Strength training is a non-negotiable when improving your physique and a huge plus when improving your health.
However, the strength training world can be like a jungle full of intimidating factors. Hell, even going to the gym in the first place is intimidating for many!
Yet another intimidating factor is every other lifter trying to push information on you regarding fitness and nutrition. While this may be good natured, or whether what they are saying is correct or not, it doesn’t matter if you are burdened or confused by what is being talked about. It adds an unnecessary level of woe.
One such nugget of information is the concept of periodization. You may have heard that word tossed around, but you haven’t the slightest idea what it is.
Or maybe you’ve been lifting for a while and are aware of what periodization is, but you opt to ignore it in favor of constant repetition (using the same sets and reps over time). After all, periodization is confusing, right? Is it not reserved for personal training clients, elite athletes, or professional bodybuilders and powerlifters?
Setting up a periodization model with all the associated math, etc. would take up too much time in your schedule! After all, you don’t want to live in the gym; your life doesn’t revolve around fitness!
The alternative to periodization is called constant repetition. Constant repetition is easy and it allows for respectable gains (especially in beginners). In constant repetition, you simply add a small amount of weight or a single rep each workout. It is a very easy plan to follow, and is ideal for emphasizing the most important factor in building muscle: progressive tension overload (just like in reverse pyramid training which is a form of periodization on its own).
Unfortunately, this will inevitably lead to a plateau or even a loss of strength. This is a result of overtraining (aka under-recovering, a more accurate term). If constant repetition worked perfectly, and plateaus never occurred, everyone would be able to bench 315, squat 500, and deadlift a freakin million, all for reps, and within a year or two from the start of training.
Fortunately, there is a way to minimize plateaus. That, my friend, is the one thing you think you don’t have the time or mental energy for: periodization.
Periodization can keep your gains moving forward by minimizing or breaking through plateaus.
Also, keep in mind that there are both simple ways and complicated ways to implement a periodization strategy.
The complicated ways work well for people who basically live in the gym and whose job it is to train others. The complicated way is effective for sure, but at what cost to you- someone who doesn’t want their life to be consumed by lifting?
Of course, you could spend money to have a trainer set everything for you, but that’s not the route for everybody. Plus, complicated periodization is a long-term plan; what if you or a loved one gets sick, your car breaks down, you have a big project at work, or have some other reason you can’t make it to the gym? That would throw the whole program off!
So, is there a way to train self-sufficiently, benefit from the simplicity of constant repetition, and still enjoy the effectiveness of periodization?
In this post I hope to teach you a few things. The first are some common models of periodization, and the last two are periodization models that I recommend for simplicity and effectiveness.
What is periodization, anyway?
Periodization is simply cycling of any of the variables in lifting (intensity, volume, tempo, etc.) in a planned manner.
You may hear some other terms related to periodization as well: macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle. A macrocycle is the big picture- the plan for about an entire year. A mesocycle is the period of 3-4 months. A microcycle is usually within a single month.
There are three main types of periodization: linear, block, and daily undulating (DU), and one less talked about one: concurrent periodization.
The most popular periodization model is linear periodization. With this model, you are gradually increasing intensity (weight lifted) and decreasing volume (reps performed) For example, lets tale a month of training and divide it into 4 weeks. In weeks 1, 2, and 3, you lower the number of reps as you increase the weight lifted. Week 4 is called a deload week, and you drop the intensity to what you did in week 1, but only perform half of the volume. This is your recovery period. In week 5, which is actually week 1 for the following month, you will do the same volume as you did in week 1 but with slightly higher intensity. From there, you increase intensity and lower volume with weeks 2 and 3, then deload in week 4. After the deload, repeat the process again.
The second of the common types is block periodization. With this, you have blocks of three months (for example). Each month has a certain theme of training: work capacity and endurance, strength, deload, and for athletes, prehab/rehab.
With block periodization, you start by building up your work capacity by greatly increasing the volume you do for a specific exercise while keeping the intensity the same. Otherwise known as the volume accumulation phase, it sets the stage for rapid muscle growth in the strength phase that comes next.
In the second phase, you drop volume and build up intensity. Your body will overcompensate due to the great work capacity you built up in the accumulation phase, and you will experience strength gains very quickly. At a certain point, you will peak, and then start your deload. The process starts over again in the accumulation phase, but this time with more weight than before.
Daily Undulating Periodization
Daily undulating periodization (DU) is basically block periodization condensed into a single week. There is usually a power-focused phase added as well.
For instance, Monday may be a day dedicated to hypertrophy and work capacity with higher volume and lower intensity. Wednesday may be a day dedicated to power with low volume, moderate intensity, and a fast tempo (time to complete a rep). Lastly, Friday may be a day dedicated to strength with low volume and high intensity. The drawback here is that you would have to perform full body lifts each day to fit in all the muscle groups, and that may get taxing over time.
Finally, we have concurrent periodization. In this, you have multiple phases of muscle growth in the same workout. For instance, you may have power, strength, hypertrophy, and endurance, all for the same exercise and on the same day.
Whenever you see a program with one muscle group being trained in different rep ranges in the same workout, then that workout is employing concurrent periodization. The idea behind this is to not regress in any of the phases because you are consistently training each.
When you do reverse pyramid training (RPT), and each set is in a different rep range (i.e. 1-4, 4-6, 6,8, etc.) then you are doing concurrent periodization. Concurrent periodization (or RPT for that matter) can give the illusion of being a constant repetition model if you are either slightly increasing intensity or volume each week. Just like DU periodization, though, this can get pretty taxing if you don’t take recovery seriously.
So, what would I recommend for simplicity and effectiveness?
When it comes down to it, periodization can do one of two things that constant repetition can’t: reduce the chances of overtraining, and cause supercompensation for strength gains.
It does this by avoiding the repeated bout effect, which happens when a muscle responds less and less when it is subjected to the same stimulus over and over again. We aren’t sure what exactly causes this, but it could be neurologically based, connective tissue based, cell based, or even psychologically based. It is the repeated bout effect that causes plateaus the vast majority of the time.
Understanding this reason for plateaus, we can take the principles of periodization and bend them to fit in with a constant repetition model. By doing this we can milk as much strength gains as possible while avoiding plateaus.
There is a model of periodization that I recommend for each of the two primary set schemes I consistently follow: RPT and straight sets. Both involve something I call intuitive periodization, in which the timing of the periodization relies heavily on your body’s feedback rather than what is decided upon at the start of the workout program.
Periodizing with RPT
For intuitive periodization with an RPT-dominant workout program, remember that you are doing concurrent periodization already. Assuming you don’t grind out reps or take sets to failure, you may not need to deload as often as you would with other set schemes (meaning you may hit plateaus less often). However, you will inevitably plateau on your strength set (your 4-6 set for example), and then you will essentially use block periodization.
Because of its RPT’s high intensity and low volume nature, it would benefit nicely from a volume accumulation phase like that of block periodization. I recommend once you stall in your strength set (4-6 rep range) 2 weeks in a row with RPT, switch to a higher volume and lower intensity set scheme.
5×6 with a straight set progression model should do the trick. Or you could stick to RPT but use higher rep ranges.
When switching to straight sets (SS), start with a 15% drop from your plateau weight. Complete all the reps at the same weight. If you fail a rep in your last set, then complete that rep next workout. If you fail a rep in a set that isn’t your last set, lower the weight for all remaining sets. Finally, if you complete all the reps in all the sets, increase the weight by the smallest amount possible.
Do this for 6-8 weeks, then return to RPT in the normal rep ranges. You will see the supercompensation effect lead to rapid strength gains here.
You could also stick to an RPT set scheme but in the higher rep ranges. For example, you should drop the weight 15% from your plateau weight and do 6-8 reps, then do 8-10, then do 10-12. This will save you time, as 5×6 will take longer. It will also let you stick to whatever progression model you were doing with RPT before the switch to higher reps.
However, sometimes you may just want to switch up the set scheme for no reason other than novelty; the decision to do so is totally yours and most likely won’t matter on a physical level.
Another IMPORTANT factor
Switch exercises as you change phases if you choose to (i.e. barbell bench press for dumbbell bench press). Switching exercises will help you hit different stabilizers (small yet important muscles) or challenge you in a novel way (using weighted chains/resistance bands on a barbell instead of weighted plates). This will also help you break through a plateau. I highly recommend it, and for most, it is even a necessity.
Note: RPT is a scarcely studied set scheme, and all periodization studies (to my knowledge) use anything but RPT. While I have no scientific evidence backing this up, I have principle-based reasoning and anecdotal evidence, which is still very useful.
Periodizing with Straight Sets
If you are following a primarily straight set schemed program, then linear progression is the simplest method to follow. Follow exactly what I wrote earlier in this post. The only thing that makes this intuitive is the fact that instead of doing a deload week in regular intervals, you will do a deload week whenever you have subjective feelings of fatigue. If you are fully recovered from last week’s workout, there is no need to do a deload- even if you had one planned. Let your body guide you.
You may also want to employ a volume accumulation phase with straight sets as well. For this, you simply bump the reps up and lower the weight for 6-8 weeks; no need to change rep schemes. Progress following a straight set loading model or linear periodization model (just like you. Feel free to change the exercise between phases too.
Well, there you have it! Those are some of the common forms of periodization, and my favorite ways to periodize. Next time you hear some of the aforementioned buzzwords tossed around your gym, hopefully you’ll have an baseline idea of what everyone is talking about.
If you liked the way my periodization method looked, then feel free to try it!
I will be writing more posts explaining other methods I use and concepts I apply, all intended to be maximally effective for a relatively minimal effort, so subscribe and check back often!
If there are any other topics you’d like to see or any questions you might have, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
Finally, note that this is a young blog. Any underlined terms in this article are topics I wish to elucidate in future blog posts, and then link to this post for your convenience. They will also be links to scientific articles when applicable. I appreciate your patience!