How do you plan your workouts? It’s a simple question, but one which begets a variety of answers. Some individuals may train by instinct, others rely on personal trainers to do the planning for them. A growing number of recreational lifters and professional coaches alike rely on smartphone apps to produce complicated workout programs on their behalf.
Since the late 2000s, smartphones have transformed the way people train by making it easier than ever to take advantage of complicated training programs to increase their strength or build new muscle. Complicated strength programs were once the province of elite weightlifters and powerlifters. Computers have opened the inner workings of the strength world to the masses.
To understand how the internet has widened the availability of previously-inaccessible knowledge, you have to take things back. Way back. This is a brief history of periodization and how it has interacted with an ever-changing and increasingly interconnected online world.
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The Birth of Periodization
Without fail, the one thing that defines the strength workouts of the mid-20th century is simplicity. Lift for “X” number of reps. Increase the weight after you hit this target by either five pounds or 10 pounds. Rinse and repeat. This was a form of simple linear periodization, wherein intensity is slowly increased and volume decreased over time.
Bodybuilders were already experimenting with different training splits at this time but, for the most part, the advice for the general strength public was simply to add weight and lift. This doesn’t mean that the elite athletes didn’t use different forms of periodization. During the 1940s, American Olympic weightlifter Louis Abele used to exclusively focus on strengthening one body part while effectively deloading and maintaining strength elsewhere — but simplicity reigned. (1)
Things began to change in the 1960s when Russian physiologist Leo Matveyev and Romanian sport scientist Tudor Bompa devised long-term training cycles with terms now common to us like microcycle, macrocycle, and mesocycle.
Based on a one-year period (the macrocycle), training was divided into three to four mesocycles (three to four months on average). Mesocycles were then divided into microcycles (one to four weeks). Their system of training was adopted by the Soviet Union for the 1960 Olympic games and, from there, across Eastern and eventually into Western Europe. (2)
Long-term periodization began to make its way across the world. Furthermore, coaches began to use undulating periodization — meaning that different variables were focused on on each training day. Soon, training came to be defined in the strength world by percentages — 60% of your 1-rep max in one cycle, or 90% in another.
In the strength community, these advances began in Olympic weightlifting and slowly began to creep into powerlifting. (3)
As renowned strength researcher and powerlifter Greg Nuckols points out, periodization was part of Soviet success at the Olympic Games, but it was not the only factor. Equally important were state-sponsored training academies, the widespread use of anabolic steroids, and a huge genetic pool to pull talent from. (4)
Nevertheless, Soviet training methods grew in popularity in the West, especially after the emergence of powerlifting in the States.
Powerlifting and Periodization
Powerlifting as an official sport began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Strength competitions existed prior to this, but official organized meets were a relatively new phenomenon.
A great deal of the early generations of powerlifters grew up using the Olympic lifts as part of their training. It was through weightlifting that periodization first became popular as a structured method of making progress in the gym.
Dr. Michael Yessis is an American biomechanist who, in the late 1960s, served as Editor of Soviet Sports Review among other publications. The express intention of the Journal was to translate Soviet research into English. (5) This was one of the first avenues for research on periodization to emerge in weightlifting and other sports.
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Speaking with the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, Harvey Newton (Team USA Weightlifting coach for the 1984 Olympics) cited Yessis as a key figure in spreading periodization research in the strength community. (6) Although muscle magazines like Strength & Health commented sporadically on periodization in the late 1960s, they rarely used its proper name and spoke in generalities.
But what of powerlifting? While it is possible to find articles and books on periodization in Olympic weightlifting in the 1970s, (7) powerlifting truly began to experiment wholesale with it in the 1980s and especially the 1990s.
Powerlifters had used linear periodization prior to this point — noted by strength historians like Jan Todd — but the percentage-based periodization defined by Matveyev and others was a different animal that would go on to rule over powerlifting’s approach to program design. (8)
The Internet and the Evolution of Strength Training
The 1980s and 1990s in powerlifting and strength sports was defined by periodization tables, books, and magazine workouts. The most striking thing about this was the variation used by individual athletes. Some may have used a simple 5×5 method — as advanced by Bill Starr in his 1976 book The Strongest Shall Survive — while others looked towards more complicated methods inspired by the Soviet Union. (9)
Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell previously noted the multiple methods used in his famous gym during this period. Some were based on percentages (65% of a 1-rep max week one, 80% week two etc.) while others focused on total volume across a workout. (10) For example, legendary powerlifter Ed Coan used the following approach to build his monster deadlift: (11)
Sample Workout Based on 12-Week Mesocycle
- Deadlift: work up to one all-out set of 5, 3, or 2 reps
- Deadlift Accessory: rack pull or Romanian deadlift, 2×5
- Chin-Up or Barbell Row: 2-3×6-8
- Seated Overhead Press: 3-4×6-8
- Front Raise: AMRAP
Matt Perryman of “Squat Every Day” fame has noted the popularity of a periodization peaking cycle in the 1990s, wherein lifters did “sets of eight to ten for four to six weeks for hypertrophy, then did sets of five to six for strength, then two to three for power, then peaked and transitioned.” (12)
For Perryman, this was part of the “Russian training secrets” that moved West following the fall of the Soviet Union. This included the workout style of Pavel Tsatsouline, who emphasized cycling training intensities. (13)
The late 1990s and early 2000s were also the birthing grounds of the fitness message board and strength website. Many well-known figures in the worlds of bodybuilding and powerlifting cut their teeth on forums like Bodybuilding.com, T-Nation and a host of other domains. (14)
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It is probably wisest to focus on two influential outlets for those interested in strength and conditioning. The first is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength website. Starting as a website and eventually evolving into a popular discussion forum forum, Rippetoe became an early leader in online strength training discourse. What began as simply an online version of his book (first published in 2005) evolved quickly into a community for strength advocates the world over. (15)
Around this time, the world was also exposed to Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 method. Whereas Rippetoe’s Starting Strength website and book initially attracted those new to strength training, Wendler’s workout was initially the province of those seeking to use a basic form of strength periodization in their training. (16)
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Other training forums existed — Westside and Sheiko among them — but, combined, Starting Strength and 5/3/1 began to influence the training of millions (that isn’t an exaggeration, the Starting Strength website attracted 12 million views from 2014-2018). (17)
Created in the mid-1980s, Microsoft Excel is a spreadsheet system that can be used to quickly calculate mathematical problems. Initially, Excel made very small inroads into the fitness and strength community. Early uses of Excel centered largely on calculating final standings or power coefficients at weightlifting or powerlifting meets. (18)
The rise of forums and websites encouraged a few kind — and a few commercially-minded — souls to produce simple Excel spreadsheets for the training public. Input your 1-rep max and the Excel file would produce your next month or year of workouts depending on its depth. This was the beginning of a computer revolution that culminated in the rise of strength training apps.
From Computers to Smartphones
The first-ever iPhone was launched in 2007 and, although this event was not the birth of the smartphone, it provides a nice jumping-off point for a new technological and, in time, fitness trend — the App Store. The iPhone App Store opened in 2008, four years before Android launched its own platform. Offering roughly 500 apps at the point of creation, the App Store also provided some workout and fitness tools.
One of the first fitness apps offered in the App Store was “Fit Phone,” a now-defunct workout app. (19) It was quickly followed by countless others as the App Store became something of a mobile technology gold rush. The problem was that the quality was often questionable.
For anyone who remembers using a workout app during this period, they were often clunky, and very basic in functionality. Few of them could do mathematical calculations and most were more akin to a shopping app than an interactive training tool.
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Writing for Men’s Journal in 2009, Lisa Friedman noted that one of the best apps at the time didn’t even let users log their workouts. (20) But, times did change and apps became more sophisticated. They became a hybrid of the Excel spreadsheet and a gaming app. In time, apps like StrongLifts and a host of other program-specific services came to change how people trained.
This was not without its own problems, though. Jim Wendler, the man behind the 5/3/1 program, ran into repeated issues with app developers during the early to mid-2010s. On more than one occasion, developers created their own 5/3/1 app, which utilized Wendler’s programming, and profited off his ingenuity without his knowledge. (21)
Copyright issues aside, workout apps did improve and, with that, so too did the accessibility of powerlifting. It was now possible for those with a passing interest in strength to download an app, input their estimated 1-rep max, and have a personalized workout plan created in seconds.
What once took meticulous planning with a pen and paper, or through the creation of an Excel spreadsheet, could now be done by anyone through a device that fit in their pocket.
At the time of this writing, the StrongLifts app has 64,000 reviews. Taken in their totality, 5/3/1-related apps have over 40,000 reviews. Starting Strength has 5,000 reviews in both the Apple and Google stores. Periodization has been popularized for the masses in a way simply unheard of only two decades prior.
What was once the closely-guarded (and sometimes state-sponsored) knowledge of athletes who trained behind closed gym doors is now available to anyone with a cellular plan.
Why This Transformation Matters
In the 1960s and 1970s, those interested in building their strength had three outlets. They could listen to the veterans in their gym, subscribe to written publications like Strength & Health, or they could parse through academic journals claiming to reveal the secrets of the Soviet Union. Knowledge was tightly guarded, spoken in whispers or as hearsay, and hard to uncover.
The internet has changed strength training through the proliferation of websites, blogs, and vlogs. The world is saturated with information — which is both a blessing and a curse, especially if you don’t know where to begin your fitness journey. Trainees can access world-class programs and templates from their phones. If knowledge is power, strength athletes have become almighty.
1. Conor Heffernan, ‘Louis Abele Training Programme,’ Physical Culture Study. October 4, 2016. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/10/04/louis-abele-training-programme/
2. Poliquin, ‘Workout Systems: Matveyev Periodization Model,’ Poliquin, July 12, 2016. https://www.poliquinstore.com/articles/workout-systems-matveyev-periodization-model/
3. Craig Marker, ‘4 Secrets of Soviet Weightlifting,’ Breaking Muscle, November 14, 2014. https://breakingmuscle.com/4-secrets-of-soviet-weightlifting-as-revealed-by-pavel/
4. Greg Nuckols, ‘Periodization: What the Data Say,’ Stronger By Science, January 8, 2018. https://www.strongerbyscience.com/periodization-data/
5. Lawrence Kenshin, ‘Dr. Yessis: The Legendary Sports Scientist You’ve Never Read About,’ Lawrence Kenshin, February 6, 018. http://lawrencekenshin.com/dr-yessis-the-legendary-sports-scientist-youve-never-read-about/
6. Jenkins, Simon PR. “Master coach, technical expert and evidence-based practitioner in weightlifting: An interview with Harvey Newton.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 13, no. 2 (2018): 155-166.
8. ‘Powerlifting Legends Of The Golden Era: Full Exclusive Interviews With Vince Anello, Jan Todd, & Rickey Dale Crain,’ Iron Man, April 29, 2021. https://www.ironmanmagazine.com/powerlifting-legends-of-the-golden-era-full-exclusive-interviews-with-vince-anello-jan-todd-rickey-dale-crain/
9. ‘Strength Sensei Bookshelf,’ Strength Sensei, 18 February 2021. https://strengthsenseiinc.com/2021/02/18/strength-sensei-bookshelf-the-strongest-shall-survive/
10. Louie Simmons, ‘Who Built Westside Barbell? – The 1980s,’ Westside Barbell, October 13, 2016. https://www.westside-barbell.com/blogs/the-blog/who-built-westside-barbell-part-ii-the-1980-s
11. Marty Gallagher, ‘Mark Chaillet: Many roads lead to strength,’ Iron Company , November 28, 2016. https://www.ironcompany.com/blog/marty-gallagher-raw-resistance-training-mark-chaillet-powerlifting
12. Matt Perryman, ‘Raw Lifting and Linear Periodization,’ Myosynthesis, July 1, 2010. https://www.myosynthesis.com/raw-lifting-linear-periodization
14. Oliver Lee Bateman, ‘The Unheard History of Bodybuilding Forums, as Told by the Trolls and Counter-Trolls Who Made Them Huge,’ Mel Magazine, https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/the-unheard-history-of-bodybuilding-forums-as-told-by-the-trolls-and-counter-trolls-who-made-them-huge.
15. Check out Starting Strength from 2005 at https://web.archive.org/web/20050518013403/http://startingstrength.com/.
16. Jim Wendler, ‘5/3/1: How to Build Pure Strength,’ T-Nation, July 7, 2009. https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/5-3-1-how-to-build-pure-strength/
17. Mark Rippetoe, ‘100 Starting Strength Gyms in 5 Years,’ Starting Strength October 24, 2018. https://startingstrength.com/article/100-starting-strength-gyms-in-5-years
18. ‘Battle of the Spreadsheets,’ New York Times, October 2 1987. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/02/business/the-battle-of-the-spreadsheets.html.
19. Diana Smith, ‘Guest Post: History of Fitness Apps Every Fitness Freak Should Know,’ Physical Culture Study, March 16, 2022. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2022/03/16/guest-post-history-of-fitness-apps-every-fitness-freak-should-know/
20. Lisa Friedman, ‘Best Fitness and Nutrition Apps for iPhone,’ Men’s Journal, 2009. https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/best-fitness-and-nutrition-apps-for-iphone/
21. This was the subject of a T-Nation forum debate in 2017. https://forums.t-nation.com/t/jim-do-you-have-a-5-3-1-app/233016
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