25 May 2007

Periodisation 2

by :Owen Anderson
from: peak performence

Undulating v linear training

With undulating periodisation, the so-called phases of training tend to be much shorter than with the linear variety. Exercise physiologists and some coaches have been attracted to undulating periodisation at least partly because of the belief that frequent changes in training stimuli are highly conducive to gains in fitness. One physiological basis for this principle is that with undulating periodisation the nervous system is forced to adapt to a wide variety of situations, including the elicitation of tremendous amounts of force (when resistance is high) and very rapid rates of force application (when resistance is low and reps are completed quickly). In theory, when these various stimuli are presented together in close temporal proximity, the neuromuscular system might adapt unusually quickly and develop an enhanced ability to respond with great force and speed.

Does undulating periodisation really work better than the classic linear model? To find out, researchers from Arizona State University divided 20 strength-trained men into two equal groups for a 12-week training programme. Both groups performed abdominal crunches (3-4 sets of 15-25 repetitions), biceps curls (3 sets at 8-12 rep max) and lat pull-downs (3 sets at 8-12rep max) three times a week. Both groups also trained intensely with two key exercises – the bench press and the leg press – but the performance of these exercises was completed in either a linear-periodised or undulating-periodised way. For the bench press and leg press, the linear-periodisation (LP) group performed 3 sets per workout at an intensity of 8-rep max for the first four weeks of the study, 6-rep max for the next four weeks and 4-rep max for the remainder of the study – a classic linear pattern.

The other group used daily undulating periodisation (DUP), with workout patterns changing from day to day. For this group, the first session of each week of the 12-week programme consisted of 3 sets at 8-rep max, the second workout of 3 sets at 6-rep max and the third of 3 sets at 4-rep max. As you can see, training volume and intensity were altered in different ways for the two groups, but total volume and intensity were absolutely equivalent over the study period.

Both LP and DUP groups increased strength significantly in both the leg and bench presses over the 12 weeks, but the gains were significantly greater for the DUP group. Specifically, this group enhanced bench press strength by 29%, compared with 14% for the LP athletes, and boosted leg-press strength by 56%, compared with just 26% for the LP pressers.

What was going on? Why did the DUP programme have such a pronounced effect on strength gain? The researchers suggest that the nervous system may be the key player involved in producing the differing gains in strength. In theory, the nervous system may adapt less readily to training if it is exposed to a single type of training for an extended period of time (such as the four-week blocks of time used in the LP plan in this research) and might respond more effectively if the volume and intensity of training are adjusted frequently (as they were with DUP).

As implied earlier, pointing a finger at the nervous system is a reasonable thing to do, and is supported by the fact that in this study there were no significant changes in body composition or muscle circumference in the two groups over the 12-week period! Thus, the greater strength displayed by the DUP group was not due to thicker muscles or leaner physiques but must have been related to the way the nervous system was controlling the sinews.

A number of practical pointers emerge from both this study and the Texas investigation mentioned earlier. First, it seems obvious that athletes should probably not plan extended ‘blocks’ of training (lasting several weeks or longer) during which workouts are relatively uniform, since fitness progression is likely to be slower than with more variable training. Thus, the familiar pattern of speed on Tuesday, tempo training on Thursday and a long effort on the weekend may make for a nice training week, but is not a building block for a great training month and is a frankly crumbly foundation for a six-month preparation for a major event.

It also makes sense for athletes to diverge from traditional patterns of ‘base-building’ and ‘recovery training’. At the beginning of a training year, many athletes try to lay a foundation for what lies ahead by working at low-to-moderate intensities while gradually building up their total volume of training. During this base-building period, the quality of training is generally low, in part because it is believed that the musculoskeletal system is not yet strong enough to handle higher-intensity work. There is really little justification for this practice, however: as long as intense efforts are attempted reasonably, the risk of injury should be no greater than it is with augmentations in volume.

Variety in base-building and recovery

In addition, since the whole idea of training is to progressively and steadily move one’s fitness to higher and higher levels, it makes little sense to devote significant blocks of time to exertions which will fail to do this or will do it more slowly than other forms of training. Thus, varied training, with an adequate inclusion of quality, is preferable to uniform, mediocre-intensity training during base-building periods.

The avoidance of uniform training is also important during recovery periods (i.e. during the month after a major competition or a week of ‘easy’ training within a strenuous training period). However, recovering is not the same as training easily all the time; one can still recover while using a varied programme into which some quality has been inserted.

While these pointers about periodisation should help you, bear in mind that real knowledge about the proper periodisation of training is extremely ‘lightweight’ at present: not only have most periodisation studies been constrained by time (and, to some extent, by the researchers’ imaginations) but no studies at all have been carried out with female athletes, veterans or children, while the periodisation models used in research projects to date have been quite limited.

Periodisation work has also been biased towards strength trainers, with little emphasis on endurance athletes. In one of the very few studies in which endurance activity was even mentioned, an effort was made to assess the impact of various types of strength training on endurance performance. Three different strength-training programmes were compared, one featuring one set at 8-12-RM per workout, the second including three sets at 10-RM and the third consisting of a periodised plan for advancing strength and power. Seven different exercises were used in each programme.

With the periodised plan, volume steadily decreased and intensity was augmented from 10-RM to 3-RM over the course of the study. After seven weeks, the researchers measured resistance to fatigue during back squatting, and endurance while cycling at an intensity of 265 watts. As it turned out, only the 3x10 and periodised groups displayed improvements in both tests. In addition, improvements in cycling endurance time tended to be greatest in the periodised group.

So what is the bottom line on periodisation? As the renowned running coach Arthur Lydiard once said: ‘Athletes tend to repeat their basic training patterns over and over again, yet with each repetition of the basic plan they expect different (ie better) results.’ A properly periodised programme prevents the performance plateaus which are inevitable with over-repetitive training. As you construct your overall programme, you should be certain to include variety in your training, not just from month to month but also from week to week and even from day to day; the limited periodisation research which is available suggests that such variety can be conducive to fitness gains.

You should also be sure to include in your programme workouts which have the greatest chance of optimising the physiological variables that are crucial for success in your event, and you should ‘mix’ such workouts over time instead of hammering away at just two or three different types of exertion.

Skill-strength periodisation may be the best way forward

One of the interesting periodisation schemes which will be looked at closely in the future is ‘skill-strength periodisation’ (SSP). Once the linchpin of the former Soviet Union’s track-and-field teams’ Olympic preparations, SSP requires athletes to spend an extensive amount of time perfecting their technical skills during the preparatory phase of training before embarking on the development of strength, power and endurance. The idea is that once athletes are skilled (ie once they are technically proficient jumpers, stroke-perfect swimmers or economical runners), they can then use their increasing strength to boost performance optimally, because the increased strength that they subsequently gain is not ‘wasted’ on inefficient movements but channelled directly into proper patterns of motion. Of course, this is the opposite of many traditional schemes, which mindlessly crank up the volume of training as the first step in the periodised plan in order to ‘build strength’.

As you might expect, no carefully-controlled published scientific research has ever contrasted skill-strength periodisation with the classic linear model, but SSP is attractive for logical reasons. With SSP, swimmers, for example, might spend months perfecting their strokes before they ever bothered with high-volume or high-intensity swimming; since strength is extremely movement-specific, the swimmers could then be assured that the gains in strength achieved during subsequent high-volume training would be specific to the best-possible movements – the ones which could produce the fastest and most efficient swimming.

Similarly, runners might spend many months developing outstandingly efficient running form before worrying about hiking their volume and intensity of training. Even though running is not considered a ‘skill sport’, early enhancement of efficiency could help runners avoid the ‘hard-wiring’ of inefficient running patterns (which might develop during 100-mile weeks characterised by sloppy form) and might also foster higher-quality training during subsequent periods of high volume and/or intensity.

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