By Nathan Kiely
*Note: Quotations from Kiely refer to John Kiely, not the author of this article.
We’ve all heard lots about periodization. Heck, I bet we’ve all read countless books, listened to many podcasts, and even attended a few seminars and conferences dedicated to the planning of training. But what exactly is periodization? Gamble (2006) said: “[P]eriodization offers a framework for planned and systematic variation of training parameters, in a way that directs physiological adaptations to the training goals required of the sport.”
Training is periodized to optimize performance outcomes in competition. Each sport will have its own constraints based on: the training and match schedule; the pre-season and in-season length; the coaches’ access to athletes; and the training time at various stages of the season—not to mention the training culture of the sport, head coach, and even country in question. Due to these reasons, a variety of periodization schemes have been developed over the years. The majority of these were traditionally modelled on Olympic sports like track and field and weightlifting.
Typical periodization models seen in these Olympic sports that have been adapted for teams include, but are not limited to, nonlinear, block, fractal, and conjugate sequences (Kiely 2012). More recently, team sports have worked to break this mold and more advanced tactical or agile periodization methodologies have been formed to meet the ever-changing demands of the games to which they’re applied (Kiely 2012).
The Shortfalls of Traditional Periodization for LTAD in Team Sport
“Teach these kids to do the basics savagely well and all else will follow suit.”
Team sports in a development setting are a combination of the chaos we expect in open age groups, in addition to all the issues associated with working with kids. A development setting is often characterized by athletes with poor motor skills, faulty biomechanics, mixed messages from coaches and parents, low training age, fundamental misunderstandings of the process of training, the emotional stress and process of personal discovery, and development of a sense of self associated with being an adolescent, as well as mixed stages of development within the one cohort.For team sport athletes in an LTAD setting, periodization is less important than consistency. Click To Tweet
With so many interrelated factors to consider, the strength and conditioning coach has a challenging job. For this reason, periodization throughout training when working with team sport athletes in an LTAD setting is less important. What matters is consistency and habit creation. Athletes should be able to turn up to strength and conditioning sessions and know what to expect and how to prepare.
“The human body is either in a state of optimisation or adaptation—never both simultaneously.”
This “steady as she goes system” can be interjected with periods of variety and high-intensity training modalities in short, sharp blocks. Progress can be fast and meeting the athletes where they’re at is essential. Build a wide and stable base over time, then test the athletes with a challenging week (volume load equated to avoid acute spikes) to stimulate sudden performance improvement. Teach these kids to “do the basics savagely well” and all else will follow suit.
Transmutation blocks followed by speed-power training using velocity-based training or advanced tapering models are not only out of place, but are redundant when working with 16-year-olds. The problem with these models is they focus mainly on rigid preparation for performance outcomes, rather than steady progression and agile training themes with an eye on long-term adaptation. Dr. Andy Galpin reminds us that the human body is either in a state of optimization or adaptation—never both simultaneously. So, to maximize development, performance optimization must suffer. And this is for the long-term good. Think big picture.
“Be there to facilitate—not dictate—when they ask for your help.”
The emphasis for developing athletes should always be on both creating a learning environment characterized by technique and fostering competition in training to keep things fun. This is where the competitive juices can flow and a love for the sport itself will be nurtured within the context of learning new skills. Remember, if they fall in love with the game, they’ll intrinsically want to do the hard work required to excel. Be there to facilitate—not dictate—when they ask for your help.
The Simple Way: Accumulate-Intensify-Repeat
For the various reasons stated above, I have developed a system built on the backbone of the KISS principle. The KISS principle is a straightforward concept: “Keep it simple, stupid.” I have cut out the rough edges and built my model around two training blocks with concise goals.
One of the basic tenets of Siff’s strength training bible Supertraining (2003) is that all training plans should invariably resemble the sequence of periods characterized by the application of extensive training methods—known as an accumulation phase—and subsequent stages of intensive training—the intensification phase. These two phases complement one another, as one develops movement skills (motor learning), conditions connective tissues, fosters hypertrophy of muscle structure, and builds work capacity; while the other subsequently emphasizes the development of neurological adaptations (intra and intermuscular coordination), speed and power of movement, and competitive application of sport-specific skills.
I propose the ideal model of periodization for LTAD in team sport athletes is the cyclical application of longer accumulation (four to six weeks) and short, sharp intensification (two to four weeks) phases in a repeated fashion. These should remain concurrent in nature with all physical abilities/capacities equally distributed throughout all programs.
In the weight room, these two phases could resemble what Bompa & Buzzichelli (2015) would classify as general anatomical adaptation and maximal strength phases. Coaches can utilize training blocks during which they expose their athletes to larger volumes of training across many different movements in order to build work capacity and physical literacy, while simultaneously strengthening connective tissue. Subsequently, the coach can then interject high intensity methods—with a noticeable decrease in volume—to maximize functional adaptations.
“Interjecting training novelty into habituated patterns may lead to sudden performance improvements… Regular variation and/or periods of high-intensity training are not unique to any particular periodization philosophy and appear to be a hallmark of elite programs regardless of the stated methodology employed.” – Kiely (2012)
Evidence suggests that habitualized training, interspersed with periods of novel or high-intensity training, is critical for physical development and high performance (Kiely 2012). Coaches should view accumulation phases as a time for training to remain consistent with steady progression and intensification blocks as a chance to introduce novelty and competition or to focus intently on a specific adaptive response based upon the areas that need the most attention. Being an agile and flexible coach is critical in this phase, as firmly holding onto the plan presumes you know precisely how every single individual will adapt to every session—a rather naive assertion.
The strength and conditioning coach should identify all the physical abilities they believe to be important for their sport, and devise and categorize two separate conditions under which to train them. A progression model from movement simplicity to complexity also needs development to ensure variation occurs in a safe manner. These conditions should be extensive measures (to be trained in accumulation phase) and intensive measures (to be trained in intensification phase).
Develop skills, an aerobic base, and hypertrophy (structural/capacity development) in extensive training and then intensify all training modalities to maximize functional/power qualities. At the completion of the two training blocks, reset and repeat with the subsequent accumulation phase starting at a higher absolute intensity, which is now relatively extensive in nature for the athletes.
What Not to Do
Often, knowing what is not best can be the most useful in directing us on the path to what is. Here are some key shortfalls to avoid when planning training for LTAD in team settings:
- Don’t use stringent block periodization of general anatomical adaptation, hypertrophy, max strength, transmutation, power/speed, etc. These need to be sprinkled throughout the whole program, all the time.
- Don’t place a heavy emphasis on special strength training exercises or advanced exercise variations. Instead, polarize between general preparatory exercises and the competition exercise in athletes with low training age (<3 years) and focus more on special preparatory and special developmental as training age increases (Bondarchuk’s model of exercise classification).
- Don’t limit exposure to only a few different lifts. It’s all about exposure, exposure, exposure. Build a wide variety of movement skills and a robust, versatile physical literacy. Jump and land; fall and tumble; throw, catch, clean and jerk; snatch; squat; hinge; lunge; brace and rotate; push and pull; and, mostly importantly, sprint. Have a solid and concise progression model in place to make these various movement qualities logical and digestible for your athletes—ensure the process makes sense to them.
- Don’t ignore external stressors. Rather, try to align intensification blocks with down time in study commitments and social stressors. Reduce intensity to align with exams, etc.
- Don’t focus on outputs. Rather than focusing on the weight on the bar, the split time in the sprint, or the height on the jump, create a technically focused model whereby the athletes’ input into the exercise is the focus. Technique should always trump load.
- Don’t try to build an elite athlete right now. Arm your athletes with the skills to fit seamlessly into any subsequent program they may be a part of. Your athlete’s gym skills reflect on you as a coach and subsequent coaches will judge you based upon this. I want the 19-year-old with great weightlifting skills and clean running mechanics joining me straight out of school—not the guy or girl who has the 2x bodyweight squat, yet rounds their back and has a bung hip from grinding through messy reps.
Build a Broad Movement Vocabulary
When we have many abilities to train, no perfect model for the distribution of these across training time exists. Mladen Janovic proposes we utilize the “1/N heuristic,” whereby we simply divide training time equally among all options. This is particularly applicable in the LTAD setting, where building a broad movement vocabulary is essential.
Here are some practical examples of movements for both accumulation and intensification training blocks:
Accumulation block (extensive training measures): Mobility, weightlifting technique (barbell complexes), landing and deceleration progression, tempo-controlled hypertrophy training, extensive low-level plyometrics and medicine ball throw variations, running skills (posture, range, and alignment), MAS running 70-100%, long high-speed running efforts (up to 60m), linear/multidirectional tempo, and technical/tactical sport skills.
Intensification block (apply variability wherever possible): Load weightlifting variations, intensified core strength lifts to develop neurological/functional adaptations, ballistic resistance training, intensive plyometrics and medicine ball throw variations, resisted sprints, short/intense sprints (less than 30m) and live reactive agility, HIIT >120%MAS, and opposed/competitive sport skill sessions.
Bompa, T. and Buzzichelli, C. 2015. Periodization Training for Sports, 3E. Human Kinetics.
Gamble, P. 2006. “Periodization of training for team sports athletes.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(5), p. 56.
Kiely, J. 2012. “Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven?” International journal of sports physiology and performance, 7(3), pp. 242-250.
Siff, M.C. 2003. Supertraining. Supertraining Institute.