Workout Periodization: Do You Need It?

Is workout periodization necessary for you?

What you’ll learn here

It can almost feel impossible to keep up with training terms in the fitness industry sometimes. Staggered sets, drop sets, and – of course, there’s periodization. Chances are, you know they could (somehow) help you ‘breakthrough plateaus.’

But the issue is, you aren’t even exactly clear on how they’re executed! 

I mean, admittedly, the information on staggered sets and drop sets are aplenty. Just do a quick Google search, and you’d know how to implement these into your sessions. 

But when it comes to training periodization? Good luck. 

Sifting through the resources available can feel a little like heading out into the Wild West. For starters, it’s challenging even to find a consistent, simple definition of periodization. 

Some say it’s about varying your rep ranges: 6 this week and 10 the next. Others say it involves taking things easier in the gym by reducing your volume (i.e. planned deloads). Then, some tell you it’s all about switching your exercises up. You know, to ‘shock the muscle?’ 

How confusing. Not to mention incredibly frustrating! I even began to question if workout periodization is just one of the many popular fitness myths that needs to be debunked.

And that’s why this article exists – to offer an up-to-date, comprehensive view on periodization. Find out what it is, its underlying theoretical assumptions, and if it’s a worthy addition to your training right here. Let’s go.  

What is periodization?

Let’s set the record straight once and for all. 

Here’s the official definition, as outlined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1). 

“A periodized training plan that is properly designed provides a framework for appropriately sequencing training so that training tasks, content, and workloads are varied at a multitude of levels in a logical, phasic pattern to ensure the development of specific physiological and performance outcomes at predetermined time points.” 

Wow … that was quite a mouthful, wasn’t it? I got you. 

There are just 3 main things to take away from periodization’s definition (2):

  • Sequential/phasic: This refers to training that is split up into distinct blocks that build on each other
  • Variety: Not every training session looks the same  
  • Goal-oriented: You’d typically attain peak performance at a specific time point 

Summary 

At its core, periodization refers broadly to training structured to vary in a phasic pattern to help develop specific physiological and performance outcomes at particular time points. 

History of periodization

Interestingly, while periodization has been relatively well-accepted in the fitness industry, the truth is that its underlying theory is surprisingly light on research. To understand why we’d need to take a look at its origins. 

It originated in Russia after the 1956 Olympic games. It was based on 2 things that were popular in the country at the time (3, 4).

#1: Long-term centralized planning (i.e. the Soviet 5-year plans)

There’s no denying it. The Russians loved top-down planning (5, 6, 7, 8). 

Case in point: the modernization of their manufacturing and energy sectors post-WWII. So, if you were a Russian sports coach, then, of course, you’d need to have a top-down plan to organize your athletes’ training 4 years in advance in preparation for the Olympics. 

And when you think about it …. periodization is, at its core, an example of top-down, long-term planning and organization. 

Now, it should be noted that they did not (again: did not!) have data to show that long-term planning helped athletes produce better results than short-term, responsive planning. 

Besides, we’re now all well aware of why the USSR dominated the Olympics through the Cold War era. 

Hint: heavy ‘chemical assistance. (9)’ 

After all, existing research does have this to say. Drugs and differences in innate talent will always positively impact performance to a greater degree than choosing one training program (10, 11). 

Assuming that both programs in question are sufficiently challenging and specific to an athlete’s goals, of course.

#2: General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

The General Adaptation Syndrome captures how performance changes across 3 stages when exposed to stress.

The second thing it is based on? 

General adaptation syndrome (GAS). It proposes that we’d go through 3 general phases when exposed to stress (12, 13, 14, 15):

  • Alarm phase: Characterized by a drop in ‘performance’ as your body is initially hit by the stressor.
  • Resistance phase: Characterized by the heightened ‘performance’ as your body learns to cope with the stressor.
  • Exhaustion phase: Characterized by a rapid drop in ‘performance’ as the magnitude or duration of the stressor overwhelms your body’s ability to cope with it.

Sounds believable, right? But if you’ve got sharp eyes, you’d have noticed that the word ‘performance’ is in inverted commas. Why? 

Well, it’s because the research on GAS didn’t measure any performance related to weightlifting. At all. 

Instead, it was mainly studying the way mice’s immune and endocrine systems coped with lethal (or near-lethal) doses of various stressors – ranging from drugs to forced exercise. 

In other words: GAS doesn’t apply to studying the effects exercising has on performance.  

It’s not directly applicable to many aspects of training. Meaning? Using it as a theoretical foundation ‘proving’ the usefulness of periodization for weight training is more than a little iffy. 

Summary 

The origins of periodization leaned heavily on 2 popular concepts in Russia following the 1956 Olympics: the country’s passion for long-term planning and the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). There was no evidence whatsoever that periodization led to better results for athletes. 

Periodization is a useful concept to apply when …

Unfortunately, it appears that there isn’t much science behind using periodization.

As it turns out, its use in sports had less to do with actual, superior athletic performance – and more to do with dated, USSR assumptions about the superiority of top-down, long-term planning. 

There’s also the disappointing bit where GAS research itself isn’t directly applicable to strength training. Now … does this mean that periodization of training is entirely useless?  

Not exactly. Wait, what? Yep. Before you think I’m just screwing around, hear me out. 

Training for strength gains

Surprisingly, despite the shortage of science supporting the basis of periodization, recent research highlights its potential.   

That is: overall, periodization in training tends to produce larger strength gains than non-periodized training – though, admittedly, the effect is pretty small (16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23). That said, the effect is slightly more significant and consistent in trained lifters than untrained lifters. 

But what if you’re not all that interested in strength gains? Does it make a difference in muscle growth rate (i.e. hypertrophy)? 

Training for hypertrophy

Recent meta-analyses say no. Judging from the available studies, it appears that neither periodization – nor periodization cycles (which I’ll cover in a bit) – affects hypertrophy to any meaningful degree (24, 25). 

Although, you should note that many of the studies available were designed to maximize strength gains. That is: strength was the primary measure of progress. 

Before dismissing periodization’s benefits for hypertrophy, here’s an interesting note. Most research equates volume between training programs (i.e. volume is the same for periodized and non-periodized plans).

And we all know that volume is by far the biggest driver of hypertrophy (26, 27, 28). 

It’s thus possible (highly likely, even) that periodized plans designed to progressively increase volume over time would lead to greater hypertrophy than non-periodized plans.  

Of course, the current scientific literature on this is sorely lacking. I’m looking forward to future research papers that’d test these hypotheses. 

In the meantime, I believe it’s worth giving it a shot for hypertrophy. Gaining strength is likely to help you increase training volume – which creates the progressive overload needed for gaining muscle. Try it out, and see how you respond.

It might just be the breath of fresh air you need in your training plan.

Summary 

  • Periodization in training tends to produce larger strength gains than non-periodized training. The effect appears larger and more consistent in trained lifters than untrained lifters. 
  • While current scientific literature shows that periodization doesn’t appear to affect hypertrophy to any meaningful degree, it’s very likely that it could positively impact training volume. And, thus, benefit muscle growth. 

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What is the best periodization cycle?

Of all the cycles available, which is the best? 

Different periodization cycles 

First, let’s have a look at the 3 periodization types (29):

  • Linear periodization (LP): This is where training volume decreases progressively  over time, and training intensity progressively increases over time. Could refer to a few months of training to a few years. 
An example of linear periodization with levels of intensity and volume compared.
  • Undulating periodization (UP): Refers to training structures where volume and intensity both go up and down repeatedly over time. Can be further sub-categorized into 2:
    • Weekly undulating periodization (WUP): The fluctuations in volume and intensity take place week to week.
    • Daily undulating periodization (DUP): The fluctuations in volume and intensity occur within a single training week (i.e. from session to session).
An example of weekly undulating periodization with levels of intensity and volume compared.
An example of daily undulating periodization with levels of intensity and volume compared.
  • Block periodization (BP): Refers to training that starts with a block focused on strength endurance, followed by hypertrophy, followed by power and velocity. This is then finished off with a competitive block – if dealing with a team sport athlete. 

If you’ve read through the definitions and ended up with a frown on your face, I’d understand why. 

The truth is that these ‘periodization types’ aren’t distinct concepts; they aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Unfortunately, they have been defined as such by various prominent periodization theorists over the years. And are, therefore, researched as separate concepts. 

Undulating periodization is probably your best choice

Current research suggests that undulating periodization (daily or weekly) seems to do better than linear periodization for trained lifters. Note the keywords: trained lifters. Research shows no difference whatsoever for untrained lifters. 

As for block periodization? 

Unless you’re a professional sports athlete training for a specific event, it’s unlikely to benefit you. You’re better off incorporating undulating periodization. 

Summary 

There are 3 types of periodization: linear periodization (LP), undulating periodization (UP), and block periodization (BP). Undulating periodization appears to be most superior at producing strength gains compared to its linear and block counterparts. 

Do you need training periodization? 

Here’s the million-dollar question. Do you need training periodization? 

Decide if you really need training periodization.

To answer this, you first need to be honest with yourself. Are you a trained lifter? You’d know you’re considered a ‘trained’ lifter if your progress in the gym is only evident over several months or years. That is, you’re able to add load only after a few months of consistent effort.

But if you’re able to progress on most of your training loads weekly? Then you’re a novice lifter. 

As this article has explained, periodization is only meaningful if you’re a trained individual. It honestly isn’t a primary factor in influencing outcomes – neither hypertrophy or strength – in novice trainers. 

If you are indeed a beginner lifter, then adherence, progressive overload, and technique improvement are the main things you should be working on. These will give you the most optimal results. 

And if you happen to be a trained lifter? 

Then go for the undulating periodization. It appears to do considerably better than linear periodization (and block periodization) for trained lifters. 

Summary 

Incorporating periodization in your training is only worthwhile if you’re a trained lifter. And if you are programming periodization into your routine, go for the undulating variant. 

Incorporating undulating periodization into your training routine

When it comes to the undulating periodization, you have 2 options available: daily and weekly. I prefer the daily option, just because it’s the more well-researched variant, and has more evidence to support it.

Besides, it helps keep things interesting in the gym! Find out how to incorporate daily undulating periodization into your training routine below.  

Daily undulating periodization cycle

There are 3 steps to programming daily undulating periodization:

  • Choose exercises: These should be exercises you’re trying to improve in (or at least close variations of them). 
  • Pick 3 different set/rep schemes: For instance, 3×4, 3×6, and 3×8. In general, set them in line with your primary goal. If you’re inclined towards a little more hypertrophy instead of pure strength gains, 12s, 8s, and 5s may work better. But if you’re all for strength gains? Then 6s, 4s, and 2s are a better fit.
  • Define how you’re going to progress on each lift and set/rep scheme: This is how you measure your progress on the lift. For instance: do 5 sets of 5 at a particular weight, then add sets until 8 sets before adding weight. Don’t worry if you’re confused. I’ll cover this in more detail later on. 
  • Make suitable adjustments once you plateau on your set/rep scheme

If you want to learn more, here’s an article on reps, sets and training volume worth checking out.

Periodization training program example

Here’s an example of a daily undulating periodization training program. As mentioned, the approach is to vary the volume and intensity from day to day.

Strength and hypertrophy day

Example of a strength and hypertrophy day.

Hypertrophy day

Example of a hypertrophy day.

Strength day

Periodization training example of a strength day.

Always take care of the fundamentals first 

It’s worth noting that you’re probably not going to benefit much from periodization in your training if you’re not taking care of the fundamentals. That consists of progressive overloading, eating a suitable amount of calories based on goals , and getting enough rest

Achieving those consistently is going to put you light years ahead of someone who’s continually seeking ‘novel’ ways of training – but not being consistent with these fundamentals. 

That said, if you are a trained individual and are getting all the basics right, periodization could just be the tool to supercharge your progress in the gym. 

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