Strength coaches have used it for decades to maximize athletic performance. And believe it or not, it might make your CrossFit training more effective. That’s right; I’m talking about periodization.
Periodization is a method of arranging training in a way that allows you to balance and maximize adaptations over weeks and months, based on your sport.
Most athletes, including those of you in CrossFit, need to maintain and develop a range of performance attributes. But balancing these training methods is challenging, particularly if you want to benefit from each maximally.
That's why periodization exists – to help athletes balance and maximize training outcomes better. However, there are different models, and each provides a different result. As a CrossFit athlete, you need to know these variations to make smart training decisions.
In this article, I discuss these differences of periodization models and explain why some are appropriate for CrossFit and why others might be worth avoiding.
WHAT PERIODIZATION IS
Simply put, periodization describes arranging your training program based on the requirements of your sport or event. Different periodization models provide frameworks to balance different training styles over weeks and months and appear to do so better than training with no plan at all (1, 2).
The reason for periodization is, in part, because of the demands of athletes. Most athletes need to be strong, muscular, and also resistant to fatigue. But achieving all three together can be difficult.
When you exercise, your body takes the stimulus - like lifting weights or going for a run - and translates that into an adaptation. If you lift weights, you get stronger. If you run for long distances, your body adapts to be more efficient and fatigue resistant (3).
But there's a problem here called the interference effect. See, strength and endurance training tell your body opposing messages. When these messages are mixed - such as when you train for endurance and strength together - improvement may not be efficient (4, 5).
Periodization helps make avoiding this effect, a little easier. It's a process of scheduling your training ahead of time to try and maximize adaptations while minimizing interference. It’s also a smart way for athletes to filter out unnecessary activities as the seasons or events approach.
For example, as a CrossFit athlete, you might spend off-season months trying to build muscle size and strength. But when events are more regular, training is much more focused. You prioritize technique and train similarly to what you might experience during an open event.
Periodization makes going through this process more straightforward. It provides a clear schedule of when and how to train in an attempt to maximize outcomes.
DIFFERENT FORMS OF PERIODIZATION
Different periodization models provide a unique approach to training. Understanding the details of each can help you better understand how and why one method might be right for CrossFit and why others won't be.
Linear periodization is the most straightforward method and is often used by seasonal athletes to transition from off-season to in-season.
Linear models start with a very "broad" approach to training. During the initial weeks, training variation - like exercises, training volume, and training focus - is high. As the program progresses over weeks and months, this training variation - including training volume - declines towards more specific activities matching the sport demands (6).
Linear transitions you from varied to highly specific training
Imagine a football player transitioning from the off-season to the regular season.
During the offseason, training incorporates all forms of exercise like resistance training for muscle size and cardio for endurance. As the season approaches, exercises like deadlifts, snatches, and clean and jerks become the priority. Cardio switches from long distances towards sprints - since sprints match the demands of a football game.
While this seems smart, there’s also a catch 22.
Since training transitions to become more specific, some of the adaptations afforded at the beginning of the program might not be preserved towards the end. As you can imagine, that’s not exactly beneficial for CrossFit (7).
Fortunately, other models, like block and undulating, avoid this effect.
The main downfall of the linear approach is that adaptations achieved at the beginning of the plan aren't maintained as training becomes more specific. Block periodization, however, is a means of potentially avoiding this effect.
Blocks of time are dedicated to specific outcomes, while others are maintained.
Block periodization dedicates “blocks of time” to one training focus while maintaining others (8, 9, 10).
In the above example, block 1 prioritizes a focus on strength. That means exercises are performed with heavy resistance and low repetitions. But unlike a traditional linear approach, other adaptations, like conditioning, aren't avoided - they just take a back seat for a while.
In that same example, while the first three weeks of block 1 prioritize workouts focused on strength, week four helps to maintain other aspects of performance important to CrossFit, like conditioning.
Once the program gets to block 3, we see the reverse. Now, metabolic conditioning is the priority, while strength training is maintained.
BLOCK PERIODIZATION PRODUCES MORE ROBUST IMPROVEMENT
Impressively, some studies have found this method to be useful and perhaps more effective than other approaches. Take a 2017 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, for instance.
Researchers recruited trained hockey players and trained them for six weeks using either a block periodization model or a mixed model while keeping volume the same.
For hockey players in the block group, their training prioritized strength training during weeks one, three, four, and six. During these weeks, HIIT training was performed once for maintenance. During weeks two and five, HIIT was prioritized, and only one, full-body strength session was performed during each week for maintenance.
The mixed model participants instead took a balanced approach. Each week included balanced HIIT and strength sessions, with neither receiving priority over six weeks.
The results showed that despite an equal training volume, the block model was superior, leading to significantly greater improvements in power and V02MAX than those using a mixed approach (8).
The specific emphasis on strength and power likely required a more robust adaptation response, leading to greater improvement.
IS BLOCK PERIODIZATION RIGHT FOR CROSSFIT?
For a CrossFit athlete, this model is likely superior to a standard linear approach, particularly during the off-season.
CrossFit has various demands, requiring high levels of endurance, strength, and fatigue resistance. This reality means that all of these factors need to be emphasized and maintained.
Block periodization is probably the best way to do this for a CrossFit athlete in an improvement or off-season phase. This method allows you to concentrate your training around a certain goal for dedicated blocks of time and also maintain other adaptations.
Undulating periodization is slightly different from the other forms.
Instead of dedicating long blocks to prioritize one goal, undulating periodization varies intensity and volume from one week to the next, resembling a wave or mountain range.
Volume and intensity vary from one week to the next.
Take care to notice that in the example above, exercises don't vary, but volume and intensity (% of 1RM) do change.
In week one, the focus is on strength development, whereas week two, focus shifts toward hypertrophy. The clean and jerk movement follows a similar pattern – week one emphasizes power, while week two emphasizes strength development.
From a CrossFit perspective, undulating periodization is smart because it allows you to practice staple movements regularly, but vary how you train them in a controlled manner.
Together, these benefits can be particularly useful during the competitive CrossFit Season when maintenance of adaptations and technique execution is paramount.
Fortunately, research seems to agree with this logic (7).
Do know that exercises can and should vary over time when using an undulating model. The example above is meant to describe the process behind undulating periodization during a CrossFit season and is by no means the only option.
UNDULATION MAINTAIN ADAPTATIONS BETTER THAN LINEAR
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research compared a 10-week block-linear model to a weekly undulating model on measurements of strength, power, and muscle size.
For the linear group, weeks one and two required the women to perform five sets of each exercise for ten repetitions, at 70% of their one-rep maximum. As weeks progressed, the intensity increased, while volume decreased.
Week 1-2: 5 x 10 @70% of 1RM
Week 3-4: 5 x 8 @75% of 1RM
Week 5 (power): 3 x 6 @65% of 1RM
Week 6-7: 5 x 5 @88% of 1RM
Week 8-9: 5 x 3 @93% of 1RM
Week 10 (power): 3 x 6 @ 65% of 1RM
Note that this method is more of a linear approach than the block example given earlier. The authors use the term "block" to describe the two, five-week segments, but this is, in effect, a linear model.
Those in the undulating group transitioned through this process faster, reaching 93% of 1RM intensity by week four and then again week nine.
Week 1: 5 x 10 @70% of 1RM
Week 2: 5 x 8 @75% of 1RM
Week 3: 5x5 @88% of 1RM
Week 4: 5 x 3 @93% of 1RM
Week 5 (power): 3 x 6 @ 65% of 1RM
Week 6-10: Repeat above.
After ten weeks of training, participants underwent post-testing measurements to observe any changes resulting from training.
Despite both groups showing improvement, the results indicate the weekly undulating model was superior in terms of maximal lower body strength and muscle size. For instance, the undulating group showed close to a 28% improvement in max squat performance compared to only 15% in the linear group (7).
The authors suggest that the block-linear subjects may have lost some of the adaptations achieved during the initial block. The undulating group, however, trained with different volumes and intensities more regularly, so more adaptations were maximized and maintained (7).
CONCLUSION FOR CROSSFIT ATHLETES
So, we've gone over what periodization is and covered some of the primary methods. Now its time to nail down if and how these models can be useful for CrossFit
CrossFit, as a sport, requires that you're a well-rounded athlete. You have to maintain a high level of strength and endurance while mastering various, highly technical movements. Because of these factors, a linear approach might not be helpful.
A powerlifter, for example, might find that a linear approach is optimal. Linear allows you to filter exercises and the intensity of those exercises to be very specific to the demands of a powerlifting event.
But CrossFit doesn't have a specific requirement as powerlifting does. Some events might prioritize strength, while others are all cardio-endurance. To prepare for these demands, other models that allow for more regular variation are appropriate.
Block periodization is a smart approach for CrossFit, particularly during the off-season months, or during long breaks between events.
Since CrossFit has so many demands, being too specific with training can reduce performance. With a block model, though, you dedicate time towards specific training outcomes while maintaining others that are important to CrossFit Performance.
For an athlete that needs to improve, yet, stay well rounded, block periodization is a smart move during training phases where improvement is the focus.
Undulating periodization is a smart move during the season because it allows you to be specific to the demands of CrossFit in terms of exercises, but vary how you train them.
For instance, one week, you might clean and jerk with heavy resistance and low repetitions to stimulate and maintain strength. The next, you might clean and jerk explosively with moderate resistance to develop and maintain power.
In the same light, you might incorporate long runs to improve and maintain endurance. The following week, you focus on high-intensity sprints and metcons to develop and maintain anaerobic endurance.
CrossFit events demand that you're well rounded in terms of athleticism, but also efficient at technique and challenging exercises. Undulating periodization arguably provides the best framework to achieve this.
Periodization is a means of scheduling training in advance, in an attempt to balance and maximize training adaptations. For most athletes, periodization can provide a framework to maximize adaptations based on the demands of their sport.
That said, not all periodization models will be helpful for every athlete and sport, particularly CrossFit.
For example, a linear approach might become too specific for the demands of CrossFit to be useful. A block model might allow for specific improvement while maintaining other important attributes – particularly during growth phases.
Further, an undulating model, where volume and intensity vary often, can match the various demands of CrossFit and be particularly useful during the season, when performance needs to be balanced and maximized.
(1) Williams, T. D., Tolusso, D. V., Fedewa, M. V., & Esco, M. R. (2017). Comparison of periodized and non-periodized resistance training on maximal strength: a meta-analysis. Sports medicine, 47(10), 2083-2100.
(2) Rhea, M. R., & Alderman, B. L. (2004). A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 75(4), 413-422.
(3) Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-2963.
(4) Fyfe, J. J., Bishop, D. J., & Stepto, N. K. (2014). Interference between concurrent resistance and endurance exercise: molecular bases and the role of individual training variables. Sports medicine, 44(6), 743-762.
(5) Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.
(6) Prestes, J., De Lima, C., Frollini, A. B., Donatto, F. F., & Conte, M. (2009). Comparison of linear and reverse linear periodization effects on maximal strength and body composition. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 23(1), 266-274.
(7) Bartolomei, S., Stout, J. R., Fukuda, D. H., Hoffman, J. R., & Merni, F. (2015). Block vs. weekly undulating periodized resistance training programs in women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2679-2687.
(8) Rønnestad, B. R., Øfsteng, S. J., & Ellefsen, S. (2019). Block periodization of strength and endurance training is superior to traditional periodization in ice hockey players. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 29(2), 180-188.
(9) Rønnestad, B. R., Hansen, J., & Ellefsen, S. (2014). Block periodization of high‐intensity aerobic intervals provides superior training effects in trained cyclists. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 24(1), 34-42.
(10) Rønnestad, B. R., Hansen, J., Thyli, V., Bakken, T. A., & Sandbakk, Ø. (2016). 5‐week block periodization increases aerobic power in elite cross‐country skiers. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 26(2), 140-146.