Walking onto the gym floor with only a loose plan and a few fun lifts in mind for your workout really can work for a while. You are primed to make progress in your early lifting years — your body is a sponge for the iron and will usually respond the best when you’re just starting out. However, there comes a time in every lifter’s lifecycle where you inevitably run into a proverbial brick wall.
Changing everything all at once might be the fix, or maybe it’s your technique, or, worst of all, maybe it’s just going to take more time. At this stage, the seriousness of your goals should be reflected by the seriousness of your planning.
Periodization is the secret to making progress once you’ve cracked through your early gains. Creating a structured training program that adheres to the principles of periodization has been shown time and time again to remove the guesswork on gains. Here are the three main types for you to chew on and some extra context on how to best use them.
Periodization is the creation of a training program that spans the length of weeks to months (or sometimes years). As the name suggests, periodization breaks down your training into periods of time devoted to specific outcomes — such as building strength, muscle, or power. These periods of time can be viewed from a weekly, monthly, or annual perspective — but the power of periodization comes from stringing together several successful “blocks” or “phases” of training. (1)(2)
Once you’ve made all the easy “newbie” gains, concentrating your efforts in successive, synergistic, and progressively-overloaded cycles is the best way to continue seeing long term progress.
A microcycle is usually about a week’s worth of training, and represents the individual workouts you’ll be completing. A mesocycle is a moderate length of time where you’ll be attempting to progress that particular workout plan as outlined in the microcycle (usually 1-3 months).
From there, you’ll aim to string together several mesocycles to accomplish long-term goals — this can be viewed as a macrocycle. (2) An excellent example of a macrocycle is to simply use a full calendar year, but they can be as lengthy as training for four years to peak for the Olympic Games. (2)
While there are plenty of different ways to skin the proverbial cat, most types of program periodization fall under three distinct umbrellas.
Linear periodization is about as straightforward as the name implies. The “meat and potatoes” of periodization in this style demands that when absolute load or intensity goes up, the amount of volume (sets and repetitions) you can complete goes down. (3) That is linear periodization in a nutshell.
For a crystal clear picture, a four-week snapshot of linear periodization applied to your bench press might look something like this:
- Week 1: 225×10
- Week 2: 240×8
- Week 3: 255×6
- Week 4: 270×4
Note: This example does not include warm-ups or back-off sets.
While linear periodization is reliant upon increasing intensity and decreasing volume is the centerpiece of the program, undulating periodization takes advantage of changing more than one variable throughout the mesocycle. This can come in the form of two different styles, weekly-undulating or daily-undulating periodization. (3)
An easy way to examine the options that weekly undulating or nonlinear periodization can provide when compared to linear periodization is the increase in total volume at a prescribed load week over week. While linear periodization emphasizes a load increase each session, nonlinear may offer you the opportunity to perform work with the same load, but an increased number of sets or repetitions. (3)
On the other hand, daily undulating periodization may see you perform the same lift (squat, bench press, or deadlift for example) several times per week emphasizing different set, repetition, or loading parameters. This increased volume through accumulation (during either weekly or daily undulating periodization) is another method of progressing your program long-term. (3)
- Monday (Hypertrophy): 3×8 at 80% 1RM.
- Wednesday (Power): 3×1 at 90% 1RM.
- Friday (Strength): 3xAMRAP at 85% 1RM.
Block periodization organizes training over the course of a several weeks, breaking down each mesocycle into an accumulation, transmutation, or realization phase. Usually, a block spans anywhere from two to four weeks at a time, with increasing intensity and decreasing volume as you progress through the three distinct phases.
The accumulation phase typically includes higher volume and lower intensities (50 to 75% 1RM), transmutation intensifies your training to be more akin to strength (75—90% 1RM), and realization helps to peak performance to maximal strength or power output (90%+ 1RM) (3).
A common reference point for Olympic lifting (and to a lesser extent, powerlifting) is Prilepin’s chart. Outlined below, you can see how progressions may be implemented over the course of several weeks for a particular lift.
Percent of 1RM | Reps | Sets | Optimal Per-Session Volume | “Acceptable Range”
- 55-65% | 3-6 | 24 total reps | 18-30 reps.
- 70-80% | 3-6 | 18 total reps | 12-24 reps.
- 80-90% | 2-4 | 15 total reps | 10-20 reps.
- 90%+ | 1-2 | 4 total reps | 4-10 reps.
While periodization on its own will work wonders for helping you progress, knowing when it’s best to implement any of the big three options can go a long way as well.
As a beginner, you can still experience newbie gains — even if you don’t use complex approaches to programming. Linear periodization is often viewed as a great option for establishing a strong foundation of strength in your main exercises. Similarly to when you’re just looking to pack on muscle or general strength, early adopters of periodization are often able to recover faster and see stronger gains with the linear style of periodization than more advanced lifters.
With a few months (or a few years) under your belt, looking toward nonlinear or undulating periodization styles might better serve your progress. Often as you get stronger, it becomes harder to recover from the aggressive jumps seen in linear periodization models. Looking into nonlinear or undulating styles can help you more appropriately scale your volume and intensity to see better progress.
Once you’ve entered your “advanced athletics” era, be it as a traditional sports athlete or a strength competitor, nonlinear or block style of periodization is likely your best bet. These styles help you best customize your training intensity and volume (and even exercise selection) to best eliminate your plateaus and serve your recovery needs.
After you’ve developed more advanced strength or power, performing your main lifts or their variations multiple times per week would be beneficial for your skill retention under peak performance loads as well.
Training age, or the amount of total time you’ve spent regularly working out, is a huge predictor of which periodization style might be best for you. That said, there are also some unique considerations for you to be mindful of when choosing your preferred form of periodization.
Developing skill in an exercise (especially the more complex barbell lifts) benefits from performing them multiple times per week. Using a nonlinear (daily undulating) periodization style can be a huge asset for rapidly increasing skill in an exercise due to increased frequency of practice per week.
Peaking for strength or power sports is an art in and of itself — but knowing exactly when you’re needing to peak can help you parse out which style of periodization is best for you. If you only need to peak once per season or even once per year, that predictability gives you the option of using the periodization style that best suits your preferences.
In the case of multiple competitions within a sporting season or year, choosing more flexible periodization styles such as nonlinear or block makes it easier to sync up your maximal performance with game day. Linear periodization may be a bit too rigid for you to optimally utilize in this case.
While periodization within the weight room is often tied to a specific barbell lift to help increase your performance in powerlifting or Olympic lifting, periodization also benefits general strength or power potential for all sports.
Removing the absolute necessity to always squat, bench press, or deadlift, for example, can be quite freeing. Improvements in strength and power output, though, don’t come easy without some form of dedicated structure. Even if you don’t strictly apply a form of periodization to your sport, you’ll still make some progress if you follow the same general principles.
Periodization is a powerful tool for breaking plateaus and almost always guarantees better outcomes long term. It can be incredibly impactful in increasing your 1RM for the big barbell exercises and simplifies the concept of progressive overload.
More broadly, it can help you guarantee a more balanced approach to the many moving parts of resistance training.
Plateaus happen for multiple reasons, but a big one is a lack of structure. Periodization, regardless of the model you lean on, is renowned for being beneficial by simply adding a more measured approach to training. By concentrating your efforts on very specific problems for an appropriate amount of time, periodization helps smash plateaus.
Increased Absolute Strength
Improvements to your 1RM across multiple exercises is a hallmark of periodization. Powerlifting and Olympic lifting are two huge examples of the necessity to peak multiple barbell lifts at the same time for a competition. The implementation of a periodized training program is critical to the success of any strength athlete on the platform.
Progressive overload can be a confusing topic once you’ve run out of the “low-hanging fruit” method of simply going to the gym and trying hard. Simply adding more weight to the bar, reducing rest, or adding volume works for a while, but eventually becoming more strategic with these variables is required to keep seeing progress.
All periodization methods help to automatically weave progressive overload into your program in the right doses, at the right time, so you can keep hitting your goals in the gym.
It’s common to want to build strength, muscle, endurance, or power at the same time. There’s no shame in wanting to be good at everything, after all. While there will ultimately come a time when continued progress will require a much deeper focus on one or two attributes, periodization helps you properly balance your workouts so you never overload yourself.
As such, you’ll find it possible to make strides toward multiple athletic achievements in tandem — if you’ve got the right program.
From Paper to Practice
While the simplicity of walking into the gym ready to go “beast mode” and making all the gains was a wonderful experience, you’ll eventually realize that nothing works well forever. Coming to terms with the reality that structure within your training is the true path to longevity can breathe new life into your workouts.
With periodization at the forefront, ambiguity disappears and you can apply effort in the right ways to smash plateaus and improve your performance all at once. Between linear, nonlinear/undulating, and block periodization, there is easily a solution for every single one of your training “problems.” Grab your notebook (or smartphone) and get to work.
1. Lorenz, D. S., Reiman, M. P., & Walker, J. C. (2010). Periodization: current review and suggested implementation for athletic rehabilitation. Sports health, 2(6), 509—518.
2. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Fourth Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
3. Lorenz, D., & Morrison, S. (2015). CURRENT CONCEPTS IN PERIODIZATION OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING FOR THE SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPIST. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(6), 734—747.
3. Zourdos, M. C., Jo, E., Khamoui, A. V., Lee, S. R., Park, B. S., Ormsbee, M. J., Panton, L. B., Contreras, R. J., & Kim, J. S. (2016). Modified Daily Undulating Periodization Model Produces Greater Performance Than a Traditional Configuration in Powerlifters. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 30(3), 784—791.
Featured Image: sportpoint / Shutterstock