International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2012, 7, 242-250
© 2012 Human Kinetics, Inc.
The author is with the Institute of Coaching and Performance,
University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK.
Origins and Legacy
Frederick Winslow Taylor is not a name often associated
with athletic training planning. To recap some history:
Taylor was the academically inclined factory supervisor
who became the founding father of “scientic manage-
ment,” the rst application of scientic principles to the
production industry. Taylor’s landmark 1911 publication
The Principles of Scientic Management1 combined the
scientic knowledge of the day, his pioneering time-and-
motion studies, and management’s historical prejudice
toward workers (“All we want of them is to obey the
orders we give them”) to construct the rst great planning
paradigm of the modern era.
Taylor’s approach was typied by the belief that
there was “one best way” to organize, manage, and plan
production and that this “best” template could be uncov-
ered through observation and analysis. Industrialists of
the day readily embraced the intuitively appealing logic
of Taylor’s regimented paradigm. Henry Ford famously
adapted Taylor’s methodology to the automobile industry.
In sociopolitical contexts, Taylor’s inuence was simi-
larly widespread. Most notably his writings are cited as
shaping the planning philosophies of Lenin, with many
parallels between scientic management doctrine and
later Soviet 5-year templates.2
This historical appeal can be attributed to a number
of factors. First, when Taylor’s methodology was applied
to machine-shop environments, productivity improved.
Second, the rigorous dissection and empiricization of the
production problem resonated with a society awaken-
ing to the explanatory power of the scientic method.
Third, the reduction of the planning problem to a set of
formulaic “rules” and automatized solutions satised the
deep-seated human attraction to simplicity and explana-
tory closure, tempering our innate aversion to uncertainty
The purpose of this diversion is solely to highlight
that this historically pervasive ideology exerted a pro-
found shaping inuence on planning practice across
Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century:
Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven?
The planning and organization of athletic training have historically been much discussed and debated in the
coaching and sports science literature. Various inuential periodization theorists have devised, promoted, and
substantiated particular training-planning models based on interpretation of the scientic evidence and individual
beliefs and experiences. Supercially, these proposed planning models appear to differ substantially. However,
at a deeper level, it can be suggested that such models share a deep-rooted cultural heritage underpinned by
a common set of historically pervasive planning beliefs and assumptions. A concern with certain of these
formative assumptions is that, although no longer scientically justiable, their shaping inuence remains
deeply embedded. In recent years substantial evidence has emerged demonstrating that training responses
vary extensively, depending upon multiple underlying factors. Such ndings challenge the appropriateness
of applying generic methodologies, founded in overly simplistic rule-based decision making, to the planning
problems posed by inherently complex biological systems. The purpose of this review is not to suggest a
whole-scale rejection of periodization theories but to promote a rened awareness of their various strengths
and weaknesses. Eminent periodization theorists—and their variously proposed periodization models—have
contributed substantially to the evolution of training-planning practice. However, there is a logical line of
reasoning suggesting an urgent need for periodization theories to be realigned with contemporary elite prac-
tice and modern scientic conceptual models. In concluding, it is recommended that increased emphasis be
placed on the design and implementation of sensitive and responsive training systems that facilitate the guided
emergence of customized context-specic training-planning solutions.
Keywords: emergent, biological complexity, athletic training, planning solutions
Periodization Paradigms 243
domains. In relation to sports preparation this legacy
is evident when comparing commonalities between
industrial planning models and formative periodization
concepts, both approaches seeking to control future out-
comes through the decomposition of the overall process
to a series of distinctly focused sequential units and
subsequent arrangement of these units in a mathemati-
cally predetermined order. Thus, for example, when the
historically inuential Matveyev collated training records
from the 1940s and 1950s it was perfectly logical that
he interpreted these averaged data through the lens of
pervading scientic conceptual models and applied his
conclusions as per the generalized format of the culturally
dominant planning paradigm.
Taylor’s methodology enhanced productivity within
simplistic engineering contexts; however, within broader
industrial and sociopolitical domains the inefciencies
inherent when such logic was extrapolated to more com-
plicated problems gradually became apparent. Today,
governmental, military, and social planners are aware of
the dangers presented by wide-sweeping assumptions
and a failure to recognize the confounding far-reaching
effects that minor, difcult to quantify, events may present
to long-term project planning.
The question explored in this review is whether peri-
odization philosophies have sufciently evolved beyond
this culturally pervasive planning heritage to adequately
assimilate advances in scientic insight and conceptual
understanding. Are periodization philosophies best under-
stood as “the methodical, scientic procedures to help
athletes achieve high levels of training and performance”
previously asserted5(p150) or as the legacy of an outdated
and scientically naïve world view?
What Is Periodization?
Contemporary discussion is hampered by the absence of
a universally accepted formal denition of periodization.
The term was originally employed to describe programs
taking the form of predetermined sequential chains of
specically focused training periods. However, today the
term is frequently indiscriminately employed to describe
any form of training plan, regardless of structure. The
archetypal periodized model, exemplied by the writings
of Matveyev,6 was typied by a progressive segmented
transition from high to low volume, and low to high
intensity, accompanied by a simultaneous reduction in
training variation as competitive peak approached. Since
the rst English translation of Matveyev’s inuential
1981 Fundamentals of Sports Training,6 various authors
have proposed novel periodized designs—for example,
nonlinear,7 block,8 fractal,9 and conjugate sequence.10
Although these models differ in terms of structure and
supporting rationale, there is an evident common set of
shared assumptions underpinning such approaches:
• Establishedtime framesexistfor thedevelopment
and retention of specic tness adaptations.7,11,12
• Varioustness attributes are best developed in a
sequential hierarchy (eg, strength before power,
endurance before speed).7,8,12
gression schemes can be generalized across athletic
Inevitably arising from these premises are 2 implicit
follows a predictable course.
for Periodization Principles
The science of periodization is a frequently encountered
phrase in exercise-science and coaching domains, with
many studies commonly cited as evidencing periodiza-
tion’s superiority as a training organizational means. For
example, in review of 15 studies of meso-cycle length
(7–24 wk), 13 studies concluded that periodized training
provided statistically superior performance improvements
when compared with constant-repetition programs.15 A
similar review concluded that periodized strength training
led to enhanced outcomes, in a variety of performance
measures, in comparison with nonperiodized models.16 A
meta-analysis comparing periodized and nonperiodized
strength-training programs concluded that periodized
structures were more effective for males and females,
individuals of varying training backgrounds, and a range
of age groups.17 A rare study failing to support superior-
ity of periodized regimes found no difference in efcacy
between undulating-periodized and nonperiodized groups
when volume and intensity were equalized over a short-
term period.18 Similarly, a study employing elderly
untrained participants concluded that xed-repetition
strength training was as effective in developing strength
as a periodized program.19
Thus, the preponderance of published literature sug-
gests that periodized structures provide enhanced benets
when compared with nonperiodized counterparts. Occa-
sional studies have failed to demonstrate such superiority.
However, such investigations have been typied by
When we reflect on these conclusions, there
appears a subtle point of interpretation that is frequently
overlooked. In essence, due to complicating logisti-
cal constraints, experimental designs have compared
interventions regularly varying training parameters with
interventions with minimal, or no, variation. Accordingly,
what such studies have demonstrated is that variation is
a critical aspect of effective training, not that periodiza-
tion methodologies are an optimal means of providing
variation . This may seem a semantic distinction. How-
ever, as already noted, periodized approaches are char-
acterized by a set of shared assumptions, and although
the evidence does support the need for regular training
variation, other core tenets of periodization philosophy
are neither supported nor refuted. Accordingly, a legiti-
mate concern is that habitual mention of the science of
periodization, and habitual uncritical acceptance of such
studies as proof of the superiority of periodized structures,
creates the illusion that periodized methodologies have
been empirically validated. This is not the case.
Managing Training Variation
The presented evidence suggests that variation is a neces-
sary component of effective training planning. Supporting
this perspective, other research suggests that elevated
training monotony—which may be broadly perceived
as a lack of variation20—leads to increased incidence of
overtraining syndromes,21 poor performance, and fre-
quency of banal infections.22 Conversely, reductions in
monotony have been associated with increased incidence
of personal-best performances,22 and monotony indexes
have been advocated as benecial training-regulation
tools in elite rowing23 and sprinting.24
A cursory glance at this literature suggests that varia-
tion is always “good,” and the repetitive application of a
unidirectional training stressor is always “bad.” However,
there are obvious logical qualiers to be overlaid on such
conclusions. First, if stimuli are excessively varied—if
the performer’s adaptive energy is too thinly dispersed
among multiple training targets—then it seems sensible
to assume that progress will be very slow, or nonexistent.
Second, periodic reduction in variation, facilitating a
concentrated focus on a narrow band of training targets,
may serve to induce rapid development of these priori-
Two related inferences emerge:
• Trainingvariationis acriticalcomponentoflong-
term planning, but if adaptive energy is too widely
distributed, gains may be excessively diluted.
stress may induce rapid improvements in a limited
range of targets, but if such concentrated focus is
unduly prolonged the athlete will be exposed to the
negative effects of unremitting monotony.
Over a given time course, there is an apparent dynamic
balance to be negotiated between (a) the variation and
novelty required to offset diminishing training returns
arising from excess training habituation and (b) the
concentrated focus required to progress already well-
developed tness attributes. Although all periodized
methodologies provide formats for modulating focus
and variation, there is no direct evidence enabling us to
discern between the worths of these various schemes.
Each eminent periodization theorist has proposed,
based on personal perspective and interpretation of the
available evidence, a “best” design scheme for providing
variation over a given time frame. Although each theorist
has robustly outlined a rational argument supporting his
individual stance (while occasionally criticizing those
of his peers),8,25,26 it should be recognized that the evi-
dence offered in support of such templates is sparse and
circumstantial. The scarcity of evidence, coupled with
an eagerness to formulize a coherent planning approach,
may have facilitated the overinterpretation of a very
limited evidence base.
With Biological Reality
Given the logistical difculties inherent when investigat-
ing such a multidimensional phenomenon, it would be
unfair to criticize periodization theories based solely on a
lack of specic evidence. However, there is another, less
commonly considered, line of reasoning questioning the
conceptual logic underpinning periodization philosophy.
A unifying thread resonating throughout the peri-
odization literature is the quintessentially mechanistic
logic employed to derive formulaic solutions to training-
planning problems. Periodization philosophy hinges
on the presumption that biological adaptation to future
training is largely predictable and follows a determinable
pattern. A logical extension of such a rationalization is
that appropriate interventions can be adequately planned
in advance through a straightforward process of deduction
and prediction. Although this perspective is understand-
able in the light of historical conceptual frameworks,
contemporary insights do not support such simplistic
modeling of biological function.
Consider the ndings of the Heritage Family Study,
a large-population multicenter trial resulting in over 120
separate publications, investigating the role of genotype
in mediating exercise response. As an example, training-
induced changes to maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max)
were established to vary extensively in response to
identical exercise prescriptions. The average increase in
VO2max was 19%. However, 5% of participants had little
or no change in VO2max, and 5% had an increase of 40%
to >50%, despite all being subjected to a similar training
Similar diversity of interindividual responses has
been reported after strength-focused interventions. For
example, when 585 young men and women strength-
trained for 12 weeks the average strength gain was 54%.
However, the magnitudes of individual gains were distrib-
uted between 0 and 250%, with changes to cross-sectional
area of targeted muscles ranging from –2% to 59%.28
Furthermore, evidence suggests that initial status, acute
response, and chronic development of trained attributes
Periodization Paradigms 245
are regulated by differing molecular pathways and gene
networks, implying that preexisting levels of strength
and/or endurance are not reliably indicative of how either
attribute will respond to future training.28,29
Other evidence supports extensive interindividual
variation among elite athletes. For example, an investi-
gation employing professional rugby players established
that a standard weight-training session resulted in a range
of differing hormonal responses among a homogeneous
group of players.30 In a related study, individual testos-
terone responses to 4 different weight-training protocols
were determined. Players then trained for 3 weeks using
the protocol that elicited either their maximum or their
minimum response before crossing over to the opposing
protocol for a subsequent 3 weeks. All players demon-
strated signicant gains in strength measures subsequent
to the protocol that elicited their maximum testosterone
response. In contrast, when they trained using the protocol
that induced their minimal response, either no change or a
signicant decline in strength measures resulted,31 hence
suggesting that had all players performed any arbitrarily
selected session some would have beneted substantially
whereas others executing the same protocol would have
made little or no gains.
As further complication, consider the variety of
factors demonstrated to affect release characteristics of
a single member of the family of interacting androgenic
hormones. Testosterone release has been noted to modu-
late in response to time of day, week, and month; cycles
of light and dark32,33; ratings of work satisfaction; motiva-
tional and assertiveness levels34; and training stress.35 In
addition, consider the inuence exerted by environmental
and lifestyle factors on biological responses. For example,
a wide range of imposed stressors—emotional, dietary,
social, sleep, academic—have been demonstrated to vari-
ously down-regulate the immune system, dampen adap-
tive response, and negatively affect motor coordination,
cognitive performance, mood, metabolism, and hormonal
health,36–40 consequently reducing performance41 and
elevating injury risk.42
Integration of these various evidence-led strands sug-
gests that the adaptive response to imposed interventions
emerges consequent to the complex interactions between
a broad spectrum of inherited predispositions and chroni-
cally and acutely varying biopsychosocial factors. This
includes, as suggested by the presented evidence,
• Individualathletes willrespond differently,to one
another, to identical training sessions.
• Identicalsessions performedbyanindividualwill
always elicit a unique training response, for that
athlete, depending on transient functional states of
• Group-based patterns and observations may be
highly misleading when generalized to individuals.
time frames, or progression and/or loading schemes
validly applicable across training contexts.
of a Complex Reality
Critically, it should be acknowledged that many of our
historical training conceptions are founded on the prem-
ise that responses are substantially predictable, in other
words, that a known training input leads to an expected
adaptive output. This may be the case when considering
the “averaged” responses of a specic population to a
given intervention. However, as illustrated, individual
variation typically oscillates widely about such group-
based means, thereby suggesting a growing disconnect
between periodization ideologies that assume predictabil-
ity and stability of time frames and progression schemes
and the evidenced reality of biological complexity.43,44
The functioning of complex biological systems is
characterized by deeply entangled interdependencies
between component subsystems, by sensitive depen-
dence to initial conditions and subsequently introduced
“noise,” and by the inherently unpredictable chain of
consequences that may be initiated by any imposed
action. Applied perturbations may be absorbed, distrib-
uted, and dissipated, for little or no discernible change in
Figure 1 —RelationshipbetweenbaselinemaximalO2 uptake
(VO2max) and change (Delta) in VO2max in 633 subjects in the
Heritage Family Study. ©American Physiological Society.
Reproduced with permission from Skinner JS et al. J Appl
system functioning. Alternatively, when system states are
delicately poised, nely balanced between stability and
dysfunction, then a single minor event, or the ripples of
seemingly innocuous interacting events, may reverberate
through system components, being progressively ampli-
ed until eventually manifesting as major behavioral
As we cannot adequately assess the transient
functional states of component subsystems or unravel
the dynamically changing relationships between these
subsystems, a dening characteristic of biological sys-
tems is that future behavior is impossible to accurately
predict,44,45 and the consequences of future training
interventions, impossible to reliably project.
In the face of such complexity, the available training-
organizational studies must be recognized as inevitably
simplistic and capable of providing only the most rudi-
mentary of insights. Although empirical studies investi-
gating the effects of various training interventions are an
invaluable necessity—in terms of unraveling generalized
responses to specic interventions—the limitations inher-
ent when such isolated context-specic ndings are used
to substantiate elite planning philosophies should be
acknowledged. Eminent periodization theorists have con-
structed rational, logical arguments supporting personal
perspectives. However, when the task is multifaceted and
inherently complex, when discerning evidence is sparse,
when sensitive comparison between training structures
is not logistically feasible, then multiple coherent narra-
tives rationalizing any given set of observations can be
As illustration, peer-reviewed publications have
been cited as demonstrating the superiority of block
periodization over more traditional designs.46 Consider:
Eleven days of high-intensity intervals are interjected into
improves tested parameters more than the control group
continuing habituated training.47 Conclusion: Principles
pretation a logical inference or a conclusion violating the
principle of parsimony, the fundamental scientic dictate
urging the acceptance of only the most frugal explanation
best tting factual observations? Is the most economical
rationalization of these results that (a) block periodiza-
tion represents a superior planning methodology or (b)
interjecting training novelty into habituated patterns may
lead to sudden performance improvements? Certainly,
(b) appears a more prudent conclusion. Furthermore, (b)
and/or periods of high-intensity training are not unique
to any particular periodization philosophy and appear to
be a hallmark of elite programs regardless of the stated
The presented evidence illustrates the extreme
context specicity arising when individual biological
systems, each with unique genetic predispositions and
“stress” histories, interact with unique training, psy-
chosocial, and environmental variables. Such extreme
context specicity highlights 2 logical fallacies evident
in the periodization literature:
• The assumption that averaged group-based trends
accurately reect likely individual responses
• The assumption that planning methodologies of
celebrated high achievers—by denition extreme
outliers—can be generalized and extrapolated to
other elite individuals
to Complex Problems
Although the assumption of training generalizability is
alluring, in the light of biological complexity this allure is
revealed as illusory. More appropriately, the preparation
process may be conceptualized as a guided exploration
through an unknown and constantly shifting terrain.
Each “preparation terrain” presents a unique navigational
challenge, thus requiring a unique route map to optimally
guide toward program objectives. When moving through
unknown territory, having a map may provide the illusion
of certainty and control. However, while having a map
may be reassuring, previously used maps, inevitably of
differing terrains, are inherently inaccurate. A more reli-
able and direct means of arriving at your destination is
consistent triangulation between expectations, outcomes,
Such reasoning suggests a shift from the historical
ideal of preordained “best” training structures toward
a philosophy characterized by an adaptive readiness to
respond to emerging “information.” From this perspec-
tive, effective planning may be perceived as the imple-
mentation of sensitive and responsive learning systems
designed to enable the early detection of emerging threats
How such systems are designed and implemented
sensibly depends on context-specic parameters such as
coaching preferences, experience of the athlete, logistical
limitations, and applicability of available technologies
and metrics. There are certain impositions constraining
the boundaries of the preparation plan: the competitive
schedule, performance needs analysis, and long- and
short-term goal setting. Sensibly, a broad framework
should be outlined and starting points, checkpoints, and
endpoints agreed on. However, within this sparse plan-
ning skeleton, training evolution may be most produc-
tively driven by emerging information continually con-
textualized against program constraints and objectives.
Many assessment and monitoring tools—both objec-
tive and subjective—are available and represented in
the literature, with many sure to follow as technological
innovation continues to drive improvements in capabili-
ties and accessibility.
The hallmarks of such information-driven learning
processes may sensibly include
Periodization Paradigms 247
sensitive monitoring and tracking systems
• Cultivation of performer-generated feedback and
Critically, the quality of planning decision making
is founded on 2 cornerstones:
• A conceptual model—against which experiences,
observations, data, and decisions are contextual-
ized—that is optimally reective of the complex
nature of the preparation task
This line of reasoning is not intended as an assault
on the historical value of periodization philosophy or
the substantial contributions made by eminent theorists.
However, in light of the converging evidence, I suggest
that periodization dictates are understood as hypothetical
tradition-driven assumptions rather than, as commonly
presented, evidence-led constructs. This does not imply
that plans are unimportant but that our perception of
what constitutes effective planning should be reevalu-
ated. Similarly, the presented rationale should not be
interpreted as suggesting a false dichotomy, an either/
or choice between preformed periodized structures and
more emergent information-driven training systems.
Ultimately, there is a dynamic tension to be negotiated
between structural rigidity and responsive adaptability.
The need for “exibility,” necessary deviation from the
chosen path, is often noted in the periodization literature
but is not discussed in any depth. This lack of attention,
in the midst of a heavy focus on predetermined training
structures, imparts the impression that deviation is some-
times necessary but generally unwelcome. Conversely,
the perspective materializing from this reframing sug-
• Deviation from the preplanned path is desirable,
should be actively sought, and the training manage-
ment system designed to facilitate, rather than sup-
press, consistent modulation.
is the systematic capture and review of pertinent data
that are then employed to drive future direction.
Many, perhaps most, elite coaches already integrate
aspects of this approach in their practical work. However,
there remains an evident dissonance between the reality
of elite practice, the reality of contemporary biological
models, and the theoretical positions habitually forwarded
in the periodization literature.
Einstein once remarked that everything should be made
as simple as possible, but not simpler. Periodization
philosophies have reduced the complexity of the plan-
ning task through the assembly of supercially logical
Figure 2 — Sources of training decision-making “information.”
sets of assumptions, rules, and guidelines to construct
formulaic solutions to training-organizational tasks.
From this perspective, periodization templates offer a
useful service. However, this usefulness comes at a cost.
The downside emerges when such oversimplications
become enshrined in practice, elevated to the status of
unquestioned dogma, and are perceived as validated truths
rather than grossly generalized, frequently misleading
approximations. The result is a belief-based planning
paradigm gradually becoming ever more disconnected
from contemporary science and elite practice.
Arguments against such a reframing are immediately
obvious. Why depart from planning paradigms that have
clearly worked in the past? Such criticism is understand-
able but awed. Within performance environments a
commonly forwarded argument, opposing innovation, is
an appeal to the weight of history, to point to celebrated
champions who scaled great heights using conventionally
pervasive methodologies. However, despite its persuasive
power, such a rationale presents a damaging logical
inconsistency. An unbiased evaluation of the worth of
any training scheme requires that both successes and
“failures” be factored into analysis. As such, the high-
lighting of isolated high-achieving exemplars to conrm
the superiority of any planning scheme while neglecting
to consider those who conformed to a similar framework
yet “failed” is a fundamentally lopsided, albeit attractive,
argument. Furthermore, the training plan is but one facet
of the multidimensional “performance” phenomenon.
Did the planning methodology contribute to, or detract
from, the exceptional performances of an exceptional
performer? Would a different plan have led to greater
achievement, a longer career, less injury or illness? Our
inability to run counterfactual alternative-reality itera-
tions originating from common initial conditions renders
such arguments irresolvable. Instead, we must rely on
critical reection, informed by evidence, contextual-
ized against conceptual understanding, and cleared of
presumption. Ultimately, historical prevalence is not
Appeals to coaching experience are similarly
instinctively persuasive. However, in complex environ-
ments, an appreciation of the uniquely tangled web of
circumstances underpinning observable behaviors should
caution against the presumption that previously success-
ful strategies will prove similarly successful in the future.
The history of every complex planning domain—medical,
political, military, nancial—is replete with examples of
experts who assumed that previous success bestowed an
ability to forecast the future consequences of imposed
actions—a condence directly contravening a substantial
A more legitimate concern relates to the lack of
perceptive, validated monitoring tools. It should be
acknowledged that no single assessment, or battery of
assessments, is likely to be universally applicable across
domains or groups of individuals (as previously noted50).
In the absence of ready-made solutions, the design of an
efcient training process may be considered an explor-
atory, slowly evolving, meticulously documented, single-
subject trial-and-error experiment.
An appreciation of both the philosophical origins
underpinning cultural planning convention and the nature
of biological complexity may caution against reliance on
generalized rule-based planning and automatized training
decision making—a reliance that ultimately constrains
our vision of available training strategies, impedes critical
thinking, and suppresses coaching creativity.
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Table 1 Sample Information Capture and
stress Sample metrics
Pretraining readiness Perceived readiness rating
Objective readiness measure
(using habituated exercise track-
In-training variables Empirical descriptors (load,
sets, reps, recoveries, etc)
Intensity rating (rating of per-
ceived exertion per effort, set, or
Technical execution (quality
Prole of Mood State
Daily Analysis of Life Demands
Monotony (weekly average
Strain (mean weekly load/
Training load (rating of per-
ceived exertion × training time)
Periodization Paradigms 249
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