Do we really need periodization? Clean pull at the 2017 Weightlifting World Championships training hall

A Review of “Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven”

Author: John Kiely

Journal: International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance

Year Published: 2012

What: A review of the literature on periodization models and a critical appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses

“In the absence of ready-made solutions, the design of an efficient training process may be considered an exploratory, slowly evolving, meticulously documented, single subject trial-and-error experiment.” – From the Author


The concept of organizing, planning, and managing, first took shape in the production industry. Politicians, other industrialists, and eventually, sports scientists adopted this method of “seeking to control future outcomes through the decomposition of the overall process to a series of distinctly focused sequential units and subsequent arrangement of these units in a mathematically predetermined order” (243). This was essentially the birth of periodization as we know it.

The question this paper aimed to answer was whether these periodization philosophies have evolved beyond their times and withstand current scientific scrutiny.

What is periodization?

There are many definitions of periodization, with the term originally being employed to “describe programs taking the form of predetermined sequential chains of specifically focused training periods” (243). Now many models exist and differ, but Kiely explains that they all have a common set of shared assumptions, as follows:

  • Established time frames exist for the development and retention of specific fitness adaptations.
  • Various fitness attributes are best developed in a sequential hierarchy (eg, strength before power, endurance before speed).
  • Idealized training structures, time frames, and progression schemes can be generalized across athletic subgroups.”

Inevitably arising from these premises are 2 implicit assumptions:

  • Biological adaptation to a given training intervention follows a predictable course.
  • Appropriate future training can be adequately forecast” (243).

The research looking at and assessing the effectiveness of periodized versus constant-repetition programs has demonstrated time and time again the benefits of periodized training. Although, these results seem to be more indicative of the benefits of regular variation in training. The literature fails to address the other core tenets of periodization philosophy, with none of the available evidence validating its assumptions. The variation of variation should also be considered, as its overuse can spread adaptive energy too thin and its underuse can cause staleness and “expose the athlete to negative effects of unrelenting monotony” (244).

After addressing the picture that current research paints of periodization, the question of its validity from a less considered approach is examined. Much of the planning is grounded in an ability to predict future responses to training demands, but research has shown that it is not so simple. Variations in individual performances after exposure to similar exercise prescriptions can vary dramatically. Existing strength and/or endurance levels have also been shown to not be predictive of future responses to training. To round this off, a wide array of imposed stressors (emotional, dietary, academic, social, sleep) have been shown to negatively impact adaptive response, motor coordination, mood, metabolism, and hormonal health. This all means that an acute response to training can and will vary greatly, from athlete to athlete, and even that repeating the same session for one athlete will create a different outcome based on these stressors.

The complexity of biological systems cannot be overstated. Reliance on a framework developed with the understanding that responses to training stimuli are substantially predictable creates a disconnect between ideology and reality.

The functioning of complex biological systems is characterized by deeply entangled interdependencies between component subsystems, by sensitive dependence to initial conditions and subsequently introduced ‘noise,’ and by the inherently unpredictable chain of consequences that may be initiated by any imposed action” (246).

Research carried out assessing the effectiveness of one periodization concept over another training program should be taken and applied cautiously, as studies are only able to provide group-based averages, “with only the most rudimentary of insights” (246).

This insight brings about the need for a new planning paradigm, not removing periodization from the discussion completely, but implementing new navigational tools to assess and react to emerging information. While a broad framework is needed to align with the competition schedule, long and short-term goals, and performance needs analysis, there will be day-to-day feedback providing insight into the athlete’s readiness and current needs. This can be achieved in many ways, with scales determining pre-training readiness, intra-session performance, or assessing cumulative stress.

The idea is to implement tools to track performance and allow for adjustments. Periodization can supply the map, but the way the terrain is navigated should vary from athlete to athlete. Landscapes are always changing, just as an athlete’s psychological, biological, and emotional states are always in flux.

Leave a Comment