability and often the best-laid plans fall to pieces. I can’t recall the amount of wasted hours I have spent planning out in granular detail what we were going to be doing 2, 4, 8, 16 weeks in advance all for someone to roll their ankle or for them to get sick on day 1 week 1 and require a rejig of the whole block.

When you actually train people and don’t just talk about it online or in front of students you get to realise pretty quickly that there is even a very well known truism about best-laid plans for a reason.

The bestlaid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. The saying is adapted from a line in “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” – Dictionary.com

Even when you work within a professional set up where your job is the sport things such as illness and injuries can strike at any moment to scupper your well laid out “perodisation” scheme.

The biggest weakness of classic periodisation as people like to call it is its inflexibility and inability to bend to circumstance. This has, lead to concepts such as “auto-regulator” periodisation or in other non-wanky language adjusting training on the fly based on how you feel in the moment. This is something lifters have been practicing since lifting things was a thing.

When you have gained a lot of experience in training and lifting you will know the folly of coming into a workout, warming up and when the program calls for 120kg x 8 (x4) and warming up you just performed 100kg x 4 at a near-max intensity you aren’t going to be able to finish the planned workload on this particular day. An experienced lifter will adapt the workout to something that is manageable and productive and take the session on the chin with the intention of coming back on plan in the next few workouts. For a novice or inexperienced lifter or athlete, they will plow on like a self-sacrificial training lemming, fail the workout miserably and then begin tumbling down the chasm of despair and self-doubt that most novice and intermediate lifters seem to find themselves in perpetually.

The concepts of “bottom-up” periodisation or “emerging strategies” are the latest in buzz words and programing chic. They are solid concepts put across by a fantastic coach in the guise of Mike Tuschener of Reactive training systems but they are also adopted en masse by inexperienced coaches and lifters who see shiny and want to do the shiny.

A clear case for systems rather than “plans”

We often here training being touted as a “process” and that we should “trust the process” which is shorthand for stop being a greedy cunt, keep your head down and put in the work. However, I think we lose what the important part of that phrase is when it is put across over and over again so it has become a training meme and call to action for the oh so wise “coaches” who seem to multiply on Instagram at the rate of a very bad fungal infection.

What the fuck is the “process”?

process – a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.” military operations could jeopardize the peace process”

When it comes to the process as it is referred to in our currently commonly used training language refers to training as a whole. But as we have discussed in the previous 3000 training is a massive lumbering concept of a topic that could easily fill up (and has filled up) a whole library of big long-winded books. So rather than rabbiting on like some bafoon let’s define what the training process is.

The Training Process

Clearly training involves the following steps

  • Showing up to a place of practice or exercise which is suited towards your end goal on a daily/weekly basis.
  • Engaging in activities that resemble your end goal for various durations, frequencies, and intensities.
  • Constantly utilising review and testing to critically appraise the effectiveness of your current practice or training routine.
  • Strategically using competitions or objective benchmarks to be the ultimate arbiter of success.
  • Reevaluating your success and increasing the frequency of successful interventions and decreasing the frequency of unsuccessful interventions.

The above is not the definitive guide to creating the ultimate training system. But it does represent in my opinion the basis for what could be a pretty successful and effective training process.

Process implies steps to be taken and for those steps to be taken there needs to be a system or method behind what we are doing.

These processes and systems are best described as “systems” and in the next part of this article series I will look more in-depth as to what a “system” actually is and how we can use it to organise our thinking around training and the planning of training in ways that are much more robust and effective than what we commonly think of as “programs” or “periodisation.


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