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
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
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
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
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
A More Reality and Research Supported
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
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
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
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.
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
If your normal approach is 5×5 or 3×7 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
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
What I advise is to start with the number of reps you do on an
exercise at about 25. For example, 5×5, 3×8, and 8×3 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
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
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
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
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
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!