Periodization for fun and profit

Most people somewhat involved in strength sports are familiar with the term periodiziation [1]. To cite the first sentence of Wikipedia on it, it is the systematic planning of athletic and physical training, but for the rest of the article, I assume that the reader is somewhat familiar with the concept.

There probably have been countless discussions about how everything is linear periodization, the minutiae differentiating conjugate or undulating periodization from block periodization and how you can layer several forms of periodization. When creating a periodized plan, you usually start with a goal, most likely a competition date, and then you work backwards from this goal and determine in each step, what the athlete has to be able to accomplish to successfully enter the next phase of the program.

However. This year it's not wise to compete, so if you have a choice and are not financially dependent on it, you better not compete. So what can you do? Well, you can take the opportunity and let your training be less confined by exterior circumstances of the sport and have a longer time horizon for your athletic development, or maybe just posteriorize it.

There are some difficulties though, as many of us currently experience

  • lack of training equipment and limited access to gyms
  • loss of general fitness due to home office and moving less
  • a lot less time on your hands as, e.g. because non-tech people still try to work synchronously, demands on reliability and feature velocity have increased, or you have to take more care in your community and family
  • less separation of training space and living space, making it difficult to get in the zone
  • lack of contests to look forward to
  • no sensible way to train with other people and being less motivated on your own
  • loss of people close to you

All these things make training in a fulfilling way more difficult, while at the same time increasing its importance both for your physical and mental well being. Also it is clear by now that these circumstances will persist until end of 2021 or even later in most places. So how does one cope with that?

Well, the answer is, of course, rethinking your training and the role it's playing in your life. And then systematically planning it accordingly, i.e.: Periodization. But instead of trying to push a limit weight at a certain date in the future, you now have gained a few degrees of freedom in the goal department, while simultaneously lost a few degrees of freedom in the circumstance department. So what to do about it?

As the title implies I suggest to periodize for fun and profit.

Periodization for profit

Serious training is an expensive hobby when it comes to time. While the majority of the non-negative health outcomes is usually done with two cardio sessions and two strenght sessions of less than a hour a week, developing positive health and improving performance for its own sake can result in multiple sessions a week, where each of it is longer than the weekly training time of genpop. This time is not wasted, though. Forceful and productive training is helpful to preserve sanity. You are working to some goal that's not just work and career, you make progress and bridge the disconnect from your body, brought to you by a mainly sedentary lifestyle and you certainly get magnitudes more out of it than just genpop training for non-negative health, i.e. not dying earlier.

While I mainly chose profit towards the catchy article title, training for profit probably means a reduction or at least redistribution of training time. But general health and fitness is also paramount for your day to day performance. While this is not much of a concern when you have your regular training schedule and at least some movement to get your ass from the bed to the desk at work, at this point it is probably slowly catching up with you. So general fitness now likely is a factor to consider.

Planning for walks is an obvious choice, but also fun things like rest-timed training (like the inverted Juggernaut method), complexes, high rep (20+) back-off or even warmup sets help in keeping your general fitness high. High rep warmups in particular, e.g. with lunges, pushups or even in the main exercises, also can make the training more effective at slightly lower loads, reducing risk of injury - if planned appropriately. Of course you need to consider that it takes a week or to, until you can safely perform your main training with the increased base level of fatigue. Which is where periodization comes into play.

Furthermore you probably have to make more out of limited equipment. While a bar, some weights, a bench and a rack sets you off about a grand, all the niceties of a gym like dumbbells, boxes, chains etc. really sum up. Money saved is money earned posttax. Even if you have alread set aside a nice chunk of money, shipping times for equipment are still in the months and setting up stuff also takes up precious time. Training your triceps with barbell overhead extensions is a bit more taxing and requires you to be more fresh than with cable pushdowns, so this probably changes the structure of your training a bit. Maybe they now happen between bench and deadlift, instead of at the end of the training when you only want to sis or bro out for a while. Similarly, to avoid buying too many dumbbells (they are really expensive), instead of alternating biceps and triceps exercises, working one muscle group at a time and instead of dropping load, moving to mechanically favored movements, like from db curls to hammer curls, can help you to make more out of limited weight selection. The same is true for prefatigued training and training in higher rep ranges. The less weights you have to buy, the more money you save and maybe even can get those plates at a later time cheaper, when all the powerlifters try to get rid of their panic buys.

Periodization for fun

Strength training should be first and foremost fun, even though our definition of fun probably encompasses more pain and suffering than that of other people. Unless it earns you serious bucks, it's only a hobby. And if it does, it is your career and it is maybe important to preserve your love for the sport. And if you're a coach this is even more important. Most coaching contracts are - in contrast to the perception of the clients and even moreso the coaches themselves - not about the results and quality programming, but about the coach-trainee relationship and the experience of being coached [2].

And where does come fun from? Setting PRs is certainly a nice thing, but putting numbers with red circles around them in your log book is only a very superficial and abstract pleasure, just like instabook likes. Performing well, mastering the weights, crushing training, viscerally perceiving progress - this is what makes you feel great, forget about work and makes training enjoyable. Also variety keeps things interesting.

Instead of relying too much on autoregulation, I suggest to take many of the physiological and psychological considerations one usually has with the competition date and apply them to any training day. When planning for a competition you usually can get away with very dreadful training for a few months, as there is a deadline. But long-term there better be periods of fun. While it is appropriate to just fuck around a few weeks after competition and get a relief of strict training with performance expectancies, for longer periods of time, a totally unplanned approach is not only leaving precious gains on the table, but also less fun than actually planning for an optimal training experience.

As mentioned above, actual performance is a key driver of fun, so even when fun, not performance, is the main goal of your training program, it can still be very well made into a productive training program.

But what goals do you set? Well, there are several possibilities and I am sure any somewhat serious friend of the iron sports has at least some of these on their list:

  • finally hit some long standing rep PRs, like round numbers or multiples of red or blue plates that are in close reach or multiples of BW
  • get a PR in some fun non-comp exercises like behind the neck push presses
  • maybe some rep scheme you really like but never use because it is suboptimal, like 20s, 5 x 5
  • fun stuff like complexes that usually interferes too much with regular training
  • maybe finally (TM) get some biceps growth
  • Linear periodization redux[3]_ for some lifts

Then there are some things to take into consideration, which might modify the way you approach your training session. One thing are aforementioned high rep warmup sets, which not only prefatigue, but also help you to put some mental distance between your day and your training.

By taking in all the usual considerations of periodization, one now can add several different things into a single meso - or at least macro -, while not being too concerned about a tightly constrained training goal.

Putting it all together

The process of then designing a training plan is not even that much different. Almost anything is only appropriate at certain points in a plan. Hitting a new PR clearly is something for the end of a mesocycle, whereas the majority of work capacity training should be in the beginning of a mesocycle or even in an earlier one. Make a rough outline and then iterate yourself towards something sensible and workable and don't be afraid from week-to-week adjustments.

Maybe you already have your favorite training program and only want to tinker a bit with it. But if you are really in for something different, it makes sense to use a well established training template like Juggernaut Method as your skeleton and then build around it, so you know for certain that you have at least some quality training in the main lifts.

Don't be sad because your highly specific training can't be executed as usual and make the most of it. Make sure training always adds to your life.

[1]except in Germany, where people apparently are totally unaware of any literature that's not written in German and it's just in 2020 that people seem to have discovered the Juggernaut method
[2]as evidenced by the lackluster, thought- and loveless programming of most coaches (even though this is appropriate outside strength training populations)
[3]roughly putting more weight on the bar each time and amrapping, see also my repranges blogpost