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The power of periodisation

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Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Periodisation is one of those buzzwords in bodybuilding that carries a lot of weight but results in very little action or true understanding. We all know it’s something good and we should be doing it, but we either don’t understand what it means or how to implement it, or we just convince ourselves we’re already doing it and move on. This article is meant to help you actually understand what periodisation is, how it’s relevant to bodybuilding, and to give you some practical take homes that you can apply to your training.

Get organised
First off, what is periodisation? Simply put, it’s the organisation of training over time, utilising an organised approach to encourage progression while minimising plateaus and avoiding injuries[1].

How does this apply to bodybuilding? Traditionally periodisation strategies all focused on achieving a peak in athletic performance at the point in the season where competition occurs. For a power athlete moving their body or a light weight implement through space, this means peaking the ability to produce force at high velocity. For a powerlifter, a periodisation strategy would focus on achieving a peak in maximal strength. However, for a bodybuilder, the actual muscular performance is not the goal, so does periodisation even matter?

It does, and here’s why. The muscle you display on stage is a culmination of the efforts put forth in the gym and the kitchen, and no matter what approach you use in training, if it doesn’t include a focus on progressive overload, it won’t result in improvements. Thus, the more efficiently you can expose yourself to progressive overload and adapt, the more efficiently you will gain muscle mass. Therefore, utilising a planned approach to training makes a lot of sense even though the traditional goal of peaking in performance is not the underlying goal.

Sure, you can achieve progressive overload simply by trying to out-train your last session every time you step in the gym – adding more weight, more reps or more sets – but eventually this strategy ceases to pay off. Once that occurs, a planned approach becomes important. In fact, it is the non-beginner who stands to benefit the most from utilising a periodised approach[2]. Think about it; if an experienced lifter could add 2.5kg every week for 52 weeks to their 10-rep max, does that mean a lifter squatting 120kg for a 10-rep max at the start of the year could finish the year squatting 250kg for 10? No chance in hell.

Theory examination
So, if you can’t simply just try to outdo yourself every week to optimise your gains, what can you do? There are a lot of ways to organise training. If you read the studies on periodisation they would have you believe that there are completely separate approaches and schools of thought, and that they are mutually exclusive based on some of the point counter-point articles you can find in the scientific literature[3,4].

However, when it truly comes down to it, periodisation is largely theoretical in nature, and often based more on assumptions and long held beliefs instead of hard data[5]. Additionally, the different forms of periodisation are in fact not mutually exclusive, share many of the same elements, and arguably should be integrated and combined for optimal performance[2,4].

If we step away from tradition and logic that is actually based on long held assumptions, what do we actually know about the rationale of periodisation? We know that doing the same sets and reps on a day-to-day basis at a high intensity, can lead to stagnation[7], and that having some element of variation in your loading and repetition schemes can prevent this[8] and improve performance[9]. So if you are rigid in your approach, always training to failure in the eight to 12 rep range on a day-to-day basis, you are probably not optimising your progress. We also know that progressive overload is critical to making continual gains[10].

The linear model
But how do you implement variety in a way that isn’t so haphazard and directionless that it interferes with progression? There have been many models proposed in the literature. The traditional linear, or western periodisation, approach consists of multiple periods lasting multiple months where different characteristics are trained, starting with muscular endurance or hypertrophy, moving to maximal strength, and then culminating with power training. This doesn’t have to be the exact format but more or less linear periodisation starts with higher volumes of training and lighter loads, and progressively decreases volume and increases load to encourage progress.

One of the critiques of this approach is that for months at a time the same set and rep schemes are used, leading to a certain degree of training monotony that may not be ideal, and once you switch to the next phase of training, you lose some of the adaptations that came from the previous phase because you are no longer training that quality at all. In response to these argued shortcomings, undulating periodisation strategies and block periodisation strategies were proposed. In short, undulating periodisation includes training for multiple qualities on a day to day basis (known as daily undulating periodisation or DUP), or week-to-week basis (known as weekly undulating periodisation or WUP).

Block periodisation is the simplification of the linear or western approach, in which the phases are shorter to avoid losing the previous adaptations (three to six weeks), and the phases are less distinct from one another, starting with a block of higher-volume training, then moving to a block of lower-volume, higher-intensity training, and then culminating with a few weeks of tapering before peaking in performance[11].

Ask the right question
So which is the best approach? Honestly, that’s the wrong question. That question is based on the assumption that they are completely distinct approaches, when they in fact are not. Remember progressive overload is the cornerstone of any plan, so linear progression should be present even in an undulating approach. Additionally, just because a block is meant to be higher volume or higher intensity, that doesn’t mean the loading and rep ranges can’t vary on a day-to-day or weekly basis within that block. What this means is that not only can you but you probably should have an approach that has elements of block, linear and undulating periodisation simultaneously. Furthermore, if you examine most popular programmes, you’ll find they have elements of each.

Putting into practice
So what about implementation? There are practically infinite permutations of what this might look like, but let me give you a very simple template. First, we’ll take an approach in which we focus on seeing progress over an eight-week period. This would be our short-term macro cycle. Within this eight-week period, we’ll have three blocks (also known as mesocycles), a three-week volume period, a three-week intensity period, and then a two-week period of tapering and evaluating progress.

As you can see already this is a linear approach – starting with higher volume, moving to higher intensity – within a block periodised plan. Now, within each of these blocks, you’ll have a different training focus on a day-to-day basis (it now becomes an undulating approach as well!). If you paid attention to my previous articles on volume, intensity and frequency, you’re hopefully training each muscle group more than once per week. If that’s the case, you can simply alternate between low-rep heavy-load training and higher-rep moderate-load training each time you train a muscle group within the week (AKA a microcycle).

During the volume block, perform 60% to 70% of your total sets per week in the higher-rep moderate-load ranges, and 30% to 40% of your total sets per week in the lower-rep higher-load ranges. Meaning, if you do 12 sets per week on chest, you might do eight sets in the eight to 15 rep range, and four sets in the three to eight rep range, spread across multiple days. When you get to the second block, your intensity period, you simply flip it, doing more volume with heavy loads and less with lighter loads (eight sets of three to eight reps, and four sets of eight to 15 reps, in this example). This automatically will reduce your total volume, and will increase your strength as more work is being done to acclimate you to heavy loading.

Taper and test
Finally, we move onto tapering and testing. For the first week of the tapering and testing, keep the format the same as the intensity phase, but simply reduce total sets per muscle group by one or two sets, and reduce load slightly to ensure you aren’t hitting failure at all. Then, on the final week, do what is called an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) on the main lifts that you used to train. Select a load that you think after the progress you’ve made you will hit failure on within four to six reps, meaning that your goal on each AMRAP is to set a new four- to six-rep max. Perform this for each of your main lifts for each muscle group (no more than six), spread out over the week.

Do only minimal accessory work to maintain muscle and performance on your isolation and assistive exercises to ensure you have adequate recovery between days so your AMRAP performances are representative of the progress you’ve made. This final week is your opportunity to gauge progress on the big lifts and see how successful your approach was.

My advice is to test a compound barbell movement with strict form for each muscle group, doing no more than two AMRAPs per day. For example, a squat variant for legs, a deadlift variant for legs and posterior chain, a strict row for back, an incline, decline or flat press for chest and pushing musculature, and an overhead press for deltoids and pushing musculature.

For natural bodybuilders past the beginner phases of growth being able to track visible progress in muscular gains is very difficult. So instead of futilely trying to spot grams of muscle growth in the mirror, see if you can make measurable progress in the weight room to ensure that progressive overload is occurring. Do that while you are consuming a reasonable caloric surplus – the emphasis on reasonable – and you’ll be ensuring that all the ingredients for growth are present.

1. Fleck, S.J., Periodized Strength Training: A Critical Review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 1999. 13(1): p. 82-89.
2. Zourdos, M.C., et al., Modified Daily Undulating Periodization Model Produces Greater Performance Than a Traditional Configuration in Powerlifters. J Strength Cond Res, 2015. [epub ahead of print].
3. Issurin, V.B., New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. Sports Med, 2010. 40(3): p. 189-206.
4. Kiely, J., New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization: block periodization: new horizon or a false dawn? Sports Med, 2010. 40(9): p. 803-5; author reply 805-7.
5. Kiely, J., Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2012. 7(3): p. 242-50.
6. Zourdos, M.C., et al., Novel Resistance Training-Specific RPE Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve. J Strength Cond Res, 2015 [epub ahead of print].
7. Foster, C., Monitoring training in athletes with reference to overtraining syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1998. 30(7): p. 1164-8.
8. Smith, D.J., A framework for understanding the training process leading to elite performance. Sports Med, 2003. 33(15): p. 1103-26.
9. Rhea, M.R. and B.L. Alderman, A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Res Q Exerc Sport, 2004. 75(4): p. 413-22.
10. Selye, H., Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British Medical Journal, 1950. 1(4667): p. 1383.
11. Helms, E.R., et al., Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 2014.


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