4 lessons learned on planning and periodization

On the first day of my masters program in sports coaching we were told to study supercompensation theory for homework. All the students dove into Tudor Bompa’s treatise Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. The book made the whole concept seem so easy, including nice graphics on how supercompensation worked. I thought I had hit pay-dirt with the organization and structure laid out in the book, and got Bompa himself to sign my copy a few years later.

That was then. Now, the once revered tome sits on a shelf gathering dust. The hope and promise of a life made easy following structured plans has been replaced by exasperation and frustration as hundreds of beautifully crafted excel spreadsheets lie unopened, redundant after coming into contact with the harsh realities of life.

Whilst I have not thrown away the idea of planning, I have discarded the idea that you can plan in detail more than two weeks in advance. Below I’ll share four lessons I learned on planning over the last 20 years, all of which led me to my current approach.

Lesson 1: numbers are living things

Back in 2004 I wrote an article for Peak Performance magazine called Advanced Periodization Strategies. I was working within progressional rugby at the time and put in an immense amount of research to find the most effective type of program for the players.

I outlined linear periodization, non-linear periodization, reverse linear periodization, and daily undulating periodization. I had already moved away from a linear periodization approach towards an undulating approach that better fit into our setup. A standard daily undulating periodization approach would look like this:

Day 1 (hypertrophy) Day 2 (strength) Day 3 (power)
Squat 3×10 @ 70% 5×5 @ 80% 6×2 @ 90%
Bench Press 3×10 @ 70% 5×5 @ 80% 6×2 @ 90%
Lunge 3×10 @ 70% 5×5 @ 80% 6×2 @ 90%
Clean & Jerk 3×5 @ 70% 5×3 @ 80% 6×1 @ 95%

Four exercises are repeated each session, while the sets and reps are manipulated to develop hypertrophy, strength and power. These sessions are then repeated. This whole process was very manageable with academy rugby players playing one match a week. Because the rugby matches were on the same day each week and I was in a good situation with the rugby coaches who were good planners (and communicators), planning was simple.

But already I started making changes to the approach. I was modifying what I had read in research into a more coherent training plan that reflected my observations of the players in front of me.

The first thing I changed was what exercises were used for the different themes. For example, I did not use the clean and jerk to help develop hypertrophy, nor the lunge to develop power. I used several different exercises to supplement what we were doing on the day such as squat jumps on the ‘power’ day and bent over rows on the ‘hypertrophy’ day.

I also started to adjust the fixed percentages. I couldn’t understand was how anyone could work on those percentages for more than one week. Numbers aren’t fixed, they are living. How can you test 1RM on the lunge safely? The players either got stronger or more efficient and did not stay lifting the same weights. I adapted the loads according to how they felt on the day. We did our version of Borg’s Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE): “the 9th and 10th rep should feel heavy” rather than try and calculate the %s.

You may think that I am stating the blindingly obvious and yet I attended two UKSCA events during this period where two ‘experts’ presented their observations and reflections of using a periodized plan with ‘elite’ athletes. One worked with an Olympic squad in the USA, the other was an academic who was critiquing coaches’ programs as part of a CPD event. In both events I saw a complex excel spreadsheet presented that showed %s and phrases such as ‘speed-strength’ used over an annual cycle.

I asked the same question to the experts ‘Is that the plan or the actual lifts done?’ Both experts answered, ‘It is the plan and the actual lifts.’ These experts had somehow managed to find a squad of athletes who could perform every lift for every rep at the exact %s that they had been prescribed for up to a year in advance!

If this was the ‘expected’ and the ‘normal’ course of events that was being presented by ‘experts’ then I was failing as a coach. I was always having to chop and change according to how players felt. Either my plan wasn’t good enough or maybe, just maybe, what was being presented in conferences and perhaps in the research, was inaccurate.

Lesson 2: you can’t predict human behavior

A couple of years later I was working in a school environment rather than an academy. Here the weeks were longer with 6 days of school, the school days were longer and the demands on the pupils were greater. Because the matches were on different days and “house matches” of different sports such as squash or soccer took place on ‘rest days’ it was nigh on impossible to program a DUP.

Instead, I opted for a weekly undulating program that allowed me to focus on the weekly theme, as shown in the table below. The number of sessions in the week could be adapted to the pupil’s availability, but I could always keep track of the theme and not need to juggle 30 different plans.

I took a long time planning the sessions for the term by sport, by schedule, and incorporating the gym availability. Each term started on a Monday and the longest that a plan stayed in place before I had to start swapping sessions and exercise was the Tuesday lunchtime. If we got that far we were doing well.

The school teachers and coaches were not good communicators and many did not understand the point of planning. I was stood waiting with my assistant coach for the rugby team one lunch time at the beginning of term. This was to be their introduction to the new exercises and an appraisal of how they were moving. They didn’t show. I saw the rugby coach later that afternoon and asked what happened, “Oh, it was sunny so I thought I would take them on the pitch.” I could give countless other examples like this, but the moral of the story if that no matter how much you plan you can not predict human behavior. I learnt to create a framework of what I wanted to achieve but have flexible plans within that. Gary Winckler, at a GAIN conference, said that he never planned more than 2 weeks in advance in detail. It simply wasn’t worth it.

How then do the periodization experts manage it?

Lesson 3: annual plans are for textbooks and bureaucrats

In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors relives the same day over and over. Slowly, his character evolves, but everyone else stays the same. When it comes to planning, I feel a bit like Phil. My own approach is evolving, but the federations and governing bodies keep repeating the same mistakes.

About 10 years ago a new breed of middle management appeared within National Governing Bodies in the UK: the ‘lead strength and conditioning coach.’ This person was responsible for collating and organizing all the individual S&C coaches who worked with athletes or teams within that sport.

Previously I would have communicated directly with the coach of the team or squad when working with an athlete or group of athletes locally. I could pick up the phone and spend 5 minutes asking questions or clarifying the overall plan. Now, everything had to be done via the ‘lead.’

The first thing that a new ’lead’ would ask for was ‘an annual periodized plan.’ They wanted me to show what all my sessions would look like a year in advance (the second thing they asked for was some ‘objective testing data’).

I produced a nice plan with blocks and curves on it twice for two different NGBs. I soon realized, as anyone does who works in a megalithic organization, that no one read this stuff, especially not the head coach. Middle managers everywhere have to produce reports to senior managers to justify their existence. Not once in my coaching life has a head coach asked to see my annual periodized plan.

The years rolled on and every time a new ‘lead’ was appointed, I would get asked for the same two pieces of information. I could have cut and pasted from different sports and sent the information away but I couldn’t live with myself.

I counter-punched by asking for the team schedule and sports training plans first, to “help me plan better.” Surely if we are trying to be scientific we should analyze all the information and data before writing our plan? This failed because I never got that information back: the coaches never planned like that.

As I was learning and evolving as a coach and realizing the futility of trying to predict the future, a new fresh-faced ‘lead’ would be appointed and I would roll over like Phil to switch the clock radio off as I listened to Sonny and Cher for the umpteenth time.

Lesson 4: plans are worthless, planning is everything

General Eisenhower quoted an old Army adage when recounting his experiences organizing the D-Day landings.

I now have an overall plan of key lifts and loading and progressions and when to go faster or heavier and when to go lighter according to the schedule and season of our athletes. I plan in detail from week to week with sets and reps and adjustments of warm-up exercises and assistance exercises referring to the overall plan and also to my reflections and the athletes from the previous week.

And yet I still have to make adjustments in almost every session that I coach. People come in tired or late or stressed or aching or injured from life. I would be negligent if I imposed my plan on people who were unfit or unready for it.

There is nothing sacrosanct about my plans but the health and well-being of the athletes that I coach is inviolable.