Cybernetic Linear Periodization for Deadlifts

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
 -Benjamin Franklin
Everybody has a plan ‚till they get punched in the mouth
-Mike Tyson
The above cites nicely illustrate a dilemma when it comes to S&C training (and Probably just about anything in life, but I’ll try and stay on-topic here):
On the one hand, you simply need a plan. Not having one will inevitably result in chaos.in the best case, your progress will stall. In the worst case, you get hurt. That’s why there’s a plethora of books on proper periodization and exercise programing. 
On the other hand, nobody operates in lab conditions. Factors like sleep, nutrition, stress at work and concurrent sport specific training need to be taken into consideration. Trying to PR int he deadlift  the day after a hard sparring session or an spontaneous party night isn’t a good idea. Now there’s always an argument to be made here that while the latter case (the party) can be attributed to a weak will and low discipline – partying just isn’t an option during an overreaching phase -,  the former case (i.e., the hard sparring session before a PR day) just boils down to bad programming. However, especially in the amateur world and in group class settings, the sports coach will not always consider (or even know) every athlete’s S&C regime. Also, while the two presented examples are very obvious ones, there’s a lot which are far more subtle. Hence, things like fatigue levels need to be monitored, assessed and considered for decision making on a day to day base. I didn’t make this up, either – several training readiness measures such as the high jump, broad jump, grip strength or heart rate variability are and have been used for a long time in pro athletics. There’s even apps that will measure tapping frequency and derive the CNS status [14]. 
In the Shinergy Athletics class, we basically rotate between a squat, a hinge and a (semi)unilateral pattern such as the lunge or step up on an 8-week base. This way, every pattern is trained hard twice a year. Beginning on Mai 1st, we’ll be deadlifting again. 
Of course, we have our assessment pipeline in place to evaluate who qualifies for heavy pulling and who doesn’t. Also, we’re not pushing beyond the point of diminishing returns – once an athlete can pull around 2.5 times his bodyweight, we’ll put him on something like single leg deadlifts, where sagittal plane strength isn’t the limiting factor. After all, in an athletic context, it rarely is.
Also, there’s no point in coming up with any fancy programing for weak athletes. For me, that’d be anything below 1.5 times bodyweight. For those athletes, it’s really all about showing up and getting quality reps in the 5-ish range. There’s nothing magical about that number, but it appears to be working pretty well. For one, the load is sufficiently heavy to elicit strength gains. On the other hand, most people can stay focused for that half minute and pull with proper form. Just sticking to proper form can go a long way in terms of injury prevention. Keep in mind that the Shinergy Athletics classes are pretty much all about injury prevention for active athletes, but I digress. Might do a separate post on the whole notion.
Now after excluding sufficiently strong athletes on the one hand and really weak athletes (not meant to be dismissive – just a quantification. Someone else might fobs a more politically correct term for „weak“), that leaves the middle ground. Now we’re looking at athletes that are stuck somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 times bodyweight in their pull. It’s those athletes that can definitely benefit from a periodization scheme that is a bit more sophisticated than „show up and pull heavy stuff“. Not much more sophisticated, but still enough to accelerate strength gains. 
Personally, I like Coach Dos Remedios concept of „alternating linear“[1][2] (which basically is an implementation block-periodization) very much. In a nutshell, alternating linear alternates (hence the name) between hypertrophy oriented periods and power oriented periods. A 9-week sample could look something like this (bold lines indicate a power block while regular lines denote a hypertrophy block):
Alternating Linear Periodization
Week Sets x Reps % Projected 1RM
1 3 x 12 65
2 3 x 10 70
3 3 x 8 75
4 3 x 5 85
5 3 x 3 90
6 5,3,1 87
7 3 x 8 75
8   4 x 6 82
8  5 x 5 85
 

Visualized, this could look roughly like this:

I’ll do a separate post on this one in a squatting context. What keeps me from using it for deadlifts is the fact that, as mentioned above, I like to keep sets on the DL rather short (<= 5 reps). Going to that 8-12 rep hypertrophy range might work out with lighter stuff, say Kettlebell deadlifts or trap bar deadlifts (due to the higher quad involvement), but for straight bar pulls from the ground, it's not worth the risk. Disagree? Fine, have it your way then – but this is how we do it. 
Likewise, I’m not really interested in having my athletes pull singles at their 1RM  (if the terminology confuses you, you might want to skip this post, sorry ). While some coaches argue that a 1RM pull holds no added risk when compared to a 5RM  (mostly due to fatigue-induced form breakdown, as mentioned above), I disagree. The difference between a 90% 1RM pull and a 1RM pull is huge, not only on terms of injury risk but also when it comes to recuperation time. Keep in mind that my athletes are not power lifters or weight lifters – the program is geared towards fighters, soccer players and the like. I want them to train, get stronger and be fit to do their sport specific stuff the next day.
Having said all the above, let’s take a look at the solution : enter cybernetic linear periodization.
Linear periodization is one of the most simple forms of periodization out there. In essence, all you do is linearly increase the training load from session to session. Here’s a very simple, 8-week linear periodization program for a basic power cycle [8]:
Linear Periodization
Week Sets x Reps % Projected 1RM
1 3 x12 70
2 3 x10 75
3 3 x 8 78
4 3 x 6 82
5 3 x 5 85
6 3 x 4 87
7 3 x 3 90
8 2 x 2 95
Now as mentioned above, we don’t operate under lab conidtions – hence, sticking to percentage – based training probably isn’t quite feasible in a setting where competing demands (such as general training vs sport specific training) come into play.
Cybernetic periodization is something of the anti-thesis to linear periodization.Basically, it means the same as auto – regulatory[3][4][5][7]. With cybernetic periodization, you’d more or less make workouts up on the fly based on how your athlete feels. The problem here is, as [5] and [7] point out, that you still need a plan to avoid chaos.
 Hence, without going into deeper deatail on either the idea of auto-regulatory / cybernetic nor linear periodization, here is how we do it.
Basically, we’d follow a very basic 9-week linear periodization scheme that starts at around 5 reps. 5 reps would be something around 86% 1RM, depending on which equation you use [9]. There, we’d stick for around 3 weeks before progressing to 4 reps. Theoretically, we’re moving in the 87%-90% range here. After another three weeks, we’d switch to 3 reps (90% – 93%), which is about as low as we go. Now the big thing here is that we’re staying in the same range for three weeks, which is six to nine workouts. On a sidenote, with athletes who choose to get three weekly sessions in, we’d use something more similar to the Texas Method[10][11]. Again, there might/will be a separate post on that one.
In every workout, the athlete would record his/her training readiness before the session and RPE[12][13] score after each set. To keep things simple, we use a ten-point-scale as opposed to twenty points. The goal here is to hit an RPE of around 9/10. This means that another rep could certainly be done, but probably not two. Now, all of a sudden, five reps are not five reps anymore. Consider the following scenario: 
  1. An athlete comes in on day one, feeling good (training readiness ~9/10) and hits 130kg for five proper reps. The set felt easy (RPE @8), so for the next set, he goes for 135kg. Now the last rep is heavy (RPE @9), but not yet a struggle. In the third set, the last rep is a grind (RPE @10), but the form is still pristine.
  2. Three days later, the same athlete walks into the gym, only this time he had a rough night, so he’s not feeling all that well (training readiness ~7/10). Hence, what was RPE @8 when the athlete was rested and feeling good is probably RPE @9 today. Hence, he shoots for three sets of five with 125kg. The last set is heavy (RPE @10) and the form breaks down after three reps, so we stop it here.
  3. Again, a couple days later, our athlete hits the gym again, feeling vigorous (training readiness 10/10). Now we know that we’re working somewhere around 130kg for three five-ish sets. Since training readiness is high, the athlete hits 135kg for the first set and rips the bar off the floor (RPE @8). This is an indication to increase weight, so the next set is done with 137.5kg. Again, the weights seem to be flying, probably due to the warmup effect from the first set. Finally, the third and final set is done with 140kg (RPE @9).
  4. Let’s assume that the sixth workout was done with a load of 142.5kg and an RPE score of 9/10. In the seventh workout, we decrease reps from five to four. Now we’re looking at an increased percentage of around 2% with regards to the projected 1RM. This warrants a very subtle load increase, say 2.5kg. Hence, after warmup, the first working set will be around 145kg, is training readiness is high, or even less that 142.5kg if training readiness is low. Again, based on the first set’S RPE score, the load for the second and finally, third set is chosen. 

 The below chart illustrates the concept. Loads for every set are chosen depending on the RPE of the previous set. If the previous set was in the previous session, also consider training readiness. Make a crude estimation and re-evaluate from set to set. In the chart, this means that intra-workout load increases are made when the red bar is low. Conversely, inter-workout loads are increased when the yellow bar is higher than the last time. Simple as that. As you can see with the blue line on top of the bars, while the load increases are not linear, the trend is definitely an increased load over time.

Now while this approach certainly isn’t rocket-science, it is robust, auto-regulatory to some point and still follows a plan. As always, I take every right to change my mind the instant I find a better way to do things. Until then, cybernetic linear it is.If you want to give it a try, make sure to share your experiences in the comments.

So long,

don’t get hurt

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