Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
This is a continuation of THIS article. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, check it out before diving in.
1.) Choosing the Right Mix of Program Features
Now that we’ve managed to illustrate that all programs are simply composed of differing forms of training organization, that all programs use all of these forms to some extent, and now that we have defined these three primary forms of training organization, we have to ask a question that arises almost automatically from these conclusions.
The question is; “how much linearity, exercise variation (used from now on in place of the term ‘conjugation’) and volume-load undulation produces a BEST result in a program. Of course, there are multiple considerations to input, and the result will not (ever) point us to ONE OPTIMAL PROGRAM FOR ALL. But, by using the four-step filtering process below, we can narrow down the list of potential programs to the small fraction that are designed with the best features (or quantities, rather) of linearity, exercise variation, and undulation.
Imagine we have the potential to train in any kind of program we want. We survey the internet and find, let’s say, 100 programs in total to consider. These programs range from recommendations in backwater forums to the personalized programs written by Boris Sheiko himself.
Now, what’s the first step in concluding which programs are better and which likely won’t produce best results? The first filter we’ll apply is that of Sport Science research and the experience of the best coaches.
Bounded by sport science research and coaching experience
Sport Science has been formally practiced in the Eastern Bloc from the late 1950’s onward, and in the West shortly after that. Over a cumulative 50+ years of formal research, sport scientists have managed to draw some definitive conclusions about what programming features work well and in what quantities. The benefit of sport science has not only been to discover what works, but discover what likely does not work as well. It’s these “what’s not best” discoveries that are really important to us here, because they give us information with which to rule out extreme applications of program features (too much linearity or not enough, for example) and never bother making those costly mistakes ourselves.
The lessons of sport scientists (especially in the Eastern Bloc where science and coaching were closely connected) were parleyed into the practices of sport coaches. After decades of coaching application, some very serious and incredibly knowledgeable coaches literally “grew” out of their experiences, insofar as they adopted the best practices and abandoned the worst as they were introduced. These coaches directly applied the lessons of sport science and were able to add a vast amount of knowledge to the field, especially in the realm of “how much” of a program feature to apply. For example, sport scientists discovered that adding elements undulation worked definitively better than pure linearity, but it was not clear how much undulation was best for a particular sport or phase of training. Coaches, through decades of implementation, got the best idea of what level of undulation worked best, and how much was too little or too much.
Oftentimes, the best coaches would engage in practices that had not even yet been studied by sport scientists, and thus the relationship was reversed. However it tended to happen, what we have now is the sum total of all of that integrated knowledge.
So here’s the big hit of this first filter: if sport scientists and the best elite coaches through the times tend to shy away from a certain type of programming, it’s likely not going to work best. For example, you’d be VERY hard pressed to find elite coaches and top scientists that support a purely linear program. Just the same (aside from Louie), very few coaches recommend altering exercises every single session. Lastly, hardly any of the best coaches and scientists would recommend radical undulations in repetition ranges and weights within the week, as in sets of 15 reps and sets of 3 reps in the same week. This kind of undulation both violates an essential principle in sport science (directed adaptation) and is very rarely found in the programming of top coaches in sport around the world.
Next time you go program hunting or writing, check with the basic sport science texts and read about the programs of top coaches first. If it looks a bit extreme, maybe it’s not the best program.
What sport you’re dealing with
Program feature inclusion is somewhat sport-specific. While the general principles from the first filter always apply, there is some variation within that range depending on the sport in question. For example, the primary overloading variable for short-distance sprint training is velocity. If peak velocity in training is down by just a small fraction, overload becomes difficult to present (You’ve gotta run fast to get faster. You can’t half-sprint and expect the same results). Thus, fatigue management becomes much more important in basic sprint training than in the average sport.
Not by accident, good sprinting programs usually tend to have a higher degree of undulation. One way to do this is via fast sprints and heavy weights in the beginning of the week, then much lighter weights (and lower volumes of training) later in the week, paired with non-overloading technical work on the track. This arrangement of high undulation allows sprinters to carry low fatigue at the beginning of most training weeks, which allows them to have the kind of top-speed workouts that really push the greatest speed adaptations, never mind reduce the potential injury rate from trying to sprint while fatigued or very sore.
On the other end of the undulation spectrum is the sport of bodybuilding. The primary overloading variable for bodybuilders is the total volume of work they can accomplish in training and actually recover from, so long as the predominance of that work is above around 60% of the 1RM of the movement. Additionally, constantly trying to reduce volume loads to keep fatigue down greatly inhibits how much total work can be done in any unit of time, so that if you’re managing fatigue too much in bodybuilding, you end up always having great workouts but never really improving as fast as you could be, because you’re taking too many light days and not enough stimulus is actually being elicited.
So long as fatigue doesn’t get too crazy (and that’s what deloads every 4-5 weeks are for), bodybuilders are best served training with consistently high volumes. That means almost every bodybuilding workout will be of roughly the same volume (as close to maximal recoverable volume as possible), and the degree of undulation is very slim indeed. There will be SOME undulation to manage some local fatigue (rowing-heavy vs. vertical pulling-heavy back workout alterations, for example), but certainly not as much as we’d see in sprinter training.
Of course the same sport-specificity applies to linearity and exercise variation features. Your job as an intelligent programmer (or program shopper) is to make sure your program follows the general feature guidelines of that chosen sport. If your sprinter program has you squatting for 5×10 Mondays and Thursdays all season long, you may have a problem. Speaking of season length, that’s our next consideration for program feature selection!
What phase the sport is in
Program features not only change with the sport itself, but with the phase of training being done for that sport. To give a simple example, as mentioned earlier in this article, the specificity of a program should likely increase as the competitive season (or single competition depending on the competitive schedule of the sport) draws nearer. The means exercise variation (aka conjugation) should be more prominent in the offseason (or general preparation phase) in most sports, and should dwindle down in magnitude as the competition phase or date approaches.
For example, hypertrophy work in powerlifting is best done far in the offseason, and can be performed using a wide variety of exercises that can be altered quite often. On the other hand, as competition nears, the athlete must become muscularly, neurally, and technically most familiar and adapted to the actual competition moves. This means that in a peaking phase right before a powerlifting meet, fancy board presses or cambered bar work is best replaced with a steady diet of heavy competition-standard lifts for best performances on the platform. As mentioned in Part 1, even the super-conjugate heavy Westside System began to recognize this need and altered programming to match.
After narrowing down the general recommendations of sport coaches and scientists, choosing the sport to be trained, and zooming in on a particular phase of sport training, we can (finally) consider the last variable of program feature selection: the individual athlete’s proclivities and declivities.
The individual athlete
Not all humans are exactly the same, and certainly not all athletes are. For each of the program features (and certainly for the 3 discussed in this article), every individual will respond best to a particular magnitude of feature. For example, some athletes thrive on linearity. These tend to be athletes that both recover quickly and have limitations in athleticism (for example, technical execution of the lifts does not come easily to them, and technical consistency does not hold well in absence of continual practice). For such athletes, very linear programs are great, because they allow them to make consistent gains while getting better and better at executing the lifts or sport moves being training. For these athletes (in powerlifting, for example), too many lift variations and undulations can be technically overwhelming… and when they come back to, say, heavy squats, all kind of technical issues resurface after only a short layoff! More intermediate athletes tend to have a better technical basis for lifts and other sport moves, so they don’t have to be as linear as relative beginners, for which high linearity is usually much more effective. To paint an extreme counterexample, there have been 15 year old girls training in the Conjugate Method and getting into powerlifting equipment before they could even squat 1.5x bodyweight…. THAT is an example of poor feature selection.
On the other hand, more intermediate athletes can disrupt homeostasis to such a degree in training that they simply need more undulation to recover. Additionally, their technical proficiency in the basic lifts or sport moves is now high enough that it can be retained for long periods of training alteration. That means they can now benefit from a higher degree of exercise variation without sacrificing basic technical abilities.
Toward a Unified View of Periodization
When making a periodized plan for ANY particular athlete, all of the four considerations/filters in the section above must be taken into account. Every single time a good coach sits down to write a program, he considers every single pertinent feature of the athlete, training phase, sport, and general theory.
This is a process that has been followed around the world for decades by the best (usually national and Olympic team) coaches, and has been studied and refined by the international sport science community.
This process and the study of it has revealed a network of practical and theoretical principles which are used by coaches to organize training. And guess what? It’s even got a name: Modern Periodization. That’s right, the informed and filtered selection of programming features (including consideration of linearity, exercise variation, and undulation) utilized to draw up macrocycle plans that enhance training gains and competitive performance while reducing injury rates is called Modern Periodization. Phew, that was a long definition!
Modern Periodization is a close relative to block periodization and features linear, conjugate (exercise variation), and undulating elements throughout its design. Almost all current Olympic training centers around the world use it and sport scientists almost universally accept it.
So in fact, there is only ONE kind of periodization but the features of the programs within a periodized plan tend to vary considerably depending on the sport, phase, and athlete (just like evolution occurs by natural selection, bottlenecks, and genetic drift all at the same time).
Moral of the story? There is not a pure and perfect program, and there is not a competition between various programming features as to which one is best. There is a unified system of training, and it integrates ALL programming features in a way that promotes best results. How much study and practice does it take to master the system of Modern Periodization? No one yet knows, because the system is always being updated and improved per new discoveries, the best coaches and sport scientists all say that even with all of their understanding, they’re just scratching the surface.
If you’re interested in this same type of thoughtful analysis of nutrition and diet, I’d highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Renaissance Diet, also by Dr. Israetel.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”