“Periodization” sounds like a complex idea, but the term simply means having a system or organization to your training. Most programs follow some sort of periodization system, though some are easier to recognize than others. The exact names and systems aren’t as important as making sure that you have some sort of logical progression and organization for your training. One thing that all periodization systems share is a process of prioritizing one goal over another, whether it’s for the short-term (workout-by-workout), medium-term (week-by-week), or long-term (months at a time). The advantage of periodization, as opposed to a do-everything-at-once-ization, is the ability to focus on one main objective at a time.
Strength training for athletes should be as simple as possible. The vast majority of an athlete’s mental energy should go toward actual sport practice. Rowing is a complicated enough sport as it is, so there is no reason to sap mental energy with a strength program that requires an abacus, chart of the moon cycles, and a degree in physiology to figure out. Make it easy to work hard and simplify, simplify, simplify.
Periodizing and focusing on one main goal at a time serves this goal of simplification. There’s the old saying, “you chase three rabbits, they all get away,” and this applies in training too. It’s easier to work hard when you narrow your focus rather than simultaneously training for strength, power, hypertrophy, speed, etc.
The block periodization system is easy to implement, simple to explain, and has clear and concrete objectives for each training session. The basic idea of block periodization is to break training up into four main blocks, each with their own objective, and structure them so that the blocks all build toward one peak championship performance.
Block #1: General Preparation (16-20 weeks)
Block #2: Specific Preparation (8-12 weeks)
Block #3: Pre-Competitive (8-12 weeks)
Block #4: Competitive (6-8 weeks)
Each of these blocks has a different focus, but they all build toward one thing—being stronger and faster when it matters.
General Preparation block: Includes more cross-training, single-arm and single-leg training in the weight-room to even out left/right imbalances, and laying a foundation of muscular strength for future gains. For the northern hemisphere rower, this would be the summer season.
Specific Preparation block: As rowers return to water training after an off-season largely away, training becomes more specific and focused on rowing. There’s less cross-training and slightly more strength training to keep building the foundation of muscular size and aerobic base. This is also an important point to iron out technique both on the water and in the weight-room, getting in crucial reps that set up the rest of the year. It becomes harder to make technical improvements as the intensity ratchets up and the milage decreases, so make the most of the Specific Prep block.
Pre-Competitive block: Begins power training to convert the broad base of strength and aerobic ability built in the previous two blocks and to prepare for shorter spring 2k races. Training gets more specific, shifting toward anaerobic interval work in the erg room and higher intensity work in the weight-room. The Pre-Competitive block is the last chance to really pack on strength and power before the spring season starts and focus shifts to race performance.
Competitive block: A few weeks before the important spring races, strength training shifts to maximize recovery, focus, and energy on the water while maintaining the gains from the rest of the year. Don’t make the mistake of neglecting strength training entirely. Many rowers stop weight-training during the competitive season, but all this does is make you strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of the season when it matters most. It is vital to do strength and power maintenance training during spring season to keep all your hard work from the previous seasons intact to power you through to the championship races.
Providing concrete goals for each training block not only helps prevent plateaus, it is also highly motivating for athletes. Workouts that seem random or haphazard aren’t motivating because they don’t feel like they build toward anything. Worse yet, workouts that are the same for months on end get boring and lead to athletes mentally checking out or skipping sessions. While not every rower will love weights, making training relevant to rowing performance will help increase buy-in for all athletes. Just like rowing and erging training, strength training should be planned in advance with a clear goal for each session so that sessions build on sessions, weeks build on weeks, and seasons build on seasons to a peak performance finish.