There's an old saying that goes, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but tell him about periodization, and confuse him for the rest of his life."
Periodization has been so confused by the battling forces of oversimplification and over-complication that many athletes consider it to be just too murky of a concept to be realistically applied to their training. In a previous article, Cycle, Peak, Taper, Dominate, I laid out a fairly technical approach to training for a powerlifting competition, with a real application of the concept specifically applied. But not everybody is interested in mapping, planning, and computing all of the numbers involved in their workouts.
Still, quite a few folks have asked me to run through periodization again in a much more basic way for the hypertrophy and general fitness focused athlete. So instead of a numerically based workout generator, this article is going to give you an overview of the history and broader ideas behind periodization, some very useful concepts for you to apply to whatever you do, and a few common mistakes to avoid.
First, A Quick History Lesson
Simply put, all attempts to organize, sort, and quantify training approaches are about maximizing and then overcoming one thing: our bodies amazing ability to adapt to and survive whatever we challenge it with. What works now doesn't work forever, so we have to challenge, coax, and trick our bodies into growing bigger, getting leaner, or making strength gains, or all three at once (which is damn near impossible!).
Our bodies want nothing more than to just survive, and only the minimal adaptation required is going to be grudgingly yielded, and even less adaptation the next time you use that exact same stimulus. Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but in the early 1960s – after a few Olympics' worth of Evil-Empire Ivan-Drago type clones and clonettes giving the corn-fed, pure-hearted, just-work-harder-and-want-it-more Americans a rash of butt whuppings – USA coaches and the rest of the West took notice.
Completely missing or underestimating the involvement of "Vitamin S," Western coaches focused on the ideas of Eastern Bloc coach Dr. Leonid Matveyev. They ignored the objections from Matveyev's peers and never looked at the source data that ol' Leo used.
Matveyev's simple concept involved volume starting very high and dropping through the cycle while the intensity started low and rose throughout the cycle. The how's and why's of technique increasing during the cycle is a critical idea, but was largely ignored by the intellectually lazy Western coaching and training community of the 60s.
Matveyev's Original Periodization Chart for Linear Periodization
Not really understanding Matveyev's work, the West quickly bastardized the inverse relationship between intensity and volume, added some names to arbitrarily assigned phases of the cycle, and came up with linear or Western periodization. For the Western coaches who'd generally avoided any planning in their approaches and largely dismissed weight training unless you were an Olympic lifter or circus freak, something was better than nothing.
Western periodization yielded what any new training approach, particularly one with weights on non-weight trained subjects, will yield: big initial progress. This progress in the weightroom led to some wise observations (such as high volume builds connective tissue as well as muscle), but also to some very wrong conclusions amongst coaches.
For example, very quickly, "hypertrophy" became three sets of 8-12. "Strength" became 5 sets of 5, and "power" became 3 sets of 3. Finally, "peaking" became 3 sets of 1-2 reps. Again, while any kind of training is better than nothing, Western or linear periodization isn't optimal for the needs of high level athletes, targets one area of strength at a time and then ignores it for the rest of the season or cycle, has no back-offs built in, and doesn't address the individual weaknesses of individual athletes.
Westernized Bastardization of Matveyev's Work
Periodization for Bodybuilders
Now let's look at the hypertrophy focused athlete. For the bodybuilder we have another bastardization, what I call reverse Western periodization. This is the basic template for many bodybuilders.
In this bastardization, bodybuilders start out lifting heavy weights for lower reps and moderate volume in a bulking phase, and then begin to drop the intensity as they raise the volume through a refining and ultimately a cutting phase.
While the opposite in terms of volume and intensity from Western or linear periodization, hypertrophy focused linear periodization only focuses on one muscle fiber type at a time, doesn't address weaknesses or back-offs, and isn't optimal for high level athletes or those with a lot of training under their belts. Whether you're a powerlifter or bodybuilder or just a gym rat, you can see that linearly decreasing one training variable while linearly increasing the other is a problem.
The powerlifter who's only lifting a low volume of heavy weights at the end of the cycle is burning out his CNS and has insufficient volume to maintain muscle mass. In other words, his gear gets too loose and his nerves get too fried.
The bodybuilder who's only slogging through high volume, pump-inducing workouts right before getting on stage also has insufficient intensity to maintain muscle mass. While, in general, volume is the main driver of hypertrophy, and intensity the main driver of strength gains, both outcomes have a certain threshold level of volume and intensity required to maintain that outcome, and that threshold level rises over each training cycle and from training cycle to cycle. Volume and intensity, except during back-offs and tapering, need to rise across the training cycle.
Hypertrophy Focused Linear Periodization
A More Reality and Research Supported Approach
Making Periodization Work for You
I promised no numerical workout generator, so these guidelines will be general but very useable for you.
1. Drop the direct connection between intensity and volume.
Both training variables need to wave independently workout to workout and week to week, but on average are moving upward. The volume needs to stay the same across the cycle at a minimum, and it's obviously better to be doing more volume at the end of your hypertrophy cycle than at the beginning.
Your intensity must also wave up and down but still needs to be higher overall at the end of the cycle. The way to do more volume and intensity is to add more assistance work to your main compound lifts if your sets drop a bit when the weights get heavier. You could also rest a bit more between sets or use the Sheiko "double days" approach of splitting a lift into two workout segments divided by another movement.
2. Change is good.
The goal is to keep the body at or close to maximal adaptation as much as possible. Your body is adapting on every set, so multiple sets of the same reps with the same weight isn't optimal. Working specific rep ranges only in specific phases of your cycle isn't optimal.
If you like to work higher reps (biting my tongue) or a lower rep range, stay with it the entire cycle, but work in some higher and lower rep sets frequently too. Eight reps isn't the silver bullet for hypertrophy. So change the reps and/or the weight on the bar from set to set.
While I'm not a big believer in rep cadence, varying between pausing the rep at the bottom from a slower descent and exploding each rep from a rebound after a faster eccentric is a big change you can make. (I advocate always driving the bar up as fast as possible on the concentric portion of a lift.)
Change your grip or stance from set to set. Have a group of several assistance exercises you pick to choose from after your main compound lift, and do them in various orders and reps. In general I prefer five reps and below for compound work and seven reps and above for isolation work. No reason to not swap those reps from time to time. Try 20-rep bench press sets and 3-5 reps of barbell curls. You'll like the results.
3. Steal the extra workout from the powerlifter.
I mentioned the GPP to SPP to GPP transition in my previous article. Adapted to the bodybuilder, this would mean to do some general conditioning improvement when far from a show, then transition to weakness-focused movements once deep into your training cycle. After that, drop the volume on those movements as you get contest ready and add back in more conditioning, but not necessarily the same conditioning from the start of your cycle.
As an example, if you want the connective tissue improvement of high rep work, backward sled dragging, flipping a tire for time, and mountain bike riding will be a great change and challenge your body's adaptation.
As you get into the cycle, more focused exercises like weighted lunges and glute ham raises for extra leg work is the way to move a lagging body part. At the end of the cycle those same drills might be done a bit heavier with lower reps but similar volume, along with treadmill and hot tubs to keep improving that lagging body part, improve body fat percentage, and enhance recovery.
4. Periodization isn't magic.
You can't out-periodize your genetics, drugs, or stupidity. The goal of periodization is to help you maximize your individual results. A genetic freak who's sauced to the gills may train beside you and do workouts you might gain nothing from or not survive. Ignore them.
Almost anybody can improve their nutrition, rest, hydration, and understanding of training. You'll get more out of worrying about you than copying synthol boy.
5. You grow when you're recovering, not when you're training.
The best training plan will be a waste of time very quickly if you don't eat enough. While I don't advocate bulking up and cutting down, by far the most common nutrition issue I see among bodybuilders is not eating enough.
If you're not eating breakfast, I suspect you of being a closet HITite who measures his self value by how bad his ketone breath is after his 16 minute chest workout. If you're out on the town a few nights a week showing off your dance moves, you might need to dial back your training. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
6. Take back-off weeks.
Three weeks of hard training and then a back-off is advocated by many experts, and by me too! At the most, you can go five or six weeks before you need to back off if you're training very hard.
Train your upper body once and your lower body once on a back-off week at about 60% of your normal single workout volume and about 60% of your normal intensity. Hence the 60% rule!
You can also do some fun and different things. For example, I really like to do the NFL bench press combine (225 for max reps, adjust weight accordingly), Bulgarian squats, and any lat movement I haven't done lately on back-off weeks.
7. Increase the total volume!
If you look hard at the last graph, the reality and research supported approach, you should ask, "Why does volume seem to be dropping? Do I need a transformation (peaking) phase?"
This is a graph for sports performance, specifically weightlifting, but keep in mind the Evil Empire, while in the "off-season" and accumulating volume, was also doing lots of low leg impact conditioning activities like cross country skiing, volleyball, wrestling, and swimming. I'd add strongman type workouts to this list.
As you progress through your training cycle, the out-of-the-gym conditioning will drop off quite a bit, replaced by more and more compound and assistance exercises. This practice leads to both a healthier, more ready-to-train body, and a refreshed attitude toward the brutal training it takes to succeed.
As a bodybuilder, a traditional sport peaking cycle isn't needed. However, the drop in calories and increase in cardio saps your strength, and many follow the lead of their steroid-fueled heroes and drop the intensity and lower the time between sets to increase their leanness. I think the science argues for just the opposite approach.
If your normal approach is 5x5 or 3x7 on an exercise when fully fed and a bit less lean, you might need to drop the reps, rest a bit more, and do more sets to make up the volume. If you're used to working with around 315 for your bench or squat work and you drop the weight on the bar for your sets to 255, even with short rest periods and high reps (which is a bad combination), you're going to shrink and get flat.
Yeah, I know about GH release with short rest periods, but a 20% or more drop in average intensity is going to make that a moot point.
8. Volume per workout
What is the correct amount of volume? I've searched the literature and can't find a definitive answer. I believe it actually depends on your training history, genetics, and momentary GPP.
What I advise is to start with the number of reps you do on an exercise at about 25. For example, 5x5, 3x8, and 8x3 all get you to 25 and are good starting points. A compound movement and one or two assistance/isolation exercises for 25 reps each is a pretty good chunk of volume. Adding sets and another movement or two and you'll bump up against what you can recover from.
The harsh reality is only you will be able to figure out this upper limit of your recovery. Yes, you will have to go in the gym and find out by trial and error what you can handle.
1. Powerlifters drop too much volume at the end of their training cycles. Strength is mainly a result of intensity and frequency, but dropping too much volume will make you smaller.
2. Bodybuilders drop too much intensity at the end of their training cycles. Hypertrophy is mainly a result of volume and recovery, but dropping intensity will also leave you smaller.
3. The threshold of intensity and volume required to produce hypertrophy and strength is higher in advanced athletes, and only the volume threshold drops after you're at the peak of the sport. Translation: Unless you're on the Olympia stage you need to do more volume and heavier weights consistently until you get there.
4. A "period-amid" is not periodization. Pyramids have a narrow use in training, but I've never seen them done right in the gym. If you want a useful pyramid, check out the Sheiko bench press marathon. Otherwise, working to failure with each successive weight until you can't do one rep is a ticket to a plateau.
5. Mistaking mental feelings as equivalent to physical signs when it comes to skipping or cutting short workouts is another error. For example, if your girlfriend just left you or you just found out you're being audited, you might not feel like doing legs that night. Man up and get to the squat rack.
What you feel like doing is often the exact thing you shouldn't do, and vice versa. On the other hand, if after a few weeks of very hard training before a targeted contest or goal point, you get a poor night's sleep, you missed lunch due to a work emergency, and the hamstring you pulled while waterskiing last weekend is killing you, this is probably not the time to man up and push through it.
If love is never having to say you're sorry, then love is the key to avoiding injury. Missing a workout now and then, however blasphemous, is a key to maintaining progress through injury avoidance. You ignore hurt feelings, but you don't ignore a hurting hamstring.
The Very Last Thing
The key to using periodization isn't necessarily the planning involved before you start to train, but the ability to monitor what you've done in the recent and not so recent past. Your training log tells you exactly what you did, and from that you see exactly what more you need to do to improve. Keep a written training log!
You have to lift more weight for more volume to get bigger. Keep slowly adding to what you did in the past, taking breaks and varying workouts along the way to keep the body constantly adapting, and periodization will work for you!