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Challenges Applying the Research on Periodization

Cissik, John MBA, MS1; Hedrick, Allen MA2; Barnes, Michael MEd3

Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2008 - Volume 30 - Issue 1 - p 45-51
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181637f83


1Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas 2National Strength and Conditioning Association, Colorado Springs, Colorado 3Infinity Personal Training, Colorado Springs, Colorado

John Cissik is the Director of Fitness and Recreation at Texas Woman's University.



Allen Hedrick is Resident Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Colorado Springs, Colorado.



Michael Barnes is the Owner of Infinity Personal Training.



The principles of periodization are the foundation of many athletic strength and conditioning programs. Surprisingly little is supported by research despite the fact that it is widely used and widely written about, despite the numerous presentations on this topic, and despite the fact that it apparently works based on practical observation. As this article discusses, what is supported by research about periodization presents challenges when that knowledge is applied to athletics.

The purpose of this article is to suggest that, while periodization is an effective method to use when designing training programs, the science supporting the application of periodization is inadequate in scope. The limitations of periodization's research are understandable. Much of the sport science research in the West is being done in universities, which can limit both subject selection and the length of the studies. It is difficult to get coaches and athletes to participate in this type of potentially disruptive research. This is also due to the misconception that this research has been done, or is being done, by someone else.

The limitations to the research on periodization that this article discusses are problematic because they affect the application of periodization by the practitioner. If the majority of the research that has been done is short term in nature (i.e., roughly an academic semester in length), uses nonathletic college populations, and primarily uses strength training, then it is difficult to apply this research to other populations, over periods of years, using multiple modes of exercise.

This article discusses the acceptance of the practice of periodization and limitations of research supporting its use and concludes by discussing the challenges that the limitations of the research create for the practitioner.

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With periodization, each individual training cycle is characterized by periodical adjustments in the objectives, tasks, and content with the ultimate objective being to assist the athletes in reaching a peak level of performance for the main competition(s) of the year (5,9). Classically in the weight room, this is done through a shift from high-volume and low-intensity training during the early season (preparation phase) to an emphasis on high intensity but low volume (competition phase) during the late season (4). Additionally, sports technical training also typically increases as the weight-training volume decreases. The competition phase is followed by a period of “active rest” during which the volume and intensity are low and the athlete trains at an almost recreational level. The classic Eastern European writings on periodization assume a long-term outlook on an athlete's development as a result of periodization (4,27,32). This approach is not limited to weight training, it is also taken with endurance training. Traditionally, endurance training periodization begins the year with a focus on building an aerobic base through high-volume/low-intensity training, gradually shifting toward lower volume and higher intensity training as the year progresses (26). Typically endurance athletes will cut back on volume as the competition gets closer to peak for the competition (20,26,29,30).

There is widespread acceptance of periodization by those involved in the strength and conditioning profession (13,14,33). For example, Rhea et al. (33) stated that while the strength-training community has yet to agree on the optimal program design for strength development, strength-training experts generally agree that some form of periodization must be a major part of any program to optimize strength gains.

Similarly, Fleck and Kraemer (14) state that periodization is effective and that its use is supported by multiple sport science studies, using Stone et al. (38) and Willoughby (44) as examples. Several survey-type research studies observing the practices of strength and conditioning professionals working in Major League baseball (12), the National Basketball Association (37), the National Hockey League (11), and the National Football League (10) also confirm the majority of coaches in each of those professional sports leagues use some type of periodization in the design of their strength and conditioning programs.

It is important to point out that periodization works and is used by strength and conditioning professionals; however, there appears to be a lack of research supporting its use and application. For example, Stone et al. (39) note that although periodization has become a household word in recent years among athletes, coaches, and sports scientists, actual research concerning periodized strength training is minimal. In 1999. Stone et al. (39) pointed out that most of the information concerning periodization is the result of observational evidence, anecdotal data, inference from related studies (such as overtraining research), and a few mesocycle-length periodized studies. This situation has not changed dramatically in the period of time since that article was published. As evidence of that, the periodization article by Plisk and Stone (32) published in 2003 introduced the subject matter by stating that although an effort was made to present relevant research findings where appropriate, most of the concepts discussed in the article are intuitive or anecdotal in nature. It does need to be pointed out that two studies by Kraemer et al. (24,25) using collegiate women tennis players demonstrated that periodized resistance training did provide an advantage over nonperiodized resistance training in a variety of performance parameters.

Further, Fleck (13) points out that while the athletic community has been using periodization for at least 40 years, few published projects have investigated the efficacy of periodized strength training. In fact, Fleck's 1999 review covered eight studies. Fry et al. (17) note that while periodization is widely used for designing training programs, which has led to a significant number of articles on the topic, most of the information contained in the literature is conjectural and not supported by research.

Siff (36) lends further support for taking a cautious approach to the unquestioning support of periodization by noting that this may create the impression that it should be regarded as the pre-eminent and most appropriate method of organizing long-term training. However, even among Soviet Union practitioners, researchers, and scientists, this approach to training has attracted some fierce criticism (6,7,42,43). The fact that there is debate among Soviet researchers and scientists is of note because the foundation of modern training and periodization was partially laid in the Soviet Union.

As suggested by Siff (36), some of this criticism by Soviet authorities is warranted. For example, the belief that periodization is an exact science in which training programs can be designed based on exact calculations of intensity and volume of every training session for the entire mesocycle is not valid.

Several critics of periodization question the validity and awkwardness of labeling the various microcycles and mesocycles in the form of an exact number of days or weeks, as well as the process of designing arbitrary building blocks of intuitively chosen exercises (31,36,42,43). For example, many coaches will group training into 4-week blocks, believe that the general preparation phase should last a specific amount of the entire preparation phase of training (for example, two-thirds), will prioritize hypertrophy during the general preparation phase, and will prioritize maximal strength only during the special preparation phase.

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Research investigating the effectiveness of periodization has been evolving over the past 25 years since Stone et al. (38) published their groundbreaking paper in 1981 that dealt with strength training. However, a number of challenges exist when attempting to apply the results of periodization research to athletics. Most published research papers are short-term studies focused on the development of strength and power. In addition, athletes are rarely used as subjects and the volume and intensity of training are problematic.

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As suggested by Fleck (13), a limitation of periodization research is that the majority of the studies examining its effectiveness in terms of strength training have focused on increases in strength/power and the manipulation of training volume and intensity. As a result, these studies are primarily applicable to improving strength/power and not directly related to improving muscular endurance. McGee et al. (28) and Rhea et al. (34) stand out as exceptions.

McGee et al. (28) demonstrated that volume is important for increases in muscular endurance. Subjects were evaluated on squatting endurance by squatting 60 kg once every 6 seconds. Each minute the bar mass was increased by 2.5 kg until exhaustion. Subjects trained 3 times per week for 7 weeks; one group performed a single set of 8–12 reps until failure, one group did a program of increasing intensity (i.e., resistance) and decreasing volume (i.e., sets and reps) throughout the 7 weeks, and the last group did a program of 3 sets of 10 repetitions for the entire study. All 3 groups made gains from the training program. The single-set group improved their total repetitions during the squat endurance test by 46%, the last group (3 sets of 10 reps) improved by 74%, with the middle group improving total repetitions by 71%. All 3 groups also improved the volume load (repetitions × mass) that they handled in the squat endurance test. The single-set group improved by 51%, the last group (3 sets of 10 reps) by 84%, with the middle group improving by 87%. The results from this study seem to suggest that volume in weight training (i.e., 3 sets versus 1 set) may be important in improving muscular endurance.

Rhea et al. (34) had subjects work out on leg extensions 2 days per week for 15 weeks. Subjects were divided into what the authors termed linear periodization (progress from high volume/low intensity to lower volume/higher intensity during the study), reverse linear periodization (progress from lower volume/higher intensity to higher volume/lower intensity during the study), and daily undulating periodization (progress from higher volume/lower intensity to higher intensity/lower volume over the course of 3 sessions) groups. At the end of 15 weeks, all groups increased their muscular endurance on leg extensions. The linear and daily undulating groups both increased by approximately 55%, while the reverse linear group improved by almost 73%. The authors concluded that gradual increases in volume and decreases in intensity may result in greater gains in muscular endurance.

While there are many studies looking at the effects of strength training on aerobic endurance performance (for example, strength training and its effect on 5-km run times), few use periodization in their strength-training protocols. While this may be seen as a limitation of the studies, it should be pointed out that many of the subjects in these studies possess a relatively untrained status (strength training-wise); therefore, periodization may not be necessary to elicit adaptations.

Surprisingly, increasing maximal strength may improve different types of endurance. For example, Stone et al. (40) in their review indicated that there is a correlation between maximal strength and high-intensity exercise endurance (i.e., force restoration during strength training and strength/power sports). This suggested that improving strength and power would improve at least certain types of muscular endurance.

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The training background of subjects can make comparing the effectiveness of training programs difficult. In untrained individuals, during the first several weeks of a training program, increases in strength/power occur quite rapidly, primarily as a result of neural factors (18). As a result, a significant difference in increases in strength/power between training groups may be difficult to achieve because most training programs will result in increases in strength and power in untrained subjects. If a superiority in strength/power is shown in short-term studies, it may simply show that one program better stimulates when neural gains occur as compared to the other program. This may be especially true if changes in lean body mass between training programs are not significant (13). Clearly neural adaptations occur with the training of experienced athletes (23); however, these are not occurring as a result of a learning effect from initial exposure to strength training.

It should be noted that some studies attempted to control for this learning effect by either providing a familiarization period (21), screening potential subjects for a base level of strength (44), or by recruiting subjects who self-report a specific amount of weight training experience (2,33,34). While none of these are foolproof ways, they can help control for the initial learning effect.

Furthermore, the ability to apply the results of studies using untrained subjects is limited when working with the training programs of athletes or trained subjects. Strength gains occur at a slower rate as training status increases (e.g., highly trained versus moderately trained or untrained subjects). This may be partly the result of the neural factors mentioned previously. In addition, higher caliber athletes may experience training differently than lower caliber athletes (40). As an example, both Alen et al. (1) and Fry et al. (16) have shown that elite weightlifters either do not demonstrate much of a hormonal effect from training or experience training very differently than nonelite weightlifters. Presumably this allows them to tolerate greater training loads. This should serve to reinforce the fact that different-caliber athletes have different training needs.

Some studies do focus on athletes. Both Kraemer et al. (24) and Hoffman et al. (22) studied athletes. Kraemer et al. (24) investigated whether “nonlinear” periodization resulted in additional adaptations over a 9-month training program in female collegiate tennis players when compared to a program that did not vary intensity or volume. Over the course of the study, they equated the volume and the intensity for both groups. After the 9-month training program, they found that both groups made statistically significant increases in fat-free mass, statistically significant decreases in the percentage of body fat, and statistically significant increases in anaerobic power, upper/lower body strength, and countermovement jump heights. The authors reported greater improvement in the periodized group at months 4 and 6, but less improvement at month 9.

The fact that the periodized group was making better gains on many measures on months 4 and 6 but not 9 is an interesting result. Kramer et al. (24) attributed these results to the fact that the last 3½ months of the study were in conjunction with the competitive season.

Kraemer et al. (24) also looked at several sport-specific performance measures. They examined ball velocity changes over the course of the study using the tennis serve, forehand stroke, and backhand stroke. On all three of the performance measures, the periodized group made statistically significant gains when compared to the nonperiodized group. This study indicates that periodization has a positive effect on the performance of college-age female tennis athletes; however, after a period of time, even periodized training may result in diminished gains if variation is not applied to more than just volume and intensity.

Hoffman et al. (22) examined the effects of what they called linear versus nonlinear periodization models during an in-season maintenance phase of college, Division III football players. Both groups trained twice per week with the linear group training at 80% of 1RM throughout the study and the nonlinear group training at 70% on day 1 and 90% on day 2 of the week. After 12 weeks, the nonlinear group had a nonsignificant trend toward losing strength, while the linear group gained a statistically significant amount of strength on the squat and a nonsignificant amount of strength on the bench press. The authors concluded that during a maintenance phase of training that involves low volumes, manipulating exercise intensity may not be relevant. In fact, a consistent high-intensity stimulus may be necessary for generating increases in strength.

The Hoffman et al. (22) study suggests that a threshold intensity level might exist to allow in-season football players to maintain strength levels. Training below a certain intensity level may result in strength loss during in-season training. However, this threshold level may not be true in every circumstance. For example, Harris et al. (19), examined collegiate football players and found that combining training intensities improved a greater number and wider range of performance tests than only high-force (80% of 1RM) or high-power (30 % of 1RM) training. The authors reported that the combined group made statistically significant improvements on eight measurements (1RM squat, one-quarter squat, mid-thigh pull, vertical jump, average vertical jump power, peak vertical jump power, stair climb power test, and 10-yard sprint), whereas other groups did not improve on as many measurements. It should be noted that this study did not examine football players in-season, so it is difficult to compare the results directly to the Hoffman et al. (22) study.

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Comparing a periodized training program to a single-set program or to a continuous set and repetition program (e.g., 4 × 8 for the duration of the program) results in differences in training volume between the programs that may account for the differences in gains between groups.

Early studies examining the effectiveness of periodized versus nonperiodized programs typically had the periodized groups perform greater total volumes of training, at a greater intensity, or both (38,44). As a result any difference in the results of the training programs could be attributed to the disparity in training volume or intensity (2,35).

Previous periodization studies have equated volume so that both the periodization and control groups performed equal amounts of work (repetitions, weight lifted, etc.) over the duration of the study. This has led to ambiguous results (2,33–35). Initially these ambiguous results might sound logical, but it is important to remember that the periodized model might produce superior results as a result of the higher overall volume made possible by the variations in volume and intensity (41). Thus, equating the volumes would counteract the advantage of the periodized model. It should also be recognized that equating the volume defeats the purpose if it takes the study participant outside the optimal repetition range to achieve the desired effects (for example, 3 sets of 8 versus 8 sets of 3 using equal loads).

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Typically, periodization studies last an academic semester (12–15 weeks). This is because researchers typically work in university settings and recruit students enrolled in academic classes. It is also done because student compliance with the study may be difficult if it lasts longer than a semester.

The difficulty with these short-term studies is that the training gains that individuals make decreases over time as a result of the same training stimulus, the overload principle is a fundamental principle of exercise. Unlike most short-term study participants, athletes do not just train for 12–15 weeks. Athletes often train over a period of years. This is one of the main reasons for using periodization, to vary training so that athletes can continue making gains in their performance over time.

If the gains from training diminish over a period of 8 weeks to 9 months, imagine the effects over a period of years. A study that only lasts a few months is not appropriate to make conclusions about how to train over a long period of time.

To summarize, periodization research has primarily been performed focusing on strength and power, with some exceptions (28,34). It should also be clear that the majority of subjects used in interventional training studies are nonathlete college students. There are two reasons for this. First, as previously mentioned, many of the researchers are in a university setting, resulting in the lengths of the studies being tied to the academic semester. Second, coaches and athletes are understandably reluctant to change their training program, which makes recruiting athletes difficult. This limitation makes it difficult to apply results observed in nonathletes to athletes. Periodization approaches to training seem to be effective due to higher volume and/or training intensity; however, controlling for that seems to produce ambiguous results, which further confound researching periodization. This could be further confounded if subjects miss training sessions or perform additional work outside the confines of the study. Finally, due to the constraints imposed on many researchers, periodization research is rarely performed long enough to produce long-term training effects. It is very difficult to apply the results of many of these studies to the long-term training of athletes, something that periodization is meant to address.

It should be noted that many of the challenges described above are not unique to strength and power training. In his review, Berg (3) notes several similar limitations in the research of runners, two of which included a lack of long-term longitudinal studies and an inadequate description of the training status of the study participants. The lack of longitudinal studies is problematic because it affects our understanding of how physiological changes evolve over years, our understanding of the volume of training needed to optimize performance, and our understanding of which training components should be emphasized during the various stages of training. Failing to control training status makes it difficult to determine whether the study produced training gains.

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The majority of periodization studies focus only on strength training. This is problematic because most athletes train to improve speed, agility, flexibility, and sport-specific skills.

There is limited information on ideal volumes and intensity for speed training, agility training, core training, and mobility training among others. There is limited information on ideal volumes and intensities when combining various types of training modes for both long- and short-term training programs. For example, how does weight training fit into a program with sprint training? Do the volume and intensity of one affect the volume and intensity of the other? How? What about plyometrics? The list goes on. In addition, how should this information change as the season changes? How should it change as the athlete progresses developmentally? As can be seen, there are still many unanswered questions.

Finally, there is no information about how all the above-cited changes vary with different levels of athletes. For example, should high school athletes squat and sprint on the same day? What about elite athletes?

Cissik (8) discussed several solutions to these challenges with regards to track and field athletes. These included determining which types of exercise had the best relationship with improvements in the athlete's performance, determining which volumes/intensities of those exercises had the best relationship with improvement in the athlete's performance, and determining whether the timing of the various exercises (i.e., when they are used during the year) had a relationship with improvement in performance. Most of these suggestions are not applicable to other sports due to the inherent quantifiability of track and field. However, as he suggests, observational and survey data could be gathered to overcome the understandable reluctance of coaches and athletes to have their training modified to investigate the results of those modifications. This approach, while not without limitations, would provide extremely valuable information about long-term training and especially elite athletes, the interaction of different training modes, and the effects of the different parts of the training year.

Kurz et al. (26) provide an example of how this type of data could be collected and used in periodization research. They surveyed the training practices of 30 Division I cross-country teams, 14 of which qualified for NCAA nationals and 16 of which did not. For the purpose of the study, they divided the year into a transition phase (May to August), a competition phase (August to November), and a peaking phase (November). The NCAA Division I championships were held in November. The results of this study allowed Kurz et al. (26) to determine correlations between training methods during each phase of the year and team time/placement at nationals. For example, Kurz et al. (26) determined that interval and fartlek training during the transition and competition phases was associated with slower team times, which would be important for a cross-country coach to know.

This type of information (i.e., from surveys) would be valuable to a cross-country coach, but collecting and applying it are not without limitations. First, surveys have to be completed and returned. Second, as Kurz et al. (26) noted, a coach may not reveal his or her exact coaching methods, which may affect the outcome. Finally, it is not clear whether the athletes on each team actually reached their peak performance at the national meet (26).

Much of periodization is governed by theory and opinion. As practitioners, we accept and apply this theory and opinion based on the name or the perceived reputation of the individual author or the perceived value of the study protocol. As practitioners, the authors of this article believe that coaching theory is important; in fact, coaching theory is often ahead of and sometimes drives the research. In an excellent article, William Freeman (15) addresses this issue in referring to the “art” of coaching. In his article, Freeman states: “Athletes improve because their training evolves—it changes as they improve. If it does not evolve, they will cease to improve. We must try new ideas, new approaches. Most of these will come from unsubstantiated theory.” However, as Freeman also points out, the laws of nature govern all performance, so research is also very important for performance.

There are large gaps in our knowledge of periodization and in our ability to apply that knowledge to the training of athletes. Part of these gaps are due to the inherent limitations imposed by where the majority of the strength and conditioning research is being conducted (i.e., universities) and the reluctance of coaches and athletes to participate in interventional training studies. It is also due to the understandable assumption that it has either been done or is being done by someone else.

These gaps in our knowledge are being compounded by the fact that the strength and conditioning field has been evolving steadily over the past 30 years. Over the past 30 years, practitioners in the field have debated issues such as squats and the knees, whether weightlifting exercises and their variations have merit, core training, the role of flexibility training, periodization, and high-intensity training. The strength and conditioning field has evolved to the point where a strength and conditioning coach has a number of tools that he or she is expected to employ. These include traditional strength-training exercises (Olympic-style lifts and other weight room exercises), core training, mobility/dynamic flexibility training, speed training, agility training, sport-specific movements, and balance training. Research on periodization is not keeping pace with the tools that a strength and conditioning professional must employ.

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As practitioners and consumers of research, the authors are concerned about the assumptions, gaps, and consumption of marketing when it comes to this important topic. The authors are not suggesting that periodization be scrapped, but are cautioning that we must become informed consumers of research and suggest calling for expanded research efforts. Beyond simply consuming research, we believe that it is the practitioners' responsibility to contribute to those research efforts. The lack of adequate research on periodization that this article has described will not disappear without the participation of coaches and athletes.

The authors believe that more research is needed in the areas of multimode training, program design for athletes of varying ability, and short- and long-term program design. Without this information, the strength and conditioning field is going to continue to be plagued by things that “sound good” but may or may not be based on science or even experience. ▪

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periodization; programming; overload; diminishing returns

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