Flexible Training vs. Periodization


 One thing I’ve misunderstood for years is periodization of training. 

This is the practice of mapping out an athlete or client’s training program far in advance. A well known example of this is the quadrennial training athletes undergo for the Olympics.


My initial thought about long range periodization was that it was too complicated for me to wrap my brain around, but necessary if I wanted to get stronger. And I assumed if I couldn’t handle the demands of a tough program, that I needed to buck up, work harder, and stop sucking.

Looking back it seems my thoughts were that periodization itself was “good”, and that I needed to live up to the sheer genius of it. I mystified it, mythologized it, and made it more important than me, in other words.

Periodization has been around for a long time. Russian sports scientists came up with the practice of long term training plans in the 1950s. Greg Nuckols discusses some of the assumptions regarding the Russian innovation here.

For me, a memorable wrap-up point from Greg’s excellent article is this:
The widespread adoption of periodization had less to do with verification of superior results produced by periodized training, and more to do with Soviet-era assumptions about the superiority of top-down, long-term planning and subsequent Western assumptions about the superiority of Soviet training methodologies.


Basically we thought the Russians had all kinds of “secret training methods”, and assumed what they were doing (like periodization) was the right thing to do. And then we did it too. Even though there was no proof.


Here’s the thing — periodization works. But is a rigid and complex system like periodization even necessary? Would simpler systems work just as well for some athletes? And would a much simpler system work better for non-athletes?

Some people I’ve trained say, “Treat me like an athlete!”. Optimize everything. Training, recovery modalities, nutrition, supplementation, and so on. 

But most people simply don’t have the time, or recovery ability to train like athletes in their teens or twenties do.

Here’s some stuff about me:

– I like training and working hard in the gym

– I rarely miss a training session

– I’m experienced with periodization

Despite that when I do a periodized program, I do inevitably miss some days due to things like gym closure, holidays, travel, social events, family, or sickness. That happens even though I really like training!

So, I’d miss some workouts here and there, because that’s life. But, out of stubbornness or pride I insisted on doing all the planned sessions. So, I’d do the missed day at the next session. Obsessively doing every workout in a prescribed program is my version of FOMO.


It’s the mistaken feeling that I can’t miss a workout because that might make or break the whole process. Treating a program like a magic spell. It’s not “Abra-dabra”, it’s “Abra-CA-dabra”, right? 

My experience with this type of training leaves me wondering this: Considering rigid periodization is tough even for those who like it, is true periodization sustainable or necessary?

In terms of training clients, I’ve found even more difficulty applying ‘top down’, long range plans.

There’s no easy way to know what’s going on in a person’s life from day to day (or phase to phase). They could be very different than the last time you saw them. Our readiness to train varies for normal, unpredictable, and at times unavoidable reasons.

When training someone for an hour, I tend to plan a fifteen minute warm up, thirty minutes of lifting and special exercises, and fifteen minutes split between energy systems training and cool down. Here’s what can happen:

– Client is fifteen minutes late due to traffic. 

– Slept only a couple of hours the previous night

– Stress is through the roof because of work emergency

– As a result of the emergency, receives unavoidable work calls during training session

– Coincidentally or not, knee is acting up

This is a real client and a real training day. And a super nice human being, to boot. How much of the planned workout do you think we got done? Answer: not much. We did what we could. How valuable was that workout to my client, considering we couldn’t do the program to the letter? Extremely valuable. This person went home feeling a hell of a lot better than when they came in. Huge win. Their whole day was improved.

At it’s heart, periodization is a systematic way of manipulating training variables. This is good, because you can’t always lift heavy, or use the same exercises forever. Having a system in place enforces the principle of variability. But you don’t need complex periodization to make changes.

The downside of periodization is that it’s hard to follow (even for people who really like this stuff), with no sensitivity to the ups and downs of normal life. Periodization doesn’t respond to your readiness to train for the day, it just assumes you’ll do the work.

Of course there are forms of periodization that are more responsive to a trainees ups and downs, like Dan John’s and Pavel Tsatsouline’s Easy Strength. If you haven’t read it, get it right away.

– Every training day you do the same carefully chosen basic exercises

– You perform either 2×5, 3×3, 5×2, 6×1 or 1×10 for the exercises 

– Start light and add weight as you like.

In this plan, an automatic undulation of intensity and volume occurs by using the suggested rep ranges. You naturally tend to choose different weights for those different rep ranges. If you feel a bit worn down, the 1×10 rep range is meant to be done in a light, restorative fashion — an optional auto-regulated reduction of training stress.

Being able to choose your adventure this way allows you to approach your daily training maximum without having to fuss with percentages of your one rep max!

Can we take this type of program a step farther?  How do we create a sustainable, effective non-periodized, flexible form of training that can be done anytime? 

Full body training is a great place to start.

All of us miss the occasional training session, but full body workouts ensure that you train your whole body every time you train. If you only get to train twice a week, you still train your whole body twice! Whereas in an upper/lower training split, for example, two workouts a week means you’ve only trained your whole body once, in the same amount of time. (Note: split programs are effective, but full body training is more efficient for the time-challenged trainee.)

Full body training allows for the greatest frequency.

Your muscles tend to recover from previous training sessions in two to three days. Higher frequency of training gives the biggest return, and is more easily achieved by training the full body, as opposed to splitting it up into body parts or movement patterns. 

Full body training includes:

– Squat variation

– Hinge/deadlift/bending from the hips variation

– Pulling movement for the upper body

– Pushing movement for the upper body

– Lunge, split squat or single leg variation

– Anti-rotation/rotation, anti-extension/extension training

These are arguably the basic movement patterns of the human body. Your muscles won’t know whether you’re doing a back squat, zercher squat, box squat or goblet squat. So, unless you have goals specific to a particular exercise, just train the movement patterns of the human body with whatever basic exercises agree with you, or rotate in new exercises day to day, or phase to phase.

Exercises aren’t holy.

Use the ones that work for you. Try all the things without mythologizing any of them.

– Choose five basic compound exercises to start with (multi-joint, ‘big’ exercises).

– Pay attention to how you feel; try to train “bottom up” (based on your perceived readiness to train), rather than “top down” (like the long range periodized program that doesn’t allow for auto-regulation).

– Go lighter or heavier based on how you are feeling. 

– Who decides? YOU! Based on what? How YOU feel, and the time YOU have! (Note: external means also can be helpful to check your readiness to train, as with Heart Rate Variability Training using the Omegawave, or HRV.)

Auto-regulated programs have a big drawback — you have to be honest with yourself about your ability to exercise that day!

It takes a lot of maturity to know when to hit it hard, and when to pull back and coast a bit. There’s not a lot of room in this type of training for “beast mode” workouts, and also no room for skipping sessions due to laziness. Most of us are guilty of both from time to time.

So, complex periodization is a bit tough for a normal person to stick to. But, so is true auto-regulated training!

Very few people are so tuned into their bodies that they don’t let the mind affect their decision to train. Most of us entertain inner dialogues about whether or not we can get to the gym based on the normal stuff — work, traffic, hunger, how we slept the night before, and so on. To paraphrase John Broz of Average Broz Gym, “If you only train when you feel good, you’ll go a couple times a year”.

Well, OK then Mr. Wizard, what’s the answer?

Lightly structured programming that allows a person to take it easy when they need to, that manipulates training variables and exercises enough to continue to make progress, and allows for some individuality and variability. Flexible Training.

As I’m writing this, I saw this article on flexible training on the above mentioned Greg Nuckols’s web site (written by Michael Zourdos), and almost stopped writing this blog post.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been putting these dots together for a while, and while Michael’s article is excellent, I’m still going to bash on with my idea of Flexible Training. My idea is pretty basic. The Flexible Six:

– One work set, with as many warm ups as you need before the main set.

– Two to three times per week. Sure, more is great, but from experience, sometimes two training sessions is more doable. Why not build in that flexibility?

– Four to five exercises. Choose one per movement pattern. Use the ones that suit your structure and experience level. 

– After six weeks, change something — do a different program, take a break, switch the focus, change the order of the exercises, or change the exercises themselves.

In my experience, there’s a lot of room for individual modification in a fitness program. And that’s a way to keep it fun!

Repetition ranges are always goal related. Strength programs often use the 1-5 rep range, especially on the main lifts. Hypertrophy or fitness routines typically use 6-20 reps. So, choose your rep range according to your goals. You can choose to mix it up between strength and hypertrophy within the same session, from session to session, or from phase to phase. It’s your adventure!

Periodization may not be necessary for anyone, but for regular people it’s especially tough. Having no program also doesn’t work! It can devolve into either skipping the gym, or sessions that focus only on your favourites, like the infamous ‘bench and curls’ workout. 

But with Flexible Training, you can choose the days that you’re going to train, and how hard you’re going to train. It’s simple, because it’s always full body, with just one work set, done two to three times per week, training your whole body with four or five exercises that match up to human movement patterns. Repetition ranges depend on your goals. Change it up after 6 weeks! It’s a great all-around fitness workout that works well in between periods of more structured training, or which can form the foundation of auto-regulated training year round.

As an experiment, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing myself this month. I’ll let you know how it goes! 

If you are looking for a great workout in a safe, body-positive space, or would like someone to handle the training variables of your program, please get in touch! Iron Lion Training uses an approach that emphasizes simplicity, balance and strength in a client centred approach geared towards building community.

Email us at: info@ironliontraining.ca

Call: 647-998-5466(LION)

Share Button
Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,