Primal Periodization for Resistance Training

Primal Periodization for Resistance Training

Primal Periodization - 465 BC, Greek Triremes on the prowl: 180 men rowed as one in balletic synchronization. Long distances were covered in record time using ‘steady-state’ pacing. Sprint speed was used to ram other ships or escape. Free men competed to be rowers. A seat on a Trireme meant a cut of seized bounty and property. Lean, muscular men won the seats, reaped the rewards and gained status.

Periodization is synonymous with preplanning.  Periodization is the creation of a detailed plan of athletic attack. Systematically, methodically, gradually, the periodized athlete “stair-steps” progress and performance ever upward, one preplanned workout at a time.

Progressive resistance training with dumbbells and barbells is particularly well suited for periodization because it is a numeric-based art form. Every aspect of weight training can be expressed numerically. Periodization is, elementally, a manipulation of numbers. Sets, reps, poundage, frequency, intensity, duration, etc., etc., are the language of progressive resistance training. Categories are created and within each definable category periodized strategies are implemented. Everything is thought out ahead of time, everything is logged and reviewed.

Successful periodization is dependent on establishing realistic goals. Goals are tricky and straddle a psychological razor’s edge: goals need be realistic and not wildly exaggerated.  Yet goals need be sufficiently motivating. If the goal is too ambitious and unrealistic, disappointment and failure is assured. Conversely, a goal needs to be significant enough to be motivating. Once realistic, motivating (numeric) goals are established, it is a relatively simple procedure to reverse engineer an 8 to 12-week long periodized training cycle.

Goals are established and set into timeframes. Reverse engineer weekly mini-goals. Set them into a timeframe and set about sequentially attaining benchmarked performance levels. Categories are tweaked and manipulated over an extended period. The goal is profound: attain never-achieved levels of performance and radically transformed the physique. Herculean effort exerted over an extended period morphs both performance and physique.

The modern use of periodization was implemented and systematized by communist sport dynasties during the post-WWII cold war era. Iron Curtain countries sought to draw the correlation that athletic supremacy was an indicator of societal superiority. State-sponsored coaches, sport scientists, medical doctors, iron curtain psychiatrists and sport psychologists devised periodization to uniformly train their army of athletes.  Iron Curtain cold war athletes had tremendous success, attributable in large part to their sophisticated use of periodized training tactics.  Periodization is not a modern invention.  We can trace primal forms of periodization back to ancient Greece.

Discus thrower, 775 BC: This man would stand 6’6, weigh 285 with a 9% body fat percentile Discus thrower, 775 BC: This man would stand 6’6, weigh 285 with a 9% body fat percentile


Grecian Games generally excluded team competitions. Contests included footraces, the long jump, discus, javelin throw, wrestling, the pentathlon (a combination of these five events), boxing, the pankration (a combination of wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot races.) During competition and training, athletes were usually naked and covered with olive oil to keep off the dust. They trained in the gymnasium or xystos (covered colonnade), often coached by past victors. The Greeks believed that a love for athletics distinguished them from non-Greeks. Only Greek citizens were allowed to compete in the games.

                                                                         Collette Hemingway

The Greek Games went on for centuries and over the centuries the athletes and coaches conceived of a radical idea: create systems that improve performance. Athletic advances improved the fitness level of the fearsome Grecian military, both army and navy.  The famed Athenian Trireme battleship was the Cigarette boat of the era, (circa 450-500 BC.) the classical Trireme utilized 180 rowers, stacked atop one another on three levels. These low-slung ships set speed, endurance and distance records that stand to this day.

A Trireme had a razor-sharp battering ram tipped with copper and designed to be punched through the side of an enemy ship. After ramming an enemy, 180 rowers would throw it into reverse and row backwards from the now-sinking enemy ship. The upside on a Trireme? Every rower got a proportional cut of any spoils, won or taken. This was quite lucrative when Greece was at its naval peak. It was a high-status occupation to be a rower.

The Greek Trireme drill sergeants acclimatized new recruits to the rigors of rowing using primal periodization. Grecian rowing crews, 180 strong, took row technique to a new level. The coaches broke the Trireme row stroke down into three distinct segments…

  • the catch, the rower enters his oar into the water at a precise angle
  • the drive, the rower, oar now in the water, powers forward, using the entire body
  • the finish, the rower completes a full range of motion stroke, no quitting at the end

The catch was a subtle technique that was mastered over time.  A wide paddle was sat at the end of a long oar. Entering the water efficiently and precisely is much harder than it sounds. The drive phase required an arm pull coordinated with a strong leg drive.  The third and final phase of the row technique was the finish.  The Greek’s felt that a full and complete finish was hallmarked by a full body extension. A complete finish was needed on every oar stroke.

In addition to all this, the rower had to show he could row in time and work harmoniously with the current crew. To win one of the 180 seats on a Trireme was to escape life as a goat herder or common laborer.  Winning a seat was a competitive undertaking: tryouts were held.  Once a man made the cut, he was gradually incorporated.

Above all else, a ship needed to maintain pace. A certain fleet-wide minimum was expected and needed to be adhered to; when a rookie withered, he was yanked out of the lineup. Over time, the rookie rower became able to maintain the pace. This was periodization in its infancy. The Greek Olympiad athletes and the Trireme rowers were pioneer periodization practitioners.

Ori Hofmeckler maintains these ancient rowers achieved a level of strength-endurance that modern athletes cannot equal.  Hofmekler’s contention is that the type of sustained athletic activity, extreme muscular exertion maintained for extended periods and done consistently, reconfigures muscle tissue. Morphing muscles: no longer slow-twitch or fast-twitch, rather a new “muscle hybrid” fiber that has both the power for high-level strength outputs and the ability to sustain hard and heavy work for extended periods.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.