What is Periodization?
If you aren’t an exercise nerd, Periodization might be a foreign word. At its core, Periodization is simply the long-term planning of an athlete’s (or non-athletes) training. The purpose of the planning is to structure a training plan for a person or team to maximize peak performance during specific periods.
For example, a baseball or fútbol player will want to peak for their competitive season.
Depending on one’s sport or training goals a periodization schedule can vary tremendously. For example, many athletes who compete in the Olympics will often have a four-year periodization schedule. This allows them to be at their competitive best and give them a chance to win gold.
We also have many athletes who plan on yearly cycles for a competition season. By far, the annual cycle is the most used and popular. For the purposes of this article, you can assume that I mean annual when referring to a periodization schedule.
Here’s the thing, we don’t need to be a competing athlete in order to take advantage of valuable outputs that a Periodization can provide. For the purposes of my work and trainees, I use Periodization for long-term planning even though there is no competition that we need to peak for. No tournament. No season. No far off event in which we need to crush the competition with our ability to turn spreadsheets into champions.
So then, why even bother using periodization if you use exercise as means for wellbeing and not a sport?
Periodization adds a significant amount of preparatory work for planning an exercise program. It’s a pain to configure from a coaching perspective. From a trainee’s perspective, it is burdensome and confusing if exposed to too much textbook knowledge. The upfront planning is worth the investment and often necessary if lofty goals are being strived for. A good coach will do well at shielding trainees from things like supercompensation theory but at the same time utilize it within the exercise prescription.
With my Level Up Method, I advocate for progressing from very basic strength movements to advanced strength movements. Progressing someone from not being able to do a single two-arm pull-up to performing one-arm pull-ups is not a simple progression. For many people, that single pulling progression can be a 1-3 year journey.
When building progressions that are complex and have multi-year goals, Periodization is an essential tool for optimizing an exercise prescription routine. Without the use of Periodization, we suffer from short-termism, regress to the mean, and languish in mediocrity.
Level Up Periodization
The Level Up Method is the framework I employ for all Level Up programs. It is the framework I’ve created that ensures that my programming and progressions are based on two guiding principles:
- Personal experience as a movement practitioner and coach with 15 years under my belt (as of 2018).
- Utilization of published research in Exercise Science for exercise programming and prescription.
A good way to think of periodization is as a yearly planner. If I gave you a planner it would have goals, tasks, days of weeks, holidays, and all the things you would expect. The calendar organizes larger principles for you but it doesn’t explicitly write out how to accomplish goals. It won’t tell you how to get a promotion. It won’t tell you how complete a project. But it does offer a method in which to organize your own goals.
Level Up Periodization does that for the goals I put forth in my programs and online personal training clients. It helps with the long-term planning but Periodization itself doesn’t help much with specific goals like getting to a Muscle Up.
Periodization is best thought of as a hierarchical organization system. Let’s use time as an analogy.
The perception of time by humans is linear (with the exception of chaos theory and the idea of nonlinear time). We’ve created systems around linear time to help us organize our civilizations and societies. The most widely used organizational system around time is the Gregorian calendar.
This organizational system is a hierarchy:
- Millenium = 1,000 years
- Century = 100 years
- Decade = 10 years
- Lustrum= 5 years
- Quadrennium= 4 years
- Triennium = 3 years
- Biennium = 2 years
- Year = 1 year
- Quarters = 4 quarters = 1 year
- Month = 4 quarters = 12 months
- Day = ~30 days = 1 month
- Hour = 24 hours = 1 Day
- Minute = 60 minutes = 1 hour
- Second = 60 Seconds = 1 minute
Periodization is much the same. It utilizes the organization of the Gregorian calendar, training priorities, and understanding of exercise science to create long-term plans for athletic training.
Periodization uses some vernacular that most should have no reason to know but by the end of this article, you’ll know you’re way around the terms.
The Classic Periodization Annual Plan
In the graphic above, you’ll notice that the Annual Plan is at the top. We are going to start at the top and move all the way down to an individual training session.
I mentioned earlier that the standard Periodization schedule is based on a yearly plan. Below is what a generic annual training plan might look like in terms of the phases and gross volume and intensity throughout the year. Here are some brief overviews of each component. We’ll be going deeper into each one later on.
- There are three major phases. The transition phase is the shortest of them all. It is the recovery period after a competition. The preparatory phase is the longest of the phases and prepares someone for their season. The competitive phase is when the person is in the middle of their season.
- Each phase will have sub-phases with a specific focus. For example, in the preparatory phase, there may be a sub-phase that specifically works on strength, power, or a specific technique.
- Each sub-phase will have a macrocycle. A macrocycle is a block of training that is generally 2-7 weeks long with a specific training focus.
- Each sub-phase will have 2-7 micro-cycles. A micro-cycle is a 7-day training block.
- Then, each micro-cycle will have a certain number of scheduled training sessions a week.
The Level Up Periodization ‘Annual Plan’
That was a quick overview of the classical organization structure of an annual Periodization plan. Now let examine where the Level Up Method is different.
“The goal of training is to induce physiological adaptations and maximize performance at specific time points, usually during the main competition of the year” – Periodization: Theory and programming Methodology of Training
I build exercise programs for adults. These adults use these programs and progressions to get strong, be healthier, improve wellbeing, and improve fitness. There isn’t a yearly competition season we need to fuss around with. With my adult trainees, there isn’t an offseason or competition season. Even with these differences, Periodization is a useful tool I employ in the Level Up Programs.
I use periodization in two primary phases:
- The Preparatory Phase: The focus here is to build a skill, strength, or level of aptitude.
- The Maintenance Phase: The focus here is to hold on to what was earned in the Preparatory phase.
At any given point, one of my trainees will have multiple movements that are in the preparatory phase and multiple movements in the Maintenance phase. For example, each of my trainees works on the primary movement pattern of upper-body pulling. The two primary aptitudes within that movement pattern will are:
- 15 Strict Two Arm Pull-Ups from a pull-up bar or gymnastic rings.
- Alternative One Arm Strict Pull-Ups from gymnastic rings.
As an example, once the trainee can perform 15 strict pull-ups that movement moves into the Maintenance phase for two-arm pull-ups. Maintenance movements are performed once a week with low volume and high intensity to hold onto that strength and aptitude. Movements in the preparatory phase are programmed 2-3 times a microcycle (i.e. week) with much higher volume and intensity. The goal is to get movements into the Maintenance phase as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality and risking injury.
This fundamental principle speaks to the vision of the Level Up program. What I envision for each of my trainees is to work on these progressions for a few years. Over that time, they will accumulate various aptitudes. A toolbox if you will. Things like one-arm pull-ups, levers, handstand variations, and some basic weightlifting movements. The result is that with minimal work, they can maintain those aptitudes and then build on the ones that interest them or use that training time for other skills (sport, dance, etc.)
The Macrocycle Overview
The term macro is derived from the Greek work Makros, which means Large.
Depending on the sport, coaching, and programming a Macrocycle will be anywhere between 2-7 weeks. For the purposes of The Level Up Method, I default to a macrocycle being 4 weeks. This results in 13 macrocycles per year.
There are three types of Macrocycles in the classical periodization model.
- Accumulation – Increase conditioning and technical aptitude.
- Transmutation – Translate base acquired in the Accumulation phase to be adapted to the competition.
- Realization – Use of heightened performance in competition
For the Level Up Method, I have the following types of macrocycles.
- Accumulation – Gradually increase volume to achieve the goal for a primary movement. This is also the Preparatory phase.
- Realization – Maintenance of acquired skill with minimal volume to make room for new skills. This is also the Maintenance phase.
With the Level Up Method, the length of the Accumulation phase is dependent upon one’s ability to acquire the skill we are working towards. From an exercise volume perspective, it would look something similar to the following. We can observe that each macrocycle has more volume than the previous. This is accomplished by allowing the body to overreach in its ability for three microcycles and then one microcycle to recover. The result is after four weeks the body is adapted to handle more volume for that movement than the last microcycle. Isn’t science fun?
The purpose of having a macrocycle is to meaningfully progress towards a primary movement that a trainee is working towards. One of the most effective ways of doing this is using Step Loading.
Step loading is progressively overloading a trainee with exercise volume with intermittent periods of lowered volume. The progressive overloading stresses the primary movement pattern while the unloading allows for recovery, regeneration, and time for the desired physiological adaptations to set in.
The Level Up Method utilizes a 3:1 loading paradigm. This is a fairly common ratio and is well supported in the literature. Practically speaking, this means three weeks of increased volume followed by a 1 week period of lowered volume.
A loading volume for a Macrocycle will look something like this:
The Microcycle Overview
The microcycle is the most important functional planning tool in the training process. The structure and content of the Microcycle determine the quality of the training process. The microcycle is structured according to the objectives, volume, intensity, and methods that are the focus of the training phase. – Periodization: Theory and programming Methodology of Training
The Microcycle is 3-7 days and most uses of Periodization default to 7-days. All Microcycles in the Level Up Method are 7-days. The primary reason for this is not based on research but rather common sense. My trainees are adults and adults design their life around 1-week schedules. Keeping in line with that adds simplicity and increases adherence since undue complexity isn’t introduced by a day 3, 4, 5, or 6 of the microcycle.
The sequence of the microcycle is of particular importance because fatigue generated in one session can significantly affect subsequent training sessions. Thus, the sequence of the training stimuli throughout the microcycle must account for accumulated fatigue in order to maximize the development of specific performance or biomotor factors. – Periodization: Theory and programming Methodology of Training
The Level Up Method is different than traditional periodization in the sense that it views volume and programming on a foundational movement pattern basis rather than a total body volume accumulation basis.
Let’s take two primary movement patterns as an example. Inversion and Compression.
Inversion is various types of handstand skills. This includes a free handstand, HSPU, One-arm handstand, and more. Compression is core work that brings your thighs to your abdominals under tension. For example, V sits, toes to bar, L sits, and V ups to name a few.
In traditional periodization, the volume would increase and decrease each microcycle with all movements together. With Level Up, the volume moves up and down independent of the movement. For example, hypothetically a person using the Level Up program could be in a regeneration cycle for compression and a shock cycle for inversion in the same week.
Keeping primary movement patterns separated by volume like this is available to us since we don’t have a competition phase that we are aiming to peak for.
When constructing a microcycle, there are four primary considerations I take for The Level Up progressions.
- Am I trying to illicit excess fatigue or recovery on the trainee? Since I utilize a 3:1 ratio, the first three microcycles in a macrocycle will be fatigue-inducing. The last will be about recovery.
- What level is the trainee? Can the trainee do a single strict pull-up? If not, then they are a beginner and do not have that much upper body strength. That means they can’t handle that much volume. So they will be training the pull-up 2 times a week since they need the extra time to recover. Can the trainee do a 1-minute handstand? In that case, they have put some work in and can handle more volume. This person could handle 3-6 days a week of handstand training. The athlete’s level also influences not only weekly training sessions for a primary movement pattern but also volume in a specific workout.
- What is the goal the athlete is working to accomplish in the programming? For example, in Level 1.1 of the pull-up program, the goal is X number of ring rows at 45 degrees. This allows us to tie the microcycle to very short term, attainable, and actionable goals.
- What does the intra-week fatigue accumulation look like? For example, let’s say I want to have three workouts. I am not going to put them back-to-back. I want to spread them out to maximize a balance between stress and recovery.
Practically speaking, this equates to the dozes of different types of microcycles designs. Here is a sample microcycle. You can observe that the first day of the week is the biggest day. This followed by a rest day and then a low volume day. By the end of the week, the trainee is mostly recovered and they would end the week on another high volume day and have the weekend to recover.
Within the progressions, I use dozens of different volume schedules depending on a multitude of factors.
Individual Training Session Overview
The individual training session is the organization of one workout of training. A typical microcycle could have from zero individual training sessions to dozens for high output athletes.
An individual training session also varies enormously depending on the sport, athletic level, phase of training, and a host of other factors. Training sessions will fall into one of the following four categories no matter the level of the trainee.
- Learning Sessions: Skill acquisition
- Repetition Session: Skill practice
- Skill Perfection Session: Mastery
- Assessment Session: Check skill in order to make adjustments to the training plan
Individual Training Session for The Level Up Method
For The Level Up Method, a training session is based on a single foundational movement. So, if you are working on multiple foundational movements at the same time, a given day could have multiple individual training sessions.
A Level Up Method training session will follow this template for every workout.
This article summarizes the basics of Periodization. If you want a much deeper understanding I highly suggest checking out Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training.
This article is a framework document for The Level Up Method. What that means is that this post helps to explain the reasoning behind the various programs and courses that I build to help people progress at strength and mobility movements. Periodization is just one component of this methodology. Periodization handles the volume and intensity portion of exercise planning.
The training plan should systematically alter volume and intensity to maximize the physiological and performance adaptions stimulated by training. – Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training
Periodization offers a framework for ‘how much and when’ but there are other factors that need to be considered for exercise prescription. For example, movement selection, goal setting, multi-year planning, diet, motivation, and more.