Gaining Strength Through Periodization – Train Like a Soviet Athlete!

October 29, 2008

Many people have probably heard of the term periodization and quickly skimmed over the article. Periodization just sounds complicated, and it can be. I would like to describe a simple way to use this lifting philosophy to insure you don’t reach sticking points. We will look at gaining strength in particular, but this works well with any physical activity.

The kremlin in former soviet union

[Periodization was mastered by Tudor Bompa, Trainer of the Former Soviet Union Olympic Team. These techniques allowed the former Soviet Union to dominate the Olympics for close to 30 years. This legendary trainer laid out his life’s work in the book, Theory and Methodology of Training.]

Sometimes Lifting is Like Pushing a Brick Wall

You will reach a point after lifting for a couple of years where strength gains come to a halt. No matter what you do, you cannot get stronger in a certain lift. It feels even worse when you actually wind up losing a bit of strength. When this happens, it is time to learn periodization.

You Will Burn Out if You Push 100% Year Round

Your body will reach exhaustion if you push as hard as possible throughout the year. I don’t believe you should ever let yourself go, but it doesn’t hurt to have a period of time where you back off on training a little bit. If you normally train 5 times per week, then limit that to 3 times a week for 6-8 weeks. Instead of pushing hard on your lifts, back off on all the weight and cut the volume in half for a while. After this break, implement a strategy of periodization like I outine below.

When You Back off on Working Out, Tighten Up Your Diet

A strategy I like to use is to see how cut I can get with a strict diet and minimal exercise for short periods of time. This is a great time to master your diet. Once you re-introduce a higher volume of lifting, try to continue to eat strict for a while…this will allow you to get extra lean, because your diet is “dialed in”.

A Practical Explanation of Periodization and Action Plan

Think of periodization as taking “two steps back, in order to take 3-4 steps forward”. Let’s say you are stuck at benching 205 pounds for 5 reps. No matter what you do it is impossible to get 6 reps, or do 5 reps with 210 pounds.

The plan will be to back off on the weight a bit and then spend the next 6 weeks building back up to 205 pounds for 5 reps. Let’s assume that you work each muscle group twice per week, so in 6 weeks you will get 12 chest workouts in. If you are lucky your gym will have 2.5 pound plates, because then you can increase your bench press 5 pounds each week.

So if you want to use 12 workouts to build back to 205 pounds, then your starting point will be 60 pounds less than this (12 weeks times 5 pounds = 60 pounds).

Here’s What that Would Look Like…

  • Workout 1: 145 pounds for 5 reps
  • Workout 2: 150 pounds for 5 reps
  • Workout 3: 155 pounds for 5 reps
  • Workout 4: 160 pounds for 5 reps
  • (You get the idea)
  • Workout 12: 205 pounds for 4 reps
  • Workout 13: 210 pounds for 3 reps
  • Workout 14: 210 pounds for 4 reps
  • Workout 15: 210 pounds for 5 reps
  • Workout 16: 215 pounds for 3 reps
  • Workout 17: 215 pounds for 4 reps
  • Workout 18: 215 pounds for 5 reps

Note: See how once we passed 205 pounds we backed off on the reps a bit. This is a great way to get used to the new weight. Doing 210 pounds for 3 reps will feel easier than doing 205 pounds for six reps. Also…I am not really getting into how to implement this with multiple sets. I’m trying to teach the basic concept.

Long Buildup Phases = Long Strength Gain Phases

This isn’t an absolute, but the key to periodization is to take your time to re-build your strength foundation. If you rush the time to reach your previous best, you may wind up getting stuck at that same weight again. In the example above I used 6 weeks, but you may want to experiment with slightly longer or shorter periods of time.

Become Familiar with the 2.5 Pound Plates

Your body will adapt a lot better to small increments in weight than it will with big jumps in weight. Big jumps in weight will make your body “put the breaks” on strength gains. The biggest mistake I see young guys make is to avoid the small plates. You are just headed for frustration if you try to increase the weights by adding 25’s on each side of the bar. Small increases in weight add up to impressive weights over time.

Note: One last thing. I see a lot of people wasting time by trying to ‘upgrade’ to 45 pound plates whenever possible. I guess a 45 pound plate looks more impressive than a 25, a 10, and two 5’s on each side. Don’t get caught up in the weird “free-weight culture”. If you have enough 5’s and 10’s, no need to switch out every 45 pounds.

One Last Thing…Periodization doesn’t apply to just lifting. You can use a similar approach in any physical activity (running, swimming, HIIT, spinning, etc). Just back off the intensity and work your way back to your previous best over a drawn out period of time.

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Thanks for reading all these years!



 

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew R October 30, 2008 at 1:56 am

Rusty,

Fantastic article!! I’ve been applying this same premise to my HIIT workouts and I’ve found that I am indeed increasing too fast, too soon. You do hit the breaks at a certain point and that is a very valuable lesson for everyone to learn.

I’m gonna try using periodization with regards to my bench. Thanks for the advice!!!

All the Best,

Andrew R

chavdar October 30, 2008 at 3:23 am

Hello, Rusty.

I’ve been reading your site for 6 months now,following the posts and comments. You continue to amaze me with profound knowledge of “The Game” of fitness in all her aspects- metodology of training, diet, energy systems etc. With this post you nailed the essence of periodization in a manner and in language your readers may understand correctly and implement right.

I’m 29 years old Bulgarian /no, I don”t train in the manner our national team weightlifters do-no 6 days a week, 3 times a day practices with “juice” on every meal for me/ and have been training with weights,running and boxing since 1994. My passion to fitness actually came from my boxing workouts. Since then I got interested in training science and it’s implementation in the workouts of us, mere mortals- non-competitors, drug free, with a job and a life outside the gym, with one goal-to feel and look better.

My current stats are: 5 feet 11, around 195 lbs bodyweight; I train 3 times a week with weights for about 45 minutes, on rest days I box and sprint in HIIT fashion; best lifts- 305 lbs bench, 405 lbs squat, 510 lbs deadlift, 200 lbs overhead standing press, 17 dead hang bodyweight pullups; running- 58 sec. 400-meter sprint, 11 minutes for 2-miles run.

The point of the above mentioned bragging is not to impress anyone, but to convince your readers that I know a thing or two about training theory myself and yet I still read your blog for new ideas. I’ve been implementing periodization since beginning of my training-our coaches are big into this method; HIIT is a method of training in both our boxing and wrestlers practices-thanks to it I am in single digit body fat year round despite my mostly fast food diet; one ex-girlfriend got me hooked on this one-day a meal feeding regime around 3 years ago.She was former rythmic gymnastics competitor, so no wonder she had 4-pack abs drug free and without training-just this diet plan! /.I implement this diet for 3 month period and actually get below 6% bodyfat at that time without significant strenght and muscle loss.

Everything you write in your blog is true /even the part of your dislike for my 2 favourite exercises-squat and deadlift/Squats and deads work for me fine because I’m ectomorph and have naturally small waist, hips etc, but some of my training buddies that are big into squatting have butts bigger that Jlo’s. One of the guys actually have severe form of “gluteus to the maximus” syndrome- he can rest his weightlifter’s straps on his butt like on a shelf!

Sprinting, like you point out, is deffinitely a better idea for most people who train for the purpose to look good on the beach and in jeans.

Once again- my hat’s off to your knowledge and expertise, as well as to your writing style-very informative,funny and intelligent.

P.S.
Please add more beatifull girls’s pics in your articles-they are sure as hell more inspirational than Kremlin’s domes.Just kidding!

Adam Steer, Momentum Wellness October 30, 2008 at 8:50 am

Another good one Rusty!

Periodization can seem like a pretty mystical concept sometimes… I think you’ve done a good job of providing a no-nonsense alternative here!

Another way to break down the idea of periodization is to think of chunking your training into several layers of a pyramid which all work towards a goal. This goal could be a specific sport skill, a personal best on a lift, etc. A while back I wrote a post on the specific tool that I use for this. It’s called the Training Hierarchy Pyramid. If you’d like to discuss how the THP can be applied to a given goal, just drop a question in the comments section.

Rusty, I really like that you mentioned diet in relation to training parameters. It’s so important to match the two. In fact, I like to look at my nutrition and my rest as an integral part of my training plan rather than something separate used to support my training.

Cheers,
Adam

DR October 30, 2008 at 9:52 am

Rusty,

What are your thoughts on conjugated periodization?

I have had great success using this method of program design.

It’s been really effective for developing strength and burning body-fat at the same time.

Caleb - Double Your Gains October 30, 2008 at 11:25 am

Rusty!

Great article on periodization!

You’re right, lots of people make this sound a lot more complicated than it really is.

And you’re doubly right that you can use it on other things instead of just lifting weights.

I remember I used the “3 steps forward 2 steps back” to gradually work up to running 4 3/4 miles for cardio waaaayyy back in the day.

It’s a good way to continually make gains.

Thanks for a good read!

— Caleb

Bryson October 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Hi, Great stuff as always.

I am wondering if you can help with an strong running routine for a soccer player to gain speed, agility and endurance. (Interval traing?) Any ideas would be appreciated.

admin October 31, 2008 at 10:56 am

Andrew,

Yeah…the body does better when you adapt at a slow pace. I made the big mistake of trying to get strong too quickly when I was first stating out. Once I embraced the idea of small increments in weight, I gained strength consistently.

Chadvar,

Thanks for finally commenting! Great endorsement buddy…especially from someone with your extensive athletic background. I’m glad you addressed my stance on squats and deadlifts as well. It is my least popular viewpoint, but I’m sticking with it. Guys shouldn’t have butt’s like J-Lo. Funny stuff!

Adam,

I need to head on over to your site and read that post. Hopefully others will as well. I enjoy reading your angle on different aspects of exercise. The Diet to Exercise ratio is something that few people talk about, so I had to mention it.

DR,

The nice thing about Conjugated Periodization is that you always remain in peak physical condition. This is probably the best approach for a high level athlete who need to be close to peak condition year round. To me it is a bit complex and unneccessary for someone who just wants to to be functionally fit, strong and have the lean “GQ” or “Victoria’s Secret” type physique.

I prefer to just stay strong and keep the body fat low, while not gaining any additional mass. This results in a slim athletic physique that looks great in and out of clothes. It isn’t too difficult to do if the right approach is taken. I guess I just prefer simple approaches over making it too complex.

That being said…the world’s top powerlifters get amazing results using conjugated periodization. Here is a free 13 page PDF report for people who want to explore conjugated periodization in more detail.

http://danjohn.org/ii15.pdf

Caleb,

I’ve said it a dozen times, but your blog is looking great! Good point about using periodization with running. It work very well wit runnin, biking, swimming, etc.

Bryson,

I will find Beckham’s workout for you. I read it in a magazine this summer. He does a pretty intense HIIT routine and no leg lifts at all (sound familiar?)…anyway it looks solid and obviously keeps him ripped.

Good Stuff!

Rusty

Helder October 31, 2008 at 3:46 pm

I’m 100% with you Rusty, everyone should use this approach no matter what your goals are, this is also one of the best ways to avoid overtraining, and it’s also an excellent way for hardgainers to learn how to add some volume from time to time and then back off again. I’ve been training for many many years, and nowadays i don’t plan much my cut backs, because it happens naturally, i can listen to my body telling me, back off, or take one or two weeks off. That’s also an important thing, taking one or two weeks off from time to time, i would say one week every three months, or a two weeks every six months. Most trainees are afraid to stop training for one or two weeks because they think they’ll lose muscle or strength, but the truth is most of them will gain muscle or strength by taking sometime off.

DangeRuss November 1, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Great Post. I think you should check out the book Maximum Strength by Eric Cressey (www.ericcressey.com/home.html) He uses a principle simple to this one and principles similar to your Muscle Confusion principle.

Here are my stats when i started his program:

Height – 5’11”
Bodyweight- 146 lbs.
Standing Broad Jump – 82″
Box Squat – 145 lbs
Bench Press – 165 lbs
Deadlift – 225 lbs
3 Rep-Max chinup – Bodyweight + 45 lbs.

Results after 16 weeks on his program

Height – 5’11”
Bodyweight – 141 lbs
Standing Broad Jump – 100″
Box Squat – 185 lbs
Bench Press – 185 lbs
Deadlift – 255 lbs
3 Rep-Max Chinup – Bodyweight + 55 lbs.

Bodyfat- somewhere around 7% maybe more possibly less.
7% is an estimate from taking several different measurements from several different websites and taking the average. No official body fat test has been taken.

My results would have been better if I had stuck to his program 100%, but somedays I could just not get myself motivated and to the gym.

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips November 2, 2008 at 7:33 am

Hey Rusty. This is just the article I was looking for. I had a few weeks off from the gym in early September and have really struggled getting back to what I was lifting before. Perhaps, periodisation is the thing I need. Usually, when I reach a plateau I take a week off then get back into it, trying to lift the same weights as before my week off. I never thought about lowering the weights and then building myself back up.

hawk-eye November 2, 2008 at 9:26 pm

hey rusty,

i was wondering whether you’ve heard of Sean Burch and his “hyperfitness” program. it’s approach is very different than that discussed in this post, but i’m interested in your opinion if you’ve heard of it, as i am about to begin the 3 month program.

thank you sir. hawk-eye

Morgenster November 3, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Hey Rusty,

liked the article a lot.
I got the same counterintuitive results by backing off completely from training for two weeks and then going back to it.
I wonder why this is and I wonder if this has anything to do with the idea that muscle tissue can outgrow tendons, ligaments, and bones when you train so that your body actually needs the time off to adapt the entire musculoskeletal system to the strength gains. Because the weird thing I noticed after these ‘breaks’ was that my body sort of grew along with the extra muscle…

Yash November 4, 2008 at 12:22 am

Great post rusty. some really good points. the best one is about the small plates. learn to love the 2.5 pounders, i know i have. too many guys walk into the gym and try lifts they have never done before, but because they want to be tough they throw on heavy weights even if they don’t know what they’re doing. if you are a muscular and fit person and you can lift heavy weights in your other lifts, you may be able to go heavy on your first try on a new exercise, but starting heavy compromises form and learning. and massive gains do some fast. i started about a month and a half ago doing some strength training and i increase my lifts a little each workout. i went from an empty bar on squats to 155 in about 20 workouts. i’m a small guy so thats already more than my body weight. when i took a second to think about it i was amazed, because if you had told me i could do that 2 months ago i would not have believed it. i am definitely going to continue buildin slowly and building strength since i am starting out, and then start applying periodization.

mv November 4, 2008 at 2:50 pm

this is a solid article i might have to link it or steal it for my site…with so much info its nice to see a simple progressive site…i remember using a similar priciple on my back / tri workouts so i could ncrease my bench. worked like a charm and broke the 315 barrier (also mental barrier as well cause i finally stuck to a routine)…it works
http://www.blackfitnessblog.com

Garrett Dyal November 7, 2008 at 1:28 pm

I have a question in regards to the benching. If you are doing this working where you back off is it just to five reps and be done or is it 5 reps of 3 sets?

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