Phase potentiation refers to the careful management of training phases in order to achieve a desired effect. From the Scientific Principles of Strength Training:
“The first step in understanding the logic of phase potentiation is the realization that a certain type of training phase now can improve the gains from a different type of training later. That is, training to accomplish some capability can improve the results of training for a different capability later. Thus, the phase of training for the first capability can be said to “potentiate” (or improve) the results of the second capability.” (278)
Specificity ensures progress, but sometimes specificity alone simply leads to a plateau. As your body adapts to a stimulus, it becomes progressively more and more adapted to handle that stimulus, leading to a certain degree of “resistance”. If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, it gets stale over time. How can we overcome this?
We can get around this by implementing some kind of variation into our training. This can be as simple as swapping out a major lift for a similar variation (close grip bench instead of regular bench, or front squat instead of back squat). The principle of “muscle confusion” that’s often touted in the industry is an overapplication of the principle of variation - some variation is good, but more is NOT better. This minimal variation ensures that the stimulus feels new and fresh on the body while still working with lifts that have a high degree of carryover to whatever we’re trying to train.
Let’s say that your goal is to maximize your strength in the bench press for a powerlifting meet four months from now, measured in your single repetition maximum. A highly specific training method would be to do nothing but single rep bench presses as heavy as you can - but if you were to do nothing but this, you would quickly plateau/grow resistant to further improvement within a month or two, and then your strength would stagnate and likely decrease before you hit the fourth month.
Instead you organize things so that you start off with less specific training (close grip bench, or higher rep ranges) and then as the months progress, your reps decrease, your weight increases, and you switch from close grip to standard grip about a month out. You also start training more frequently with pauses, in order to be prepared for the pause necessary in powerlifting competition. Now you’ve spent the first few months training with a high degree of carryover before switching to the most specific training style and practiced with that right up until the point that you’ve hit the plateau but before it’s started to stagnate. You’ve maximized your strength at that four month mark by carefully organizing your training. This is the idea of phase potentiation.
In phase potentiation, you organize training into different cycles to achieve the desired effect at the desired time. The further away from that time, the less specific your training should be. Then, as you get closer and closer to that time, you build on those less specific training methods by progressively increasing specificity right up until the point of performance/testing. This represents a periodic manipulation of specificity and variation to achieve the right results at the right time. In doing so, you encounter less resistance in the form of diminishing returns, and develop in a more well rounded fashion. This leads to greater results.
Phase potentiation for strength generally relies on building endurance at higher rep ranges before progressing to lower rep ranges, heavier weights, and more specific lifts that mimic what they’ll see in competition - this built endurance allows you to perform more volume with heavier weights, eventually leading to better strength.
For example, a strength athlete might start off with a focus on size (60-75% intensity) then build into a focus on strength (75-90% intensity) and then build into a peaking block (80-95% intensity with less volume).
Phase potentiation for size generally relies on the manipulation of bulking, cutting, and maintenance phases in order to see the best results in size growth. Bodybuilders focus on cranking up overall volume steadily during a bulk and maintaining volume during a cut in order to keep as much muscle mass as possible.
For example, a bodybuilder might focus on a calorie surplus and adding volume in the form of reps and sets during a bulk, and then focus on maintaining that volume of training as much as possible during a calorie deficit.
Phase potentiation for endurance athletes relies on the manipulation of endurance and speed focused training to achieve the desired race pace in competition. In the offseason you focus on developing general endurance and speed before progressing to distances and speeds more similar to the kind you’re looking to compete at.
For example, let’s say that a runner wants to complete a 1600m run in the fastest time possible. Their previous time was 8:00 and they want to improve to 7:45. Thus, they want to be able to run at a 7:45 mile pace for a total duration of seven minutes and forty five seconds. They start off running with sprints as fast as possible (much faster) and long distance runs (much slower). Then, they progress into practicing more and more similar paces and distances, steadily increasing the length of the sprints and decreasing the length of the long runs until they converge at the 1 mile distance.
Not surprisingly, these method is highly advanced, and probably don’t matter unless everything else (specificity, overload, recovery) are all under control. Most frequently, phase potentiation is used by competition lifters athletes to prepare for a specific contest. You probably don’t need to use it unless you’re looking to either compete or simply trying to maximize your athletic potential as a hobby.
The Training Cycle
Phase potentiation is essentially the intelligent organization of training on a longer term basis. In the previous entry, I analyzed how workouts should be organized within the week. Phase potentiation involves the intelligent organization of multiple weeks to achieve our desired training effect. Typically, the unit of phase potentiation is the “cycle”.
A cycle can really be of any length, but the most common length is 1 month - this is long enough to be meaningful, but not so long as to be awkward. Within a phase potentiation plan, the goals of the exerciser change from month to month, so cycles are typically labelled by the goals of that cycle. One might say that a strength athlete is in a size cycle, or that an endurance athlete is in an endurance base-building cycle.
Closely related to the concept of phase potentiation is the concept of block periodization. Block periodization is the original application of phase potentiation, and involved dividing an athlete’s year up into cycles called blocks. These blocks had fancy names like accumulation, intensification/transmutation, realization. Block periodization largely refers to a very specific application of phase potentiation for strength and power in athletes - while it is the most famous and well-known form of phase potentiation, it is just one of many possible approaches. It is the one people are most likely to have heard of - but at the same time, block periodization is not commonly known even among many strength athletes.
As discussed, the intent is to build from less specific into more specific qualities. The typical athlete looking for performance on the field has a general progression of endurance - size - strength - power, so blocks or cycles should be organized in this fashion, with the final cycle leading up to the day or season of competition. The progression for a powerlifter is typically just size - strength or maybe endurance - size - strength, since power is (misleadingly) not actually the point of powerlifting, strength is. For bodybuilders, the progression is typically endurance or strength - size (calorie surplus) - size (calorie deficit).
It is not necessary to organize your workouts within a phase potentiation style in order to achieve results. Overload and specificity ensure progress. Deloads and proper weekly training organization help smooth out progress in the longer term and alleviate the necessary plateaus that you're going to encounter. However, to succeed in the extreme long term (6 months +) you need to more carefully organize your training to prevent general stagnation - this is the idea and purpose of phase potentiation and variation.
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