The Science of Improvement – A Lesson in Periodization

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As a coach, it is troublesome to see the amount of misinformation floating around in the media. We have all read it before in the magazines, “take this pill and boost fat burning by 200%!” The leaps and bounds that the west has made over the last decade have also coincided with the rise in social media. It is easier than ever for the Average Joe to start up a dynamic, versatile and popular training business. The recipe for success is rather simple; be selective with your wording and let the science back you. The only problem with this is when the Average Joe starts selling something – and instead of letting the science build his protocol, he skews the science to fit his protocol. Now the Average Joe Fitness Page is booming and he has a following well over 5000 people. “Houston, we have a problem.”

Flashy Protocols

The basic knowledge of overload and improvement has been glossed over in favor of the latest, greatest and flashiest protocols. I specialize in periodization, something that sounds quite fancy, but in essence is really quite simple. Give me a basketball player and I can build a plan to increase his field goal percentage. Give me a figure skater and I can build a plan to help them get from a single axle to a double axle. The science of improvement is simple – overload.


If you were just starting out at the game of basketball and your goal was to play Shooting Guard, it seems like a great idea to master your technique and establish fundamentals by learning how to shoot at the 3 point line, right?

Well actually… Of course not!

Basketball coaches across the country routinely stress close to the basket, process-oriented form shooting before adding difficulty to the shot. Master your form near the basket and it becomes easier to step back. Master the mid-range and you can start working on pulling up from 30 like KD and LeBron do on Sports Center every night. Now let me pose to you this question – what if we kept our player taking 8 ft jump shots in practice and never let him shoot from anywhere else on the floor? Would he improve on other areas of the court? Possibly, but more than likely his development would become one-sided.

Why does this happen? The answer is adaptation. Just like in weight lifting if you were to stay at 135 lbs on the bench press forever, would you see strength gains? It is certainly possible, but not very likely. So how do we normally go about improving? We establish the fundamentals and then we move on to more challenging tasks. This is what periodization is. In essence, there are two main variables that we can manipulate to elicit improvement, the first is quality, and the second is quantity. If LeBron James wanted to increase his field goal percentage from the left corner he would need an overload response to do so. The overload could either be provided through improvements in technique, or it could be provided through repetition. If you want to add 40 lbs on to your back squat, you could approach this in two ways as well. You could try to improve rep quality as much as possible, or you could focus on increasing the quantity of the overload stimulus until you hit your goal. Both approaches are really quite successful. Now ask yourself this, why did we let it get so complicated?

Models & Concepts

Periodization models all have fancy names and can be made out to be very complex, but the reality is that we have grown up being exposed to them. Allow me to use the analogy of learning to walk, and progressing into a run. This progression that you began to go through as early as 8 months into your life follows the patterns of linear periodization. At first you would try to stand in an effort to develop the strength and balance necessary to walk. As time went on you would start to hold on to furniture and shuffle short distances. As your balance improved and strength adaptations took place, you learned to walk. Once strength and balance in walking were established you started to run. The theory is quite simple, in linear periodization you start out with high volume, and you end with high intensity. The countless number of times that you tried to stand up (and fell over) laid the foundation for higher intensity running later on.

By now you are probably wondering what a baby learning to walk has to do with adding some weight to your bench. Not to worry, let’s tie these concepts together now.

“Learning to stand” can be viewed as the introductory phase of a 4 month training cycle. During this phase volume (sets, reps and total training load) are going to be at it’s highest, and intensity is going to be at its lowest. In Strength literature, this type of phase is called an extensification.

“Learning to shuffle” is going to be viewed as the second phase of our 4 month training cycle. In this phase sets, reps and total training load are still going to be high, however the intensity of the activity is now going to increase slightly.

“Walking” is going to be viewed as the third month of our 4 month training cycle. In this phase training intensity is now arbitrarily higher than training volume. Simply put, instead of using a large amount of sets and reps, we are honing in on quality by increasing the load lifted and technique used.

“Running” is going to be viewed as the fourth month of our 4 month training cycle. Phase four is going to be the complete opposite of phase one. Now instead of having volume at its highest and intensity at its lowest, it is the other way around. When intensity is extremely high this type of phase is called an intensification.

Improving Performance

Progression is not as complicated as it is made out to be. We are continuously exposed to models of adaptation and advancement throughout the lifespan. My intentions for this article were not so much to provide you with a template on how to build a program, but instead to ignite a spark and get you to think about the process of improving performance in a whole new light.

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