Saturday, November 19, 2011

Periodization Made Simple Part II: Periodizing Intensity

In Part I of this series I discussed one of the major types of periodization, periodizing by physical attribute.  Basically, this means rotating your training to focus on one major physical quality at a time - building muscle, getting stronger, getting faster, or gaining endurance.  You do this by designing workouts that focus on one of those qualities, and either rotating the workouts one after the other or focus on just one type of workout for a block of time - from 3-8 weeks - then switching to another "type."

Periodizing Intensity:  This is a very different idea than periodizing attributes (though they can work together).  To periodize intensity means to vary how hard you're working at whatever you're doing.  Remember, any type of workout - strength, speed, hypertrophy, or energy system - can be very hard, or very taxing, on your body, or comparatively less taxing.  People just can't charge full speed ahead week in and week out forever without crashing and burning.  To prevent this we build planned de-loads or rests into our training.

There are a few different ways to handle this, and I'll go over the most common.

When do we periodize intensity? 

This is a great question.  There are roughly two ways to handle this.  The first is to do planned deloading periods.  That means that you, or your coach, or whoever, figures out ahead of time that you're going to go full blast for, say, 8 weeks, then do a 1 week deload.  (There's nothing special about 8 weeks, it's just an example number - fill in your own block of  time).  This is especially handy when you're working towards a competition or a meet.  I've written before (read this and this) that you should prepare for a promotion or a competition by resting in the days immediately preceding the "event."

The downside to this style is that if you're just training - if you're not heading towards any specific goal date, like a contest, but just trying to generally improve - you still need rest occasionally but it's really hard to say with confidence, "oh, I'll work this hard, and I'll definitely need a rest after 6 weeks - not 5 or 7, but definitely 6."  If you try that, and you don't have a team of physiologists planning things out for you, you run a real risk of going too long without a break or getting rest you don't need.

So what's the alternative?  Many people advocate resting or de-loading when you physically need it.  That sounds kind of obvious - rest when you need to rest!  But how do you know when you need to rest (as opposed to just being lazy)?

If you've been training for a long time you might be a very good judge of your body's status - you might be able to accurately "feel" whether you're ready for a hard training session or need to back off.  That's great!  But if you want a more scientific measurement, or if you don't have that level of physical awareness yet, you can go with a couple of other choices.

One common method is to measure your waking heart rate.  Get a heart rate monitor or use the finger + stopwatch method and measure your heart rate when you first wake up - ideally before you get out of bed.  After a few days you should get a pretty good idea of what's normal for you.  If one day you're feeling tired and your waking heart rate is higher than normal, that's the day to rest.

A better (probably) method is to measure heart rate variability.  If you're worn out your heart rate variability (how much it goes up and down in response to normal getting up and moving around type of activity) will decrease, and that's the time to rest and recover (high heart rate variability = good).  I know of no easy way to measure this without some kind of sophisticated equipment - please post to comments if you do!

If you're kind of in the middle, body-awareness wise, and aren't sure if you're being lazy or genuinely need rest, I like to go to the gym and do the warmup before re-evaluating.  If I warm up and still feel like crap I'll de-load.  If I'm just not in the mood and don't really need the rest I'll usually find that I'm good to go once I finish my warmup.

How do we periodize intensity?  So you've decided that it's time for a de-load.  There are roughly two ways to back off on intensity.  The first, and probably simplest, is to rest.  And by rest I just mean skip workouts or reduce their frequency - take a few days or a week off.

There are two downsides to resting this way.  The first is that you lose momentum.  I don't know about you, but I find it easier to get to the gym or dojo if I'm going regularly - once I take some time off I find it hard to get back.  If that doesn't apply to you, that's great, you can judge that for yourself.  The second downside is that you might recover faster doing something than doing nothing.  That means you're probably better off with what they call active recovery.

Active recovery means some version of doing relatively easy workouts.  You can do the same workout you're resting from, and back off on the weight used (back off a lot, not just 5-10 lbs) but do the same style of workout.  If you were working on speed, do some relaxed speed work - don't go all-out.  Run hard, but don't sprint, and don't do a lot of volume.  If you were working on strength, drop the weight and just "go through the motions."  It can be hard to restrain yourself, especially if you're feeling okay and are doing a planned de-load before a competition, but do it anyway!

The trick with active recovery is to move enough to get blood pumping through the muscles - delivering nutrients and clearing away waste products - without doing any additional damage.  In other words, don't make new inroads into your recovery system!  That means no brand new exercises, lots of full range of motion movement, and nothing so vigorous that you feel like throwing up after the set.

How do we put it all together?  I'm going to give you the cheapest possible answer:  wait for my next post.  I'll describe a periodization schedule that's manageable for the amateur martial artist!

One tough thing about periodization is that in the traditional martial arts we tend to have a go-hard-all-the-time mentality.  It feels like wimping out to take time off.  Additionally, it's really hard to take it easy in the dojo, in a class.  When your instructor tells you to do 25 pushups, few of us have the gumption to say, "actually, I'm only going to do 10 because this is a de-load week for me."  I don't have an easy answer to this problem, other than to say that if you need a de-load, cut back on classes if you can (this would be a great time to volunteer to teach, which is usually less physically demanding), and really cut back on your outside-the-dojo training.

If you're teaching classes you might consider the idea of scheduling de-loads into your class structure.  Have an easy set of classes every few weeks where you cut back on the conditioning type stuff.  That may or may not meet the needs of your students.  You don't have to waste the week - focus on skill work, really focus on technical details, etc.

Remember, it's not laziness, it's strategy!  You can periodize on purpose or you can be forced into it through injuries and illness.  There's nothing heroic about working yourself into the ground.


Periodization Made Simple: Part I: Periodizing physical qualities

We all know people who train consistently - maybe too consistently - by doing the same thing in the gym every workout, time after time.  They might take a break for a holiday or vacation or because of injury, but they generally repeat the same type of workout - the same exercises (generally), similar rep schemes, similar number of sets, and similar tempo, month in and month out.  If they're smart they'll constantly strive to add weight, or reps, to their workout, or switch up the exercises once in a while.  You can certainly make progress with this style of training, but it's usually slow and boring and often leads to staleness and/or injury.

High level athletes realized a long time ago that if they wanted to peak for an event - say, the Olympics, or even a season of their sport - they couldn't train the same way all the time.  They'd do general conditioning for part of the year, then more specific training, and finally sport specific training for the last couple of months leading up to their event.  It didn't take long for them to realize that over the long term they'd make better gains by "mixing up" their training this way than if they did similar types of training every week over the year.

Periodization is a term that means changing aspects of your workout in a planned way in order to maximize long term progress.  Reading the literature on periodization can be kind of daunting to a beginner - articles about periodization are often filled with technical vocabulary that you really don't have to know in order to use the principles.

So I'll make it simple.  I'm not going to define a million different terms for you (partially because I can't remember the difference between conjugate and concurrent periodization), just cover the basic concepts so you can use periodization to improve your training (and you should!).

There are 2 general kinds of periodization:  Periodizing physical qualities and periodizing intensity.

You can periodize your training to focus on different attributes or periodize your intensity.  Or you can (and should) do both!  I'll address the first type here (for no particular reason), and the second type in the next post.

Periodizing Attributes:  What this means is that you emphasize different physical attributes in different training sessions.  For example, you might do hypertrophy (hypertrophy means muscle growth) workouts (8-12 reps per set, 3-5 sets per exercise, moderate or slow rep pace, moderate rest between sets, extra calories after the workout), speed/ power workouts (plyometrics, very fast movements, ballistic exercises like kettlebell swings or olympic lifts, sprints, 3-5 reps per set, 2-3 sets per movement, lots of rest between sets), strength workouts (4-6 reps per set, lots of weight, moderate rep speed, 3-6 sets per movement, lots of rest between sets), and conditioning workouts (energy system training) (circuit training with moderate weights, little to no rest between sets, lots of sets).  None of these workouts are easier or harder, by nature, than the others, they just each target a different type of adaptation.

You could work these into your program in various ways.  You could do 3-8 weeks of one type of workout (say, a session of hypertrophy), followed by another "block" of 3-8 weeks focusing on another (say, strength workouts).  The potential downside is that you could lose too much in one area while focusing on another - you might lose all the speed you gained during your speed "block" during the other blocks, since you might go 16-24 weeks without training for a particular quality.

You could try to avoid that by mixing and matching in various ways.  For example, you could do a little bit of hypertrophy, a little speed work, and a lot of strength work for 8 weeks, then a little hypertrophy, a little strength, and a lot of speed work for the next set of 8 weeks, and so forth.  Think of it as having two minors and a major in each block - you'd do enough in each minor area to maintain your ability and you'd make progress in the major area.

Yet another style of periodization (you can see why there's so much terminology around this subject - each method of periodizing has its own name and associated jargon) would be to alternate workouts over the week but focus on each quality equally.  For example, suppose you work out three times per week.  Do one session of hypertrophy work, one session of speed/power work, and one session of strength work.  That way you make consistent progress in all areas.

Which system is best?  I think a lot depends on what you're training for.  If you're an Olympic athlete who has to "peak" at a certain time of year you need a very different system than regular people - and you probably have a professional coach to help you plan that all out.  If you're just like me - someone who wants to keep improving, but has no specific targets - then I'd say try the last system.  This is also a situation where we're splitting hairs - a professional athlete, who is in a situation where a 2% improvement could mean the difference between winning and losing, has to be much more meticulous in their choices than a weekend warrior.  For us amateurs a simpler system that is easier to comply with is probably more useful than something that could serve as a Ph.D. thesis in exercise physiology.

The "attributes" in question can also vary.  Bodybuilders alternate periods of time when they "bulk up" (add bodyweight - usually a combination of fat and muscle), then "lean out" (lose bodyweight, again usually a combination of fat and muscle, but they're hoping to gain more muscle than fat, then lose more fat than muscle, and come out ahead).  And you can focus on different attributes for different areas of your body - you could combine strength for the lower body with speed in the upper, and vice versa.

I'll give my recommendations on how to periodize your training - assuming you're a karateka with an actual life - with specific examples and a training plan - after I cover periodizing intensity.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's the deal with Strength Curves and Nautilus machines anyway?

I'm starting a new job in a couple of days and moving to Brooklyn right after Thanksgiving.  I'll try to keep up the blogging, but I can't really make any promises because I'm going to be super busy!  In the meantime, here's a short article on strength curves:

I just watched a promotional lecture about an exercise machine that's being made available for home use in a little while, the ARX Fit Omni.  I'm not endorsing the machine or suggesting you buy it - I don't even know how much it costs - but I thought it was based on some interesting principles, like the Nautilus system developed by Arthur Jones, and I figured it was worth some discussion.

The ARX and Nautilus equipment are based on making the most efficient use of the strength curve.  If talk of curves and math give you anxiety attacks, relax, I'll make this relatively simple!

The strength curve just means that in any particular movement you're going to be able to exert more force in certain parts of the movement than in others - because of the way your body is designed, the direction of gravity relative to the direction of the motion, and whether you're lowering or raising the weight.

This is easier to understand with an example.  Take the barbell curl.  You pick up a barbell in your hands, with your arms hanging straight down, the the bar is against the tops of your thighs, your body pretty much straight.  Keeping your body still and your elbows in the same spot you lift the bar up to your chest, then lower it.  All that's happening is that your elbows bend.

Okay, now what's the deal with a strength curve?  Look at that movement.  Will that movement feel equally hard at every point along the path?  No, it won't.  At the bottom of the move you're almost swinging the bar forwards - you're not really fighting gravity.  At the top, the same thing happens.  It's the middle - when your elbows are bent at a right angle - where the movement is the hardest.  The other thing is that you're always stronger eccentrically than concentrically.  In other words, you can safely lower more weight than you can lift.  

What's the big deal, you ask?  Well, the big deal is that if you do barbell curls you're never going to maximally stress yourself at all points along the movement going up and down.  If you use enough weight to make the first few inches difficult, you'll never get the bar past the midpoint.  If you use enough weight to make the lowering really stressful you'll never be able to lift the bar.  In effect, you're wasting a large part of the motion, and you're never going to maximize your strength anywhere but in the part of the path where the resistance is actually right for you.

Traditionally you would get around this by performing multiple exercises that each stressed you in a different spot or a different part of the range.  You might do incline curls to work the lower part of the move.  You  might do negatives - where someone helps you lift the bar, then you lower it on your own, to work the eccentric portion of the movement more optimally.

Ideally, we'd like to have a magic bar.  Imagine a bar that was heavier at the bottom, then got lighter - not too much lighter, just lighter enough that you could curl it through the midpoint - then got heavier towards the top.  then it would get a lot heavier as you lowered it, again being not as heavy through the midpoint but heaviest towards the bottom, while lowering it.  And the magic bar would know by exactly what amount it should get lighter or heavier for each individual user.

That's what Arthur Jones tried to do with his Nautilus machines.  He used a cam - a funny shaped axle, basically - that would change the radius from the axle to the chain depending on where in the movement you were.  The details aren't important, but instead of a machine where it took X pounds of force to move the bar, it would take more than X to move it through some angles and less than X to move it through others,  more or less matching the places where you were naturally stronger or weaker.

There were (and are) problems with Nautilus equipment.  If you had longer or shorter limbs than average the strength curve might still not match your own.  And it didn't automatically get heavier for the lowering portion - though they were often made so it was really easy to do negatives on your own.

The ARX Fit Omni has a machine that varies the resistance on a belt depending on instructions given to it by a computer.  I don't know how it matches your strength curve - if it "learns" how much force you can exert or uses mathematical modelling - I'm not suggesting that it does or does not work.  It does seem very interesting.  It promises an exercise that would maximally stress you through every degree of a range of motion - not be really hard at some sticking point and relatively easy elsewhere.

If it works the workouts it induces would be very efficient and promise good hypertrophy and strength building in a very short period of time.  I have a feeling it's going to be too expensive for most of us to have around the house, but that's just a guess.  If you get to play around with one let me know how it works!