More Block Periodization Explanation

There was a thread comparing different periodization strategies over at Mountain Project (–non-linear-periodization/108438729 ). I wrote this explanation to contrast this model with the classical model. Not sure if it’s necessary here or not…


I remember when I first read about periodization. It was revelatory in an almost religious sense. Finally there was a clear explanation of why I wasn’t getting any better. I read a book about it. Then I read another one, and another. Then I tried it and my muscles were sore and so I wrote an article about it for Climbing Magazine. I’d like to take a moment to formally apologize for that.

The idea of periodization in most minds is the “classic model” which is an amalgamation of several coaches’ plans designed for Eastern-Bloc athletes in the Soviet era. The stated goals of such a program, general physical improvements and specific improvements in a given sport are exactly what all of us are looking for. The problem, and it’s a big one, is it doesn’t really work.

If you’re not familiar with the classic model, I’ll line it out for you in general terms. Over the course of several months (referred to as mesocycles) we transition from general physical fitness and volume building to super high intensity and low volume work within our respective sports. This includes going from low-intensity, low-resistance easy training to more complex, intense training. The idea behind the reduced volume as work intensifies is to alleviate central nervous system fatigue and increase recovery during the later stages of training.

While this model of periodization might have worked for competitive weightlifters that had a clear competition period during parts of the year, and who were taking “supplements” to aid in their training, it very clearly doesn’t work for the majority of rock climbers who: 1) don’t take steroids and 2) want to perform well for extended periods of time. Our experience is that massive CNS fatigue doesn’t really occur with a well-planned late cycle in climbing (even hard bouldering isn’t powerful compared to Olympic lifing), so volume can be kept relatively high.

In the classical model, one trains almost exclusively for, say, power during a multi-week cycle, then switches to endurance, then strength, or whatever. And I mean whatever – people rearrange the qualities all the time in training programs. The idea is that while focusing on power, strength somehow magically stays with us, as does endurance. On paper, this might work, but with the climbers we’ve seen on the endurance – recruitment – hypertrophy – power endurance cycle, it doesn’t work in the real world.

We see endurance and recovery tank in the latter phases of the plan. We see finger strength wane. We see a short window of performance, and we never see anything close to hypertrophy.
If you were to build power for 4 weeks and then back off completely, the longest you could conceivably maintain that power would be another 4 weeks. Endurance components are even less persistent.

The massive decrease in volume is a big problem. Do you really want to climb less as your season progresses? In fact, with most plans, the reduction in workload is so severe (because of the concurrent huge increase in intensity) that overall fitness suffers and the peak performance phase can only be sustained for a couple of weeks.

Climbing is a technique sport. Technique is best learned either at very low intensity, where fatigue doesn’t play a role, or at very high intensity, where perfection of technique is critical for the execution of tasks.

At the top end of technical improvement – actually climbing a harder route or problem than you did before – you’re going to need more than one month per training season working at top levels. I argue that you need to work on it almost all year long. Classical periodization just doesn’t allow for this.

Intensification is the second big problem with the classical model. When you only have 4 weeks to build power, how much can you build? I don’t know about you, but at my age it seems like it takes about that long just to get warmed up. By trying to intensify too rapidly, we risk two big problems, increased risk of injury, and lack of sustainable fitness. The longer you take to coax the “persistent” factors such as power and strength, the longer they will stick with you.

The final big problem we see with the classic model is the season-to-season gain and loss of strength. By developing maximum strength for just, say, 2-3 months a year, we will see no long-term improvement in the athlete – only “getting back in shape.” What we want is a climber that’s always got a strong base of fitness. Enter “block-stlye programs…

Several years ago, I read all the books by Kraemer, Matveyev, and by a bunch of endurance coaches, but the one that really sold me was “Periodization” by Tudor Bompa.

I did the same thing every other climber who has read Bompa’s book did…I “converted” the model to rock climbing. As I said, it didn’t work. I figured out, over the course of several valuable years, why this didn’t work. Climbing isn’t seasonal. It’s a skill-heavy sport. Climbing required heavy use of all three energy systems. I’m not on steroids. Etcetera.

Eventually, I started to explore planning models for sports that were similar to rock climbing, and came up with a periodization strategy known as Block Periodization that eliminates some of the problems with the classical model. This model features training cycles of a highly concentrated, specialized workload while maintaining the qualities developed during other periods of the year.

Blocks can be arranged to allow for multiple high-performance periods throughout the year, and by maintaining strength throughout all of the blocks, we can have longer periods of high-performance.

For more advanced athletes, the training loads of specific qualities have to be extremely high in order to provide sufficient training stimuli. Although classical periodization provides this to some degree, the focus of the individual mesocycles is frequently not sufficient.

In the first 4-5 week period within a given block, we work on general motor and technical abilities addressing the focus of that block. For example, the first part of a strength block might feature heavy resistance training, which is very general in motor pattern, but is specific to gaining strength. The following half of the block is dedicated to addressing specific motor and technical abilities. This would include more special strength exercises and time applying strength to climbing.

The blocks for endurance, strength, and power all follow this 7-10 week model. Because of the intense and damaging nature of a power-endurance block, we would limit it to just 2-3 weeks (Anaerobic endurance is a “transient” training quality and is built and lost very quickly). The performance block is also limited to the 4-5 week time frame due to the detraining that occurs.

Within any block, more than 75% of training time will be aimed at the motor patterns and metabolic demands of that block. The other 25% of your training time will be spent maintaining the qualities developed in previous blocks. In classical periodization, an athlete can go up to 20 weeks between strength cycles; this is enough time for real decreases to occur.

Block Periodization makes optimum use of what’s called the Residual Training Effect. The definition goes like this: “the retention of changes in the body state and motor abilities after the cessation of training beyond certain time period.” What this means is that even after cessation of a strength cycle, we can maintain a certain level of strength for a short time with no strength training. Adding even one day a week of training strength after a full strength cycle can allow an athlete to maintain full strength for 8 or more weeks. A similar pattern emerges in endurance training. Several studies (as well as your own experience) show that you can hold onto endurance for a few weeks without training it. After 8-10 weeks, however, this quality declines, as well.

According to author Vladimir Issurin, the residual training effect of different qualities is as follows:
Aerobic Endurance: 30 days
Maximum Strength: 30 days
Anaerobic Endurance: 15 days
Power Endurance: 12 days
Maximum Power or Speed: 5 days

With these numbers in mind, You can see how detraining takes place…but you also probably know it from your own experience. That’s why we built our block template. I think it’s the most comprehensive and effective training template we’ve ever developed, and we get good results with it.

A quick note on the Anderson plan – their program doesn’t follow a strict linear model, either. Although the details of the plans might differ a bit, what you’ll see in Mike and Mark’s upcoming book leans more toward block-style programming than away from it.

All that being said, I think climbers need to think a good long time before committing to a super-restricted and structured plan. The only time to complicate your training is when absolutely everything simpler has failed to produce results. Hope this helps.