Get the low down on periodization training cycles and understand how to design your strength training program for consistent gains over the long-term.
Training in the same style for an extended period of time causes a stagnation of results. This is where the concept of periodization comes in.
Periodization is a manipulation of the acute training variables over a specific period of time.
The basis of periodization is explained by general adaptation syndrome (GAS), which describes the three stages one’s body goes through when exposed to new outside stimulus. GAS can better be explained through an example:
- Let’s say you are newly exposed to training in the 3-5 rep range. At first your body will enter into an alarm stage since. Your body has never experienced training at such an intensity, and responds by getting temporarily weaker. As you continue training in this rep range, your body begins to enter into a stage of adaptation. During this stage your body goes through a period of super-compensation whereby your muscles increase in strength to better deal with the heavy weight. If you continue to train with the same weight doing the same reps over an extended period of time, your body will eventually enter into a stage of exhaustion. In this stage your strength gains will begin to stagnate, or even start to decline.
Periodization Training makes sure that you don't fall into the exhaustion stage. Continuously cycling a variety of training methods is the key to consistently overcoming plateaus and maximizing our capacity for results.
In this post I will go over the three most common forms of periodization that have been deeply researched and are used by most strength coaches.
These three schemes are:
- Classic Periodization
- Reverse Linear Periodization
- Undulating Periodization
Regardless of your goals or your particular training program, it has been proven that periodized programs are significantly more effective than nonperiodized ones in terms of gains in strength, power, and overall athletic performance in both men and women.
A classic periodization scheme is broken down from a macrocycle (which can last anywhere from 6 months to a year), into a mesocycle (which can last anywhere from several weeks to over a month), into weekly microcycles.
The general format of training is to progressively increase intensity while simultaneously decreasing the total volume of exercise.
In visual form it looks like this:
Classic periodization is most commonly used to prepare strength athletes for competition.
During the first phase, or mesocycle, the focus of training is on hypertrophy. The workouts are relatively low intensity with high volume. Reps are in the 8-12 range, with 4-5 sets per exercise. The purpose of this phase is to prepare you for the high intensity phase that comes up next. The muscle gains from this phase will go on to assist both the strength and power gains in the later phases.
In the second mesocycle the focus of training is on strength. The workouts are mid/high intensity with moderate volume. Reps are in the 2-6 range, with 3-4 sets per exercise.
Next up is the power mesocycle. It is similar to the strength mesocycle in terms of intensity, but with lower volume. Reps are in the 2-3 range, with about 3 sets per exercise. The purpose of this phase is to get you to transfer the strength gains from the first two phases into developing more explosive power. Explosive power is a key determinant of performance in competition.
The final two mesocycles have the sole purpose of getting you ready for competition. The peaking mesocycle has low volume (about 1-3 sets per exercise), with very high intensity (reps as low as 1 per set). After this phase, there is an active rest period. During this period you take time off from lifting weights and involve in activities such as swimming, hiking, or other sports. The active rest phase lasts about 1-2 weeks before a competition, allowing you to fully recover from the strenuous exercise so that you can be in peak condition for competition. The active rest phase can continue for several weeks after the competition as well, before the whole macrocycle starts again.
Classic periodization can be highly effective, but there are a few considerations to take into account. First off, higher volume training can lead to fatigue if done for too long. The second consideration is that the muscle size gained from the hypertrophy mesocycle may not last for very long after the phase is over. This is a problem for bodybuilders or other athletes who’s main concern is muscle size. For these reasons, other periodization schemes have been tried and tested and may be better suited towards your particular goals.
Reverse Linear Periodization
The goal of classic periodization was to boost an athlete’s strength and power and the goal of reverse linear periodization is to emphasize an athlete’s muscular hypertrophy or endurance strength.
Research supports the fact that reverse linear periodization is more effective for increasing endurance strength than classic periodization.
Reverse linear periodization begins with the power phase, i.e. high intensity and low volume. The peaking phase is skipped because the goal is not to prepare for competition. After going though the power phase for some weeks, the focus is shifted towards strength. The strength phase has moderate-high intensity and slightly higher volume compared to the power phase. The purpose of the first two phases is to set you up for maximal gains in mass or endurance strength.
Lifting a heavier amount of weight for a given number of reps is for the purpose of gaining both lean mass and endurance. The final phase of hypertrophy involves relatively lower intensity (8-12 reps) and high volume. This is the best combination for increasing muscle mass. This makes reverse linear periodization highly suitable for bodybuilders.
To optimize this model for increasing endurance strength, the power phase can be removed. The sequence would result in going from the strength phase to the hypertrophy phase and finally to the endurance phase, where reps are in the high 20-30 range. If the athlete is training for competition, then an active rest phase can be added as well.
The acute training variables can be manipulated within each stage to further optimize the program towards your particular goals. For example, with a reverse linear model you can start with reps in the 8-10 range, then move on to 12-15, and then further move on to 20-30.
Undulating periodization is different from the previous two schemes in that it does not follow a linear system. Undulating periodization has been gaining in popularity for many strength athletes due to its convenience and effectiveness.
Undulating periodization follows a 14-day mesocycle with an option to choose from 3-4 different workouts. In this way, someone following an undulating periodization scheme can alter workout intensity and volume from one workout to the next rather than over several weeks. For example, if you were following a whole-body split, you could do strength work on Monday, endurance work on Wednesday, and hypertrophy work on Friday. The following week you could vary the pattern of the workouts.
If you are doing an upper and lower body split where Mondays and Thursdays are upper body day and Tuesdays and Fridays are lower body days, you could do hypertrophy work on Monday and Tuesday and strength work on Thursday and Friday. The following week you could do endurance work on Monday and Tuesday and strength workton Thursday and Friday. After the 14 days you could revert to a different workout and pattern all together.
As you can see, undulating periodization is very open ended and less stringent in terms sticking to any particular organization or planning (like in linear periodization). The workouts can be adjusted towards your schedule. For example, if you have less time on a particular day, you could opt for a lower volume workout.
From this standpoint it may seem like undulating periodization is less effective than linear periodization. However, research has shown that the two are equally effective in terms of their results in strength, power, and muscle gains.
Undulating periodization is effective at building muscle strength, power, and mass because of the scheme's tendency to allow the body to experience a range of varying stimulus from day to day. Within one week you can lift heavy, light, fast, or anything else. This keeps the muscle from adapting to any particular stimulus and also exposes the stimulus frequently enough to result in the desired adaptations.
Going through microcycles is the practice of changing the weight used for exercises every week. To give an example, week 1 of a classic linear periodization program could be an endurance microcycle with reps in the range of 12-15. Week 2 could be a hypertrophy microcycle with reps in the range of 8-10. Week 3 continues the process of upping the intensity and decreasing the reps with a focus on reps in the 4-6 range. In week 4, the cycle repeats and week 5 returns to the endurance microcycle. These microcycles can continue to a point where the athlete is ready for competition. For someone who is not preparing for competition the program could last around 12 weeks.
Combined Periodized Schemes
A great way to enhance muscular hypertrophy and strength is to put together a program that uses a combination of periodization models.
A good example of such a program is called pendulum training. With pendulum training you begin by using a classic linear periodization model with microcycles. You might begin with reps in the 8-12 range in week 1. In week 2, you go down to 6-8 reps. In week 3, again you drop to 3-5. In week 4, you switch from a reverse periodization and bring the reps back up to 6-8 reps. Then in week 5 you bring them up to the 8-12 range. In week 6 you revert back to linear progression and drop back down to 6-8. In such a program the intensity would keep switching back and forth, i.e. like a pendulum and thus its name.
Another method to use combined periodized schemes is to use both linear and reverse linear models at the same time. This method would work great for a program that trains each muscle group twice per week. For example, in a program that uses a 2-day split that trains chest, back, and shoulders in workouts 1 and 3 and trains legs and arms in workouts 2 and 4, workouts 1 and 2 could follow a linear order using a microcycle system whereby the weight is increased and reps are decreased each week. Weeks 3 and 4 could follow a reverse linear order whereby the weight is decreased and reps are increased each week.
When putting together such a program it is very similar to an undulating periodization model.
Types of Training Cycles
Periodization is a technical term that is not commonly used by people in the gym. It is mostly used by experienced strength coaches and others who have been educated in the field of strength training. By the common gym goer, periodization is referred to as cycles. The underlying principle in both is the same: you need change for growth.
Examples of some cycles that powerlifters use to prepare for competition is to gradually increase the weight that they use over time. Their preparation could start by using 50% of their 1 rep maximum progressing all the way to 100% of their 1 rep maximum over a 6-12 week period. Refer to the image below for a sample 11 week cycle that a powerlifter may use.
Bodybuilders also use a number of different cycles. For bodybuilding, you can literally combine an infinite number of cycles. The most common ones are very similar to reverse linear periodization and undulating periodization.
Bodybuilders switch up their training frequently but the reps are usually kept within a range of 8-20 reps. Occasionally they may train in the very low rep range, but these phases are often very short.
To Sum Up
Despite what your goals in the gym may be, periodization training cycles are a critical component for you to see continuous results over the long term. Only by cycling in different training phases can you keep your muscles guessing and prevent them from experiencing stagnation. There a number of periodization schemes to choose from and you can even put together your own. The point is to consistently vary your training methods. Try all the periodization methods mentioned and figure out what your body best responds to. From there you can figure out your primary cycles and alter the acute variables of training to how you see fit.
- Stoppani, Jim. Training Cycles. Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength.
- Rhea et al. 2005. A Meta-Analysis of Periodized versus Nonperiodized Strength and Power Training Programs. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.
- Kraemer et al. 2000. Influence of resistance training volume and periodization on physiological and performance adaptations in collegiate women tennis players. American Journal of Sports Medicine.
- Rhea et al. 2000. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.