Advanced strategies for bringing your performance to a peak at just the right time

Periodisation is a common training application based on Eastern European principles. It allows for variety of training, peaking for competition and working on technique and strength. The basic strategies and some variations have been described previously in this newsletter (see PP 177, February 2003). This article highlights some more advanced strategies, more recent research and the practicalities of incorporating periodisation into sporting environments.

 To recap, the traditional approach is to move from high volume/low intensity to low volume/high intensity work. Periodisation maximises the effect of Selye’s ‘general adaptation syndrome’ (GAS) theory, which argues that the acute effect of exercise is fatigue, followed by adaptation(1). If further training occurs within the fatigue window, then more fatigue occurs, with subsequent performance decrements, possibly leading to injury and overtraining. If further training occurs in the adaptation window, however, enhanced performance is the likely outcome. And, indeed, the chronic effect of exercise is performance enhancement.

Basic periodisation also moves from general to more specific work as the competition approaches. This technique, also known as linear periodisation (LP), is used to promote speed and power, with blocks of 4-6 weeks for working on each fitness parameter. However, if local muscular endurance is required, as for swimmers, runners, cyclists and triathletes, reverse linear periodisation (RLP) may be the better option(2).

RLP works on the basis of specificity. As the key requirement is for muscular endurance, the body needs to adapt to a greater demand placed on the endurance of the muscles, so building up to a greater level of repetitions is likely to be more beneficial than decreasing reps and increasing overall strength.

In a 15-week study carried out at the University of Arizona(2), 30 male and 30 female experienced weight trainers were trained according to three different periodisation strategies, as follows:

  • Three five-week blocks working from 25 rep max (RM) to 20RM to 15RM (LP);
  • Three five-week blocks working from 15RM to 20RM to 25RM (RLP);
  • A daily undulating programme (DUP) in which the workouts changed on a daily basis from 25RM to 20RM to 15RM and back again.

All groups trained on two days per week, using three sets of leg extensions. At the end of the study, all three groups had made progress in muscular endurance, as assessed by the leg extension test, but the RLP group had made the largest gains (72.8% improvement compared with 55.9% and 54.5% for the LP and DUP groups respectively).

Adaptation for beginners

Inexperienced athletes need time to adapt to training loads and techniques, so LP and RLP may be the most suitable methods for them. Plyometric work, squats and Olympic lifts are both technically and physically demanding, and it takes time to build up the technique and skill to lift the kind of loads that force neuromuscular adaptation. Squatting, for example, requires ankle and hip flexibility, stomach and lower-back strength and correct breathing technique before leg strength is even tested.

This premise was used in a 12-week study comparing linear with non-linear periodisation (NL) in college American football players(3). The players in each group performed four basic exercises: power clean, squat, push press and bench press. The NL group alternated between 3 x 4-6 reps of 70% 1RM and 3 x 2-4 reps of 90% 1RM. The LP group did three sets of 3-5 reps, 6-8 reps or 4-6 reps, depending on the exercise, all at 80% of 1RM.

At the end of the study period, the players were tested on bench press and squat. While there was no difference between the groups on the bench press results, the LP group increased their squat 1RM by an average of 13.8kg, compared with only 1.6kg in the NL group. The authors theorised that since all the players were accustomed to the bench press exercise but were relatively inexperienced in the squat, more significant gains were made with the latter. This study showed that gains can be made in-season using a basic periodisation strategy.

Table 1: Fitness-fatigue theory

The problem with Selye’s GAS theory is that it assumes a uniform response to training, in which initial fatigue is followed by fitness adaptation. By contrast, Bannister created the fitness-fatigue model (see table 1, above), which suggests that different types of exercise generate different levels of response, and that each training bout gives rise to simultaneous fitness and fatigue responses, the latter exerting a detrimental effect on performance and the former a positive one(4). The performance improvement comes later, when the fitness effect has outweighed the fatigue effect – ie the athlete has recovered – but the two effects are concurrent.

This model is different from the GAS theory because it allows athletes to use the different windows’ after training to perform different training functions, and to schedule their training accordingly. Instead of treating all fatigue after training as the same, Bannister proposed that different sessions create varying levels and durations of fatigue and fitness.

Fitness and fatigue

A session with maximal work (volume) will give rise to a lower, but longer lasting, overall fitness effect(5). The associated fatigue follows a similar pattern, setting in almost immediately. Maximal intensity sessions have larger – but less longlasting – effects on fitness and fatigue, and a delay occurs before the fatigue is felt. The effects of maximal strength sessions fall between those of maximal volume and maximal intensity sessions, with fitness adaptations as well as fatigue delayed(6,7).

These delayed adaptations to strength training have been found to be greatest after a rest period. Strength work using eccentricconcentric exercise shows greatest adaptation in speed and strength after 21 days’ rest, while strength work using eccentric or concentric exercises alone shows greatest adaptation 10-14 days later(8). But just try asking an athlete to take up to three weeks off before competing!

The varying effects of different types of workouts on fitness and fatigue have implications for scheduling training and for sequencing the order of weight training exercises within a session. Consider, for example, the use of complex training, where a near-maximal strength exercise, such as squats, is followed by a power/speed exercise, such as squat jumps. This type of training is based on the ‘posttetanic potentiation effect’, whereby there is a greater ability to produce force within the muscles immediately following acute resistance exercise. It has been proposed that this is due to an increase in reflex electrical activity in the spinal cord, which is likely to be apparent only in trained athletes.

Chiu et al compared the effects of a heavy warm-up (5 sets of 1 rep of 90% of 1RM squat) on squat jumps in trained athletes from explosive sports and recreational subjects(6). While the recreational subjects showed a decline in posttetanic potentiation following the heavy warm-up, the trained athletes showed an increase. So, while the immediate response to the exercise was fatigue for both parties, the trained athletes also experienced an immediate fitness effect, in that they were able to produce more power. Trying to schedule workouts in a way that produces maximal fitness effects with minimal fatigue is difficult. However, it is the basis for intermediate periodisation’ strategies. Intermediate trainers use more intensive efforts including bounding, high loads and variations of exercises. Each week rather than each month has a specific purpose (see table 2), with each new cycle of work increasing in intensity. The recovery week is necessary to allow adaptations to take place.

Table 2: Intermediate periodisation-weekly undulating programme for 8-week cycle

Within team sports, weekly schedules are easy to organise, as most matches are played once a week and sport-specific training takes place at regular times. By linking in with these weekly cycles, the coach can plan his technical/tactical sessions around the intensity of the players’ conditioning, or the conditioning sessions can be placed before or after the technical sessions. The concept of scheduling can be taken further by changing each workout on a daily basis (daily undulating programme, or DUP) so that no one factor is overemphasised(9). This approach also allows sessions to be scheduled in such a way as to capitalise on the fitness effects from the previous session (see table 3 below). However, it is most useful in circumstances where workouts are closely supervised. In my experience, getting athletes to adhere to a weekly schedule is difficult enough without introducing this level of complication. DUP has been shown to be effective for off-season strength development, possibly because it is simpler to administer when there are fewer competing demands on athletes(10,11).

Table 3: Sample daily undulating programme (DUP) of 4 exercises
  Mon Wed Mon Wed
Squat 3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 sets 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 sets 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
Bench press 3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 sets 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 sets 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
Lunge 3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 sets 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 sets 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 sets 10 reps
70% 1RM
Clean & jerk 3 sets 5 reps
70% 1RM
5 sets 3reps
80% 1RM
6 sets 1 rep
95% 1RM
3 sets 5 reps
70% 1RM


Because it is important to keep sight of overall goals rather than individual sessions, tactical changes sometimes have to be made. For example, Rugby Union players may experience varying fatigue effects from a game played on Saturday. If it was a forward-dominated game, played in wet conditions, the front five may be physically and mentally shattered on the Monday, while the backs remain physically fresh. The coach must then either reschedule the planned workout for the front five or do something different, such as reducing reps or intensity, or organising a recovery session in the swimming pool.

Advanced workouts for élite athletes

Elite athletes with a high training age (ie who have been training for some time) perform advanced workouts that vary both in content and workload. While intermediate periodisation works on several different aspects of training at once, élite athletes may use ‘unidirectional training’, where they focus for several weeks on one aspect of fitness (such as strength), followed by a briefer focus on a different aspect, such as power. With this approach, known as ‘conjugate sequencing’, a four-week period of overreaching is followed by a two-week block with a change of emphasis to allow for supercompensation.

The concentrated block of training results in a ‘long-term delayed training effect’ (LDTE) of anything between four and 12 weeks, depending on the volume and intensity of the training. The two-week block should concentrate on speed and power.

The advantage of this system is that the athlete does not suffer as a result of the demands placed on their body by other training. It also offers a period of concentrated training on one aspect, allowing for overloading and a subsequently greater effect on fitness. It also allows for a lower overall work volume (not intensity) because only one aspect is being trained at a time.

Unidirectional training does, however, require an ability to tolerate heavy training loads without breaking down, which is why it should only be used by athletes with an advanced training age. Advanced short-term recovery methods should also be used to prevent breakdown in the overreaching cycle.

Short-term performance will suffer as a result of the overreaching part of the cycle, but the overall gains may be higher. Unidirectional training is difficult to use in sports with long seasons and very short off-seasons (such as Rugby Union, football and tennis) as the accompanying short-term decrements in performance will be unacceptable to most coaches (not to mention most fans). However, an off-season of three months can provide adequate time for this approach to work (see table 4).

Table 4: Unidirectional training during a 12-week off-season

Sessions are planned as follows:

  • Weeks 1-4 – strength. Four sessions a week strength, 2 sessions technical, 2 sessions speed/agility;
  • Weeks 5-6 – recovery. Two sessions a week power, 4 sessions technical, 2 sessions speed/agility;
  • Weeks 7-10 – strength. As weeks 1-4;
  • Weeks 11-12 – recovery. As weeks 5-6.

While the emphasis of each block is on one aspect of strength/fitness, that does not mean all workouts should be the same. Advanced athletes have a greater technical ability to perform the more advanced lifts, and require greater variety of exercises and intra-session sequencing to force adaptations within the body and to stay mentally fresh. So contrast training, wave-loading, dumbbell/barbell/body weight/other apparatus exercises can all be sequenced into the four-week strength-training block.

It is important to remember that periodisation will not always lead to standardised, quantifiable results. Other factors, such as athletes’ perceptions, non-training stressors, circadian rhythms and technical/tactical issues will also have an impact on the outcome.

In most team sport environments, the athletes are part-time, either employed or studying, and these additional stressors must be taken into account in the periodisation schedule. In a seasonlong study of female college basketball players, US researchers analysed the incidence of injury and illness in relation to the training load, measured according to Borg’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of 1 (easy) to 10 (hard). They found the incidence of illness was not related to the athletes’ training load, but to their mid-term and end-of-semester exam schedules.

Balancing training and recovery

It is important to balance training and recovery, with more intense training requiring longer recovery to allow for adaptation. It is also important for periodised training to be closely supervised by coaches who understand the concepts involved, to avert the risk of physical and mental overload leading to overtraining.

When considering the three different levels of strategies outlined in this article, it is crucial not to think of one as being better than the other, although one may be more appropriate than another. If you are just starting out, for example, it is not desirable or even possible to train like an élite athlete. All three strategies allow for intense quality workouts, with sport-specific training.

However, as training age increases, so does the body’s resistance to existing stimuli and training methods. As the athlete’s technical ability and strength improves, so does his or her need for greater variety of exercise to provide new stimuli.

Beginner athletes (which means those new to a particular sport or exercise discipline) will also have limited technical ability in the Olympic lifts.

They will not be able to lift enough weight correctly to generate the power, and will risk injury by trying to do so incorrectly. For this reason, simpler lifts should be included in the programme until their technical abilities improve.

Also, beginner athletes will not be able to sequence the exercises in the same way as their advanced counterparts because where experienced athletes will be benefiting from an immediate post-exercise fitness effect, beginners will be experiencing fatigue.

James Marshall


  1. Selye H: The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw Hill, 1956
  2. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (1), 82- 87, 2003
  3. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (3), 561-565, 2003
  4. Bannister, EW: Modelling élite athletic performance. In: Physiological Testing of The High- Performance Athlete. MacDougall et al, eds, Champaign IL: Human Kinetics
  5. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 89, 42- 52, 2003
  6. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (4), 671-677, 2003
  7. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 77 (1-2), 176-181, 1998
  8. Schlumberger & Schmidtbleicher: Development of dynamic strength and movement speed after high-intensity resistance training. In: Proceedings of the International Conference on weightlifting and Strength Training. K Hakkinen, ed Finland: Gummerus, 1998
  9. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35 (1), 157-168, 2003
  10. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 15 (1), 172-177, 2001
  11. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 14 (1), 14- 20, 2000
  12. Verkoshansky YV: Programming and Organization of Training. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press 1988
  13. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (4), 734-738, 2003
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