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Non-linear Periodization for

Youth Strength and Conditioning This article is intended for coaches, athletes, fitness enthusiasts, or anyone interested in exercise science. Anyone that has been involved in strength and conditioning for any length of time has probably used and written many different programs. Regardless of said programs’ intentions, most people, myself included, have most likely been designing

Youth Strength and Conditioning

This article is intended for coaches, athletes, fitness enthusiasts, or anyone interested in exercise science.

Anyone that has been involved in strength and conditioning for any length of time has probably used and written many different programs. Regardless of said programs’ intentions, most people, myself included, have most likely been designing their programs incorrectly. I have often been asked to write a program for someone, only to find out that they simply expected a list of exercises, possibly with set and repetition schemes. “Just something for toning,” I was recently told. I thought programming could be simple to implement, but knowledge and experience are required to properly design. Most programs that coaches and enthusiasts design are made to last no more than a single week and the lengthy ones are so rigid that if you missed a day, the entire universe would collapse.

First, let’s discuss a few basic program design methods and where they go wrong, then we’ll get into a better way. On one end of the spectrum is a completely random approach. Some people call this muscle confusion. I’m not talking about variety but random programs that usually end in someone getting hurt. Many professional trainers are guilty of this. Anyone can design a program that is really hard, but what matters is whether or not it produces results. Variety definitely needs to be included, but systematically.

The other end of the spectrum would be the rigid, long-term, linear periodized programs and straight block programs. Simply put, these programs manipulate intensity and volume in an inverse fashion. When weights go up, the overall volume is reduced. Right now, I’m raising my hand to freely admit these were what I used to design my early powerlifting programs. I sometimes had my poundages calculated a year in advance. I could almost never follow these programs for any length of time, as I often overtrained, and I never accounted for any of life’s little bumps such as illness, injury, or my girlfriends dumping me. The other big problem with this type of program is that as you tapered your training, you would lose some of the great attributes you developed along the way. For example, you would lose much of the muscle mass you gained at the beginning of the program, and any kind of endurance you built would be gone as well. I can remember thinking my squat is awesome if I could only walk up a flight of stairs without having a coronary. There is, however, another option that combines the best of both variety and planning: Non-linear, or Undulating, Periodization.

Over the years, Non-linear Periodization has worked extremely well for my clients, my athletes, and myself. This type of programming is simply a way of building in systematic change. I can honestly say I have made great gains since I have changed to this method of program design. In addition, I have not had any major injuries, nor have I exhibited the symptoms of overtraining. Another big plus is that the variety makes this type of training quite fun. It works well for anyone as long as it is properly employed and takes a bit of thought in the long-term.

Imagine that achieving the training outcomes you seek is like putting coins in a jar. With traditional training methods, assuming that you stay injury-free and life doesn’t throw you any curveballs (Big if!), you fill up your jar rather quickly. If you are designing a strength and conditioning program for young athletes, you will notice that they make great gains at first then hit a major plateau soon after. Aside from microscopic gains thereafter, they will have gotten pretty much all of that particular attribute out of their bodies. Some might argue that the coach should just switch gears and train for something else or just switch around some exercises. That sounds a lot like the block periodization programs we already decided were more likely to lead to injury and/or overtraining. In addition, how will your athletes hold on to the gains they made if you really change things around?

Now, imagine you have three separate jars. Every training session, you throw a coin into a different jar. True, it will take you longer to fill your jars, but eventually, you will. Now you have three full jars or three nearly maximized training outcomes. For most young athletes who are not involved in pure sports such as sprinting, marathons, or powerlifting, training for multiple attributes will develop a more well-rounded arsenal of strength, power, and endurance. To design a long-term, multi-outcome program, you will need to include specific goals, flexibility in programming, variety, and keep it really simple.
Goal setting

Keep the end in mind. What I mean by that is that you will need to have more than your immediate goal clearly defined. You will want to know where the entire program is heading. Not just next week or next month, but the end-game. Where do you want to ultimately be? For those of you that are designing for a team sport, a bit more knowledge is required. For example, soccer demands intermittent bursts of power and speed over a long period of time. In addition, strikers need to be able to move around constantly where defenders may get more breaks but need to display the strength to collide with an opposing player on demand. As a coach, you will likely need to pick two or three long-term attributes, which you desire to obtain. Are you after maximum strength in a particular lift, basic overall performance strength like that of a grappler, muscular endurance, mass, etc.?
Flexibility

The second condition for designing a long-term program is flexibility. I can’t tell you how many times I was forced to take a day off from training only to have it royally screw up my schedule; if you miss a day with this program, you just pick up where you left off. Barring serious injury or illness, strive to get in three or four training sessions per week, but don’t be afraid if your athletes miss a day when they need to take off for injury or illness. Athletes need to listen to their bodies and allow optimal stress recovery so that they can make optimal gains in all areas.
Variety

Third, as a coach, you will want to build in variety. If you are planning for multiple attributes, such as the speed, power, and endurance, then variety is really very simple. Each training session should have a theme. Assuming these outcomes are not in conflict, they should be relatively similar. For example, when simultaneously training for strength and power, you might use similar lifts such as kettlebell or barbell snatches and cleans. Strength day might involve heavy three repetition maximum (3RM) lifts. Power day might utilize many low repetition sets of light-moderate weight. If you needed to add muscular endurance or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), just set aside a training day for that. (I recommend, however, never training for more than three attributes at any one time.)
Simplicity

Fourth, keep it simple. If you start with the basic premise that your body will respond specifically to what you do to it, then it is really very easy to train for a specific training outcome or multiple outcomes. Start with the basics. If you want to be strong to lift heavy objects, then build in heavy work. If you want to be able to move explosively again and again, then build in power-endurance work such as high repetition kettlebell snatches. If you desire to be able to maintain a near maximal heart rate for an extended period, make sure you include high-intensity interval training (HIIT). The best programs are simple. Over the years, I have come to believe that the surest way to screw up a good strength and conditioning program is to overcomplicate it. When performed with enough intensity, volume, variety, and proper recovery, simple programs will produce the best results. The more complicated you make it, the more likely something will go wrong.
Long-term

Last, think about the big picture. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest craze or to try a program because some jacked guy uses it. Follow the few basic training design programs listed in this article, find out what works for your athletes, and stay the course. Sure, you’ll want to mix things up once in a while (I recommend changing out some of the auxiliary exercises every few weeks), but the foundational program should stay the same as long as your goals haven’t changed.

Just to recap. Define your goal or goals. Be flexible in having your athletes take days off and teach them to listen to their bodies. Build in variety. Keep it simple. Last, think long-term. Sure, mixed training programs produce mixed results, but isn’t that a good thing? Very few sports are pure except in cases such as powerlifting or marathons. Most things demand a variety of attributes that are necessary year-round, at a moment’s notice, and require the athlete to maintain great overall strength and fitness. By making frequent, but systematic changes in your training variables, your athletes can not only make great long-term gains but will also be less likely to overtrain and get injured. They will also be able to tap into different types of strength, all while maintaining great stamina and endurance.

If you are interested in more information about this article’s contents or would like to discuss training programs, feel free to contact me at dave.bellomo@gmail.com.

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