[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he career span of a strength athlete is highly unique compared to other sports. If you stick around long enough, you likely won’t reach your prime until you are 10-15 years deep in the sport. Obviously, there are many factors that affect the length of your competitive career (chronologically when you start, injury, goals, life, etc..).
Assuming injury and other life variables are controlled, does your training reflect the potential to maximize your competitive career?
Most athletes (myself included) realize how far they have to go to accomplish their goals and, at times, do things out of desperation that aren’t exactly in line with the whole “marathon, not a sprint” cliche. A huge amount of an athlete’s focus should be spent in the present, but we can’t let the long-term picture slip through the cracks. The goal of this article is to provide you with a practical tool for organizing the long-term view of training without constantly having it in the back of your mind.
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A Long-Term Flexible Approach to Training Organization
Of the lifters I’ve met or been around, most seem to know what they’re doing in their upcoming week of training. 90% of them probably have the next 2-3 weeks planned. Regardless of how much they have on paper, most have an idea of the cycle length they are committed to and what they want to accomplish during that time frame. I will even go out on a limb and say most live and die by the 8-12 week cycle.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it begs the question: How does that 8-12 weeks fit into the rest of the year? Are you training to maximize progress in 8-12 weeks (assuming the 8-12 weeks we are referencing don’t lead into a competition) or are you training to maximize career potential? I’m assuming you’re unconsciously doing the former, but when tested, most will say the latter.
I’m not saying you should plan exact sets and reps 6+ months in advance. The whole premise of organizing the yearly training plan is to ask the question: Is this appropriate now? The yearly plan must set the stage for long-term development, and it must be flexible enough to make changes at any point.
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Functional Components of the Yearly Training Plan
To simplify this, we can think of the yearly training plan as a clock – a clock that requires multiple gears and leavers, all with specific jobs working interdependently. Your specific clock happens to last throughout the duration of your competitive career. Notice I said competitive career; the yearly training plan is unnecessary for anyone other than competitive athletes. (It’s not a bad idea to create one if you don’t compete; it just isn’t necessary and will likely convolute your plan having no fixed time periods.)
The functional components of the yearly training plan are time, specificity, loading and phase classification.
This is easily the most important component of the yearly plan. This section of the yearly plan should be broken into months and weeks in which the months give you a macro timeline and the weeks quantify length of each specific micro cycle. Considerations of important known dates (vacations, competitions, planned time off, etc..) should be made. Known dates encompass anything that will provide a substantial disturbance to your normal training schedule. The entire yearly plan revolves around this variable; all other functional components should be heavily integrated within your timelines.
Continuum of Specificity
The planning of a long-term specificity progression should be descriptive and very flexible. The continuum of specificity is a multilevel approach to exercise classification. For this, we will draw from Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk’s system of classification. Ranging from non-specific to highly specific, Bondarchuk developed a 4-tier system to define classification roles.
- Competitive Event (CE) – Competition event.
- Specific Developmental (SDE) – Same muscles used in the competition event and similar movements.
- Specific Prepatory (SPE) – Same muscles used in the competition event but different movements.
- General Prepatory (GPE) – Different movements from the competition event / different energy systems.
Let’s put this into the practical view of a competitive powerlifter and use the competition-style low bar squat as an example.
- Competitive Event – Low bar competition style squat.
- Specific Developmental – Low bar squat without a belt / Low bar pause squat / Pin Squats / High bar variations
- Specific Prepatory – Front squat / Specialty bars / Barbell Lunges / Barbell Split Squats
- General Prepatory – Good Mornings / Leg press / Glute ham raise / Prowler and sled work
The exercise example list used is non-exhaustive. If we were to complete it, the finished product would look something like a pyramid. The bottom of the pyramid should have a huge variety of non-specific exercises, and as we near the top, it should slowly narrow as the exercise pool becomes smaller.
The implementation of a specificity progression is dependent on a few factors, including immediate needs, length of time between important dates on your timeline, and lifter qualification. Lifter qualification will determine how high or low on the pyramid the majority of training volume should be allocated. Immediate needs and time are interdependent of one another. If you are 30 weeks out from a meet, your immediate needs will be significantly different compared to 6 weeks out. When designing a specificity progression, it’s probably best to work backward from an end date to a start date. The end date may be a meet, the end of cycle, a planned test session, deload, or even a vacation.
How many popular programs can you name off the top your head? Most all of those programs have some type of loading scheme (among other variables) that differentiates them. Because the total number of different loading schemes possible is probably only limited by your imagination, we will focus on four different block types that are scalable across most models of training.
For this section, we will only attempt to define the volume and intensity interplay of the blocks, as we have already discussed the continuum of specificity. A very important note: You absolutely do not need to use these specific blocks. You may choose to simply use strength and hypertrophy blocks or any other delineation that molds to your training philosophy.
- Generally moderate to very high total loads of work.
- Reduced levels of intensity (intensity relative to 1RM) as compared to other blocks.
- Length may be as little as 2-3 weeks when bridging into other blocks or as long as 10+ weeks when hypertrophy adaptations are the main focus.
- In general, volume should be increased as the weeks progress. You may use a linear, wave, or undulated approach to increasing volume.
- Absolute strength levels may drop depending on how this block is arranged and how long it lasts (which is fine). Total volume should be of primary importance here.
- Generally low to high loads of work (the amount of volume done in this block will depend on the previous block and the level of intensity used).
- Moderate to very high levels of intensity (training at high percentages regularly).
- Length may last anywhere from 2-4 weeks. This block may be stretched out longer; remember, this is not an exact science. Proportionately, if you have a long volume block, you may benefit from a longer intensity block.
- Average weight lifted should be increased weekly. Volume will need to eventually drop as the average bar weight is increased.
- Load on the bar is the primary focus here.
Peaking / Taper Blocks
- Volume and intensity should be systematically reduced in this block (in that order).
- Intensity levels (% relative to 1RM) should remain constantly high until the final week or two.
- Length may last anywhere from 1-4 weeks. This is completely dependent on the qualification of the lifter and length of the competition meso cycle. A more advanced lifter will need a longer peaking block.
- Primary goal of this block is to reduce “carried” fatigue from previous blocks and raise the level of competition preparedness.
Transition Blocks / Unloading Blocks
- This block is intended to bridge various blocks and/or provide a small amount of restoration.
- Transition blocks may also be used as an “intro” to volume or intensity blocks as a means to adapt to new templates of training.
- Depending on needs and use, these blocks may utilize all levels of volume/intensity but tend to stay shy of extreme levels of either.
- Length may last anywhere from 1-3 weeks depending on specific needs.
- Periodizing nutritional needs attempts to define points of the year that should be allocated to cutting, bulking, and maintaining bodyweight. This is especially useful for athletes who compete in sports that require weight classes.
What about blending blocks?
For some lifters it may be appropriate to blend the qualities of some blocks (remember again, you do not have to use these blocks). Peaking and transition blocks are probably best reserved for their specific uses, but the qualities of a volume or intensity block may be merged. When blending blocks, it’s probably best to have a primary emphasis (of either volume or intensity) to ensure the desired training effect is attained.
This is the final functional component of the yearly training plan that we will discuss. Phase classification is the simple concept of identifying what type of meso cycle phase you are in. You may be more descriptive than this, but the main meso cycle phases are prepatory and competitive.
Any time you are not in a competition peaking program, you are in a prepatory phase. You may term this the “off-season,” but using too many descriptive terms likely only convolutes the process. Pick a couple that make sense to you (again, mold it to your philosophy), and stick to them. The only intention is to glance at the plan and see when a competition cycle begins and ends.
The whole purpose of the yearly training plan is to give you a long-term flexible tool to organize your training. You should not treat this as a rigid “by all means necessary” plan. You should be molding it as you evolve as an athlete and as your needs and goals change.
Issurin, Vladimir. (2008) Block Periodization, Breakthrough in Sports Training. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
Jamieson, Joel. The Bondarchuck Principles of Periodization. http://www.8weeksout.com/2013/09/12/bondarchuk-principles-periodization/, 2013. Web. May 2015.
Author Unknown. Getting Started Part 3 – Long Term. http://remotestrengthcoach.blogspot.com/2013/07/getting-started-part-3-long-term.html, 2013. Web. May 2015