The basic, foundational principles of block periodization provide a solid basis for us to plan our athletes’ training. However, it’s important for a coach to understand how to evolve the block model beyond the textbook example—while still using those foundational principles—in order to truly optimize the results for our athletes. To take your block periodized plan to the next level, first it’s important to understand a couple aspects of block periodization that often get overlooked and misunderstood.
Once we nail those ideas down, figuring out how to tailor your annual periodized plan to the nuances we deal with as strength coaches is vital to our athletes’ success. For example: what differences in periodization should we make for relatively untrained and weak athletes versus trained and relatively strong athletes? And how should an off-season cycle of accumulation, transmutation, and realization phases differ from the cycle closest to the season?
Understanding two often-overlooked (but critical) concepts can help our periodized plan evolve—along with our athletes’ success.
1. Concentrated Loading: The “Backburner” Concept
I often hear a critical mistake by strength coaches: believing that training in a certain “block” means you can ONLY train that aspect of fitness. This is one of the things I see getting frequently misinterpreted about block periodization. I often hear coaches say, The problem with block periodization is that in a *true block model* you can’t sprint during a maximal strength block!I often hear a critical mistake by strength coaches: believing that training in a certain ‘block’ means you can ONLY train that aspect of fitness, says @Trader_Flora. Click To Tweet
Luckily, that’s not the case at all—in fact, this idea is shot down by the pioneers of block periodization.
Block periodization, mainly coined by Issurin in the 1980s, was largely based off of work by Verkoshansky, in his Conjugative Successive System.1 During each block of training, a certain fitness characteristic is emphasized while others are de-emphasized (but not excluded altogether); this is the concept of creating a “concentrated load.”2 In addition to Verkoshanky’s definition of a concentrated load, Dr. Michael “Doc” Stone emphasizes the importance of “combination training”—a method of programming higher-velocity movements during strength blocks3. This can include the use of:
- Hi/Lo programming model: “Lower intensity days,” where load is decreased so the speed of movement (and most likely power output) increases.
- Down sets: A set with lowered load that follows the working sets; again, to increase velocity of the movement.
- Sprints and plyometrics
- Ballistic training also has been shown to have a positive influence on performance4-6 (think everything from plyos to loaded jumps to Olympic lifts).
- Complexes and contrast sets
Again, all during a strength block3. This is often referred to as “surfing the force velocity curve.” Combination training has been shown to be effective in producing a wider variety of speed and power adaptations than isolated heavy training7-10, which is important for athletes who require speed and power for their sport.
*Key Point: During block periodization, you simply emphasize the goal characteristic, while you de-emphasize the rest (not eliminate them altogether.) Think of it this way—as you prioritize one training variable, you put the others on the back burner. You don’t kick the other fitness characteristics completely to the curb, you simply give more attention to the “concentrated load,” the main focus of that block of training. Those characteristics you momentarily de-emphasized will get emphasized later on, just at a more appropriate time of the year. This is often termed “multivariable” or “multidirectional” block periodization and is ideal for team sport athletes who rely on multiple different fitness characteristics in order to excel in their sport.
Residual Training Effects and Phase Potentiation
It’s important to note that there is a benefit of cycling through training blocks in a sequential manner. This is partially based on the concept of residual training effects (RTEs).11 RTEs indicate that the positive adaptations from training remain for some time after training is completed.
For example, maximal strength gains remain for about 30 days post-training for maximal strength.11 You can see how RTEs help justify the “back burner” and “concentrated load” concepts we just discussed: An athlete doesn’t have to consistently train for every aspect of fitness and instead can prioritize some time for training other training characteristics, such as speed and power, without fear of losing maximal strength.
RTEs allow for the main benefit of sequentially planning your training blocks: phase potentiation. Phase potentiation means the adaptations from one training phase have an additional positive impact on the subsequent phases of training.Phase potentiation means the adaptations from one training phase have an additional positive impact on the subsequent phases of training, says @Trader_Flora. Click To Tweet
For example, a strength endurance phase—with emphasis on improving body composition and work capacity—may potentiate a sport-specific hypertrophy phase undergoing heavy sets of mainly 5-6 repetitions, targeting an increase in type II muscle fibers.12 Further, this increase in type II fiber CSA could benefit the following training block, which targets maximal strength.12 Finally, an increase in maximal force production can then benefit the adaptation seen in a realization phase focusing on speed and power.4, 13-15
The realization phase may also help transfer the newfound force production into the athlete’s sport performance, as maximal force production often expresses a delayed training effect.16 This is how one phase of training may improve your adaptation in the next phase of training, leading to huge improvements in important performance characteristics—ideally, you plan to “peak” at the right time of year!
Variation Throughout the Annual Plan
Before we get into varying the periodized plan for different athletes, let’s touch generally on how the annual plan should (usually) evolve throughout the year.
Let’s use a hypothetical annual plan so we can discuss the variance of the block cycles.
At first glance, we notice how we cycle through sequences of accumulation, transmutation, and realization periods repeatedly throughout the year, before we get to the competition period. Basic block model stuff. But, if you look closely, you may notice that there are some subtle differences in blocks between the first cycle and the cycles that follow.
In general: the first accumulation phase will most often be the longest, most substantial of the accumulation phases you complete throughout the year. This makes logical sense for a couple reasons.
- This concept fits the mold of your typical off-season training/GPP. When our athletes are this far out from competition, the priority of training often shifts toward the weight room. Each athlete has only so much fatigue they can endure, and during the off-season, we as strength coaches are afforded a larger slice of that fatigue pie.
- Practices for sport are most often less intense: we see fewer scrimmages, more individual/skill work, less CNS usage at practice, and less time spent on their sport. Here we can take advantage of this emphasis shift and really work on building superb fitness in the weight room. This is especially done during the first accumulation phase, which consists of higher volumes, and is aimed primarily at strength endurance, body composition, and work 17, 11 (Some of the recent work by Schoenfield et al. dives into how hypertrophy is best established through relatively higher volumes, although a range probably exists.18, 19)
In contrast, look at the third cycle’s accumulation phase: much shorter and less dense. This may resemble the typical block model idea of “reestablishing the base.” As we get closer to season, sport coaches get the larger share of the fatigue pie as practice starts ramping up. Scrimmage frequencies increase, hours on the field/court increase, and so does CNS usage. As strength coaches, we don’t have the time or fatigue share to implement another long, super-strenuous strength endurance block.This is one of the key principles of block periodization: capitalizing on the fatigue fitness paradigm and RTEs by returning to accumulation phases throughout the annual plan, says @Trader_Flora. Click To Tweet
Instead, we take just enough time to reestablish fitness and prevent detraining. This is one of the key principles of block periodization: capitalizing on the fatigue fitness paradigm and RTEs by returning to accumulation phases throughout the annual plan. You can’t train general fitness characteristics all year ’round—it’s too fatiguing. But you can’t exclude them forever, or the athletes will lose the adaptations made from these previous blocks. Therefore, during that last cycle of blocks, the shortened accumulation phase is programmed 1-3 months out from the season (eliminating excess fatigue at competition), and then we quickly start moving into the transmutation and realization phases, because—and here’s the real kicker—those phases train the variables more related to sport!
2. More Emphasis Gets Placed on the Realization Phase Closer to Season
Around the time of the season starting, we increase emphasis on the realization phase—as we know, these variables are the most closely related to sport performance. It’s time to maximize the power output in our athletes and increase speed, in addition to reducing excess fatigue generated in the weight room. This is the time of year to spend more effort and energy on increasing the variables related to performance, because this is the time the athletes need it most!
In order to achieve adaptations in speed and power, we often sharply decrease volume of training, along with decreasing load, which increases the speed of the movement.13, 20, 21 Suarez et al. (2019) discuss and provide evidence for Verkhoshansky’s principle of “Dynamic Correspondence,” in which several factors should be considered in increasing the transfer of training to sport. These factors include:22
- Amplitude and direction of movements.
- Accentuated regions of force production.
- Dynamics of effort.
- Rate and time of maximum force production.
- Regimen of muscular work.
The realization phase is additionally important because of the delayed training effect of strength. Strength is an important vehicle for many factors (including RFD, power, speed) and is especially important in weaker athletes4, 13-15, yet it takes time for our system to learn how to synchronize, coordinate, and express that newfound force production in high-velocity movements.16 So, the realization phase is a great time to help speed up that learning curve and increase the transfer of training to sport.
The realization phase is more heavily emphasized as we near the season—you can think of it as a spectrum of emphasis and density throughout the year, with accumulation phases holding a higher priority in the off-season and realization phases taking the lead in the preseason. If you remember how we discussed concentrated loading, one quality gets emphasized while the others get de-emphasized, but not eliminated altogether. For example, of course you’re going to want to maintain muscle CSA/tissue quality during a realization phase, it’s just placed on the backburner (maintenance) as strength/power become the main focuses for improvement.
During the off-season, the realization phase might not just be shorter—it might even vary in composition. The typical realization phase dedicated to power production would usually be found in the preseason. But, assuming your team doesn’t compete in games that count toward its record at the end of off-season GPP, you may prioritize the need to gain maximal strength, instead of having an entire block dedicated solely to power during the off-season. You can do this by programming a realization phase dedicated to strength/maximal force production (check out the chart below). Remember, if you use combination training, you can most likely increase strength AND power!
When you look at the focus of the blocks in a cycle, you see how the off-season resembles the typical GPP (prioritizes hypertrophy, strength endurance, work capacity, and maximal strength), where the next cycles represent a SPP and preseason, geared toward preparing for games (strength, power, and speed).
Of course, you have to know the rules before you bend them. This can vary amongst different situations, sports, and individual athletes—especially the advanced athletes. So let’s talk about that: how the block periodized plan can differ from athlete to athlete, based on their needs.
I think we can all agree, a long, lanky freshman who squats just over 1x his body weight (BW) should probably be training a little differently than a junior who has filled out with some lean muscle mass and squats nearly 2x his BW.
So, how do we tweak the block periodized plan to fit the needs of each athlete?
Priority: Requires Basic Strength (Low-Hanging Fruit)
Our first hypothetical athlete has a very young training age and an estimated back squat 1RM of 185 pounds (which isn’t much more than his body weight of 165 pounds, despite being 6 feet tall). You get the picture.
*For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume the athlete has mastered movement quality already, and we’re ready to move on to handling some load.*
As mentioned, strength is a vehicle15 that leads to power adaptations. It has been shown that relatively untrained athletes increase power variables just as much through strength training as power training alone. 3,13,14 This is why we can mostly agree that building a good strength base is the low-hanging fruit for younger, untrained athletes.
For this athlete, let’s prioritize just that: building a strength base. A good secondary goal might be building some lean muscle mass. It’s pretty common (and logical) that weaker, young athletes lack this along with their strength deficiency. Not only should that increase in muscle mass help improve strength, but hopefully it can help build some resiliency in the athlete.
With these goals in mind, here’s the first practical application of the annual plan:
- Since the priority is the low-hanging fruit of building baseline strength, we don’t have to necessarily isolate entire blocks to training power. Strength blocks will likely help increase power just as well.
- Of course, we’ll still include combination training of “Hi/Lo” days to promote good fatigue management and include sprints and plyometrics to aid in power production.3,7-10
Now that we have our goal in mind, we can reverse engineer the training process for our young, untrained, relatively weak athlete:
We can still see how these blocks fit the block periodization model, progressing from general to specific in regard to our goals. Additionally, one phase still potentiates the next, as increases in lean muscle mass and work capacity may help potentiate strength gains. And, of course, we can repeat this cycle after the three blocks are completed. This will help reestablish the base and continue building fitness in the form of lean muscle mass and work capacity. Another block spent building the base should additionally help promote further gains in strength during the ensuing strength blocks.
Priority: Power Development (More Advanced Athlete)
Our next athlete may best resemble a rising junior or senior that has been in your program for some time. Not only does he have several years’ experience under his belt, he’s built quite a strength base. He already back squats 2x his bodyweight at a nice and lean 210 pounds. He plays a power/speed sport (let’s say baseball).
Unlike our last athlete, there’s probably a diminished return on investment for setting our #1 priority as increasing his maximal force production. First off, how long will it take to increase his back squat? Five to six months of dedicated training? And how much benefit will he see on the field from the six months it took you to increase his back squat from 420 to 440?
The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.
Instead, increasing his power output/RFD will more likely improve his on-field production. He saw significant gains over the years in power from prioritizing strength development, but as we mentioned, there’s a diminishing return here. Therefore, we should approach his power output/RFD qualities directly.
Because we know strength is a vehicle, we won’t disregard it completely, but we’ll put more emphasis on power. Let’s reverse engineer what this might look like:
In contrast to the younger athlete, we move more quickly from maintaining the base (one of the highlights of block periodization) to maximal force production.
The programming of this transmutation max strength block is more advanced, as we may add higher loads at reps of 2, along with possibly adding contrast sets or complexes. These methods are reserved for the more advanced athlete, as it takes stronger athletes to be able to handle the workload and benefit most. If the athlete can thrive with these methods, they’re great at increasing power and speed.10
Since that’s the main goal, I’d still recommend programming a Hi/Lo model. Those lowered intensity days that resemble a strength-speed loading scheme for your primary lifts are not only a great starting point to train maximum power production, but also aid with fatigue management. (In a great review, Soriano, Jiménez, Rhea, and Marín found that peak power from the back squat may be produced at a load of 70% 1RM or less, for example.23) Including these “Lo” days is a great segue to get used to moving loads quickly before going straight into speed-strength work (somewhere below 50% 1RM).
If our strength block focused primarily on strength and secondarily on power, our realization phase flips the emphasis, prioritizing power output. We’ve all heard a dozen different names describing this phase of training, from “strength speed” to a “power block” to “high force at high velocity.” In any case, you know the adaptation I’m talking about—you decrease the loads on your primary lifts (typically below 80%, depending upon who you ask) without increasing the reps, and emphasize the velocity of the movement in order to increase power output. Slice the percentage how you want, we’re aiming to increase power output. Of course, you can insert your preferred method of training here: clusters, VBT, you name it.
One piece of practical advice: Use the tools available to monitor power production. Not only is immediate feedback a great motivator24-26, but the only way to make sure you’re training powerfully and at maximal intent is to measure it.
The point is, we’re training power and RFD directly. And we can do this for about 28 days (four weeks) without fear of losing maximal strength, thanks to the RTE. You may also opt to keep strength as a secondary focus, by including something fancy like of one-third pin squats (or something related) after your power work to maintain strength without the fatigue.The point is, we’re training power and RFD directly. And we can do this for about 28 days without fear of losing maximal strength, thanks to the residual training effort (RTE), says @Trader_Flora. Click To Tweet
This cycle of blocks more accurately reflects the needs of an athlete with a quality strength base, dedicating time to directly train and increase power and speed. Additionally, the cycles can vary throughout the annual plan like we discussed earlier. The cycle demonstrated above may be their off-season cycle, while the pre-season cycle may shift away from accumulation on the emphasis spectrum, toward an emphasis on realization.
One possible way of going about this would be by programming a brief accumulation of 5-6 reps, as work by Schoenfield et al. supports that you can see meaningful hypertrophy by using various rep ranges.18,19 By working at the higher load ranges around 6, which is probably right in the middle of the strength and hypertrophy spectrum, we’re going to attack type II fibers more.12 This may be more appropriate for the last cycle before season (less overall volume, more specific).
The abbreviated accumulation is followed by a transmutation of strength 3’s with considerable focus on power production, followed by a realization phase of speed-strength loading, dropping the weight, and increasing the velocity even more. You can see the difference in the last cycle of the annual plan. This may be ideal for maximum transfer of training, and it’s a good time too, since the season is about to start!
Adapting Foundations to Your Needs
It’s important to understand how you can tweak your block periodized program in different scenarios, helping your athletes to reach their various goals and better fit different parts of the annual plan. As long as you stick within the confines of the foundational block principles, you can still reap their benefits (phase potentiation, capitalizing on the fatigue fitness paradigm, etc.).
This article introduced a couple examples of how you can evolve your block-periodized model to fit different scenarios without completely throwing the foundational pillars of block periodization to the wayside. Although the specific programming methods I used as examples are just that—examples—the purpose here is get your grey matter turning and show just a few of the ways to fit your programming to the situation at hand.
By implementing your choice methods into the foundational principles of block periodization, you’ll find a useful way to organize your annual plan to match the demands of the sport.By implementing your choice methods into the foundational principles of block periodization, you’ll find a useful way to organize your annual plan to match the demands of the sport. Click To Tweet
There are, of course, more ways to tweak the periodized plan—in addition to the alterations I described, there may be times when you need to repeat blocks back-to-back (in order to accumulate sufficient levels of hypertrophy in a powerlifter, for example). Most of my examples were directed toward team sports, but again, this model can be tweaked for sports or different types of athletes. As I mentioned, you just have to know how to play by the rules before you bend them.
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