Training Cycle Principles

Systematic Program Design from Chapter Four of Johnny Parker, Al Miller,  Rob Panariello and Jeremy Hall’s book The System, the ultimate guide to periodization.

Excerpted from Chapter Four of The System, Periodization for the Strength Coach

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Every aspect of this system exists along a continuum. We hold true to fundamental qualities and principles of programming, while manipulating the training variables across a range for lifters of all ages and experience levels. You can advance or regress the basic principles over the span of weeks, months, seasons, and years to meet the needs of any athlete in any sport at any level.

Once we establish the application of the core principles to the training variables, we can see how the shifting emphasis of the program allows optimal progression for the athletes of all training stages. However, before we start writing a “book of training” for your athletes, we first have to learn how to write the “sentences of programming.”

The most critical errors we see in applying periodization models or training systems across different groups of athletes are in failing to account for different goals based on the experience and training age or ability of each athlete, and then understanding how to effectively manipulate the variables to reach a particular goal. Too many young athletes are loaded up under a bar and thrown into a training regimen of barbell training before they are physically ready or capable of performing the required lifts—the Olympic lifts in particular.

There are no plug-and-play programs that allow for sustained gains or have built-in progressions of both training intensity and volume over a longer span than eight or twelve weeks. However, by using the Soviet methods and principles, you can take athletes all the way from introductory bodyweight training up through college and the professional ranks without a need to completely overhaul the training program.

The System utilizes sequential four-week training cycles that follow an undulating wave pattern of volume and intensity manipulation. The undulating pattern offers constant variation in the training stimulus that results in continuous gains and built-in recovery. Rather than a linear model or block periodization, where there is a constant tug-of-war for adaptation to particular stresses in the weightroom, undulating waves of volume and intensity introduce a simultaneous stimulus to the multiple physical qualities required of a high-performing athlete.

The best way to describe our approach is that it is a system of checks and balances for programming that facilitates the development of strength, power, and speed, while addressing the recovery demands of high-intensity training. When each four-week cycle is designed to build upon the previous month’s work, athletes are capable of extending the training window into and through the competitive season, without the risk of breakdown or overtraining often seen in other methods.

From a bird’s eye view, our system looks a little different from most models of periodization, with a progressive increase in training volume and intensity over the course of an off-season, rather than the inverse relationship seen in most programs.

This approach allows the athletes to progressively build work capacity and training intensity throughout the off-season and then continue to progress training intensity throughout the extended competitive season.

Figure 4.1 Linear Periodization Model

Figure 4.2 The System’s Undulating Periodization Model

The off-season ideally consists of three four-week training cycles. The preseason is a single cycle. Over the course of a single four-week training cycle, the volume of work undulates weekly and from session to session, and the training intensity also undulates over the course of the month.

The ultimate goal is to provide progressive overload into higher training volumes and intensities as the athlete develops, with built-in periods of unloading where both intensity and volume fall to allow recovery periods within each cycle.

Figure 4.3 Example of Four-Week Program

Over the larger span of the training seasons—off-season, preseason, in-season—we address each of the physical qualities of work capacity, strength, power, and speed. Depending on the time of the season and the emphasis for the sport or athlete, there are varying levels of emphasis on the different qualities at different times.

Just as under Vermeil’s Hierarchy, we address all the necessary qualities to some degree, yet we tweak the volume or time spent on each. During each particular cycle, there should be one quality that takes precedent and is the primary focus of a training cycle, while secondarily addressing the other qualities.

The question becomes how to allocate the time for each athlete. Think of it as having 100 “points” to allocate within each training cycle. You need to distribute those points across the qualities of work capacity, strength, power, and speed—and not just with lifting, but with running and jumping as well. It will be your decision where the time is spent and what is most important at that particular point in the year.

Early in the season for a novice athlete, you may allot 40 points toward work capacity, 35 to strength work, 15 to power, and 10 on speed work. As the season moves on, some of those work capacity points may move into the strength, power, or speed columns. You still have to work within a limited total, yet the program adapts with the athlete.

A lot of those choices and decisions are developed through the eye of the coach and we will dive deeper into that end of the pool later.

Figure 4.4 Novice Progression

Throughout the process, is important to keep in mind that what we do as strength coaches is a combination of science and art. The science demands that we know why something works. That is imperative for the selection process, and if you know how something works, you will know how to progress it.

If you do not know why something works and you choose to use it, maybe you get lucky…and maybe you do not. When you think, “This is great! My athletes are getting better,” you need to ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?” If you do not know why something is working, you will not know how to progress or adapt it for continued gains. That is the importance of the science.

The art of coaching is saying to yourself, “We need to squat; we know that is important.” The question now is, “Should we front squat, back squat, or split-squat? What weight should we start with? How many sets and reps? How can I best teach this movement?”

These questions rarely come with clear, definitive answers, and your path will have to take into account the variables. This is the art of coaching. If you asked these questions of 50 coaches, you might get 50 different answers, and not all of them would be in your best interest to follow.

In the field of strength and conditioning, this is the aspect that takes the most time and commitment to develop and refine. Ultimately, cultivating balance between the art and science of coaching is what separates the elite from the average.

At first glance, this approach can seem like an overwhelming method of programming, as most coaches are unfamiliar with undulating intensity and volume. It feels safer to go with dedicated sets and reps or defined periods for strength, hypertrophy, or speed.

That is understandable, and while taking a standard approach can certainly yield positive results, it will inevitably lead to less clear decisions and progressions down the road. You may be taking a safer route in the short term, just to pull your hair out in the future.

We will peel back the layers and look at each training variable discussed in The Foundation section. Once you appreciate the basics in application of the core principles to designing a periodized strength and power program, you will see that this system will continue to grow, develop, and produce the further you take it.

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