The origins of Periodisation
Coaches have been identifying trends in their athletes’ performance since the dawn of strength competitions. These trends, spotted on the gymnasium floor & used by coaches to further develop ideas to help their lifters, have been passed on from coach to coach. This is the origin of periodisation. To pass on an idea we need to use a common language, a common set of terms, and words which we can understand. Percentages are a part of this language, an easy to divulge, easy to communicate method of explaining what is being done in the weight room. In this article I’m going to explain why we need to consider a deeper understanding of this language. In particular, why we should not exclusively focus on percentage based programming, and rather encourage the understanding of what these terms actually mean and the effect on our bodies.
If we take a brief look at the history of percentage based programming, one of the more popular percentage based recommendations comes from A.S. Prilepin. In the 1970’s, Prilepin was the Head Coach for the Soviet Weightlifting team. Over a ten year span he trained his lifters and analysed their workload across the years, months and even week-to-week and session-to-session. It was his analysis of their sessional volume which seemed to stick in the minds of the then-fledgling online lifting community of the late 90’s and early 00’s.
Prilepin’s Chart, as it was called, became famous when Louie Simmons of WSBB, a very influential force during those early internet years, took it upon himself to use Prilepin’s work to form the basis of his hugely popular Westside Method.
Prilepin’s Chart detailed the number of reps per set, and total reps per session, in every useful percentage range that a high achieving Soviet weightlifter was performing during the years that Prilepin’s team was competing.
|Percent||Reps per set||Optimal||Total Range|
It’s interesting to note that his data only really considered effective work to be 55%+. Reps per set were generally capped at 6, even during very easy work.
Before I delve into the limitations of this model I want to acknowledge that Prilepin and his Soviet lifters were hugely successful, and Soviet Weightlifters had their greatest success with Prilepin at the helm.
Limitations to this model
- The amount of training volume you can cope with during the year will vary.
- The amount of intense training you can cope with during the year will vary.
- Both will vary depending on stress from work, relationships and other factors.
- Food intake can have a major impact, during times of restriction (for weight class or Insta-like reasons) the amount and intensity of training we can handle is reduced.
- Injuries and soreness. While many more of us are enjoying the reasonable costs of sports massage, none of us are high level Soviet weightlifters with access to all the recovery methods they could use.
- We have jobs, which naturally take time away from recovery.
- We all come in varying ages and natural talent. This is a far cry from the crème de la crème of the Soviet youth system.
Before I go on I want to state that my case isn’t solely against Prilepin’s model. I don’t have an axe to grind with A.S. Prilepin. On the contrary there is a lot to admire in the man and his achievements.
The limitations of Prilepin’s Chart can be applied to any percentage based scheme. They are all based upon the findings of a coach usually working with elite level lifters. Or at the very least, lifters who aren’t you or I. With that said, onwards to the limitations of the percentage based model.
All limitations revolve around the individuality of the modern lifter, considering such things as time constraints, work, age and external stressors.
That is the key to understanding my case against percentage based programming. When looking at delivering Powerlifting information to the masses, individuality and external stressors must be accounted for. There have been attempts at doing this by giving people a 10% leeway in either direction in volume. Which is sensible. But why not teach the lifter what is being accomplished at each session? Rather than just direct blindly, why not teach the lifter what needs to be achieved with each session, the intent of each session, the purpose? This would go a long way in correcting some of the irrational choices some lifters make during their sessions. Maxing when they’re not supposed to, or lifting too heavy a weight just because ‘an extra 5% won’t matter’.
We are not Soviet lifters, nor do we have a coach of the calibre of Prilepin standing watching over us intently during each attempt, calculating what needs to be done next.
We are regular Joes who usually coach ourselves for the most part, and would be better served in understanding the underlying principles behind what we do so we can better target the appropriate levels of volume and intensity per session.
We accomplish this by explaining the purpose behind the percentages/volume/intensity. We confine ourselves less to specific percentages, and more to understanding the purpose behind each session. If we can do this successfully then I believe that we can walk that fine line between recovery and stress, and actually get better results overall.
So how would we set up a training cycle?
Firstly, we must understand the most basic concept of modern periodization, that we go from periods of high volume and lower intensity, to periods of lower volume and high intensity. Across all periodization models this is true. This statement may be debatable by some, however I can address that in another article if the need arises.
The legendary strength writer Bill Starr likened this to building the base of a pyramid. The wider the base (amount of volume), the higher the peak will eventually be (higher maximum).
This almost always holds true, and is something that both advanced and beginner strength enthusiasts need to learn. At every step you must actively be looking for trends, patterns and correlations which relate to your progress.
A step by step guide to making this work
Here we are building the base of volume necessary for greater strength and mass gains down the road
We begin our cycle using as low a weight as we can, while still feeling we’re doing something useful. The lowest useful weight. We accumulate volume with this weight. How much volume is debatable, and even in most popular percentage based models will vary drastically from just 5 reps right the way to 50 and beyond. So we consider how often we’re training, and how we feel and we accumulate ‘a lot’ of useful work with this weight. This is going to vary person to person, but this is where you must be mature enough to make that judgement call of not working yourself into the ground but also not being too easy on yourself. With some experience, most lifters know where this midway point is. Once that point is reached, shut it down for the day.
Next session, we do the same but with a little heavier weight. A reasonable jump at this stage would be appropriate, something like 5-10kg. We don’t want smaller jumps, we’re not using a linear model and we don’t want to push the same range for too long. We accumulate some useful volume with this new weight, perhaps a little less than before. The volume should be appropriate to the weight used.
Here we slowly transition from the highest amounts of volume, and the lowest weight on the bar to less volume and more weight. There are no set guidelines here on exactly how much, that is the point of the cycle. Feel your way through as an individual.
This process repeats itself over and over, using more weight over time while accumulating an appropriate amount of volume per weight. Usually the reps per set decrease at the same time. So while you may start with 8s, you may end up using 3s before things get very tough. Be constantly thinking about how much work you can handle with this heavier weight, before the effort becomes too extreme for a regular session. Be on guard against both complacency and recklessness.
To ensure you are working hard enough, and accumulating a good amount of volume per session during each new weight or new rep scheme you should try and beat similar personal records from previous training.
So, if you’re currently doing sets of 5s, try and work towards beating your best efforts for sets of 5 earlier in the year. This won’t be every week but certainly try this for every new rep range or volume load, this ensures progress.
Here we either aim for new one rep maximums or perhaps an AMRAP. Either method gives us an idea of progress.
Eventually we will reach the point where you need to peak. Simply begin a string of single rep attempts over the next few weeks. You’ll know when you’ve peaked and it’s the most you’re able to hit by the difficulty of the attempt. Once you have hit a new PR or are at the point, where your body has had enough you can call it there. That’s your cycle for one exercise.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this. What this cycle lacks in percentages or hard and fast rep schemes it makes up for in check points which force you to be involved and accountable.
Rather than relying on a spreadsheet you must ensure you are actively thinking about how much volume you’re doing, how much weight you’re using, how hard you’re working out. That involvement forces you to learn about yourself. Try it over a couple of cycles, give it an honest go and learn about yourself. As you go along you’ll learn nuances about how you respond at different points in a cycle. You’ll also be given the freedom to repeat days or weights, to shut it down if you’re not feeling great (this shouldn’t happen very often) or to simply make adjustments based on how you feel. That personalisation is what you’re aspiring to. Once that’s reached and you are making good judgements, you are your own coach.
What I’ve outlined here is the starting point and would suit a rank beginner or early intermediate.
Advanced training requires more focus spread across a range of areas; including specialising on certain lifts, correcting weak areas and progressing on assistance lifts. That is much more complex and would require further explanations outside the realms of an article. If the interest is there I can be contacted for coaching.
I hope in reading this you’ve found this article useful. It will be very different from standard opinions on percentage based programming. Going back to the beginning of this article, you could say I’m trying to communicate these ideas without use of the common language we have developed. That’s going to be hard to understand, however good luck if you do try it as I think you will learn something about yourself and that is always a good thing!
So let’s summarise the process
- Periodisation is good.
- However, someone else’s idea of periodisation may not be ideal. Learn to guide yourself.
- Start by picking the lightest useful weight.
- Accumulate a lot of volume with this weight.
- Over the sessions, gradually add weight to the bar and lower volume.
- Volume goes down, weight goes up.
- Each step of the way, try and beat similar PRs from previous cycles.
- End with a peak, either a 1RM attempt or an AMRAP. So you know where you are.
- Take notes, spot trends in recovery, rep/weight correlations.
- Rest and repeat.
Over the last 16 years Faheem Chauhan has competed in over 25 Powerlifting Meets with the GBPF/BWLA and the BDFPA, across 3 weight categories, both equipped and unequipped. More recently he has dedicated himself to Physique and Bodybuilding and he aims to compete in 2018. He has been a strength and physique coach for several years, coaching clients online to make them bigger, leaner and stronger. He’s happy to connect with people on social media, and can be reached at the following: