Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS
Many times I have heard people talking about hitting the gym or working out to become leaner, fitter and stronger. When they were asked about what they do for their workout, many told me they either go to the gym to simply use whatever equipment available; or doing a set of exercises at fixed repetitions, sets and intensity for the past 1 year (even the order of the exercises remained the same!). But hey, at least it is still better than not exercising at all, right?? Granted, it might help to maintain your health, but doing the same thing again and again without proper planning or variations to your workout program will eventually plateau your performance/ fitness (imagine doing the same math questions over and over again..). Ultimately, motivation level will be affected, and people will start to give up when they fail to make gains. In order to optimize your training, it is highly recommended to periodize your program
What is periodization?
So, what is periodization? Basically, it is the process of systematic planning and designing of a training program. The program can include resistance training, cardio training, general conditioning, sport-specific activities and even nutrition. Periodization involves distributing and varying training workload and modalities in periods or cycles over a planned duration (6,8). The purpose is to provide sufficient recovery to promote optimal performance (4,5), especially for those who have important competitions/ events, you would want your performance to peak at the right time. Training too hard without adequate recovery increases the risk of injury, whereas insufficient training would probably result in deconditioning.
A periodized training program is usually divided into smaller blocks of time – long-term (macrocycles), medium-term (mesocycles) and short-term (microcycles); each with its own goals and priorities. Think of it as setting up mini goals that can help you to achieve the result you want (for example, to improve your speed, you will have to first build up a solid strength base).
Macrocycles generally varied between 6 months to 4 years (an Olympic cycle). Within a macrocycle are 2 or more blocks of mesocycles, with each block ranging between 3 to 4 weeks, lasting up to 12 weeks. The number of mesocycles depends on the training goal(s) and/or the number of sport event(s) (if applicable) within the planned period. Each mesocycle is further divided into multiple microcycles which each ranges between a few days to a week, and could last for up to 4 weeks (2,3,7). The purpose of the microcycle is to focus on daily and weekly training variations such as intensity, reps, sets, volume, etc.
Types of periodization model
There are many different methods and approach to optimize a training program. Two of the commonly used and researched forms of periodization are the ‘traditional’ model and the ‘undulating’ model.
The traditional periodization model, also known as the ‘linear’ model, gradually and linearly increases in intensity or volume (depending on what you are training for) from week to week within a microcycle. For example, in a strength training program using linear model, the exercise volume will increase progressively over 8 weeks to focus on hypertrophy followed by the exercise intensity for another 6 weeks to build on strength. This process can be repeated by programming blocks of mesocycles (as mentioned earlier, 1 mesocycle could last up to 12 weeks), with the intensity gradually increases linearly (figure 1).
Figure 1 – Example of a linear periodization program; Intensity increase progressively from a mesocycle to another, with some variation within each microcycle (due to the range of reps and sets).
Alternatively, the undulating periodization model, also referred to as ‘non-linear’ model, rotates between different training adaptations which involves more frequent (can be from daily, weekly to bi-weekly) variations in intensity and volume (1,3). In a non-linear strength training program, you can train to improve in muscular mass and strength/power within a mesocycle. For example, if you have 3 training sessions in a week, you can manipulate the exercise intensity, repetitions and/or sets for all 3 sessions, rotating the physiological adaptation between hypertrophy and or strength/power for each session over 6 weeks (figure 2). This approach allows you to rotate among different training intensities (light, moderate, heavy and very heavy). If you miss a workout, you can simply perform it the next day and continue to rotate the training intensity. Instead of using a certain number of weeks to dictate the length of a mesocycle, you can use the number of training sessions as a guide (e.g., 1 mesocycle = 36 sessions). This allows greater training flexibility for those with a busy/ unpredictable schedules.
Figure 2 – Example of a non-linear periodization program; Variation in training (intensity, reps and sets) is much greater within each week than in a linear program, ranging from 1RM sets to 15RM sets, that works on multiple training goals in a week.
If you are wondering which type of periodization suit you, check out this article that discuss about each method in detail. Regardless of the type of periodization program, any one of it is better than a constant training program.
1) Baker, D., Wilson, G., & Carlyon, R. (1994). Periodization: The effect on strength of manipulating volume and intensity. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 8(4), 235-242.
2) Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (1988). Resistance training: Exercise prescription. The Physician & Sportsmedicine, 16(6), 69-81.
3) Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2004). Designing resistance training programs (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
4) Jung, A. P. (2003). The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 33(7), 539-552.
5) Komi, P. V. (1979). Neuromuscular performance: Factors influencing force and speed production. Scandinavian Journal of Medical Science in Sports, 1(1), 2-15.
6) Plisk, S. S., & Stone, M. H. (2003). Periodization strategies. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 25(6), 19-37.
7) Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Garhammer, J., McMillan, J., & Rozenek, R. (1982). A theoretical model of strength training. National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal, 4(4), 36-40.
8) Stone, M. H., Stone, M., & Sands, W. A. (2007). Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.