Block Periodization
workflow cognition

Overview

For several years I’ve been using a block periodization method to accomplish goals. Block periodization is an idea I’ve generalized from European weightlifting research that I find effective for achieving objectives of all types. The underlying idea of the system is to use concentrated workloads directed towards improving a minimal number of qualities which are split across different training cycles. I divide a unit of time, typically a calender year, into subunits called mesocycles. During a given mesocycle, focus is directed toward the progression of a particular quality. By chaining together different mesocycles, block periodization facilitates long-term goal progression.

I use the unavoidable term goals through this post, but it’s important to clarify what I mean in the context of block periodization. Goals are finite and tangible objectives. Goals are waypoints along a path to a higher, ultimately unachievable, objective. An artist may endeavor to have an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art, but their higher purpose is to become better at their craft. This is a never ending pursuit. Goals are achieved in mesocycles. Pursuits are lifetime journeys. Block periodization is ultimately concerned with pursuits.

I’ve found block periodization to be an effective technique for accomplishing goals and facilitating progress toward pursuits of all types. Below I outline my experience with the method in more detail and explain why I think it is a superior productivity framework.

  • Rationale
  • Mesocycles
  • Pairings
  • Example Block
  • Rationale

    Moving in every direction at the same time results in no net progress. Trying to accomplish many goals at the same time thwarts achievement by the same logic. Block periodization creates an environment where progress towards individual goals is nurtured. The system promotes motivation and prevents fatigue by shifting the intensity, frequency, and type of training between each mesocycle. The result of this technique is improved focus, the prevention of burnout, and measurable progress toward pursuits.

    Using a mesocycle-based system works well with human physiology. Repeatedly revisiting the same pursuit in different mesocycles enhances adaptation and learning through repeated consolidation and retrieval responses. Spaced repetition is one of the most potent adaptation mechanisms in human physiology. The net result of block periodization is steady progress toward multiple long-term pursuits through concerted waves of specialized focus and recovery.

    Mesocycles

    Block periodization was originally designed as a framework to help athletes and Olympians prepare for competition. Using mostly heuristics coupled with some theoretical backing, it was found that chaining together four types of mesocycles results in maximal athletic preparedness. Each type of mesocycle is used at different times in training and is intended for different purposes within block periodization. There is no prescribed mesocycle order or frequency, only generalized patterns of mesocycle sequences. This strategy allows different mesocycles to be strung together to facilitate the progression of pursuits tailored to a specific individual. The four mesocycle types include:

    • Accumulation:
      This phase serves as a foundation upon which other, more specialized, mesocycles are built. It can be thought of as a priming phase in which appropriate base skills are acquired to increase the efficacy of future specialization cycles. The training volume in this phase is relatively high, but not overly intense. To use block periodization in preparing for the SAT, one might study basic algebra, reading comprehension, and problem solving in this phase to facilitate improved learning of SAT-specific content in future phases.

    • Transmutation:
      This phase focuses on converting the general base qualities built in the Accumulation phase into goal-specific results. These mesocycles are taxing and consist of only moderate volume, but very high intensity. Learning techniques such as rehearsal are used in this phase to closely mimic goal scenarios. Metrics are designed to assess progress across a given cycle and between different blocks. Enrolling in an intensive SAT preparatory course would be an example activity for this phase. Taking mock SAT exams and tracking score improvement provides an experience that closely emulates the actual exam and provides feedback via test score to assess goal progress.

    • Restoration:
      This phase affords a planned recovery period to allow mental and physical recharging. Restoration phases often follow Transmutation cycles, but can be introduced at any time. Scheduled Restoration phases refresh focus, combat burnout, and prevent fatigue. The defocus creates a lag window for assimilating short-term achievements made in Accumulation and Transmutation blocks into long-term progression. Restoration phases can provide time for contemplation, assessment of goal metrics, planning of future goals, and for devising future periodization blocks. In preparing for the SAT, a Restoration cycle might represent a summer break from school.

    • Realization:
      This phase encompasses the taper and subsequent peak toward a performance. It was initially designed to help prepare athletes for competition. Continuing with the SAT example, this cycle would consist of trying to optimize performance for test day in the few weeks leading up to the actual SAT exam.

    Pairings

    The original block periodization system was designed around using focused training to improve a single quality in each mesocycle. Over time, I’ve expanded the system and found that it can be successfully applied to several pursuits simultaneously if the periodization is planned correctly. Certain pairings are particularly effective if cycled together. In some cases, the periodization of one pursuit can enhance the periodization of another pursuit. Successfully pairing block periodization schemes hinges on two main determinants—choosing the right pair of pursuits and properly managing the intensity/frequency of each mesocycle.

    With pairings, it’s unwise to try and run two Transmutation blocks simultaneously in my experience. Increasing the intensity of one pursuit should correspond to a concomitant decrease in the intensity of the other pursuit. Finding ways to marry both pursuits together is a surefire way to maximize the efficacy of the pairing. Another generalization I’ve found with successful pairings is that very different block periodization schemes often complement each other very well. I’ve found pairing physical and mental pursuits particularly effective. Each component of the pair complements the other in unexpected ways. As an example, I’ll describe my own experiences using this pairing.

    Example Block

    Two of my main pursuits include athletic preparedness and data science. In most blocks, I use the first mesocycle of January through March as a Transmutation phase for athletic preparedness and as an Accumulation phase for data science. For athletic preparedness, I focus this mesocycle around fat-loss. For data science, I use the accumulation phase for knowledge acquisition.

    The dead of winter is the best time for fat-loss mesocycles as there are fewer holidays and social events, so I can keep a consistent diet and concentrate on training. This phase has a good amount of cardiovascular training, which is an ideal window for knowledge acquisition. This year, I used the time spent during cardiovascular training for knowledge acquisition by reading Jaynes’ Probability Theory. Pairing these two phases is a big productivity win. Not only is the time simultaneously used for both pairings, but reading makes the time spent doing cardio go by faster and physical exercise improves knowledge acquisition by improving memory and increasing brain volume.

    I switch to an Accumulation phase for athletic preparedness and a Transmutation phase for data science in the second mesocycle of April through May. This year, I applied what I learned about formal logic and probability in the previous mesocycle to extend my recommender tool, Pinborg. Projects like this help me put theory into practice and test how much I’ve learned. An added bonus of building a recommender system is that it creates a positive feedback loop that continually stockpiles relevant information that I use to feed future Accumulation phases.

    The Accumulation phase of athletic preparedness provides a needed change from the rigorous winter Transmutation mesocycle. Shifting training to more outdoor-orientated activities afford opportunities to spend time with friends and family, while simultaneously achieving goals. This year I concentrated efforts towards improving joint mobility and strength training.

    For the second half of the year, I start with Restorative mesocycles for both pursuits in the months of July through September. I find it best for my motivation to not impose any plan in this phase. Summer is a good time for Restoration as it allows ample time for travel, vacations, neglected hobbies, movies, house projects, etc. For the last cycle of the year, I tend to do something different each year depending on what else is going on in my life. Sometimes I run Accumulation cycles for both pursuits or a Transmutation cycle for one pursuit and an Accumulation cycle for the other.