Let’s define periodization in broader terms before we delve deeper into answering whether you need periodization for your clients.
What is periodization?
Allow me to offer my personal definition. I see periodization as a structured approach to training or exercise for my client, regardless of client goal, gender, or other variables. To me, periodization is a necessity.
According to Lee Winer, C.S.C.S. and owner of Panthera Training Systems, in his article “A Simple Guide to Periodization for Strength Training” for Breaking Muscle, “Periodization is defined as the long-term cyclic structuring of training and practice to maximize performance to coincide with important competitions. Simply, it is the program design strategy that governs planned, systematic variations in training specificity, intensity, and volume.”
Generally included in all talks about periodization are the three basic types of periodization: linear, non-linear (conjugate), and undulating. Greg Nuckols, owner of the strength site Strength Theory and an accomplished powerlifter, in his article “There is Only One Type of Periodization – Part 1” for Juggernaut Training Systems, defines the three styles as:
Undulation: changing the training volume and/or intensity to expose the body to different stressors
Linearity: Progressing a training stress or fitness characteristic in a linear fashion. This is roughly equivalent to “progressive overload” for single or multiple factors.
Conjugation: Regularly changing training stressors with the purpose of training different physical characteristics (like maximal strength and explosiveness, for example) simultaneously.
The following images offer a visual take on the variance among the three styles:
Figure 1: Undulating periodization image courtesy of Breaking Muscle
Figure 2: Linear periodization image courtesy of Breaking Muscle
Figure 3: Conjugate periodization image courtesy of Breaking Muscle
Before going on, it is important to understand that there are even more approaches to each traditional style and coaches or trainers who incorporate aspects of multiple approaches. For example:
Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems use several different periodization models in his books The Juggernaut Method and the Juggernaut Method 2.0. One of his models uses the 16-week, four-phase cycle, that includes Accumulation, Intensification, Realization, and Deload weeks during every four-week cycle.
In “Fitness: The Complete Guide” written by ISSA’s own Frederick C. Hatfield, PhD, the topic of periodization is approached in-brief and Hatfield notes “any program must be periodized if it is to be successful.” He goes on to talk about macro-, meso-, and micro-cycles, exercise order, and other topics, laying the foundation for a periodized program, albeit in a manner different from those presented thus far.
Edward A. Byrd, the founder of Medical Research Institute (MRI), a popular supplement manufacturer, details a 14-week periodized workout program in his book “The Nitric Oxide Revolution.” The program includes three, four-week training cycles, each focused on a different training dynamic, and a 1-2 week deload. Cycle one focuses on hypertrophy, cycle two focuses on strength and cycle three focuses on power, while the deload is a 1- to 2-week period of recovery.
As you may begin to infer, there are many different periodization methods. With these come many differing options on the validity of each. However, note that each method works for the trainer or coach and his or her clients. Remember this as you read on.
Contextual Differences Between Client Athletes and the Average Client
Let’s look at the difference between client athletes (amateur or pro) and the average client.
Client Athletes—seeking to improve sport performance
Average clients—seeking to lose weight, improve appearance, get fitter, fight chronic disease such as heart disease
It’s important to note that the client athlete may pursue some of the same goals as the average client, but with the interest of improving sport performance, not as a primary goal. The training of athletes will be very focused while the training for the average client will be less so. The athlete will likely need higher intensity workouts than the average client as well, due to the likelihood that the athlete client is fitter than the average client (this is an assumption, of course, but generally true).
Now think back to the different periodization models. Who do they seem the best fit for? The athlete client, of course, as the structured programming will allow maximization of training adaption during the training cycle. If you’re training an athlete, some form of periodization should be used, and you’ll need to define that. As you continue reading, keep that thought in mind.
So the question becomes, does the average client need periodization, that is, does he or she need a systematic planning of athletic or physical training? In a word, yes. Though not pursuing athletic endeavors, per se, the average client benefits from structure the same as the athlete. However, as noted above, the approach could be looser and the intensity diminished. Structure in exercise or training is always beneficial.
I would not be a fair and objective trainer and writer if I did not note that not everyone agrees with me. Jonathan Goodman, founder of the Personal Trainer Development Center (thePTDC), emphatically states as much in his article “Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize.”
“Periodization doesn’t work. I know this and if you train regular people with regular jobs and regular families you also know this. Writing a 12-week plan is useless because:
• People get sick
• People’s kids get sick
• Work gets busy
• Family joys or crisis happen
• The list goes on…”
He offers many a reason why and offers you an alternative: to develop a training template or use his, this training template:
Figure 4: Image courtesy of thePTDC
Clearly, the template does not follow the previously designated styles of periodization. However, note Goodman still uses “a systematic planning of athletic or physical training” in the plan, and even includes aspects of periodization models, albeit customized for each client. My point? Even though Goodman states periodization does not work, he uses a structure based, at least partially, on periodization models and systematically plans for each client.
By the way, I have nothing against Goodman or thePTDC. I read plenty of articles from that site, Breaking Muscle, and Juggernaut Training Systems, among others. Each training camp and instructor therein is doing their thing and helping clients—in their own structured and periodized way.
Periodization is for everyone…well, almost everyone
Long term clients need periodization—whether an athlete or average client, if a person commits to a 12-week or longer package, there should be structure to the programming, whether you use commonly accepted periodization methods, Goodman’s periodization method, or one of your own. The same idea applies to someone who pays month-to-month who you can reasonably plan to be committed to the process for at least a few months at a time.
Keep in mind that periodization can work for groups as well as individuals, given that these groups of people are committed to extended training. For example, periodization can be applied to a high school football team or an NFL team to increase strength, improve dashes (sprints), or develop other physical characteristics.
Session-to-session clients need a different approach—you can’t program long term for someone who may not be a client tomorrow. Though I’m not a fan of them, generic templates are the way to go, keeping in mind accounting for individual ability is still necessary to some degree. Not periodizing or planning long term for these clients will reduce your lost time and keep your stress levels low.
Really, try avoiding session-to-session clients, or even week-to-week clients, due to limitations in approach. These people are likely not vested in long term results and think they can “learn all they need to know” in a few sessions or achieve unrealistic results in a short time. They are flighty and will not last long, in most cases.
What Method Do I Use for Myself and Clients?
You may wonder what approach I use for myself and my clients. Sometimes I use linear periodization, especially for someone who has very little or no workout experience, but often I use non-linear periodization. Some of my programs follow a structure similar to that of the Juggernaut Method phases.
I have 12 program models targeting different approaches. Very rarely am I able to use them as-is for a client, but they provide me a starting point, from which I can easily adjust for client’s individual situations. I apply these programs to improving strength, losing weight, improving speed, gaining weight, improving cardio endurance, and many other goals.
Right now, for myself, I use one of these programs. It operates in waves of three weeks, with three active waves and one test/deload wave. Each wave sees variance in assistance exercises, but the primary exercises remain the same. Each of the first three, three-week cycles use a percent range of one-rep max, specifically 60-75 percent for wave one, 60-85 percent for wave two, and 60-95 percent for wave three, while the final wave has a test and deload. During my last 12-week cycle I added 40 pounds to my overhead squat, 30 pounds to my front squat, 15 pounds to my clean, improved work capacity, and improved in a number of other areas. It was awesome!
The Take Away While I respect Jonathon Goodman’s expertise, and thePTDC as a whole, he’s wrong—a 12-week plan is not useless for training “regular people with regular jobs and regular families.” These plans can work if you know how to adjust for situations that arise. The exception is the chronically absent client, but you have a client issue, not a plan issue in that situation.
Long term clients need periodization—whether an athlete or average client. If a person commits to a 12-week or longer package, there should be structure to the programming, whether you use commonly accepted periodization methods, Goodman’s periodization method, someone else’s, or one of your own.
Formulate your own plan, if possible. This is the best way to create a plan that utilizes your skills and training expertise, allowing you to integrate the textbook knowledge you gained through ISSA and other educational courses with the real-world practical application that you gained in the training environment.
Remember that the plan is only part of the picture. Periodization and progression are key, but you must be intuitive in the moment and know how to adjust programs as your client work through them, whether from week-to-week or session-to-session.
So, that’s it. I’m done dropping knowledge bombs. What are your thoughts?
While writing this blog post, I communicated with 17 different health and fitness professionals, including personal trainers, physical therapists, and others. I asked them:
• What’s your definition of periodization?
• Do you think periodization is essential to proper training and exercise programs?
• Do you use periodization for all of your clients?
Of the 17 individuals, 11 noted they always use periodization, while six noted they did so with specific clients based on goals. However, it is worth noting that most of these six respondents stated they at least use linear progression/progressive overload or some type of structure with all clients.
Here are a few noteworthy responses:
“What’s your definition of periodization? Periodization is creating blocks of training that allow the athlete to develop desired attributes of fitness. Training variables can be modified based on the specific training adaptation desired, and implemented for controlled periods of time. Do you think periodization is essential to proper training and exercise programs? In order for the coach and athlete to accurately track progress over time, some form of periodization is essential. This does not mean you need to be a Russian Sports Scientist; however, periodization denotes organization. True fitness adaptations take weeks to months to develop, and periodization allows one to build upon prior work in a systematic, scientific fashion. Do you use periodization for all of your clients? Yes, whether in the rehab or performance setting, I use periodization with every athlete I work with.
Quinn Henoch, PT, DPT; Founder of Clinical Athlete-www.clinicalathlete.com
“Periodization is absolutely essential at the elite and advanced levels where the athlete is nudging their ultimate physical potential and performance gains are increasingly hard to make. At the other extreme, it’s completely unnecessary for someone just starting out training – after all, why take 2-3 months to accomplish an improvement that could have been obtained in 2-3 weeks?
Typically, I use periodization with my clients only when their improvement with linear progression starts to tail off after a few months of continued progress. Then we make the absolute minimum adjustment to frequency, intensity and volume that’s necessary to get progress back on track. Changing too many variables at once means that it’s impossible to understand why a trainee’s performance actually improved (was it the reduced frequency? was it the lower volume?)
The bottom line is training should only ever be as complex as it needs to be to drive the desired adaptation and get the required results. Ultimately, if someone is capable of making solid progress using a simple program, have them do that and keep milking it for all it’s worth. Don’t be in a hurry to copy Dmitry Klokov’s or Mike Tuchscherer’s training program – the irony is they’d love to be able to make progress on a simple linear progression, they just no longer can.”
Tim Blake, Japan-based Strength Coach, Owner & Founder-superfitdads.com
“What’s your definition of periodization? Periodization can best be defined as alternating between the volume of intensities in an individual’s training routine to maximize fully recovery.
Do you think periodization is essential to proper training and exercise programs?
Yes, periodization is essential to proper training and exercise programs because it’s extremely demanding for anyone to recover from too many challenging training sessions. It’s critical that all of us acquire a proper harmony of rest coupled with moderate to intense workouts in our exercise program. For example, most of us cannot and shouldn’t exercise at a maximum intensity every time we workout while performing such multi-joint exercises as: lunges, squats, pull-ups and presses. It’s best to cycle between these volume of intensities. For instance, adding a rest day or a moderate training session while keeping that high intense training session will be more beneficial to reach fitness goals.
Do you use periodization for all of your clients?
I personally perform periodization workouts with all of my clients since this allows their bodies to recover at a much faster rate. These periodization workouts have absolutely allowed them to train at their highest abilities when needed two to three times a week. Furthermore, practical periodization workouts can help anyone achieve hypertrophy and fat loss by cycling their workouts to achieve maximum transformation and fast strength gains.”
Shaun Zetlin, Master Trainer, Fitness Author & Continuing Education Provider, www.zetlinfitness.com
Byrd, E. A. (2005). The Nitric Oxide Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Medical Research Institute. Goodman, J. (2016, September 09). Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize. Retrieved September 13, 2016, from http://www.theptdc.com/2012/01/personal-trainers-shouldnt-periodize/
Hatfield, F. C. (2001). Fitness: The complete guide. Santa Barbara, CA: International Sports Science Association.
Nuckols, G. (2014, October 30). There Is Only One Type Of Periodization – Part 1. Retrieved September 13, 2016, from http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2014/10/29/one-type-periodization-part-1/
Winer, L. (nd). A Simple Guide to Periodization for Strength Training. Retrieved September 13, 2016, from http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/a-simple-guide-to-periodization-for-strength-training