Periodization 201: Training variation

Gold-medalist Hammer-thrower Krisztián Pars.

Gold-medalist Hammer-thrower Krisztián Pars.

Periodization, the systematic planning of exercise and athletic training. It is one of the cornerstones of high level sports and physical performance and without it, training has no context and no direction.

This series will cover the big picture as well as dive into the small nuances of what makes periodization such an important topic to learn for any aspiring strength & conditioning coach or high performance trainer. 

This second part will cover the concepts of training variation and sequential development of physical attributes.

~1800 words; 8-16 minute read

Read Part 101: Introduction
Read Part 201: Training Variation

Read Part 202: Training Effect & Phases
Read Part 301: Review of Periodization Models
Read Part 401: The Complexities and Problems of Periodization Theory

Physiological Basis Recap

In the first part of the series, we discussed the 3 paradigms used in training periodization: General adaptation syndrome by Hans Selye, Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation Model, and the Fitness-Fatigue Model.

Taken from Example of the SFRA (or SRA) curve in the context of muscle hypertrophy.

Taken from Example of the SFRA (or SRA) curve in the context of muscle hypertrophy.

To recap, training volume and intensity (stimulus) has to be great enough in order to disrupt homeostasis in an athlete. Through adequate recovery, the athlete will adapt to the training, growing fitter and stronger than pre-training levels. As an athlete progresses, they begin to experience diminishing returns. A training load that once resulted in performance increases, will no longer stimulate the same degree of adaptation. To further improve performance, the stimulus has to gradually increase, in the form of higher volumes, or higher intensities (among other variables); this is the principle of progressive overload. However, some physical qualities can only be progressively overloaded to a certain degree before it is impractical to perform or may be impossible to recover from. When do we stop loading the bar with more weight? When do we stop running more miles? When do we switch exercises?

This next part will cover the concepts of training variation, and the sequential development of physical/motor abilities, 2 key concepts that training periodization is based on.

Training Variation - The Need For Varied Stimuli

We always hear trainers and coaches say: "beginners can literally do anything and they will get better". Why is this?

In young athletes or athletes with a low training age, training adaptations can be achieved with relatively small amounts of volume load and variation. A wide variety of physical attributes like strength, endurance and coordination can all be trained simultaneously with limited interference because the functional limits of those systems have not been met (low start point). 

At the intermediate and especially the elite level, there is a need for more strategic planning of training stimuli in order to achieve the gains we want to see. High-intensity training required to induce anaerobic adaptations and other top-end adaptations such as speed and rate of force development in advanced-level athletes can only be performed for a certain amount of time before overtraining symptoms begin to appear. A study looking at training intensity and volume in elite endurance athletes found that adding extra sprint or high-intensity days to already-well-trained athletes resulted in little to no improvement in performance variables. This is does not mean high-intensity training doesn't work. This means extra intensification of already-intense training programs yields no improvements, the recovery costs outweigh the benefits. More is not always better. These elite endurance athletes actually performed better when varying their training stimulus by performing low to medium intensity work while strategically performing high-intensity training when and where it counts.

Training monotony, or lack of variation, can lead to increased risk of overtraining, higher risk of injury as well as poor performance. Including the right amount variation in a training program can result in better performance measures, less risk of overuse injuries and a healthier mental state for athletes and trainees. Why do I say "the right amount of variation"? Because if a training program includes too much variations, energy and time is spent on too many different physical attributes and skills, watering down the progress and  improvements that could be made on the more crucial components of performance. If there is too little variation, athletes will experience the detrimental affects of training monotony. 

This is the same reason why powerlifters don't lift exclusively lift in the 1-3 rep range, and why sprinters don't exclusively run 100m every practice. There are benefits to varying your training stimulus - manipulating variables like exercise selection, intensity, volume, movement patterns, etc. In layman's terms: We can't do the same thing all year-round. So what do we do when we're not practicing the competitive movements? How much variation should a training program?

This all depends on the level of athlete, type of athlete, training age, the sport itself, amongst other factors. Different periodization models have their own way of undulating variation, but they all share a common trait: physical attributes and performance measures are developed in a general to specific fashion.


The general - specific continuum

Training stimuli can be categorized into general and specific. Specific qualities are movements, mental states and physical attributes that are seen in the sport the athlete is preparing for, while general qualities are defined as variation of sport-specific attributes that build the base that allows specific qualities to flourish in the long term. Diving further into the details, general and specific qualities can also be divided into: general preparatory exercises (GPE), specific preparatory exercises (SPE), specific developmental exercises (SDE) and competitive exercises (CE). The graphic below outlines the definitions of each classification of exercises and how they play a role in training. It was created by the famous sport scientist Dr. Bondarchuk and is still used as a form of exercise classification in many elite sports today.

Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk's Classification of Exercises

Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk's Classification of Exercises

Exercise Classification Examples

Using the Bondarchuk exercise classification system, let's create a list of exercises ranging from general to specific for:

  1. A Competitive Powerlifter looking to improve their COMPETITION SQUAT; and
  2. An MMA Fighter preparing for a fight.


Prowler Push - Example of a SPE for a Powerlifter.

Prowler Push - Example of a SPE for a Powerlifter.

General Preparatory Exercise (GPE) - Endurance cycling (or any endurance modality)
Cycling does not imitate the competitive movement (squat), however is used as an all-purpose exercise to develop lower body endurance and promotes recovery.

Specific Preparatory Exercise (SPE) - Prowler Push
The prowler push does not imitate the squat, but uses the same muscle groups (quadriceps, glutes, core) as the squat and can be used to build general work capacity and lower body strength.

Specific Development Exercises (SDE) - Pause Squats For 3-6 reps
The pause squat mimicks the competition squat position but puts more emphasis on the bottom position of the squat. This exercise is specific but is still not considered the competitive movement itself.

Competitive Movement (CE) - Competition Squat for 1-3 reps
The competition squat is exactly what you should be training to directly improve your powerlifting squat performance. The intensity is high enough to mimick the demands of a powerlifting meet 90-100% of 1RM and the movement type and bar position is exactly what is seen in a competition.



GSP performing a barbell snatch - an exercise that can fall under SPE.

GSP performing a barbell snatch - an exercise that can fall under SPE.

General Preparatory Exercise (GPE) - Road work/Running (or any endurance modality)
Running does not imitate the competition movements (striking/grappling/movement) however, is a great tool to build base endurance. An athlete can also use a ergo rower or bike to further promote recovery by avoiding the eccentric actions and muscle damage that comes from TOO much running.

Specific Preparatory Exercise (SPE) - Plyometric Drills (for striking) & Zercher Squats (for grappling)
Plyometric drills like depth jumps or continuous medicine ball slams/throws increase rate of force development/power as well as increases core stiffness and elastic energy transfer needed to improve striking power. While strength exercises like Zercher squats improves maximal lower body and core strength to increase grappling-specific strength.

Specific Developmental Exercises (SDE) - Heavy bag work/Isolated Striking Sparing & Grappling Dummy/BJJ Rolling
These exercises consist of pieces seen in the competitive setting (MMA fight) but developed in isolation. Striking classes or grappling sessions are where fighters hone in their skills in each martial arts discipline.

Competitive Exercise (CE) - Live Full Contact MMA Sparring (5 minute rounds)
Live full contact sparring is the closest a fighter can get to imitating the competitive event itself. Here, a fighter pieces each martial arts discipline together to make it flow and to practice any fight strategies that will be employed on fight night.

As you can see, even movements that don't resemble the competition event can be included into a training program and provide performance benefits. The Bondarchuk exercise classification system is an example of the general to specific continuum paradigm as it relates to exercise selection. The same paradigm can be applied to:

  • Intensity (For an Olympic lifter, sets of 10 reps @ 65% of 1RM is considered "general" while sets of 1-2 reps @ 90-100% of 1RM is considered "specific"
  • Volume (For a Triathlete, 1km interval sprints is considered "general" while a 20km long-distance run can be considered more "specific")
  • Rest Intervals (For a Bodybuilder, 5 min rests can be useful for improving strength and is considered "general", while 2 min rest times is better for maintaining a pump and increase metabolic stress - considered "specific").
  • etc...


In a NSCA seminar on periodization, coach Nick Winkleman argued that there is an uprising of overly-specific, "functional" training methods where some coaches believe that only exercises that resembles sport-specific movements will increase improvement. An example of this is the infamous ladder drills that field-based athletes love to perform.

Some coaches mistakenly believe that doing copious amounts of agility ladder drills will improve the in-game footwork of their athletes. These predetermined agility drills create unrealistic footwork that often have a poor transfer over to the sport itself. While they should not be completely avoided, these agility drills must be carefully prescribed.

Sequential development of physical attributes

In line to the general-to-specific paradigm, the concept of periodization is also based on the fact that various physical attributes are better developed in a sequential manner. Aerobic characteristics are thought to be better developed before anaerobic ones in endurance training, while muscle hypertrophy is thought to be developed prior to strength and power acquisition. 

Let's use the concept of sequential development and the general-to-specific paradigm for improving sprint performance in an Olympic sprinter:

A front squat or hip thrust can be used as a general movement to develop maximal strength, which will set the base and carry over to more specialized movements like a hang clean or trap bar jump to develop explosive strength. This explosive strength can then be used to develop more sport-specific movements such as assisted or resisted-sprint acceleration drills. This sequential development of exercise selection is suggested to be more beneficial than using acceleration drills alone, or solely using front squats or hip thrusts to improve sprint performance. Again, by performing a variation of strategically-picked general developmental exercises, we widen the base of the athlete to allow more specific qualities to flourish in the long term or on competition date.

Concluding thoughts on variation and sequential development

The time or phases spent developing each attribute in the sequential hierarchy or the amount of variation included in a training plan is what differentiates one periodization model from another. How much time should be be spent on building muscle mass if maximal power output is the goal? Should a powerlifter train the squat, bench, deadlift all the time with a high frequency (ex: Sheiko) or should they use a wide variety of accessories to target weak muscles or weak points (ex: Westside Method). Training periodization and planning has a lot of grey areas; these are ongoing debates sports scientists and coaches have on a daily basis.