Interview with Tudor Bompa

Tudor Bompa is one of the world’s foremost sports training experts. He is the only coach to have produced Olympic and world champions in two different sports – athletics and rowing. He has been called the father of periodization (training planning). I bet there aren’t any athletes in the world who don’t owe their successes (even if they don’t realize it) to Bompa’s theories in one way or another.

How did you get involved in sport?

Like almost every kid in Romania I started to play football. Track and field also captivated my interest so much so that during my mid-teens I was very busy training and competing in both sports. I quickly realised the athleticism I gained from track greatly helped my football. When I was 17 I was selected for the Romanian national under18 side. And I still managed to find the time to continue with my track and field training. I won a silver and two bronze medals in the under 18 national championships. These were in the sprints and the pentathlon, so I was busy! However, an unfortunate ankle injury terminated my football career.

But what about rowing you won a world championship medal didn’t you?

Some of my best friends were rowers and with my injury I stopped playing football and tried rowing. Since I was genetically equipped for speed and power, I had to struggle to achieve a decent performance level in a sport where endurance is crucial. But somehow I managed and kept going to such an extent that I won a silver medal in the ‘four’ at the 1958 European Championships.

You are widely acknowledged as one of the fathers (if not the father) of periodization, do you accept this tag?

Your statement greatly honours me, but it is slightly exaggerated. Let me share with your readers the evolution of periodization. From the early years of the ancient Olympics, athletes have followed a very simple but logical method of training. They trained to compete, compete in pre-Olympic and Olympic Games and then rest and relax. This is periodization. The athlete follows training phases (now called – preparatory, competitive and transition phases). In fact this was described by the Greek philosopher, Flavius Philostratus (AD 170-245). Planning or periodization therefore, is neither a novelty, nor a Russian discovery. However, a Russian professor Leonid Matveyev was the first to use the term periodization in terms of planning the phases of an athlete’s training. Matveyev was the first author to really analyse statistically what the Soviet athletes used in training for the 1952 Olympic Games. His work and conclusions validated the concept of periodization. That is that the annual training plan should be divided in phases of training, each phase having a specific training objective (mostly physiological). And that the phases of the annual plan should be subdivided into even smaller training phases, called macro-cycles (of 2-6 weeks duration) and micro-cycles (a week of training).

You put your new found ‘modern’ periodization theories to the test when you coached the 1964 Olympic javelin champion ….

Yes, in 1963 Mihaela Penes a junior javelin thrower from Romania was left without a coach. I was approached to help her. I applied what is now known as the ‘periodization of strength’ to her training. The logic of the time – and one that is still held by many coaches today – was that as power is the dominant ability in, for example, the javelin power has to be trained all the time. However, my logic was different. Since power is a function of maximum strength you have to develop maximum strength first and then convert it into power, prior to participating in major competitions. I termed this the periodization of strength. During my first winter with Mihaela I tested my theory and realised that her levels of power were much higher when strength was periodized, as opposed to other athletes who followed the standard training methodology of year-round power training. Since Mihaela was an unknown athlete outside of Romania I wanted to surprise all her competitors at the Tokyo Olympics. I added another different ingredient into the training plan – her first attempt had to be the best of the day when throwing and when strength/power training. In Tokyo none of the other throwers were looking out for her and with her first throw she threw an Olympic record! Shock! They had long faces! And they still did by the end of the competition when she climbed on the podium to collect her gold medal!

So how do you put the periodization of strength together …..

I order it in this sequence and through these phases:

1. Anatomical adaptation: 3-6 weeks (briefly this is a general training phase that trains athletes with lighter loads and targets all body parts. Ed)

2. Maximum strength (MxS): 6 weeks (this phase emphasises heavy weights and uses exercises relevant to the athlete’s event. Ed)

3. Conversion to power: 5-6 weeks (this phase involves heavy – but at a reduced level – and power weights and plyometrics. Ed)

You said that there are different periodization models, how did these develop?

Double, (two peaks), and triple (three peaks) periodization models resulted from detailed studies. In the 1960′s most athletes used a mono-cycle, or one peak annual plan. This used to be typical in track and field. I also used it in rowing. It soon became apparent that the best performances were achieved in early summer (June) and could not be replicated in the late summer (August) during the World Championships, for example. This failure made me critically analyse what I was doing with my athletes. More testing and research followed and I finally realised that for sports where a coach has to plan two peaks per season he/she has to use a plan I called, at that time ‘double peak periodization’. Between the first peak in the early summer (June) and the second in August, as examples, I had to put in a mini-preparatory phases (involving maximum strength and power training). A very short transition period was also included in June at the end of the first peak this lasted for two weeks. This variation of periodization evolved into what I now call a ‘bi-cycle or a double peak annual plan’.

You’ve had your detractors………………..

Yes, despite the success of my methods I have my detractors especially in the USA. Several sports scientists have claimed that I didn’t really create all the elements of periodization I describe in my books. They claim that the Russians developed them! And that I ‘just’ brought them to the West! My reaction is this – show me a Russian book or article written from 1960 to1980 that discusses the periodization of strength/power! The periodization of endurance! The periodization of speed and agility! And so on. In fact two books of mine have been translated into Russian!

At this point Tudor provided a little anecdote on the Russians ……..

After my success in Tokyo I was invited to Moscow for a conference where all successful coaches had to share everything they have done in training their athletes with the Russians. I never told them everything and I left out in my presentation the conversion to power training phase. I also skipped the psycho-physiological methodology I used to train my athletes for maximum performance on the first attempt. Somehow the Russians didn’t trust me! All of a sudden I was followed around by a beautiful young lady. Every time we had a short conversation she invariably tried to discuss sports training. On the last evening we were in Moscow the Russians organized a sort of banquet. The girl sat besides me and after few shots of vodka she wanted me to invite her to my room. Now, I didn’t want to be rude, so I invited her! Knowing that Russians love drinking, I offered her some Romanian ‘tuica’ (pronounced ‘tzuyka’). It’s a very strong plum brandy, stronger than vodka. I promised her that I would reveal all aspects of training later on. Now, I had some tea in my room and while she was drinking tuica, I drank tea. I encouraged her to drink as much “tuica” as possible. Now, for unknown reasons she found me very, very attractive, and tried to tempt me to bed. I said, ‘Let’s have another glass of tuica and then another one… and then I’ll take you to my bed.’ By the time we reached my bed she had passed out…….probably dreaming about being held in the arms of Hercules.

There have been a number of articles recently touting ‘the end of periodization’. These, to me, just supplant linear periodization with undulating periodization (UP)….

I read such an article myself and was very disappointed to realise that the author confused loading patterns with the periodization of training! Anyway for those who claim the end of periodization I have two questions/comments to make: a) do they really understand periodization? I regret to say this but the more a person questions periodization the more I question his/her understanding of sports science and training in general. Let me simply say that for as long as you want to be an effective coach you have to conduct a well organized and planned periodized training methodology. And b) if periodized training is ineffective what is left to us? We either have periodization or chaos! Chose what you want.

And … undulating periodization?

So called undulating periodization is nothing but changes to the patterns and magnitude of training loads during a week. Olympic weight lifting athletes have been doing this for generations. Now, I don’t want to be arrogant, but it seems to me that some authors want to recycle the loading pattern format and pretend they have created something new. And in any case the more variations of loadings there are during the week (i.e. 60-70-80-90% of 1RM) the more I question the effectiveness of adaptation to a given load. For instance, to increase maximum strength one has to use loads greater than 80%.1RM. Any time you reduce the load to less than 80%, you don’t develop maximum strength any more, rather you create a variation of power training. So in reality UP is nothing else but a stew, a mixture of ingredients, or in our case a mixture of training loads that will result in mixed adaptation.

Is there truly a ‘key’ weight training lift for a power athlete, such as a sprinter? Recently, I read an article where the dead-lift was identified by one coach.

For sprinting and any sports that desire quickness, maximum speed and agility, the triple extensor muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus, quadriceps, and gluteus maximus) are determinant for ultimate performance. The propulsion phase (the push-off against the ground) is crucial. Weak propulsion potential will increase the duration of the contact phase, making the sprinter slower. The stronger, the triple extensor muscles, the shorter the duration of the contact phase. Now, the dead-lift does not strengthen the calf muscles, for example. It strengthens the hamstrings – which are essential in terms of power and strength in terms of shortening the recovery phase of the running step (bringing the heels up toward the buttocks). But it does not work the triple extensors.

I therefore recommend these exercises for sprinters (and any athletes) that want to become faster and more agile (in this order):

A) Calf (heel) raise.

b) Squats since

c) A lift that strengthens the hamstrings, e.g. leg curls

I apologise for my bluntness, but it seems that every now and then some coaches do ‘rediscover the wheel’. Every time an athlete achieves a great performance the trend is to find out what their coach has done? What is the miraculous lift, for example? However, nobody asks about the genetic qualities of the athlete or how the coach has planned the different phases of the training program. There are no miracles when it comes to strength training for sprinters.

What do you think about sports specific strength training in the UK?

On my last trip to the UK in 2006, I realised that strength coaches are too captivated with Olympic weight lifting. Why? Don’t they know that a strength exercise should be selected in regard to how it targets muscles in the way they are used in the sports activity itself?

What makes a successful coach?

Have an inquisitive mind! Experience as many methods as possible to realise what works best. Always challenge instructors promoting ‘novelties’. Read, read and read again. You’ll find out what is good and what is …trash!

Oh, and read my books. They are the best in the world, but if one evening you find it hard to sleep, just open one and in a few seconds you’ll be gone!

You’ve also explored the periodization of psychology and nutrition. What’s this all about?

Training is a very complex endeavour; simply because human beings are complex individuals! There is so much to account for to successfully train an individual. For example, you need to train the energy systems in correct proportions and this has a knock on effect on nutrition. For example, during the MxS phase more protein would be needed. Therefore nutrition must be adapted to the dominant energy system of a given sport and the time in the periodization plan.

The development of certain abilities also requires specific psychological support. For instance, maximum concentration is a crucial psychological quality during maximum speed, power and MxS training. We use some very selective psychological strategies and adapt these techniques to the training phase, training methods and the needs of the athlete.

Your books have sold over copies 650 000 copies, so your methods are now world wide……

Well, yes. My methods have been used by many and here for example, in Canada, with Canadian rowers and some sprinters (Tudor has lived in Canada for 37 years). I adapted the same periodization of strength methods I used for Mihaela for Ben Johnson, working with his coach Charlie Francis. Francis, agreed with the maximum strength I suggested for Johnson. Remember that this was in 1983, when strength training for sprinters was believed to slow them down rather than assist them in applying more force against the ground. I produced the following plan. I began with what I call ‘anatomical adaptation – this lasts 3 to 6 weeks. I then planned a MxS phase for 6 weeks. This was followed by a power training phase. Both MxS and power training is them maintained during the competitive phase. Charlie and I demonstrated in the 1980′s that a sprinter can never be fast before being strong!

I’ve read your endurance strength ideas using 400 plus reps ……….

With rowing I developed another version of periodization. This was developed in the late 1960-1980′s. This involves a 6 week maximum strength phase, followed by a muscle-endurance phase (‘M-E’). This lasts for 8-10 weeks. While the specifics of maximum strength is to use heavy loads (over 80% of one repetition maximum) during the M-E phase the athlete is trained with much lighter loads (30-40%) 1RM. Sessions often use more than 400 repetitions (8 exercises x 60 repetitions per muscle group). These are performed non-stop, but they do alternate muscle groups to allow for a better recovery. This training will stress the heart and lungs in a way that is commensurate with the specifics of the athlete’s (endurance) event.

Note: Bompa has written 16 books and these have been translated into 18 languages. These have 850 000 world wide sales

He founded the Tudor Bompa Institute to train instructors in his methods

Professor Emeritus at York University. Toronto


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