Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts

The title alone will have driven off everyone from my non-weights circle of friends.


Optimizing Strength Training is a book by William J. Kraemer and Steven J. Fleck. Quite aside from the American fondness for initialling their names in print, it’s worth mentioning Kraemer in particular. He’s probably best known as the co-author, with Vladimir Zatsiorsky, of Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2nd Ed (unreviewed).

Science and Practice is one of my favourite books on the topic of weight training. Reading it pulled a lot of half-remembered snippets of broscience into much clearer relief and it’s made me a better lifter and coach.

So when I saw that Kraemer was the co-author of Optimizing Strength Training, I decided that for the price it would be worth a purchase. I was right.

Some background

Periodisation is a well-known, well-understood principle of strength training. Here is the problem it tries to solve: you want a trainee to have several adaptations. You want them to become bigger, strong, faster and more able to resist muscular fatigue. But some such athletic qualities interfere with each other or other athletic adaptations (such as multi-hour endurance) while some adaptations potentiate the others (hypertrophy potentiates strength and vice versa).

How do you develop multiple qualities in the most efficient manner possible?

For a long time, the traditional answer has been to focus on one quality at a time, and to put them in an order that maximises the potentiation effect going forward. Since the subsequent programs are broken into periods, we arrive at the term “periodisation”. It’s a clunky word, but it’s the term of art.

So for example, a common pattern is three periods: a hypertrophy (muscle mass growth) period, followed by a strength period, followed by a power period. They’re related but distinctly trainable qualities. As the program goes on, you lose some of the hypertrophy gains during the strength period, and some of the strength gains during the power period. But studies have demonstrated that, at the end of the program, you will be further ahead in power development than an athlete without such a plan. Periodisation works.

The problem with the solution

However, a classic periodisation plan doesn’t work for athletes outside of strength sports during their playing season. If you try to run any sort of demanding weights program during the season of players, the compounded workload of competition and intensive weight training will drain their “recovery budget”. Their performance on both will suffer, and your coaching will be called into question.

This is the situation where Kraemer and Fleck found themselves at the University of Conneticut. How could they maintain or even improve all of the desirable adaptions — hypertrophy, strength or power — without interfering with athletic performance? To do so, Kraemer and Fleck created “nonlinear periodisation”.

Nonlinear periodisation

The “nonlinear” part comes from not running periods one after the other. Different kinds of training session are instead multiplexed together over the life of the plan. So for example, instead of 4 weeks focused on hypertrophy, then 4 on strength, then 4 on power, a nonlinear plan has a 12 week program with a rotating mix of hypertrophy, strength and power sessions.

Within each session, the “acute training variables” are adjusted to favour one sort of adaptation. So each session literally has a label and purpose. Today is the power session, tomorrow the moderate strength session, Friday the hypertrophy session, Saturday the light recovery session and so on.

This is, of course, an idea I find comfortable. Interleaving different work demands seems to me to be a workable alternative to traditional periodisation, with the added benefit of staving off boredom.

Stuff that surprised me

The tl;dr on this whole review would be “yes, I agree” if it weren’t for a few interesting ideas I picked up along the way. Herewith the bits and bobs that jumped out at me.

Acute training variables

There are dozens, probably hundreds of way to tweak an exercise, a session or a training program. Kraemer and Fleck narrow them down to five:

  1. Exercise selection
  2. Exercise order
  3. Number of sets of an exercise
  4. Training intensity
  5. Rest periods between sets

It’s traditional to roll sets together with reps; and perhaps to talk about trading off volume for intensity. Kraemer and Fleck do that, but from a slightly unorthodox direction.

For example: sets don’t matter as much as is generally thought. Kraemer and Fleck quickly discuss a bunch of literature and decide that, depending on goals, 4-8 sets is suitable for strength gains. Then they sort of drop the issue and move on.

Rest periods matter a lot in the nonlinear model. I suppose this isn’t a total surprise. For example, combining high-repetition sets with short rest periods imposes metabolic stress on the muscular system. This favours adaptations that cause visible hypertrophy without necessarily increasing strength.

But rest periods are usually an afterthought to trainees. I admit that while I did try to control rest periods in my previous self-designed program, I was never very strict about it. However Kraemer & Fleck insist that rest periods should be planned and controlled. Shorter rest for hypertrophy sessions, longer for heavy and power sessions.

Classifying training goals and progress by target rep ranges

Here’s the part that really jumped out me. It is traditional in weight training planning to talk about intensity. Intensity is actually a measure of the relationship between the training weight and the trainee’s best performance on that exercise.

So for example, if the trainee has squatted 100kg for a single repetition, then to squat 85kg is 85% intensity.

This measurement is, naturally, fraught with problems. Not least of which is that expressed strength relies on so many factors — stored creatine, cortisol, blood-borne glucose levels, central nervous system arousal and so on and on in the marvellous spaghetti-bowl causality of human biology — that saying 85% is “more” intensive than 65% ignores that on the 65% day the trainee might be feeling like hammered crap and the bar seems much heavier than the 85% day.

Noted strength coach Heraclitus once remarked that a man “cannot stand in the same river twice”. From this we can derive that what was psychologically intensive yesterday may be easy today, and vice versa. The trainee and the sensation of the weight on the bar vary from day to day; ’tis ever in flux.

The snippets of the Bulgarian weightlifting system that have passed into western weightlifting lore include an interesting twist. Bulgarians are noted for hitting maximum weights every single day in training; but what is meant by this is misunderstood. Bulgarian-style training doesn’t aim to hit the trainee’s all-time maxima each day, but rather the maxima for that day. Once a daily maximum is established, the rest of the day is scaled relative to it.

Kraemer and Fleck are not advocating this approach. Instead, their scaling technique is to use target rep ranges. Suppose today is a hypertrophy day and you can bench press 100kg. In the nonlinear approach, you set a “target band” of 12 to 15 repetitions for 4 sets. If you find yourself undershooting the target on the first set, you lower the weight. If you’re overshooting, raise it. Over/undershooting during consecutive sessions indicates a change in starting weight in future sessions.

Like the Bulgarian system, this is a special case of “cybernetic” or feedback programming, where the trainee adjusts according to what can be done on the day. Like the Bulgarian scheme, the Kraemer/Fleck scheme requires mature trainees who have enough time under the bar to know what it feels like to go to near-failure in an exercise, who are able to muster willpower to complete sessions as written and who understand themselves well enough to make judgements of whether they could do more or should do less.

That having being said, I think that the Kraemer/Fleck scheme has a crucial advantage over the Bulgarian scheme: you do not attack your maxima daily. I’ve tried the Bulgarian system and let me tell you, it is not compatible with paid employment. For full time weightlifting trainees it is probably workable; but for regular schmoes it is an amazing way to suck the life out of training. It’s also a young man’s game and, given the frequent exposure to the trainee’s current physical limits, prone to cause injury.

Kraemer/Fleck is less all-or-nothing and therefore, I think, much more suitable for the general training population, including yours truly.

Flexible nonlinear periodisation

The last fun tweak in the Kraemer/Fleck program is “flexible” nonlinear periodisation.

The standard nonlinear program could be visualised as a rotating wheel. Trainees come in and pick the next workout off the plan. If they miss a scheduled training session they simply pick up at the session they missed.

Flexible nonlinear periodisation breaks the planning link down one more time. Now the trainee has multiple wheels. When they come in on the day, the session template chosen depends on what has gone before. In a series of case studies in the back of the book, Kraemer and Fleck give numerous examples. For instance, the gridiron team comes in and today is meant to be a power training session — but the head coach had called an unscheduled surprise sprint drilling session that morning. Realising that the trainees are in no condition to perform a productive power session, they are switched to a strength session for that day.

The main risk here is that the program can become too biased towards one workout or another. A flexible nonlinear program would rely on the judgement and record-keeping of a professional strength & conditioning coach; for most amateurs and self-coached trainees I don’t think it would be as applicable.

Wrapping up

This book would be suitable for coaches and serious strength nerds. It would be out of place in the library of a beginner or intermediate trainee, however.

Recommended.

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3 Responses to Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts

  1. Charlie says:

    Great article! The method sounds a bit like a mix of Bulgarian, Westside and Cube? I wonder if you could/should deliberately shift focus slightly more onto 1RM as an olympic lifter or stick with a different rep range/target every session? Thanks very much.

    • Part of the problem is that you have to define 1RMs. The Soviets and Bulgarians do that quite differently and it leads to no end of confusion.

      I think it depends on the trainee. Some few trainees thrive with daily assaults on maxima. Most don’t. I am definitely in the latter camp.

  2. Pingback: Transferring to the Aesthetic Train | swolesister

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