Theoretical Framework for Optimizing Training Periodization and Programming Posted on 19 Mar 16:19

 Justin Swinney - March 19, 2020

I receive a wide variety of questions pertaining to exercise selection and programming. A few of the questions provide a specific set of circumstances to evaluate and apply the appropriate principles of training needed to respond with an accurate, individualized answer. Unfortunately, a large majority of the questions demonstrate a complete lack of periodization, programming, and consistency, which makes it virtually impossible to provide an optimal answer. Lately, the questions have been about specific exercises or methods from various social media personalities.  For example:

Question:  “I watched a video of <insert name> doing this exercise <insert image/video of movement> for rear delts. He said <insert exercise name> is the best rear delts exercise, and it should be done every workout." 

This type of question leads me to believe that many individuals may be losing sight of the big picture by focusing on minute details in isolation and ignoring the proper fundamentals of resistance training. When considering the design of a training program, it is essential to have a theoretical framework to establish an epistemological base to determine the necessity and validity of the modification in question.  This article aims to provide a theoretical framework to effectively evaluate questions and communicate the fundamental principles and interrelated variables critical to developing an optimal periodized program.  

It is important to stress that the suggestion, idea, or question must be pertinent to the individual’s specific training program or session.  If the suggestion, idea, or question presents a potential opportunity worthy of consideration, then the individual can begin the process with step one of the theoretical framework. 

Q: What is step one? 

Step one is to perform a robust need’s analysis. 

Q: Is it necessary to perform a full needs analysis before each training decision? I want to get bigger and stronger. What else needs to be considered? All I want to know is if <insert exercise or program> would be beneficial.  

Is it necessary? Maybe not, but I prefer not to make biased, uninformed, or emotional decisions.  What else needs to be considered?  The complexity and profundity of thought to answer that question will require a separate article to properly address the considerations of a need’s analysis. Performing a comprehensive needs analysis is an essential component in programming to succeed through the advanced levels of muscular development. The fundamental methods of consistently tracking quantitative data and making purposeful observations complement the critical analysis of needs and programming. This information gives the individual the ability to evaluate their progress towards the desired physiological, psychological, or performance outcome and adequately consider the potential value of a modification to their current training program. Since this article only provides a basic description and structure for the theoretical framework, as mentioned above, a future article will provide a more detailed explanation of the need's analysis.  

Once a thorough needs analysis has been performed, step one is complete.  Unfortunately, the second step is often overlooked by trainers and coaches who are not well versed in exercise science, sport science, and training theory.   

Q: What is the second step? Why is it often overlooked?  

The second step is to identify and understand the resistance training principles, then properly apply those principles in coordination with the need’s analysis from step one.  Once an individual has identified the resistance training principles, the second step is primarily a cognitive function of acquiring knowledge from the needs analysis and establishing a foundational relationship with the resistance training principles. The goal of this step is to process collected information through intellectual thought and experience, then correctly apply the principles of training to help navigate a route through the short-term and towards the long-term destinations. The ignorance (the lack of knowledge, education, or information of the subject matter) of exercise science, sport science, and training theory cause a majority of errors in properly programming the training principles. That is not an insulting, harmful, or condescending statement. If a trainer or coach has not accumulated enough of formal collegiate education (human anatomy & physiology, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, physics, kinesiology, and biomechanics), then he or she will not be able to comprehend the intricacies of complex biological systems, integrated systems within systems, or the dynamic complexity of responses to variables by those systems.  But that does not mean that the trainer or coach will not get positive results and execute incredible transformations.  It only means that the trainer or coach doesn’t have the requisite capacity to be aware of the underlying mechanisms of human systems, interpret the complex interactivity between the systems, and perceive the significance of environmental and psychological stressors.   

Q: When you mention the "Training Principles," what are you referring to, sets and rep combinations or training splits?

Sets and reps are subcategories of the resistance training variables, and they are in the next step (step three).  The principles of resistance training vary from as little as three main principles (1.) or as many as eight principles plus related subprinciples (2.). The depth of principles referred to in exercises science textbooks and clinical research varies with the author's perspective of physiological adaptations, psychological adaptations, performance responses, and theoretical applications.

To provide structure, I will provide two lists of training principles.  The first list is the minimal training principles that I apply in my client's periodized programming.  The second list is the minimal training principles that an individual must consider when attempting to create any positive training effect. 

Training Principles List 1:

  1. Specificity 
  2. Overload 
  3. Fatigue Management 
  4. Stimulus Recovery Adaptation 
  5. Periodization
  • 5a. Phase Potentiation
  • 5b. Variation
  • 5c. Directed Adaptation
  • 5d. Reversibility
6. Individualization 

 Training Principles List 2:

  1. Specificity
  2. Overload

Once an individual has developed a conceptual construct of training principles with consideration of the needs analysis information, step two is complete. A future article will provide definitions and descriptions of the resistance training principles. 

The third step involves identifying the resistance training variables and interpreting the complex and sophisticated interrelationships between the variables. Understanding the impact between specific variable interactions is essential for the organization of periodization and programming.  

Q: I have read about volume and intensity. As the volume goes up, the intensity goes down and vice versa, correct? 

If an individual only considers two variables and completely ignores the interactions between other variables, then perhaps it is correct, assuming the inverse relationship between volume and intensity. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous connectivity (providing connectivity to everyone and everything, everywhere, every time) provided by the internet and social platforms has created an information overload of arguments that overwhelm individuals with a rapid flow of differing perspectives involving volume, intensity, frequency, and more. There is an astonishing amount of myths and misconceptions surrounding the application of training variables for specific adaptations. However, there are also a few quality educators producing unbiased, data-driven, and critically analyze information that can be used by individuals as guidelines to develop structured programs. The ability to critically think and apply reasoning skills helps an individual identify if the suggested training variable modification is based on fallacious reasoning or supported by science. At times, our emotions can influence our thinking and reasoning skills, which completely devastates our cognitive capacity and sways our current opinion. 

**Note:  In times of frustration and lack of patience, I have poorly represented my intellect and character by using a wide range of logical fallacies to quickly end an argument or conversation. In a future article, I will discuss some of the most common logical fallacies used in the fitness industry to help individuals recognize if the premises used in conversation accurately support the conclusion. **

Q: It sounds like there is much more to consider than volume and intensity.  What are the resistance training variables that I should learn to apply and manipulate in my programming? 

In resistance training, it is common for a beginner to consider three variables in programming V.I.F. (volume, intensity, frequency).  In some textbooks, they use the ACSM (American College of Sports and Medicine) acronym F.I.T.T. (frequency, intensity, time, and type) to describe the basic resistance training variables.  The periodization and programming system that I created is structured to consider a minimum of ten resistance training variables (listed below).  The needs analysis and goals of the individual will dictate the order of importance for the resistance training variables.  

For example, If I am designing a hypertrophy program for an offseason bodybuilder, then I will have a different ranking for the application of variables compared to if I was designing a pre-season program for a baseball player. There is more to programming than implementing a specific set and rep scheme to satisfy the weekly volume requirements. I will list variables that I use in my client's programs, plus a few terms that individuals get confused concerning periodization and programming 

Training Variables:

1. Volume

(Total amount of work performed. Sets x Reps per Session, Sets x Reps per Week, Sets x Reps within a Specific Range, Sets x Reps x Load on Specific Exercises with Replicated Form, etc.)

2. Effort or Relative Intensity

(Subjective Rating of Intensity of Effort.  RPE – Rate of Perceived Exertion, RIR – Reps in Reserve, RTF – Reps to Failure)

3. Intensity or Absolute Intensity

(Calculated using an actual single or multiple repetition max or calculated using a formula to estimate 1RM.)

4. Frequency

(Number of Training Sessions [Specific Muscle Group, Specific Muscle Action, Specific Movement Pattern, Specific Exercise, Specific Rep Range or Scheme, Specific Set Number, Specific Training Modality or Advanced Training Technique]  per Unit of Time. 

5. Exercise Choice

(Compound vs. Isolation) (Machine vs. Free Weight) (BB vs. DB vs. KB) (Bilateral vs. Unilateral)

6. Exercise Order

(Loading Shortened, Mid-Range, or Lengthened Stretch) (Activation Isolation Exercises First or Heavy Compound First) (Machine vs. Free Weight) (Power, Plyo, High-Velocity considerations)

7. Tempo

(Tempo has four parts. [Eccentric : Iso-Hold : Concentric : Iso-Hold]  Tempo is written as a series of four numbers.  [2:1:2:0] )

8. Rest Interval

(Rest Time Between Sets, Rest Time Between Exercises, and when using advanced training modalities such as “Rest-Pause”, “Myo-Reps”, “Drop Sets”, Rest Time Between Reps)

9. Type of Muscle Action

(Concentric and Eccentric <or> Concentric Only <or> Eccentric Only <or> Isometrics <or> Quasi-Isometrics <or> Various Combination of Concentric and/or Eccentric with Isometrics and/or Quasi-Isometrics)

10. Range of Motion

(Full Range of Motion, Partial Range of Motion, Modified Range of Motion) 

Periodization and Programming Terminology: 

(Listed Largest to Smallest)

Quadrennial Plan > Annual Plan > Macrocycle > Block > Mesocycle > Microcycle > Session > Exercise > Set > Rep

  • Quadrennial Plan = 4 Years
  • Annual Plan = 1 Year
  • Macrocycle = 1 to 4 Blocks
  • Block = 1 to 4 Mesocycles
  • Mesocycle = 3 to 12 Weeks
  • Microcycle = 1 Week of Training
  • Session = 1 Day (Can have multiple sessions per day)
  • Exercise = 2 to 10 Exercises per Session
  • Set = 1 to 10 Sets per Exercise
  • Rep = 3 to 30 Reps, up to 100 Reps per Set. (Specific Rep Ranges for Specific Adaptations)

The final step of this theoretical framework concerns the employment of systems thinking, feedback loops, spectrums of tolerance, and conceptual strategies to manipulate variables for minimal stimulus threshold, maximal threshold capacity, accumulation, adaptation, sustainability, and resilience.  

Q: What do you mean by systems thinking, feedback loops, spectrums of tolerance, and conceptual strategies?  

The human body is an extremely complex system with a hierarchical organization of systems and subsystems that are resilient, evolutionary, and self-organizing within a homeostatic continuum for survival. It is vital to identify and understand the elements within each system, the interconnections between the elements, and the function or purpose of each system. Once an individual has a modest understanding of systems thinking, they will begin to notice the numerous levels of systems embedded within systems. Becoming aware of the processes directed towards the coordination of enhanced function and sustainability reveals how various feedback loops (negative, balancing, positive) manage stability, productivity and resilience through various stressors, oscillations, and perturbations. If an individual dedicates the time to learning the language of systems thinking and becoming aware of the foundational concepts within systems theory, then they will be able to understand relationships, interactions, and processes for developing the systems thinking perspective to apply in a theoretical framework.

After reading numerous books about thinking in systems, systems thinking, complex systems, dynamic systems, critical thinking, logic, philosophy, theory, etc., I have identified books in each category that serve as great introductions to the thinking process.  One of my favorite books in the category of systems thinking is titled “Thinking in Systems, A Primer” by Donella H Meadows.  It is an easy read that provides great analogies for learning the language, terminology, and paradigm of systems thinking.  "So, what is a system? A system is a set of things --- people, cells, molecules, or whatever --- interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system's response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world." (3.)  Therefore, when updating or modifying a training program, with the system’s thinking ability to observe stressors and analyze the dynamic data through a perspective of degrees in utility, the individual will have a robust advantage in periodizing adaptations.  Systems thinking also provides a clear vision of the parameters and variables that cause stress to the system will increase the potential capacity of resilience with the training program. 

There are many advantages to developing evidenced-based data-driven methods with dynamic perspectives from systems theory through the application of critical thinking towards developing strategies and tactics for optimizing desired outcomes.  The investment of time each week studying systems thinking, complex systems, dynamic systems, critical thinking, logic, or philosophy is exponentially valuable for improving cognitive capacities.  The dedication of time to enhancing intellect and critical thinking skills will do more than strengthen periodization or programming abilities. It will serve as a force multiplier throughout an individual’s life.

In summary, this theoretical framework has four steps: 

 Step 1: Perform a comprehensive needs analysis. 

Step 2: Identify and understand the resistance training principles, while integrating the needs analysis with the principles. 

Step 3: Identify and understand the resistance training variables and their interactions, with respect to the principles, and aligned with the need’s analysis. 

Step 4:  Learn the thinking in systems language and understand the systems thinking approach with feedback loops, spectrums of tolerance, threshold capacities, and apply critical thinking in developing conceptual strategies for problem-solving and creating periodized training programs to optimally elicit the desired adaptation.



Reference List:

  1. Stone, M., Plisk, S., Collins, D. (2001) Training Principles: Evaluation of Modes and Methods of Resistance Training – A Coaching Perspective. Sports Biomechanics Vol 1 (1) p 79 – 103.

  2. Verkhoshansky, Y., Siff. (2009) Supertraining, 6th Denver: Supertraining International.

  3. Meadows, D., (2008) Thinking in Systems, A Primer. Edited by Wright, Diana. Sustainability Institute. London. Sterling, VA.