Periodization is the foundation of strength and conditioning. Coaches start by defining an annual plan around a competitive season. Then specific training goals like hypertrophy, strength, power, and conditioning are used to form mesocycles. Finally, each mesocycle is unpacked into small microcycles designed to elicit very specific adaptations. But a recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research says that periodization, the bedrock of strength training, may be unnecessary in novice athletes.
The study used 60 male soldiers from a Brazilian special operations brigade. Right now you might be thinking, “Ooooh, special operations…” But none of these men was actually very strong. When the study began not a single one could squat more than 150 pounds. The average 20-meter sprint time at the beginning of the study was about 3.0 seconds. I told this to a friend that played division 1 college football. He replied, “That translates to about a 5.8 second 40-yard dash, which is okay for a 350 pound lineman.” In short, while the study describes the participants as “moderately trained,” I think “almost untrained” is closer to reality.
Three different training plans were used. Each lasted nine weeks and trained three primary exercises. Each protocol also used the exact same volume over the nine weeks. The first approach was to train a single exercise for three weeks straight, until all three exercises had been trained sequentially over nine weeks. The second approach was to train an exercise for one week and then cycle to the next exercise. The final plan trained all three exercises daily for each training day.
At the end of the nine weeks, which training plan produced the most improvement? Every soldier achieved very similar results. No training plan stood out as superior. Strength, speed, power, and vertical jump improved across the board with every training plan.
What can we learn from this? For untrained and even moderately trained athletes, strict periodization just isn’t very important. I believe Rippetoe said in Starting Strength that a novice athlete could use a stataionary bike and his bench press would improve. As coaches we sometimes like to geek out on producing the best possible periodized training plans. But until an athlete reaches a certain level of athleticism, it’s largely unnecessary.
At the beginner and intermediate levels, a far more productive approach is to ensure the athlete enjoys training. This gives the athlete the best shot to persist and make it to the advanced level where periodization is necessary. Imagine some of the participants in this study who trained a single exercise for three weeks straight. I can’t imagine being motivated to come to the gym and do nothing but squat jumps—for three weeks. Working several exercises daily would be far more enjoyable. And as this study shows, it’s just as effective.