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Russian Mumbo Jumbo

By Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins

(Article re-published with permission from

One of the most important developments in exercise has been the concept of Periodization.

For those that don’t know (and to keep it fairly simple), periodization is the concept of breaking training down into blocks (usually called “cycles”) to achieve certain goals. Utilized and popularized (to most of the rest of the world) by the Eastern Bloc countries, periodization is used to design cycles that prepare an athlete to “peak” (i.e. – achieve maximum physical performance) for his/her given competition period. This could be for any period of time – say every four years for an athlete wanting to compete in the Olympics, to every year for an athlete competing in a seasonal sport. Many times, these blocks would be extended periods of time, and would each have a different primary focus. For example, in a yearly template, you might have a 2 month phase for rehab/GPP/endurance, then a 2 month phase for hypertrophy (muscle gain), then a 3 month phase for strength, then a 3 month phase for power, then competition. The phase length and focus would depend on the sport in which the athlete was competing.

Though many countries in the Eastern Bloc used periodization, it was the Russians who achieved the greatest successes – especially in the Olympics. Through great amounts of govt. funding, Russian sports scientists were able to study athletes, and design programs that prepared said athletes to achieve amazing athletic success. They utilized periodization to its greatest potential, sending shockwaves throughout the Western world.

When periodization hit the West, many trainers/trainees tried to copy exactly what the Russian sports scientists were doing. This was a mistake for various reasons. First (and I don’t want to start a debate on this hotly-contested topic), there were wide-spread rumors of blood doping and steroid/drug use among Eastern athletes. Second, possible drug-usage or not, the Russians were dealing with elite-level athletes who had been training at this high level for a number of years. These athletes had been “fine-tuned” (for lack of a better term) so that the sports scientists could make the smallest changes to their programs, and it would make dramatic differences. Many stereotypes of Russian periodized training involve utilizing a great number of different percentages and such. As a result, there was a certain “mysticism” associated with a lot of Russian periodized training, and some thought that there was a chase for the ultimate training percentage and protocol, while others thought it was just a load of complicated crap.

Now, I’m not going to argue the effectiveness of periodization – too many great athletes have been trained, and too many great athletic achievements have been accomplished while on this training protocol. However, I would argue that for fighters/combat athletes (as well as many of us “regular folk”), there is certain way we should use periodization.

At its most basic, periodization is simply cycling. Go hard, back off, go hard, back off, etc. Periodization is just a way to organize it.

The problem (per se) with the way periodization has been traditionally used is that it takes too long. Fighters routinely take fights on short notice – sometimes as little as a few days. You don’t want to be offered the chance of a lifetime, and have to say, “Sorry, I’m not in shape – I’m in my strength phase right now. Come back in 6 weeks after I ramp my conditioning back up.” You need to be ready all the time.

Naturally, you can’t be competition ready (as in the case of signing for a fight 8-10 weeks out) all the time. I’d call this situation “peaking” for your fight. But you can always be “in shape.” You might not be at your absolute best, but you can be pretty close.

The same goes for us “regular folk.” Say you’ve got family that needs you to help them move. What are you going to do, say “Sorry – I’m in my endurance phase right now. Can you put it off until I’m done with my strength work for the year?” You never know what physical necessities you might come across – you’d better be ready when they happen.

Now, to do this, you have to drastically shorten the traditional length of periodization. There are several ways to so this. In bodybuilding circles, Leo Costa and Dr. R.L. Horine put out a series of books that, supposedly based on Bulgarian Olympic Lifting protocols, detailed what they called “micro-periodization.” This compressed traditional periodization into a single week. Instead of focusing a few months each on endurance, strength, and power, you trained a bodypart 3x/week, with a workout focused on each. Though the book was designed for bodybuilding, you could easily apply the principles to a Strength & Conditioning program for fighters.

Another way would be to sort of “auto-regulate” your training tonnage with your sets/reps scheme so that over a given period of time, you’ve done your endurance, strength, and power work. For example, do 2 sets of 20 reps on an exercise. The next workout, add 5-20 lbs. (depending on the exercise). Keep doing this each workout until you can no longer get 20 reps. At that point, drop down to 2 sets of 10 reps. Keep up the process going until you can’t do 10 reps. Then do 2 sets of 5. Keep repeating until you can’t get 5. Then do 2 sets of 3. Keep repeating. When you can’t get your 2 sets of 3, drop the weight back down, and go back to 2 sets of 20. However, you should now be starting with a weight much higher than you started the whole cycle with the last time around. Depending on the exercise and how often you can train, this whole cycle should only take 4-5 weeks.

A way I like, and use most of the time (I used it in all the programs I designed for “Working Class Fitness – The Programs”) is to break things down into a monthly block. I pick a primary focus that I want to increase. The focus of my training is on this one objective, but I do enough basic accessory work to maintain all other facets of training. I push hard for 3 weeks, then have a backoff week of easier training. In the case of my “WCF – The Programs”, I generally repeated this type of program twice back-to-back, but making changes to how the workouts were structured or what sort of exercises were used.

For example, let’s say you wanted to increase your speed, and decided to do this with 40 yard sprints. You would pick two days/week to do sprints. On another two days (sometime after you had had time to recover from you sprint days), you’d do some lower-body strength/power training to help increase the force you apply to the ground when you sprint. Either on the same training days as your lower-body work, or on other days (depending on how you have the program laid out), you do some very basic upper body work, just to maintain. Do this for 3 weeks, and then on a 4th week, do a basic strength program with some easy conditioning, or maybe a couple hard (but not super intense) interval workouts. Now, at the end of your month, you’ve maintained your upper-body strength/power, maintained or increased your lower-body (and many times, in turn, your full-body) strength/power, and now your sprint speed has increased.

(NOTE – Program #4 in “Working Class Fitness – The Programs” is about developing sprinting speed, and the workouts I designed used the above template.)

Periodization doesn’t have to be rocket science. Just take a “Working Class” approach to it, and figure a way to apply it to your training. When all else fails, remember what it is was designed to do – organize a way for you to go hard, back off, go hard, back off…

About the Author

Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins is a strength coach and author living in Cameron, NC. Having trained 15+ years, Wiggy is a strength moderator at, columnist for MMA Weekly, and an avid fan of Mixed Martial Arts Training. His site, Working Class, is dedicated to designing low-tech, high-result Workout Programs for fighters, athletes, and “regular joes.”


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