December 17, 2023 3 min read
PERIODIZATION 10/10: SOVIET PERIODIZATION by Shane Robert
NOTE: This is the final entry in our periodization series. By now you should have a pretty good idea of different ways to plan your training. To finish this series, we are going to discuss the Soviet System which, despite the name, isn’t exactly one single, codified system. If you read our previous entries, you may remember that Western Periodization, Block Periodization, Undulating Periodization, Wave Loading, and Conjugate Periodization all have roots in Soviet sports science. What this page will be discussing is the style of planning that has come to be emblematic of Russian/Soviet weightlifters and powerlifters since some time in the 1970’s. We will be borrowing the term “Soviet System” from the great book The System, Soviet Periodization Adapted For the American Strength Coach.
In the early days of Soviet periodization, scientists set out to find what the best style of training was. They discovered, as have many before and since, that everything works. Rather than try to settle and pick one “best” scheme, they combined them all into one uber-scheme. Or, at least that’s how it seems when taking the 10,000 foot view.
Although it is easy to look at this and feel very overwhelmed, this system doesn’t need to be as complicated as it appears at first glance. Key elements include:
Much like Western Periodization, the beginning, or “preparatory period,” of cycles typically starts with a higher number of lifts and tapers down as the cycle progresses into the “competitive period.” This will see a slight increase in the average intensity, as well as more focus on the competitive lifts. Cycles may last anywhere from 12 weeks to 4 years (the Quadrennial or Olympic Cycle), made of 12-16 week blocks as one would see with block periodization.
The number of reps performed per set will typically fall between 30% and 60% of maximum for most lifts, save for periods of weight gaining when higher reps will be performed for non-competition lifts. This is to ensure proper technique and speed on all lifts, while reducing the overall recovery cost, thus allowing for higher overall volumes. The fatigue cost of a max rep set diminishes the load, volume and/or technique that can be completed on subsequent sets. A lifter is better off “doing less but more,” in the words of Soviet super coach Rudolf Plyukfedler. In other words, if a lifter can complete 10 reps at max effort for 1 set, they are better doing 5 sets of 3 at the same load. This represents 50% greater volume with far less fatigue, technical breakdown, and muscle soreness, thus allowing the same exercise to be completed again in the next training session.
The total volume for a cycle is determined at the planning stage of a cycle and is waved within each week, month, and cycle, following a sinusoidal wave that is determined by a number of algorithmic calculations. This, I think, is where most of the perceived complexity comes from. Once again, however, it doesn’t need to be complicated. It is easiest to think of each microcycle, or each month of a longer macrocycle, as follows:
Medium-High, Medium-Low, High, Low
Or, if we assign algorithmic volume percents, an example might look like this:
28, 22, 35, 15
This waving of volume has been shown to lead to greater adaptation than flat loading or linear increases. The overall volume of each cycle increases as an athlete advances, often reaching a point where multiple training sessions per day are required.
Once the volume distribution is established, the volume is spread among different intensities to get an average volume that ranges between 67% and 75%. This simply means that a similar proportion of work is done in the lower intensity ranges as the higher. For example, if a lifter does:
They have done 6 reps with an average intensity of 70%. The Soviets believed that the total volume of loading leads to the greatest adaptation of an athlete. A short period of unloading (volume) with increased intensity expresses that adaptation. Therefore, higher average intensities were not needed.
Movement and Load mastery
Low injury risk
Great for advanced athletes
Highly adaptable to individual lifter needs
Too complex for beginners
Can be quite boring
Hard for some to implement without a coach
Tends to require long training sessions
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