Periodization is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot and can have many many many meanings, depending on who you’re talking to. From fairly generic approaches to cycling training to meticulously planned out programs where ever set and rep is set ahead of time, you can find many different intrepretations of periodization and what it means. In this article series, I want to discuss periodization as it applies to bodybuilding specifically.
Now, if you go into most gyms, you’ll usually find people working out in vastly different ways: there are your pumpers, the guys who go heavy all the time, etc. But, for the most part, the guys who pump always pump and the guys who go heavy always go heavy. Most bodybuilders tend to stick in a fairly static rep range (could be 6-8 or 10-12 depending on what theory of growth they ascribe to) but it’s rare to see a given individual change that much. There are, of course exceptions.
Basically, it seems like bodybuilders are pretty much the last folks to jump on the periodization bandwagon. As above, most of them tend to stick with the same types of training year round and they pretty much always go balls to the wall. The idea of changing anything (except maybe exercise choice to ‘shock the muscle’ or what have you) just doesn’t seem to be as prevalent among that subculture.
The Problem with Non-Periodized Training
Before tackling the issues of periodization, let’s look at some of the problems inherent in non-periodized training. One is simply that people get bored doing the same thing all the time. Mental staleness can be as real as physical staleness (and recent research suggests that they are related anyhow) and changing something about training (whether it’s exercise selection, exercise order, rep count, or whatever) can get people more interested in training. More interest usually makes people work harder and that alone can generate results.
A second issue is that, even for bodybuilders, there are different components that contribute to maximal size; and each can be trained somewhat differentially. Of course there’s actual myofibrillar hypertrophy (an increase in the size of the contractile fibers). There’s also sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (an increase in non-contractile components of the muscle such as glycogen, water, minerals, mitochondria, etc). Capillary density can be improved (increasing nutrient availability to muscle fibers). You get the idea (note: this topic is discussed in greater detail in my Ultimate Diet 2.0).
A third issue, of course, is one of physical accommodation. Over time, the body often accommodates to a given training style. More accurately, it stops adapting (positively anyhow) and may actually start regressing. Changing training variables from time to time (even if it’s simply to back off the intensity and build back up again) can help to prevent physical staleness.
What is Periodization?
At its simplest, periodization simply refers to some sort of methodical (or semi-methodical) variation in training. Changes can occur in terms of volume, intensity, exercise selection, rep speeds, rest intervals and any other of the myriad training variables. Most athletes periodize to one degree or another. Usually the goal of periodization is to develop fitness towards specific competition periods. Some will even target a single competition and train an entire year exclusively for that (e.g. Lance Armstrong trained towards the Tour De France as his only major competition).
Obviously competitive bodybuilders will periodize towards their competition but I think that even recreational bodybuilders (guys who just want to be big and ripped or just bit) can benefit from structuring their training as well. That structuring, regardless of the specific type, goes under the heading of periodization. So with that basic introduction, I want to look at some of the common models of periodization and then move into how bodybuilders might approach periodizing their training.
Perhaps the most common (at least the most well known) model for periodization is the simple linear periodization model (usually being accredited to a Russian scientist named Matveyev). It starts from a fairly high volume of low intensity activity and moves gradually towards a lower volume of high intensity activity (the model is actually a bit more complicated than that and I’d suggest anyone who is truly interested in the topic pick up Mel Siff’s Supertraining book for a more detailed discussion).
So an Olympic or powerlifter would move from fairly high volumes with a low intensity (intensity being defined here as % of 1 rep maximum) to a low volume of high intensity activity. So the powerlifter might move, over the span of 16 weeks, from a rep count of 12-15 to 10-12 to 8-10 to 6-8 to 5 then to triples and doubles, finally peaking for the meet.
Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) program essentially a linear periodized model moving from 2 weeks of 15’s to 2 weeks of 10’s to 2 weeks of 8’s to 2 weeks of 5’s to 1-2 weeks of negatives, then a week break and start over again. I should note that it is also periodized within a given 2 week cycle, moving from a submaximal weight to basically a repetition maximum (RM) load by the end of the 2 week cycle.
There are other linear approaches to periodization out there as well although they may be structured a little bit differently. Ironman magazine has long recommended that bodybuilders train in 8 week blocks, taking 2 weeks to ramp up the intensity (in this case defined as effort, taking each set to positive failure) and then working full bore for the next 6 weeks to make strength and size gains before backing off for 2 weeks and ramping up again.
I take the same approach in my generic bulking routine, 2 weeks of sub-maximal work followed by 4-6 weeks really pushing hard before backing off and building up again. Doggcrapp (DC) training is simlar, alternating 2 week ‘cruises’ with 4-6 week ‘blasts’. You get the idea.
Anyone familiar with the basic Hardgainer magazine approach should know that Stuart and the rest of the HG crew has generally recommended a similar approach, take several weeks to ramp up training and then work full bore for some period of time (some HG authors use cycles of 12-16 weeks while at least one recommends extending the cycle, adding weight to the bar, for as long as you can).
Tudor Bompa and Fred Koch (who seems to hav stolen Bompa’s approach pretty much verbatim) have both suggested a linear periodized scheme for bodybuilders that is more along the lines of bulking and then cutting. You start with a few weeks of anatomical adaptation (basically low intensity training to condition connective tissues), then move into hypertrophy training (generally a fairly high volume of work in the 75-85% 1RM range), then to maximal strength work (85% 1RM or less) then to cutting (a strange program centered around 100-200 reps per exercise, something I find profoundly silly).
On and on it goes, as I said above, linear periodization is probably the most common approach to periodizing. But it has problems.
The Problems with Linear Periodization
In recent years, linear periodization has come under fire from a number of different strength experts. Vladimir Zatsiorsky (author of “Science and Practice of Strength Training”) Charles Poliquin and powerlifting guru Louie Simmons all jump to mind. The problem, they note is this: while you are training one biomotor capacity (i.e. muscular endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength), the ones not being trained are going to hell (ok, not their exact words). But you end up detraining one capacity while you’re developing another.
For example, a powerlifter working in the 10-12 rep range (more of a hypertrophy range) is going to be losing maximal strength capacity (and all of the adaptations that go along with that). An endurance athlete doing nothing but low intensity endurance training is detraining leg speed (for sprinting) and lactate threshold capacity (the highest intensity that they can maintain without accumulating too much lactic acid). Studies done years ago found that athletes moving into low rep ranges (for maximal strength) frequently lost muscle size. Adding back even one high rep set (remember this, it’s important) frequently prevented the problem.
I’d note that, for bodybuilders this isn’t quite so much of an issue as, outside of the different components that contribute to size I mentioned above, bodybuilders aren’t really training different biomotor capacities throughout the year. Rather, everything they are doing is going towards muscular size (or maintenance during dieting). So the criticisms of linear periodization in this context aren’t exactly right.
As well, many of the criticisms of linear periodization are based on the old idea of one long annual cycle starting from low-intensity and high-volume and moving towards high-intensity and low-volume. Modern training uses shorter cycles and HST, DC, my generic bulking approach, etc. are all based around repeating 8 week cycles rather than absurdly long 52 week cycles. So, again, the criticisms against linear periodization here aren’t exactly correct. However, I’m going to finish out this article as if there were better ways of doing it and look at them next.
Solution Number One: Nonlinear Periodization
One of the first proposed solutions for the problems above was something usually referred to as nonlinear or undulating periodization. Both Poliquin and Zatsiorsky recommended alternating 2-3 week blocks where a given capacity was emphasized and others were trained at maintenance.
So a Poliquin type of program might entail 2-3 weeks of 10-12 reps, 2-3 weeks of 5-6 reps, 2-3 weeks of 7-9 reps (the return to high reps help to avoid muscle loss), 2-3 weeks of 3-5 reps, etc.
Zatsiorsky’s approach was slightly different but he was addressing other types of athletes than simply bodybuilders. Basically, working in 2-3 week blocks, specific biomotor capacities (i.e. strength, power, endurance) would be emphasized while other capacities were trained at maintenance. So a 3 week block where aerobic endurance was emphasized would see lactate threshold training worked at maintenance and then the focus would switch, lactate threshold would be emphasized while aerobic endurance was maintained. I should mention that Bompa did occasionally give lip service to that type of alternation in his books, you’d alternate a few weeks of maximal strength training with a few weeks of hypertrophy training.
Solution Number Two: ‘Conjugate’ Periodization
Pedantic note: although it has come to be called ‘conjugate periodization’ popularly is not what was originally mean by the term. What I am going to describe below is really concurrent periodization where all different capacities are trained to some degree each week and throughout the year.
Conjugate periodization has probably been promoted most heavily by aforementioned powerlifting guru Louie Simmons. Claiming that old school linear periodization is dead (nobody tell Ed Coan), he believes that conjugate periodization (developed, of course, in Russia) is a superior way to train. For a more detailed examination of the conjugate system, I’d suggest “Supertraining” by Mel Siff.
In his system, all aspects of powerlifting performance (bar speed/technique, maximal strength, hypertrophy, general physical preparation) are trained at the same time, simply with a different emphasis on each. Bar speed and technique are trained with speed work (10 sets of 2 or 8 sets of 3 with a submaximal weight), maximum strength is trained with multiple low rep sets and hypertrophy is trained with multiple higher rep sets. All three rep ranges are used every week of the year (more or less). There’s more to it, of course and anyone interested in learning more about Louie’s system can check out Westside barbell or Elite Fitness’s website.
Of course, the above hardly describes all of the possible options available. One is to simply combine training and train different aspects of muscle in the same training cycle. An old school approach to training was to follow warmups with 3-5 heavy sets of 5 (training a combination of maximal strength and myofibrillar hypertrophy) with multiple sets of 12-15 (training sarcoplasmic elements). First you go heavy, then you get a little bit of a pump. Technically, I’d describe this as a combination of tension and fatigue training and my generic bulking program is built around that idea.
Another is to hit each type of training but in different workouts per week. This is also sometimes referred to as non-linear or undulating periodization and you might do sets of 3-5 one day, 8-10 another, and 10-15 on the third. My Ultimate Diet 2.0 is structured in this fashion with each type of training (power, tension, depletion) set up to optimize with that day’s daily diet.
Others will do one heavy power workout and one higher rep pump workout per week, hitting each bodypart roughly twice per week. Bodybuilder and all-around smart guy Layne Norton is a big proponent of this and he’s got the results to back it up.
As you can see, there are lots of options and ways to get around the ‘problems’ which can be associated with linear periodization. However, rather than detail the above types of programs, I want to talk about some other ways that bodybuilders can periodize their training.
Read more in Periodization for Bodybuilders Part 2.
- Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 2
- A Quick Look at Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs
- Maximal Strength Training for Bodybuilders – Q&A
- Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy: Part 2
- Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 3