Planning ahead is often beneficial in life. If we know that we are going to have less money one month, we can budget accordingly. If we know that we are going to be working late one evening then you can ask the girlfriend to come home at lunch and let the dog out. But often, with our training the furthest we plan ahead is the end of the block – 6 weeks, maybe 8.

What is periodization? A history.

The ancient Greeks and Romans understood periodization, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t either

Enter periodization. The word ‘periodization’ has been around for a long time in strength circles, and you’ve probably encountered it before. All it means is that we plan different phases, or periods, in our training according to what is going on in our life at the time.

The concept of periodization is as old as physical fitness itself. The Roman philosopher and physician Galen and the ancient Greek scientist Philostratus both wrote about the idea of prioritizing sections of an athlete’s training regime according to their focus. Galen thought it wise to build strength, then focus on speed and then work on exercises which had carryover to the disciplines of the games: discus, wrestling etc.

Philostratus proposed that athletes preparing for the Olympics should indulge in a 10-month period of meaningful and purposeful training, then a 1 month focused preparation phase just before the games began.

Both of these ideas have found support in the training programs of modern athletes and lifters. Between the 1950s and 1970s the Soviets poured all their resources into finding a competitive edge over the western world in almost all sporting disciplines, and the research of men like Tudor Bompa, Antoliy Bondarchuk and Leonid Matveyev played a key role in that. Their findings now underpin 21st Century sports science.

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Who should use periodization?

If you’ve been lifting for a while, then you should seriously begin to consider adopting some periodized approach into your training. If you plan your own training, then you should be thinking big picture about where you want to be in a year – and if someone does your training programs for you, you should ask them what phases in training they are accounting for. If they just plan to run you through a whole year on the same progression, get another trainer!

If you’ve been lifting for less than 12 months, due to the magical power of ‘newbie gainz’ you should focus on building a foundation of strength and good movement habits first. You don’t need to worry about this just yet, but it can’t hurt to read on and be prepared!

Matveyev Model – periodization for the competitive lifter

Soviet weightlifters understood the importance of periodization.

What we now understand as Periodization in its classic form is based around the findings of Leonid Matveyev. He was working with high level Soviet weightlifters and determined to find the optimum training modality to help them bring the gold medals back to Mother Russia. Matveyev’s model is remarkably simple:

General Preparation Phase (GPP)
The initial phase starts with a high-volume/low-intensity approach. You may do 5 or 6 exercises per session and lots of reps but a moderate weight. This block may last for 6 – 12 weeks

Specific Preparation Phase (SPP)
After the GPP we switch to a low-volume/high-intensity phase in the run up to an event or competition. The exercise selection comes down to 3 or 4 precise and meaningful lifts. The weights get heavier, but the reps get lower. This block will generally last 4 – 6 weeks.

Peaking Phase (PP)
Shortly before the competition, we move to a phase which is focused solely on the preparation for the event. For example, if you were doing a powerlifting meet, on one day of training you may just do bench press and one assistance exercise, so as not to fatigue yourself. In the same week you may just do a few sets of very heavy squats to prime your legs. It’s rare for this phase to last longer than 2 weeks.

Transition Phase (TP)
After the event has passed, take some time off, train a different style and try to recover a love of training. If you’re back in the gym slamming one rep maxes the day after competing in a strength competition, chances are you’re going to end up injured or resentful. Or both!

Applying periodization for the non-competitive lifter

I can hear you saying “OK Dan, but I’m not a strength athlete. I lift in a commercial gym or the garage and enjoy the hell out of it”. And that’s great! But even you can benefit from adapting some of the protocols of periodization into your training.

Firstly, look at the whole year ahead. Buy a calendar or wall chart (apps are available but I am very much a tactile and visual person, and you can’t pin an iPhone to the wall of your office). On the calendar, identify any important dates that may coincide with your training.

Are you going on a beach vacation? Block it off. Is there a wedding you want to look your best for? Make a note. Are there any times when you know that work will be manic, around the end of the financial year perhaps? Put them on the calendar.

Then think about goals you want to achieve. Mark them on the calendar too. 3 plate bench press by the end of August? Cool, we can work towards that. Visible abs for the beach in May? No problem, planning ahead will help. Extra calories and sedentary life during hoody season in November and December? Absolutely, we’ll use this block meaningfully.

You should then have a picture of what the year ahead looks like. Injuries will happen, life will get in the way, and that’s fine. By having our year ahead mapped out in advance it should make adherence to our plans easier, as we know what we should be doing, and when, and most importantly – why!

Remember, as a non-competitive lifter we’re not looking at strength stages (GPP, SPP etc) rather we are looking at specific chunks that we wish to employ into our training schedule. They must have an achievable goal, a clear rationale and a conscious change in training modality. Below is an example of how this might look.

MonthsGoals / Life EventsImpact on training
January – early MarchLose weight after Christmas periodHigher focus on cardio, lower weights higher volume, shorter rest periods
Late March – Mid AprilFinancial year close – busy at work, high stress environmentOne or two short training sessions per week, consolidate strength by doing exercises with most bang-for-buck, no time for assistance work
May – Late JuneOne week on the beach at the end of June – I want abs!Work abs every second session, train 4 times per week, bodybuilding focus
July – SeptemberNow I’m back in the gym after my vacation I want a project. Double bodyweight bench press for reps by September 21stPrioritise pressing movements. Heavy bench and reps on separate days. Focus on pulling to strengthen upper back. Reduce squats to 3×5 per week.
October – DecemberIt’s dark and cold outside – bulking seasonSquats twice per week, powerbuilding focus – heavy sets of 3 on big compound lifts, 3 sets of 12 on all assistance work

Wrap up

An hour spent with a calendar, pen, paper and your own thoughts can unlock a year of productivity. Just as you wouldn’t build a house without a clear plan – don’t build your body without one either. Remember that there are going to be challenges and obstacles that occur throughout your year that mean your plan gets put to one side, and this is OK.

If you have a script, it’s a lot easier to get back on track than to keep improvising. Recognise that you will not be training the same way for the whole 12 months. It’s boring, it’s counter-productive and it won’t lead you to better gains. The wise lifter knows that variety is the spice of life, and the wiser lifter plans for it accordingly.

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