Block Periodization as a Way to Improve Strength and High-Level PT Scores

Senior airman performs deadlift during weightlifting competition.
A U.S. Air Force senior airman competes in a weightlifting competition Dec. 7, 2019, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. (Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Branson/U.S. Air Force photo)

Block periodization is a technique you need to know, whether you are training to master the new tactical fitness tests, such as the Army combat fitness test, or need to prepare for a challenging special ops pipeline where you need proficiency in multiple elements of fitness.

From an academic study on periodization: Block periodization “involves highly concentrated, specialized workloads. Each step in the training cycle has a large volume of exercises focused on specific, targeted training abilities to ensure maximum adaptation.”

These blocks usually address specific needs of the athlete for a short cycle of 2-4 weeks and are followed by either a deload week or a change to the cycle for a short period.

Over the past six months, we did our own test of this concept. Our athletes were active-duty military members and delayed entry program participants who were training specifically for either the Army CFT and Special Forces pipeline or the Navy Special Warfare physical screening test and BUD/S.


Usually, during the winter lift cycles, we give the athletes a break from high-repetition calisthenics and higher volume of running miles to focus specifically on strength, power, speed and agility, along with non-impact cardio endurance (swimming with fins, treading, other pool skills).

We still run and do calisthenics but with less total volume, using them mainly as a warmup and cooldown before and after the lifts. This was a 12-week cycle that typically needed a few easier deloading weeks, because when you’re doing heavy lifts, the recovery needs are greater.

Most of our participants put on 10 pounds or more of mass (if they needed it). This often was followed by a short phase to rebuild calisthenics volume for high-repetition PT tests and timed run events.

Block Periodization Test

This year, we did two tests: a 4:2 block periodization cycle during the fall for 12 weeks and a 3:1 block periodization cycle during the winter for 12 weeks.

4:2 block explained: During the fall, we did four weeks of strength training, followed by two weeks of calisthenics and cardio-based training. In 12 weeks, this meant we did eight weeks of strength training and four weeks of PST preparation training. We used strength training programs from my fall/winter lift cycle, then we “rested” from lifting for two weeks with the Classic PST training week, but the beauty of this system is, you can replace that block of training with your favorite strength cycle and then follow it with some of your favorite calisthenics and running workouts.

Lessons learned: Four weeks of strength training was tough on the body, especially after spending the previous six months focused on more calisthenics and running/swimming volume for stamina and endurance. The two weeks after the four weeks of strength was refreshing for the first week, but we felt ready to lift again even after just one week off from strength training. In my opinion, two weeks was too much time between strength blocks, but many still saw gains in the second cycle. PST scores still remained high, and some were even faster as the break from a higher volume of running and calisthenics was good for them.

3:1 block explained: After consulting with a few other strength and conditioning coaches, we determined that one week of calisthenics during the winter months was enough for the block between stretches of strength training. We also shortened the strength cycle by one week and that seemed to be the perfect balance, even when accounting for the varying athletic experiences in the group.

In 12 weeks, this meant we did nine weeks of strength training and three weeks of PST preparation training. We used similar strength training programs as before and stuck with the classic PST week of training, along with actual PT tests.

Lessons learned: Three weeks of strength followed by one week of deload or calisthenics and cardio focus worked well for all athletes. Some of the endurance athletes did more of a classic deload week, as their goal was to add more mass because their run and calisthenics scores were already above average. The others did the classic PST week with faster runs and swims and set many personal records, but increased strength was also apparent with the classic lifts of squats, deadlift and bench press as well as weighted pull-ups.

Who needs this? If you are preparing for the new ACFT and have historically only done calisthenics and cardio (for the old Army physical fitness test), you need to try this method of training. Or if you are preparing for special ops training pipelines where all the elements of fitness (strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, muscle stamina, flexibility, mobility, grip) need to be highly developed, try 3-4 months of block periodization and maintain your strengths while building up your weaknesses.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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