Periodization for Strength Gains—Good, Better &Best

ISSA president, Dr. Fred Hatfield, always says with training there is good, better and best.  At ISSA, we pride ourselves as a service organization; the best service we can offer clients is to help them achieve their goals safely and efficiently.   A study of the literature, history and anecdotes unanimously concur “the best” is accomplished with periodization.   More and more books, magazine articles and Internet gurus preach about periodization as if it was a foregone conclusion—it should be!   There is a problem.   Far too many categorize “periodization” in the same sense that they categorize many of the popular training programs like P90X or popular methods like drop sets or interval training.   Unfortunately, regardless of their good intentions—it’s a little more complex.   So what is “periodization”?   Periodization refers to how one’s training is broken down into discrete time periods called macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles, essentially systematically cycling volume, intensity, and training objectives toward one’s goals.   The two most popular types of periodized training methods today are linear and undulated.  We are going to define both and defer to science to which scheme is superior.   Both periodization models have followings of biblical proportions, with a cult-like allegiance.  Unfortunately, the congregants are all too ready to “drink the kool aid” instead of deferring to science.   Linear periodization was the go-to strategy for nearly every top-level strength athlete and athletic powerhouse team until the mid-1990s.   Times changed.   Pseudo-intellectuals started barking that this tried and true method of the old guard was antiquated and, at best, inefficient.   Linear periodization suddenly was the whipping boy of the ivory tower.   Linear periodization gave way in popularity to block periodization (shares many similarities to linear periodization, researchers confuse them often), conjugate periodization, cybernetic periodization, reverse linear periodization, undulating periodization and so on.   Undoubtedly, each of these methods has their famous coaches and star athletes that swear by them.   Since 2005, some popular training programs have helped cause a huge resurgence amongst trainees adhering to linear periodization programs.

The questions remain.   Is linear periodization put on a pedestal by relics suffering from nostalgia syndrome or did the old guard have it right this whole time?   Is undulated periodization really the most effective or is it the most recent snake oil sold by the latest, greatest fitness charlatans?   Recently, researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia set out to answer this question.

Types of Periodization   Undulated periodization is a non-linear model of periodization. The key is to often vary training by frequently adjusting loading parameters, i.e., frequency, volume, intensity, etc.   This can be done workout by workout, daily or weekly. Undulating periodization means training volume and overall intensity are increased or decreased constantly.   Theoretically, this model is more effective for the advanced trainee whose main objective is to provide a variety of overload, with variables constantly changing.   Strength coaches advocating this approach are quick to point out that strength, power, and hypertrophy are all needed to maximize limit strength. Since all are important, they must be trained concurrently.   The idea is to allocate specific workouts, for a specific purpose. For example, a split could be as follows: Training Session A–Strength, Training Session B–Hypertrophy, and Training Session C–Power. The cyclically pattern and frequency would be determined by the client’s needs.   Besides elite athletes potentially benefiting, general fitness training clients can, too.   Many trainers, in an attempt to entertain clients, perform bizarre exercises figuring ways to use bosu balls that would make PT Barnum jealous!  Best case scenario, these exercises are ineffective—worst case clients get hurt.   Keep the circus under the big top—you are a fitness professional, NOT a ring master.   Easily bored clients can keep engaged by constantly changing the workouts with an undulating approach—it is your job to make sure over the long term progression is sequential and up to par.   Training to reach the top of a sport can be tedious and mundane—outright stressful!   General fitness clients may not even think about their workout until they walk in the gym. This is why undulating periodization maybe the go to; it offers the benefit of keeping clients happy without sacrificing the integrity of proven training principles.

Linear Periodization In a nutshell, this type of periodization commences a training cycle with low intensity and high volume, and then progressively intensity increases and subsequently volume decreases. As reps decrease, the weight used (intensity) increases in each successive mesocycle, generally lasting 3–4 weeks.   For example, cycle one may consist of 15 reps, cycle two 10 reps, cycle three 10 reps, cycle four six reps, and so on. This type of periodization has produced many champions; in powerlifting, Ed Coan, Captain Kirk and Bill Kazmaier all used this approach, along with many top lifters that still use it today.   Linear periodization divides training into phases: hypertrophy, strength, and power. Some include an anatomical adaptation phase prior to the hypertrophy phase, which consists of strengthening tendons and ligaments with light weight and very high repetitions.   The narrow focus of training objectives is the primary criticism of linear periodization. For an athlete hoping to maximize strength, power, and lactic threshold, this can be problematic.   There are ways to combat this that go beyond the scope of this article.   For the powerlifter, who has only one objective, limit strength, it is no wonder so many of the greats have thrived with linear periodization.   I believe there is a reason this type of training jives so well with elite powerlifters.   Elite powerlifters are a different breed. They thrive on numbers. If you tell an elite powerlifter he must squat “x” amount in eight weeks, he starts prepping his mind that day, while, on the other hand, some clients cannot remember what they lifted earlier today. Personally, I have vivid recollections of workout sessions I performed 15 years ago: exact sets, reps, and how everything felt. It comes down to a psychological state; linear periodization favors the psychologically-prepared mind.

The Study   A Meta-Analysis performed by University of New Castle set out to answer if either linear or undulating periodization reigns superior when contrasted.   Harries, S., Lubans, D., & Callister, R. (n.d.). Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Linear and Undulating Periodized Resistance Training Programs on Muscular Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1-1. (Published Ahead of Print)   A meta-analysis simply looks at results from previous studies in the hope of identifying patterns among study results, sources of disagreement among those results, or other correlations. In other words, they research the preceding research.   A total of 17 studies examined that included 510 subjects with an average age of 24 ± 5, with total ages ranging from 19-39.  Nine of the periodized programs studied were 12 weeks and three of the studies were nine weeks.  The mean duration was 12.6 ± 4.1 weeks.  The mean training frequency was 3.2 ± .7 sessions weekly. A majority of the studies’ programs included free weights and machines along with compound and single joint movements.   Subjects ranged from trained college football players to novices.   Strength increases were measured via the squat, leg press and bench press.   Of the 17 studies examined, 12 found no significant differences favoring either type of periodization, three had a significant trend favoring undulating periodization where as two had a significant trend favoring linear periodization.   Researchers concluded—there were no significant differences in strength gains from either type of periodization.   What distinction researchers noted was that undulating periodization seemed to spark quicker strength gains initially with linear periodization catching up in latter weeks.

Practical Implications   Putting in equal work—neither periodization approaches seems to reign superior.  One approach that can be used is to run cycles of both types of periodization styles, after a 12-week linear cycle, vary the stimulus by giving an undulating cycle a shot for a couple months.   Bottom line is people can put in the work with periodized training with their personal preference and get the desired results.

Final Thoughts   Paramount to long-term success is adherence to the prescribed program!  Since neither approached reigns superior, you can go off a client’s personal preference and track how well they respond to different approaches—like anything else in training, never lose sight of the principle of individual difference.   Periodize to your preference.       Take out the guess the periodization guess work with The Size and Strength Blue Print.