The Keys to Periodization

Welcome to the Fundamentals of Periodization. In this post I’ll go over the basic concepts and a few classical studies that support using periodization in your training program.

Disclaimer: This post could easily be bigger than my dissertation. However, I’m just covering the basics for now. If you have any questions – email me or ask me in person. If you do want a dissertation on the topic read this.

Basic Periodization Terms

        Macrocycle                 <1 year

           Mesocycle                  3-4 weeks

      Microcycle                  1 week

The Basics

There are two main types of periodization, linear and non-linear. Commonly, non-linear is referred to as undulating. Each form takes a slightly different approach to alternate training variables, but both result in increased measures of performance when compared to a nonperiodized program. There is also some data that suggests certain types of periodization are better than others. Cumulatively, research suggests you should have some form of periodization in your training.

Traditional linear periodization has three cycles (aka mesocycles) in this order: hypertrophy, strength, and power. Generally during this type of program volume will decrease as intensity increases. For example, a program may use reps of 12-15 in the hypertrophy phase, 5-8 in the strength phase, and 1-5 in the power phase. Interestingly, programs for beginners often have more moderate repetitions. This is to increase the number of opportunities to perform the exercise, which helps develop technique by enhancing skill development through adaptation of the nervous system.

The other type of periodization is known as undulating periodization. It is characterized by alterations to volume and intensity over each training period. This type of training program has variations in volume and intensity within each microcycle, which allows for more frequent variability than linear periodization. There is also a subtype of undulating periodization, daily undulating periodization (DUP), which training volume and intensity variation occurs each workout rather than each week.

Which is better? Well, let’s look at the data.

The Science

In 2009 a study was published by Prestes et al. to compare the effects of linear periodization (LP) vs daily undulating periodization (DUP) on strength and body composition. They used college age men who had at least one year of weightlifting experience. Each person was assigned to LP or DUP for 12 weeks. At four weeks, the DUP group gained 7% more strength in the bench press. Furthermore, at 12 weeks the DUP group had a 14% increase in leg press compared to the LP group.  Although the DUP group increased strength the most in all exercises by the end of the 12 weeks, only leg press was statistically significant. (Prestes 2009)

A more recent study by Miranda et al., was done in 2011. They compared LP vs DUP on 1RM and 8RM. Both models resulted in significant increases in bench press and leg press after 12 weeks of training. However, analysis showed greater increases in strength (via size effect) in the group who used DUP. (Miranda 2011)

Another study aimed to determine the effects of 12-weeks of different periodization methods on body composition and strength levels in college age women. Participants must have been strength training for a minimum of 6 months. There were two groups: one with linear periodization (LP) and one with reverse linear periodization (RLP). The LP group began with 12-14 reps, then moved towards 4-6 reps, increasing intensity each week. The RLP group began with 4-6 reps and ended with 12-14 reps. There was an increase in fat-free mass and a decrease in fat mass  only in the LP group after 12 weeks. However, both the LP and RLP groups had significant gains in strength levels in the bench press, lat pull-down, and leg extension. Both groups showed significant increases in strength in all exercises. However, the LP group had greater increases in strength than the RLP group. (Prestes 2009)

A study by a different group compared the effects of resistance training with either block periodization or weekly undulating periodization on strength and hypertrophy in recreationally active women. The study lasted 10 weeks. Both groups made significant increases in strength, but the undulating group improved 12% more than the block group in 1RM squat. Furthermore, increase in muscle size of the thigh was increased 5% in the WUD group compared to the BP group. (Bartolomie)

This same group compared two models, traditional or block periodization but this time in college age males who were experienced in resistance training.The study lasted 15 weeks. They found a potential increase of up to 60% in maximal strength and power in bench press in traditional periodization. However, no changes were seen between groups in measurements of lower body strength.

One of the most comprehensive studies to date compared linear periodization (LP), daily undulating periodization (DUP) and reverse linear periodization (RLP). This study consisted of both men and women. Importantly, volume and intensity were equated for in each model of training. The data demonstrated that RLP was more effective than LP and DUP at increasing muscular endurance. Muscular endurance was measured by doing maximal reps at 50% of body weight for leg extensions. (Rhea 2003)

How long should periodize my program?

A study by the Wilson lab suggests that periodization over a short time such as 6 weeks, with equal volume, induces similar hypertrophy regardless of periodization scheme. This study was done in recreationally active lifters. As you probably noticed above, most studies use 12-15 week programs. This is convenient to researchers since the average college semester is ~16 weeks. However, it is important to plan your periodization based on a peaking event. Whether that’s a competition or something else. If you don’t have something to train for then make something up. It is always important to have specific goals.

Practical Application

The law of diminishing returns applies to almost everything in life. It also may be one of the most obvious things that happens to people who exercise. That’s where periodization comes in. It helps attenuate this effect by demanding different adaptation by the body during different periods of time. Now, if one thing clear from the scientific literature it’s that you should periodize your training program. In fact, most of the free online workouts you can find are already periodized for you.

The data above indicates that  undulating periodization has slightly more benefits compared to other types of periodization. A lot of the numbers are non-significant when comparing two or more models of periodization. This doesn’t mean they aren’t important because even the chance that a lifter could gain 5% more during one program compared to another might be worth it. However, if you don’t need to be in the top echelon of lifters then you could do any periodization scheme you want.

In most training programs, you will submit your muscles to a similar stimulus every time you workout. A common way to do this is with progressive overload, but overall the workout will be similar. This may even create incremental progress. However next time, instead of using progressive overload you should try one of the few models of periodization.

I think Greg Nuckols says it best when he states: “DUP primarily serves to mitigate the repeated bout effect – the idea that the more you’re exposed to a stimulus, the weaker your reaction to it will be.  Think about your first days in the gym vs. now – back then you gained strength and size much faster, and you got much sorer after each session – that’s the repeated bout effect in action.”

I didn’t include any examples in this post because there are a ton out there. If you’re lacking in the Google skills then follow the links below to find a few programs.

Links for more information on periodization:

Dr. Zourdos’ powerpoint

Dr. Stoppani’s take for IDEA

Marc Lewis’ examples

Panthera Training System via elitefts

Strengtheory: 1 and 2

References!po=2.63158 – Wilson – Prestes – Prestes – Hartmann – Bartolomie (women) – Bartolomie (men) – Rhea – Rhea – Ullrich

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