Manipulating Training Variables (Part III) – Periodization

In a hurry? Have some highlights!

  • Periodization (in this context) essentially refers to the organization of training by one or several training variables (e.g. training volume, intensity, etc.) over some time scale
  • Periodization forms (e.g. linear periodization) are not specific programs themselves but rather frameworks by which programs can be designed
  • Well-trained lifters will likely benefit from incorporating more complex methods like daily undulating periodization (DUP) into their training (with some linear progression over a larger time scale, such as from week to week)
  • Newer lifters will probably be pretty well suited sticking with linear periodization until good gym practices and a reasonable foundation of strength have been developed
  • Linear, undulating, and conjugate periodization are not mutually exclusive within a program
  • In fact, combining these ideas is probably the most practical way to make long term progress

Allow me to start off by just stating a few things up front. First, I’ve written this piece with the primary intent being educational. Aside from a couple very basic, demonstrative examples, there is no programming template to be found here—only general philosophies that can be applied in forming a training program. For those that are starting out and not necessarily tremendously strong, you probably don’t need to worry about applying these ideas right now, but now is the perfect time to start building your understanding of them so that you can better understand both how your current training works (if you’re wondering where to start, check this out) and what options you have when it ceases to work so well. For more advanced lifters, even if you are already intimately familiar with the “different” forms of periodization, this article might still present the information from a sufficiently fresh perspective to make it worth the read (I hope). Lastly, pretty much everything in this article is written in reference to periodizing training for the sake of increasing lifting performance as opposed to focusing on, for example, periodizing a baseball player’s training such that they are in prime shape for each one of their games (not that these ideas are mutually exclusive; just pointing out that the focus here is on lifting performance).

On to Business

In this first two parts of this series, we have discussed the importance of picking a goal and consistently pursuing it (as opposed to utilizing the “muscle confusion” approach) as well as the ways you can adjust your training to make it specific towards your goal. The last part I’ve promised you is how to piece these ideas together into a cohesive, long term program, and this is where the idea of training periodization comes in.

Periodization in this case simply means organizing your training into periods, or cycles, with each one of these cycles involving some change in the stimuli you are applying to your body via training. The point here is to continually approach a goal (e.g. strength competition, getting huge, etc.) while changing the stimuli at a rate that is sufficient to avoid stagnation and to continue eliciting new adaptations. An example of a periodization paradigm for a powerlifter prepping for a meet could be something like:

  1. Hypertrophy block (e.g. say 6 weeks, although this really depends on the timeline ’till the competition)
  2. Strength block (e.g. 6 weeks)
  3. Peaking block (e.g. 4 weeks)
  4. Tapering (e.g. significant reduction in training intensity/volume for roughly 1 week leading up to competition)
  5. Compete

Also note that each one of these blocks could be periodized both within individual weeks and from week to week, but more on that later. Also, if this example seems familiar, it’s because it’s pretty darn close to what I’ve been writing about as I prep for my own competition! Remember this guy?

periodization strength block

Traditionally, periodized training can be organized into three tiers:

  1. Macrocycles, which are the largest of the three and are basically as long as they need to be to prepare a lifter to do whatever it is they are training for (the 5-part example above could constitute one macrocycle lasting ~17 weeks). An example goal of a macrocycle could be increasing your 1RM for the squat, bench, and deadlift.
  2. Mesocycles, which are typically focused, goal-specific blocks lasting several weeks or even a few months, depending on the timescale of the training. The 3 blocks I listed in the example above would constitute mesocycles. Here, the goal of each mesocycle is to improve some facet of your ability to meet the goal of your macrocycle (e.g. building muscle, building strength, a practicing (peaking) ones ability to exert near-maximal effort are three mesocycles that build towards the goal of a powerlifter’s macrocycle).
  3. Microcycles, which are basically the cycles within a mesocycle (e.g. a 6 week hypertrophy mesocycle probably actually consists of 6 back-to-back, week-long microcycles that are similar and hopefully build on one another).

Don’t worry about carefully memorizing those. I’m not going to hammer on definitions or try to beat the text books at their own game, I just wanted to throw those out there in case you come across them elsewhere.

Now, there are several differentially defined forms of training periodization—namely, linear, undulating, and conjugate periodization. Before I even start to describe these concepts, though, I want to point out that they are not mutually exclusive. Greg Nuckols, who is much stronger than I am, wrote a rundown of periodization philosophies for Juggernaut aptly named “There Is Only One Type of Periodization” that highlighted this idea nicely.

Additionally, these three concepts are not specific program templates so much as they are frameworks by which you can shape the design of a program. Try to keep in mind as we move on that these concepts are all applicable over different timescales (e.g. you could have undulating workouts within a given week but also progress linearly from week to week). This will hopefully start to make more sense as I move through this stuff; I just wanted to point it out ahead of time.

So, what do these different periodization concepts entail?

Linear Periodization

Linear periodization simply means that you are progressively increasing (or decreasing) some training variable (often intensity or volume) over time. For instance, perhaps you start off with a certain amount of training volume and try to improve upon it each week over the course of a month. Let’s use squats as an example.

Say you are squatting twice a week and do 5 sets of 5 with 200 pounds for your first workout. Since you have decided to linearly progress your training volume, you have two options for the next workout: 1) increase the weight you are using, or 2) leave the weight the same but increase the total number of reps you complete.

So, the next workout could be something like 5 sets of 5 with 205 pounds, or 6 sets of 5 with 200 pounds. It’s also important to point out that the changes could be even smaller. For instance, instead of doing 5 sets of 5 with 205 pounds, you could do, say, 4 sets of 5 with 200 pounds and 1 set of 5 with 205, or, instead of 6 sets of 5 with 200 pounds, you could do 5 sets of 5 with 200 and then another set of just one or two reps. These options would both still constitute some increase in training volume from the last session.

I’ve written before about the usefulness of linear periodization, particularly for beginners, who are mostly unadapted to weight training and can make steady, drastic progress for quite some time.

undulating periodization sine wave

Undulating Periodization

Undulating (nonlinear) periodization involves progressing some training variable (again, often intensity and/or volume) in a wave-like manner (see above) over time. Sticking with the idea of periodizing squat volume, let’s look at a potential example of undulation for someone who is squatting over four workouts:

Day 1 – 5 x 6 with 200 lbs

Day 2 – 5 x 4 with 220 lbs

Day 3 – 5 x 6 with 200 lbs

Day 4 – 5 x 4 with 220 lbs

If you calculate the total training volume (total reps x weight used) for each of these days, you’ll see that it fluctuates in a wave-like fashion with an inverse relationship to training intensity (i.e. on days of higher intensity, there is less volume).

Now, the point of undulating is that we move our training parameter (volume here) in a wave-like fashion. If we were purely sticking with undulating periodization, that would mean the next four workouts would look identical to those above. However, if you’ve been reading my other work or trying this stuff out for yourself, you’ll probably realize that doing the exact same thing over and over again will lead to stagnation, which is why lifters often add a linear progression between undulation microcycles. This would mean that the next four workouts would instead look something like this:

Day 1 – 5 x 6 with 205 lbs

Day 2 – 5 x 4 with 225 lbs

Day 3 – 5 x 6 with 205 lbs

Day 4 – 5 x 4 with 225 lbs

Here, you can see that the lifter has added a small amount of weight to the weight previously used on each corresponding day. Repeating this week after week would constitute linear periodization of average training volume with an undulating pattern of training volume from day to day.

Also keep in mind that you can expand the timescale over which you are undulating to weeks or even months (this would look similar to the above examples, only Day 1, Day 2, etc. would become Week 1 and Week 2, or Month 1 and Month 2, and so on).

front squat

Conjugate Periodization

Conjugates are, by definition, things that are coupled or related to one another. In training, we could say that—for instance—the front squat is a conjugate of the back squat (or vice-versa) because they are very related movements that can each build upon the other to some extent (as compared to, say, the back squat and the triceps kickback, which are pretty far removed from one another).

Conjugate periodization, then, is essentially organizing your training variables  in a way that lets you work on multiple aspects of your ultimate goal over a given period of time. In this case, the training variable that is adjusted is often that of exercise selection (e.g. front squats and back squats), although I’m also going to use volume and intensity in the second example below to illustrate a point.

As I just mentioned, conjugate periodization is normally thought of in terms of exercise selection. Say you are prepping for a powerlifting meet and you want to increase your bench press. In the past, maybe you’ve struggled with locking out at the top of the bench press, so you decide you need to bring your triceps up to snuff. Remember, as I mentioned in the previous installment on training specificity, you will typically be best-served moving from more generalized work to more highly competition-specific work as you approach said competition.

Applying the conjugate logic to this idea, you might decide to spend, say, 3 weeks focusing on the barbell floor press (or a board press, etc.), then 3 weeks doing close-grip bench press, and then finally 3 weeks doing your regular, competition-style bench press.

Keep in mind that the timescale over which you apply these concepts can be very short or very long. In other words, you could be switching your exercise selection every workout, or every couple of months. If you’ve been reading my work, you’ll know that I recommend veering towards the latter and sticking with progressing a few lifts at a time until progress begins to slow. This is probably most true for relative newbies who still have a lot of room for growth and also probably need more repetition (practice) to achieve proficiency with their movements.

One good strategy for those who desire or require more variety but are trying to stick to their guns for the main lift is to periodize assistance and/or accessory/auxillary work. For instance, in the scenario above, instead of only doing one form of press each workout, the bench presser could instead start each day with regular bench work and then follow up with an assistance pressing movement that could rotate every, say, 3 weeks between floor press, board press, close-grip, Spoto press, etc.

Of course, he could also use these rotating lifts as the primary, main movement of the day and then always follow up with regular bench work instead. From this foundation, we can start thinking about applying linear and/or undulating periodization to the volume and intensity being used, and you can start to see that the possibilities are essentially endless.

Crossing the Streams

Just as a thought experiment, let’s look at another example of conjugate periodization. This time, instead of exercise selection, let’s imagine we are doing a conjugate periodization of volume and intensity. Just to clarify the rationale, different ratios of volume/intensity (e.g. lighter, higher volume “bodybuilding” work versus heavier, lower volume strength work) could be thought of as conjugates of, say, building strength, because they are both strongly related to the process (i.e. having bigger muscles and practicing with moving heavy things are both crucial aspects of getting stronger).

A lot of programs are laid out such that you begin each workout with some heavy strength or power movement(s) and then follow that with lower intensity, higher rep/volume “bodybuilding” work. This could be thought of as conjugate periodization of a single workout.

Expanding the timescale, you might instead train a movement (of course we’re going to go with the example of the squat… surprise!) twice a week, doing one heavy strength day and one lighter speed work day. This could be thought of as conjugate periodization of a single week (which may also be a microcycle, depending on your schedule).

Expanding the timescale out further, you could, for instance, do a 4 week mesocycle of low intensity, higher volume work followed by 4 weeks of moderate intensity, moderate volume work and, finally, ending with 4 weeks of high intensity, low volume work.

Now, you might see where this sounds like it’s blending  with (or, really, copying) the ideas of undulating and linear periodization. This is why I made a point of…errr… pointing… out that these concepts are not mutually exclusive early on. The point here is that, whether the timescale is within a single workout or over three months, you are shifting the focus over some timescale from providing one stimulus (e.g. metabolic stress, etc. at lower intensities) to providing another (e.g. mechanical stress, etc. at higher intensities), both of which are related to the ultimate goal of getting stronger.

I’m not pointing this out to try to confuse anyone; rather, I’m trying to emphasize that these “different” forms of periodization are merely frameworks for thinking about organizing training and that in practice, they can become quite intermingled within a training program.

lego

Putting It Together

Again, the point of this article isn’t really to give you a program. Rather, the point is to explain what periodization is and isn’t and to show you some of the tools that you can use to shape your own training (as well as to give you a framework by which you can hopefully assess and understand other programs a bit better).

So, just to recap, periodization is essentially the concept of organizing one’s training variables such that they change the nature of the training stimulus they are applying to their body over some time scale, with the goal being to force new adaptations with new stressors. Periodization is not a program in and of itself (and that goes for all forms I discussed above—linear, undulating, and conjugate), but rather a philosophy or framework upon which endless variations of programs can be built.

It seems like the majority of discussions about training periodization inevitably involve the question, “So which one is the best?”

Do you see why that’s kind of a silly and/or confusing question?

As I tried to illustrate above, these periodization philosophies pretty much have to be employed together over some time scale if a lifter wants to continue progressing for very long.

Sole linear periodization will inevitably plateau. Want to reset your volume or intensity? That would mean you are undulating over some time scale.

Pure undulating periodization is basically following a sine wave of volume and/or intensity. For those who are unfamiliar with the sine function, refer back to the GIF above the “Undulating Periodization” header. It just keeps doing that. FOREVER.

Basically, if you want to get somewhere with undulating periodization, there has to be some element of linear periodization involved on some time scale.

A simple example of this might look something like the function below:

undulating and linear periodization

You can see in the box at the top right of the figure that this function is simply a sine wave (undulation) with the addition of a linearly increasing component (and a constant, because we probably wouldn’t start off lifting zero weight).

We could also have multiple undulations occurring over different time scales, as illustrated below with the addition of a second sine wave with a lower frequency (and higher amplitude). If we think of the figure above as demonstrating weekly undulating periodization, then the figure below would be more akin to having undulating periodization both within the week (daily undulating periodization, or DUP) AND between weeks (weekly undulating periodization)—all of which is riding on top of a steady linear progression:

undulating and linear extended

Now, the two examples above are really just thought experiments. If only we could actually progress that consistently for ever and ever… *sigh*

A more “realistic” (AKA, still just something I drew up, but generally more reasonable) example of an applied periodization model for, say, training volume could look something like this:

linear and undulating periodization

 

Yeah, Yeah… We Get It. But Really, Which One is the Best?

Okay. There is a lot of literature out there comparing different models of periodization against one another in terms of efficacy for eliciting adaptations in strength, hypertrophy, endurance, and more.

While these studies have already taught us a lot about how well certain things seem to work relative to one another, we should also keep in mind when discussing this literature that there can often be a lot of differences between studies when it comes to how they actually arrange their periodization programs (not to mention the other usual stuff like considering the subject population, whether the controls seem appropriate, whether the authors’ interpretation of the data is well supported by the reported data, etc.).

That is not at all to say that we should ignore studies that don’t seem to fit in line; I’m just pointing out that caution is required when trying to compare multiple studies using multiple exercise programs to compare periodization styles (for that matter, it’s probably not a bad idea to just approach most things with skepticism).

Remember, linear periodization and undulating periodization—for instance—are not specific programs; they are more akin to training philosophies, and the actual programs you can generate using these ideas are endless. Thus, it would be pretty easy to come up with three examples of linear, undulating, and conjugate periodization programs that are all quite useless and three examples that are quite good.

Okay. I’ll stop rehashing and get to the point.

The available evidence does show that undulating periodization (particularly daily undulating periodization, or DUP) can be superior to linear periodization (and to non-periodized training), but there may be some stipulations.

Looking through the available studies, one can find examples of studies that find significantly better increases in strength with forms of undulating periodization when compared to linear periodization (one, two), but there are also studies showing no difference between the two periodization schemes for strength gains (one, two).

What gives?

Well, as Dr. Mike Zourdos pointed out in his PhD dissertation (and again in the corresponding 2015 paper), these differences seem to be explained at least in part by the subjects’ weight training experience, often referred to as training age. In particular, untrained and “recreationally” trained individuals tend to have similar responses to both linearly and nonlinearly (undulating) periodized training programs, while more well-trained, “advanced” lifters seem to derive more benefit from incorporating daily undulating periodization (commonly abbreviated DUP) within training weeks (usually with some linear progression from week to week).

In short, the available evidence agrees with what is commonly reported anecdotally: newer lifters will probably be pretty well suited simply keeping things simple and sticking to basic linear progression at least for their main compound movements (which I would recommend make up the majority of a beginner’s training) and at least until they develop a solid foundation of strength and muscular development.

Nonlinear, or undulating, periodization will probably work equally well for most novice trainees (perhaps even better for some), but it adds a degree of complexity to programming that could potentially lead to problems or difficulties with program adherence, proper program execution, etc. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: it’s in a trainees best interest to thoroughly hammer out the basics before fretting additional details. It’s not a sexy sentiment, but it is one that a lot of people would probably do well to consider.

That’s All, Folks

In the interest of keeping this short(er), I’m going to pull this to a close. If this article seemed vague and you feel like you don’t have something tangible to walk away with, try recapping in your head the three “different” forms of periodization we just covered and think about how they can be combined. Look at a couple of programs like Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and think about how they are periodized.

Or if that all sounds stupid, cut your losses, keep your head down, and stick stringently to one of those programs.  = )

Even if you aren’t writing your own programming, hopefully you’ll walk (or click) away from this article with an increased knowledge and appreciation for how training programs are (or can be) put together!

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you like my work, please tell people about it! If you want to ask me questions or tell me what you think, DO IT!! I’d love to hear from you guys about what you like, what you don’t like, and what you want more of!

 

References

  1. Monteiro, A.G., et al., Nonlinear periodization maximizes strength gains in split resistance training routines. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009. 23(4): p. 1321-1326.
  2. Prestes, J., et al., Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009. 23(9): p. 2437-2442.
  3. Buford, T.W., et al., A comparison of periodization models during nine weeks with equated volume and intensity for strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2007. 21(4): p. 1245-1250.
  4. Caldwell, A.M., A Comparison of Linear and Daily Undulating Periodizied Strength Training Programs. 2004.
  5. Zourdos, M.C., Physiological responses to two different models of daily undulating periodization in trained powerlifters. 2012.
  6. Zourdos, M.C., et al., MODIFIED DAILY UNDULATING PERIODIZATION MODEL PRODUCES GREATER PERFORMANCE THAN A TRADITIONAL CONFIGURATION IN POWERLIFTERS. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2015.

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