It’s easy to get comfortable with a strength-training routine, but when you get too comfortable, you stop seeing changes. Your muscles adapt to the challenges you place on them by growing and becoming stronger, but if you keep doing the same workout over and over and the growth will stop. When this happens, you increase the load on your muscles by lifting more weight or adding extra reps. The problem with this approach is you’re continuously working your muscles harder and harder. This increases the risk of overtraining and injury. The solution? Periodize your training.
What is Periodization?
Periodized weight training is a training technique developed by Dr. Thomas Delorme, an army physician who used this training method on physical therapy patients. It involves changing the focus and goal of your weight training at pre-determined intervals to challenge your neuromuscular system in a different way. This process of incremental change keeps your muscles from adapting because the stimulus changes over time, yet you’re giving your muscles adequate recovery time because you change the volume and intensity each time you enter a new phase.
You can periodize your training program in a number of ways – by changing the amount of weight you lift, the number of reps, how fast you do the reps or the speed or order with which you do them. Most research shows that periodized weight training is more effective than non-periodized training for building strength and lean body mass. There are two distinct types of periodization training. These are referred to as linear periodization and undulating periodization.
Linear periodization is the classic tried-and-true, old-school type of periodization workout and is what we used in the original STS program. A linear periodization workout is divided into phases. One popular way to do this is to use an overall cycle of three months – with each individual training phase lasting four weeks. This overall cycle is referred to as a macrocycle and can be any length you choose. The training phases within the macrocycle are referred to as mesocycles. During the first phase or mesocycle, you would use lighter weights and do more reps, for example, a weight that you can lift 16 times. This would be the muscle endurance mesocycle.
During the next mesocycle, the muscle hypertrophy phase, you would increase the load and decrease the volume by using a weight you can lift 10 times before fatiguing. In the third mesocycle, you would increase the weight again and decrease the number of reps to 6 or 8. There’s flexibility built into the system. The overall cycle or macrocycle can be as short as a month or as long as a year and the individual phases or mesocycles as short as a week – depending upon your goals.
Linear models of periodized weight training are based on progressively increasing intensity and decreasing volume that moves through mesocycles or phases in a linear manner just like we did in STS. You can apply linear periodization to any variable, including the amount of weight you lift, number of reps, amount of rest between sets, frequency, but the key is to increase the challenge and intensity linearly over the course of the cycle. The overall cycle or macrocycle can be any time period you choose and you can adjust the mesocycles accordingly.
Periodization doesn’t have to be linear. When you focus on one type of training for several weeks, for example, muscle endurance, other training capacities such as strength and hypertrophy are “de-trained.” Plus, it can become monotonous doing the same type of training for weeks at a time. That’s where another type of periodization called undulating periodization has advantages.
Undulating periodization involves changing the volume and intensity of the weight-training stimulus but not in a linear pattern. With this training method, there is greater variation in volume and training intensity throughout a macrocycle. With linear periodization, you can spend several weeks working at the same volume and intensity. This is enough for adaptation to take place and for the workout to become less effective. During this time, some degree of de-training also occurs for the capacities you’re not working. Plus, boredom becomes a factor. This is why in STS we always made sure every week to change exercises, rep patterns and workout techniques like drop sets, double wave load, supersets, etc.
With undulating periodization, you change the volume and intensity of your workout on a weekly or daily basis. For example, on Monday you might do an endurance workout where you do 16 reps per set. On Wednesday, the focus would shift to muscle hypertrophy with 10-rep sets followed by a strength workout on Friday using a weight you can only lift 6 or 8 times. This periodization method eliminates the de-training problem since you’re not spending several consecutive weeks focusing only on one type of training. It also reduces the boredom factor since you’re changing your workout as often as every session.
Undulating versus Linear Periodization: The Bottom Line?
Does undulating periodization work better than linear? There is disagreement about this, but according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, undulating periodization training is more effective for developing strength gains than a linear one. This is because the daily changes in volume and intensity places additional stress on the neuromuscular system, whereas linear training focuses only on working one specific training capacity at a time – muscle endurance, muscle hypertrophy or muscle strength. Undulating training also works better for people involved in athletics since athletes need to have a combination of power, strength and muscle endurance. When they focus on training only one of these capacities for weeks at a time, it could hurt their performance.
Another advantage of Undulating Periodization is that life’s interruptions don’t matter as much as they do in a Linear Periodization workout program. Since Undulating Periodization is all about mixing things up you can easily get back to your workout routine with almost any workout you want to do. With Linear Periodization it may be necessary to go back to the beginning of a mesocycle or even back to the beginning of your entire program if you miss too many of your workouts due to illness, injury or life circumstances. This is one of the main reasons I have chosen Undulating Periodization for our new Xtrain workout series.
Linear Periodization has its advantages too and being a well defined and structured program it lets exercisers apply what they have learned from their previous workout to their next training session. This helps a person to increase their effort and intensity the next time they perform the same exercise since the exerciser is already familiar with the routine and their mind-muscle-connection has improved because of their past workout experience. Linear periodization also lets exercisers more easily see their strength gains and progress and this helps them to stay motivated and to stick with their workout program.
Most research shows that periodized weight training produces greater increases in strength and muscle hypertrophy than non-periodized training, and undulating periodization appears to have some benefits over linear. Using an undulating periodization schedule helps to reduce boredom and makes it less likely you’ll reach a strength plateau since you’re changing the stimulus you expose your muscles to frequently. It’s a different way to approach weight training, but it’s one that can produce superior results.
J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):250-5.
University of New Mexico “Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications”