Home Blog Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly

Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly

Written on July 22, 2011 at 7:53 am, by Eric Cressey

As I noted in my post earlier this week, I’m doing the Superhero Workout for a nice little change of pace in my training program – and simply because it’s nice to be able to outsource my training here and there to other qualified fitness professionals.

Yesterday’s strength training program included ten sets of three reps on a wide stance squat, and it was all going smoothly until the seventh set, when I started to get a little tight in my right adductor.  It wasn’t too bad, but I’m a firm believer in “better safe than sorry,” so I cut back on the weight by 50 pounds, narrowed my stance, and finished my last three sets with no problem at all.

Sure, I deviated from the program, but I completed the session just fine, and have zero issues in the adductor today.  I avoided taking an unnecessary risk that could have become a setback in my training, and as a result, I’ll be continuing with the program as-is today.

It got me to thinking about this question for my readers: what would you have done in this situation?  It’s a tough – and confusing – decision.

Would you have done what I did?  Would you have simply dropped the weight and tried another set with a wide stance?  Would you have canned the final sets and reps and moved on to the next strength exercise pairing? Would you have just pushed through it?  Or, would you just have taken your ball and gone home altogether?

The answers to these questions – whether they are correct or not – parallel something called cybernetic periodization.  I first came across the topic when Mel Siff wrote about it in Supertraining as he referred to programs not always taking “into account the athlete’s subjective perception of the intensity and overall effects of the loading.”  Siff went on to say that with cybernetic periodization, “the original preplanned periodisation scheme is regularly modified by subjective and objective feedback obtained from the lifter’s current performance state.”

Traditionally, at least from what I have read, cybernetic periodization has referred almost strictly to load, volume, and training frequency.  However, the question I pose today is: why can’t it also refer to exercise selection?

As an example, I’ve switched folks from conventional deadlifts to trap bar deadlifts or sumo deadlifts when they just couldn’t find their groove on the conventional version.  And, some people can do feet-elevated push-ups when regular push-ups hurt.  Exercise selection absolutely matters as much as any other strength training program variable.

I’m a firm believer that there is always something folks can do in a gym to get better, regardless of their injury or state of mind.  Folks may be wildy excited to train, but have physical limitations that need to be taken into account on the fly in the context of exercise selection.  To that end, I think it’s important to know what to watch for in this regard if you’re trying to determine whether you should change a day’s training program:

1. Is there a performance drop from previous weeks?

2. Do warm-up sets feel heavier than normal?

3. Do you find that you’re having a hard time getting warmed-up?

4. Did you get poor sleep quality the night before?

5. Do you have unusual tightness, or something you’d term an injury?

These are all questions you can ask yourself on the fly in your strength training program to determine whether you need to change things up.  The modification may be an exercise substitution or reduction in volume or intensity.  Regardless of the change, it’s extremely rare that the answer is to push through it, as it’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong – and the correct cybernetic periodization approach is the way to “get things right.”

On a related note, the early-bird special price on the Superhero Workout ends Saturday at midnight.  Head HERE for more information.

Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a deadlift technique tutorial!


14 Responses to “Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly”

  1. Andy McCloy Says:

    Anyone who has ever had to work in the capacity as a High school strength coach should be able to relate to your article. Many times over the past 10 years that I’ve worked as both a HS S&C coach and as a private coach I’ve had to deviate from my script and provide athletes with guidelines on how to adjust their load, and exercise selection. High school athletes always are doing something outside of the weight room (and field) that could potentially affect how they perform on their next training session. There is no way to implement a perfect “paper training plan” in the environment I work in. So I do my best my designing the best program I can but I always build in a contengency plan during certain phases/cycles.

    Great post,

    Andy McCloy

  2. Jon Goodman Says:

    It’s amazing how ahead of his time Mel Siff was. Thanks for the guidelines. I’ve always been a firm believer in listening to the body first and following the science second.

    Day to day variations are present when ‘normal’ people are exercising due to sleep habits, lunar cycles, hydration, menstral cycles (women…hopefully), and nutrition.

    How would you explain this concept to a general population client?

  3. Sam Leahey Says:

    Ultimate monitoring system = Omegawave.


  4. Mike Kozak Says:

    Great post. Anyone that works in the private sector should be able to relate to this as kids are constantly participating in “summer leagues”, team lifts and conditioning and AAU/club tournys. I have found myself creating more workouts on the fly and going off of “feel”.

  5. Frank@midwest kettlebell Says:

    As an older lifter, in that situation I would’ve canned the exercise altogether and moved on to something else unrelated, I just don’t risk it anymore. By the way, Supertraining is the one book I would recommend if I only had one to choose from, hands down. Even though I’m a Kettlebell instructor, many of the underlying principles are covered in it. Great stuff!
    Glad to hear you’re a fellow Siff advocate.

  6. Daevid Says:

    I’d hate to be the only person to disagree (and not fully mind you, I think the article makes solid points) but I’ve personally had many days where I felt tight, tired, the weights felt heavier etc, but knowing (believing) I was capable of doing it, I did it anyway and felt beter afterwards. If I didn’t train every time I was not feeling 100% I don’t think I’d ever train!
    I guess that’s where your point about subjective and objective feedback comes in but I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the athlete’s (or I this case my own) personal assessment.

    Thanks. Love the blog.


  7. Joe Caligiuri Says:

    Two things come to mind.

    John Wooden set this principal years ago when he coined: Don’t let what you can’t do, interfere with what you can do.

    If the client is also in a summer league or playing a school sport, working out with me in addition to his classmates is the edge he’s paying for. I tell them I’d rather they not come than for me to decrease volume or intensity.

  8. Maurizio Paolini Says:

    I’m an old lifter too, so for me it’s quite easy to understand the difference between a “good” day and a REAL “bad” day, but what if a novice or intermediate lifter/athlete confuses a “lazy” day for a bad one?….I think that in order to benefit from “cybernetic variations” they need some supervision from someone more advanced than him…..Very interesting post….BTW Eric what about “Superhero Workout” following “Show & Go”?…Is it a good sequel?

  9. neghar Says:

    I pretty much train myself and my clients with this same mindset. I always have a plan, but I am totally adaptable. When I have forced myself, beyond what I felt was right, to adhere to strict periodization despite lack of sleep, emotional stress, or just not feeling it-I have been dissatisfied with the results every time. Sometimes I forget how important it is to make changes on the fly, and get stuck to the numbers, so I appreciate you reminding me! Last week I was supposed to max out my deadlift, but I felt like junk. I had a very emotional and stressful conversation just before my training session and cortisol was likely high. I attempted to max anyway, and guess what? I missed it. Twice. There is something to be said about truly “listening” to your body. It wins out every time.

  10. Eric Cressey Says:


    It’d be a fantastic option for after Show and Go.

  11. Jake Says:

    I absolutely agree with your article. It’s common sense despite in these moments when you push to the limits, common sense is hard to find. If you can avoid injuries, that’s great, maybe you’ll never know where your real max are, but, why is that so important?

  12. Sean Pastuch Says:

    Good post, but did anyone notice the gas prices in that picture with the stop sign?! THe world used to make sense.

  13. Geoff Hartle Says:

    Better safe than sorry Eric, that is the way I look at it. If you hadn’t backed off on the lifting you could have very easily injured yourself and that wouldn’t benefit you or anyone else.

    I am no stranger to lifting injuries, having caused serious damage to my left knee while doing squats in a competition.

  14. Billy Says:

    Oh my God those gas prices! LOL! I don’t mean to deviate from your post, it was really great, but look at how low they used to be! What has happened…

  • Avoid the most common deadlifting mistakes
  • 9 - minute instructional video
  • 3 part follow up series