Periodization Made Simple

I regularly get a ton of questions about different types of periodization: linear, undulating, concurrent, conjugate and others. It's a topic that confuses a lot of people, so let's take a look at it:

What is Periodization?

First of all, periodization is defined as an organized approach to training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period of time. It was originally brought about as a method of organizing training into periods of time, each devoted to a particular goal or emphasis, so that a competitive athlete would "peak" at a pre-determined time or event. One premise of periodization is that certain qualities are foundational to others. For example, for the vertical jump your "target" motor quality is explosive strength. This being the case, you'd want to identify the qualities which are foundational to explosive strength and start your cycle with training to address those  qualities, then progress into qualities that are more specific to your primary event/goal.

Specific to explosive strength, you know that strength is important and you know that qualities like rate of force development are important as well.  Thus, your foundation would progress from strength (heavy barbell work), to power (RFD), and speed-strength/plyometric (also called reactivity or speed-strength). Thus, for something like a vertical jump we'd progress from exercises like heavy squats, to exercises like jump squats, to exercises like depth jumps.  A typical periodized 22 week training phase might look like this:

Adaptation Phase (4 Weeks)

Hypertrophy Phase (4 Weeks)

Maximal Strength Phase (6 Weeks)

Speed Strength Phase (6 Weeks) **

Active Rest (2 weeks)

** Speed-strength, rate of force development, explosive strength, reactivity, and power are all often used interchangeably and really they're all pretty much demonstrated in the real world the same way: Producing maximal force in minimal time. Thus, a speed-strength phase would include typical explosive work like plyometrics, jump squats, and other “quick” variants.

The first phase, adaptation, is an introductory period of time where the athlete shakes off the rust, develops a foundational training base, and takes some time to get back into the swing of things.  The next phase is devoted to increasing lean body mass, which is foundational to the goals of the next phase (maximal strength).  Finally, the athlete progresses into a 6-week phase devoted to speed strength development, which is the target motor quality for the vertical jump. During this phase the athlete would perform lots of methods designed to decrease the explosive strength deficit:  plyometrics, ballistics (jump squats), and o-lifts.  The idea is that phases earlier in the cycle set the foundation for the qualities achieved in the latter phases and towards the end of the 20 week period (or however long) the athlete would be at a peak, as he would have successively developed all the motor qualities allowing him to peak successfully.  He’d then take a period of active rest and go thru the entire thing again. 

An Example

Let's take one exercise, the squat, and look at what a typical set/rep scheme would look like thru the duration of the above 20 week cycle:

Adaptation phase: 3 sets of 12-15 reps twice per week

Hypertrophy phase: 3 sets of 10-12 reps progressing to 4 sets of 6-8 reps twice per week

Maximal strength phase: 5 sets of 5 reps progressing to 6 sets of 1 rep twice per week

Speed strength phase: 5 sets of 5 rep jump squats at 30% of maximal squat twice per week

See how in the max strength phase the volume starts off high and decreases while the intensity starts off low and increases?  That's a hallmark of pure linear periodization.  Another hallmark of linear periodization is you start with general exercises (squat) and progress towards more specific exercises (jump squat and depth jump).  This approach CAN work well.  One problem is when this approach is applied too literally the abilities you gain in one phase can be lost in the next.  Thus, if applied very strictly most athletes would lose a great deal of their strength/hypertrophy during the speed-strength phase.

Concurrent Linear Periodization

Most athletes are probably better off using a form of concurrent periodization. With concurrent periodization, instead of having separate phases for each general motor ability, you work on everything at the same time.  In the vertical jump that means you’d be concurrently focusing on strength and speed-strength together – you’d be focusing on strength exercises like squats as well as speed-strength exercises like jump squats and plyos.  You might perform plyos to start your workout, then do o-lifts or jump squats next.  You'd then you finish up with strength work.  You do all that in the same workout.  Then you just keep progressing as long as you can.  THAT's a GREAT example of a linear concurrent model. It works absolutely BEAUTIFUL for beginners and other low level athletes.  MOST athletes should follow this model for as long as it works. Why change something if it ain't broken? 

The Problem

Now, having said that, there's also a problem with pure concurrent Periodization for more advanced athletes:  When you always work on EVERYTHING (all motor abilities) at the same time, eventually you reach a point where you need more emphasis on a given quality to continue bringing it up, and you really can't FOCUS on ANY of them because you can only tolerate so much volume.  So, how do you get around that? Well, you can use what's called conjugate sequencing periodization.

Conjugate Periodization

The basic tenet of conjugate sequencing is that as an athlete advances he needs more FOCUS on a given quality to improve that quality.  The idea is similar to concurrent periodization. You always incorporate some degree of volume for every given motor ability necessary in your primary athletic endeavor, most of the time. But the basic idea is the general FOCUS shifts from one ability to the next thru different phases (strength to speed strength to reactive ability etc.)

The major difference from pure linear periodization is the qualities not being focused on in a given phase are maintained with lighter volume, so each phase builds upon the next and you're able to maintain the previously developed qualities.  Thus, at the end the sum is greater than its parts.

Although I've never really heard it described as a "conjugate system" so to speak, in my opinion a great example of it is the sprint training system designed by the late Charlie Francis. He called his model "Vertical integration" but if you take a deep look it fits nearly perfectly. A conjugate system also often has one more aspect unique to it and that is the incorporation of concentrated loading.

Concentrated Loading

The idea behind concentrated loading is discussed in an article I wrote a while back on Planned Overtraining. The idea is instead of recovering fully between each workout, you load the athlete up with high volume over a period of weeks, then let him recover over a period of weeks. An athlete trains with very high volumes during a particular phase with the idea that the gains from that training won't be realized until several weeks after as he recovers. This is also known as the long term delayed training effect, or delayed transformation.

Some of the popular 5 x 5 approaches to strength training are good examples of concentrated loading. An athlete might train the squat in some form 3 x per week for 4 weeks straight then only 2 x per week with less overall volume per workout during the next 4 weeks. The idea behind the long term delayed effect is the gains from the high volume phase will be delayed, and the athlete will continue to make gains for several weeks after the conclusion of that phase, as he fully recovers.  Thus, if you had a 4 week loading phase, you should see gains from that phase continue to manifest over the next 4 weeks of training.

Let's consider an athlete that uses a concentrated strength phase followed by a speed-strength phase with the idea of reaping the benefits of delayed transformation:

Strength Phase

Squat 3 x per week for 5 x 5 for 4 weeks

Low volume speed-strength work (plyos, jump squats etc.)

Speed-Strength phase

Squat 1 x per week for 3 x 5 for 3 weeks

Depth jumps and jump squats 3 x 5 three times per week for 3 weeks

Even though his squatting volume drops by a HUGE margin, there's a good chance he'll CONTINUE making strength gains during his speed-strength phase, as he fully recovers from the previous high volume phase.  THAT, combined with his fresh emphasis on speed-strength work, allows him to peak his overall abilities. The volume of depth jumps is concentrated in the speed-strength phase, so the long term delayed training effect from them will be realized a couple of weeks after the end of THAT phase. So, you get delayed gains from the strength work and those persist into the delayed gains from the shock work, allowing an athlete at the end of the phase to simultaneously peak in strength, reactivity, and thus vert.

Shock Plyos...

A true "shock" plyometric depth jump cycle as written about by Verkhoshansky could also be considered a form of concentrated loading. Here an athlete might perform 40 high depth jumps 3 x per week for 2 weeks, followed by 2 weeks of relatively light loading (20 depth jumps once every 3-4 days from lower boxes).  Explosiveness should peak towards the end of the lighter 2 week period as the athlete continues to fully recover from the shock cycle.

Concentrated loading can really be applied to any endeavor or any skill, and often is, even if the athletes and coaches are unaware of it.

An Example of Conjugate Sequencing

Next, I'm  gonna show you a sample conjugate cycle using only 3 exercises, the squat, jump squat, and depth jump.  Note how we incorporate all 3 exercises at all times during each phase, but the FOCUS and volume of each changes from phase to phase.  This example fits an athlete looking to boost vertical jump.  We know we need a base of general strength, good RFD, and good reactivity.  Thus, an athlete seeking to improve his vert would perform general strength exercises like squats for strength, lighter explosive exercises like light jump squats for explosiveness, and exercises like depth jumps for plyometric ability.

Phase I - Focus:  Strength

Perform each session once per week for 3 weeks

Session A:

 Depth jump: 2 x 10 from low box (use a box height you can easily rebound off and on, almost like a jump rope)

Jump squat: 2 x 8 @15% of max or 45 lb bar

Squat: 5 x 6 (add weight for first 3 sets, maintain it the last 2)

Session B:

Depth jump: 2 x 10 from low box

Jump squat: 2 x 8@15% of max or 45 lb bar

Squat: 8 x 1 @ 90% (add weight the 1st 4-5 sets working up to heavy but solid form single. Reduce the weight by 10% and perform 3-4 more sets of 1)

Phase II - Focus: General explosiveness (2 weeks)

Session A: Depth jump 2 x 10 from medium box

Rhythmic 1/4 Jump squat 6 x 5 with 15, 20, 25, 30, 20, 15% of max.

Squat: 6 x 1@90% of 1rm

Session B:

Depth jump 2 x 10 from medium box

Rhythmic 1/4 jump squat 6 x 5 with 15, 20, 25, 30, 20 & 15% of max.

Explosive squat 6 x 2 @ 60% of max squat

Phase III – Focus:  Reactive/plyometric ability (2 weeks)

Session A: Depth jump 4 x 5 from high box

Jump Squat 2 x 5 with 15%

Half Squat: 6 x 1-3 @ 85%

Session B:  Depth jump 4 x 5 from medium box

Session C:  Depth jump 4 x 5 from high box

Jump squat  2 x 5 with 15%

Squat 3 x 3 with 5 rm

Phase IV - Peak (2 weeks)

Session A: depth jump 2 x 10 low box

Half Squat: 2 x 5 complexed with jump squat:

Jump squat 2 x 5 with 15%

Session B: Jumps for max height

See how the volume and emphasis given to each exercise changes in each phase? That's how conjugate periodization works.  That's just one example of potentially hundreds one could come up with.  Don't take that example too literal, but think of it from a conceptual point of view - If you remember nothing else just remember this: 

1.       You want to maintain MOST of your reactive ability and explosiveness during your strength or hypertrophy phases, without hindering the acquisition of strength.

 2.       You want to maintain MOST of your strength during your more explosive or reactive oriented phases, without hindering the development of those qualities.

You can maintain a motor ability with about 1/3 the volume it takes to build it.  Throughout a complete cycle of training  you should find your general strength exercises (squats) getting heavier and/or faster, your explosive exercises like jump squats and/or cleans and snatches getting higher or heavier, and your specific reactive exercises like depth jumps getting higher and/or smoother.  Keep those concepts in mind and you'll be just fine!

The number and length of phases can be unique to you and your needs.  The most basic periodization schedule you might set up would have you alternating between 2 phases, strength and speed-strength (explosive).  People that don’t participate in a sport and just want to train for vertical jump can do this indefinitely.  You could focus on strength for 4-6 weeks and explosiveness for 3-4 weeks and simply alternate back and forth between those cycles indefinitely.  

Generally speaking, your explosive/reactive oriented phases will be a bit shorter than your strength oriented phases – typically 2/3 to half as long. This is because strength is a quality that takes longer to develop, while in large part the explosive oriented work is just how well you express your strength, so the gains are neural and kinda like learning a skill.  One can also add general physical preparation and conditioning phases. For example, here is what a longer term schedule might look for a basketball player:

Adaptation Phase (2 Weeks)

Hypertrophy Phase (4 Weeks)

Maximal Strength Phase (6 Weeks)

Speed Strength Phase (6 Weeks)

Conditioning (4 weeks)

Here we simply added a phase of focused conditioning to the end where the goal would be to maintain strength and overall explosiveness while bringing conditioning to a peak.

The key point with periodization is don’t be a slave to it but fit it to YOU and your unique needs. A plan gives you a general roadmap – a framework to work from, but in practice most good coaches and/or athletes will adjust on the fly.  You should prioritize motor qualities which are poorly developed in you as an individual.  By motor qualities I'm referring to hypertrophy, maximal strength, and speed-strength. If you really wanted to get practical, you could also include body composition as a quality to be addressed specifically in a periodization cycle, and you could effectively do this in conjunction with a conditioning dedicated phase.

Focus on the motor qualities that you need the most. For example, if you're already as big as a house, you probably have little need to focus on hypertrophy in your training. If you're already strong as an ox, you have little need for maximal strength. But you should prioritize qualities which, when improved, also cause improvement in other qualities.  For most people, in most situations, prioritizing maximal strength will go a long way.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this article. To learn more about related training concepts check out my VJ Bible 2.0.