A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the concept of periodization and its function in organizing training programs, particularly for eliciting athletic performance gains.
The theory of periodization is rooted in Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which includes three primary stages: alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.15
In line with the GAS theory, exercise stress induces an alarm reaction, promotes adaptation, results in a performance plateau, and necessitates rest prior to the introduction of further training.10
Continued training stress without adequate recovery periods, however, results in exhaustion and overtraining.13
Understanding these principles support that periodized programs are often superior in producing strength, power, endurance, and hypertrophy gains when compared to non-periodized programs.7
Cyclical variations in volume, intensity, frequency, and specificity allow trainees to reach peak levels of performance for athletic competitions.9
Periodization employs phases of general and specific dedicated training blocks subdivided into macrocycle (annual or quadrennial plan for Olympic athletes), mesocycles (a month or multiple months), and microcycles (a week or multiple weeks).
The manner in which these phases are systematically structured depend on the desired training outcomes, method of periodization chosen, and important competition dates.18
A number of strategies are often used in designing training programs including block strategies, concurrent strategies, concentrated strategies, and conjugate strategies, to name a few.20
Unique terminology and overlapping philosophies within each strategy lead sports scientists, coaches, and athletes to debate the most effective method for training. It is essential that individuals understand the majority of these strategies are similar to one another and categorized as either traditional (linear), block, or undulating (non-linear) by nature.
Factors that influence the most effective periodization method to be chosen are the athlete’s capabilities, time availability, competition season, training resources, and sport profile.
The Role of Periodization
Seminal researchers and practitioners such as Boris Kotov and G. Birsin have subdivided training into general, preparatory, and specific training periods with the understanding that fluctuating volume and intensity is necessary to drive adaption.9
It was agreed early on that as major competition neared, training modalities should shift from general to specific and increased intensity coincides with decreased volume. Periodization is necessary to reduce overtraining potential, peak at an appropriate time for major competitions, and provide maintenance within sporting seasons.21
The effects that result from calculated resistance training methods are dose-dependent and must be carefully structured so that trainees functionally overreach, recover, and display new-found fitness levels.5
Progressive resistance training models that involve no periods of reduced volume, frequency, and intensity demonstrate serious risk for injury and burnout.12
A Medline search of literature from 1979 to 2009 discussing periodized and non-periodized methods of strength training, further demonstrates that periodized strength training plans are superior in performance outcomes when compared to non-periodized programs.16
The literature and conclusions based within them support that organizing resistance training through fluctuating volume and intensity is necessary to elicit the greatest performance gains.
The method of periodization employed in combination with the training experience of the subjects appears to greatly affect the results. The greatest strength gains seen from most periodized training programs do not take place until 8 weeks or more, thus the impact each model has cannot be fully understood until longer interventions take place.7
Furthermore, patterns and variants of training are greatly impacted by the level of athletes (e.g. novice or advanced) in combination with the time of year (e.g. wave-like patterns and in-season periods).3
Some research studies equate volume as well as provide control groups to make comparisons across methods while others do not, thus the recommendations one can get in the literature can be confusing.
Table 1 – Strategies used to manipulate the volume and intensity of training by Rosenblatt.20
The Traditional Method
The traditional method of periodization develops one physical quality after another in a sequential process, progressing from general to specific and high volume low intensity to low volume high-intensity phases.20
Typically, this is seen by moving through extended linear periods of training, targeting physiological qualities such as hypertrophy, strength, and power in succession for extended periods of time.
Ultimately coaches attempt to peak their athletes for a major competition which is accepted as the most important part of preparation. Leading into the major competition, coaches will taper their athletes by dramatically reducing volume and intensity in order to recover.20
An advantage to this methodology of training is that it is predictable and an obvious training progression of physical development is present.20
It is one of the earliest forms of organized training and has been used by coaches for decades. Numerous coaches contend, however, that this model is not optimal for athletes who require multiple peaks within a competition season and negative interactions may occur from non-compatible workloads inducing conflicting training responses.13
Additionally, training that is 3-4 weeks of continual exhaustive and intensive linear weeks can induce significant stress responses that are difficult to recover from when athletes are at or near their upper threshold of biological adaption.13
Thus, this method may not prove to be efficacious for elite level or highly trained athletes.
Several studies support that no differences between strength, hypertrophy, endurance, and power are seen when implementing traditional periodization interventions in comparison to either block or undulating methods.
However a research study in 2011 comparing traditional and weekly undulating periodized strength training methods in 42 recreationally active young looked at strength gains in the 10RM back squat and bench press over 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and at baseline finding that although both groups made strength increases, the traditional group was significantly stronger than the undulating group at week 8 and 12 of the intervention.2
The rationale behind this difference may be that undulating models promote extended periods of muscle soreness and accumulate fatigue at a greater rate than the traditional method, particularly with extended training periods.2
Although Vladimir Issurin contends that traditional periodization can lead to overtraining in advanced athletes, this did not appear to be the case within this study as subjects were recreational and the undulating model appeared to induce greater overall fatigue.13
Sweeping generalizations can be made neither for nor against the use of traditional periodization, due to the fact that mixed results occur within the literature and further research is necessary to fully understand the breadth of this method most appropriate use.
Undulating periodization is represented by several different training modalities, most notably are the daily, weekly, and conjugate methods.
Daily undulating periodization (DUP) involves variety in training focus or stimulus day to day whereas weekly undulating periodization (WUP) targets a specific training goal per microcycle or week of training.20
Conjugate training slightly differs in that it attempts to train several complimentary physical qualities (e.g. strength and power) at once or within a given microcycle.20
This method was originally developed by Professor Yuri Verkoshansky and has continued to be altered over time by coaches such as Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell who employs the use of “maximum effort” upper and lower body days early in the week, followed by “dynamic effort” upper and lower body days later in the week in order to address both the force and velocity necessary to induce adaption for strength gain.20
Globally speaking, undulating periodization methods tend to fall under the same scope of practice despite variance in each exact prescription.
The majority of the research studies favoring undulating periodization are shorter in duration (6-9 weeks) compared to those that do not display a difference or find inferior results to other methods.
Early phases of training do not appear to be greatly affected by the chosen method of periodization, however, it is proposed that when training interventions extend beyond 8 or more weeks, accumulation of fatigue through the undulating model inhibits strength and power gains compared to other methods, 2, 6, 7, 11, 13, 19
The underlying mechanisms behind this is related to excessive muscle soreness, hormonal fluctuations, and glycogen depletion.
While the research demonstrates mixed reviews on the efficacy of undulating periodization, it has been proposed as being beneficial for reducing training monotony and introducing training variety to a program.1
Additionally, when time constraints do not allow extended periods of consecutive sequential training blocks, undulating periodization may offer athletes and coaches an opportunity to train multiple qualities at once.7
Employing undulating periodization for brief bouts, and at different times throughout the training year may be a viable option when appropriately applied. It results appear promising in the short term, but careful consideration must be given prior to employing this method long term.
Block periodization is a commonly used method of training that links sequential blocks of highly concentrated mesocycles.20
It was originally developed to service athletes who require peaking multiple times throughout a competitive season, which can be extremely difficult.20
Typically, it is broken into three distinct mesocycle which are accumulation, transmutation, and realization. Accumulation can be thought of as the phase which develops general physical qualities (e.g. hypertrophy and endurance) carrying long term residual training effects.20
Transmutation follows the accumulation cycle, and uses concentrated doses of training to target sports specific qualities.20
The final phase that follows transmutation is the realization phase, which sees significant reductions in volume and training stress in order to allow fitness to be displayed.20
This method of periodization is founded on the residual training effect model, which allows athletes to develop a physical quality while maintaining the benefits of previously gained physical qualities in the prior training block, ultimately readdressing them before they become detrained.
As previously mentioned, the benefits of block periodization address the need for athletes to peak multiple times within a competition season as well as maintain physical qualities gained in the offseason.
Athletes in sports involving major competitions on a regularly scheduled basis benefit from block periodization due to the fact that programming can maximize expression of desired physical qualities at their highest levels when needed most with little interference from the training program and the fatigue that comes with it.14
An important note on training residuals is that concentration, load, age of the athlete, and duration of training directly correlate with the density and duration that the physical qualities will be held.14
This is key, as block periodization can be scaled to fit training time constraints and suit athletes at multiple different levels of training experience, particularly advanced athletes, who may suffer from conflicting metabolic and hormonal responses when altering training stimulus dramatically on a daily basis.13
With literature to both support and dismiss the training effects associated with each respective periodization strategy, coaches should make informed and intelligent decisions when selecting a method to implement.
Various periodization models can be strategically sequenced across an entire macrocycle, thus subscribing to a singular model is unnecessary. Dr. Dan Baker has developed an informative article detailing the practicality of different periodization methods along with recommendations for proper implementation.3
It is extremely useful because each method is specifically broken down by rep schemes, intensity, and loading duration. He states that the linear model should include an approximate 5% increase in loading each week and is best suited for novice athletes or those who have less training experience. Less variation in intensity and stress allows for these athletes to focus on developing technique without the hindrance of substantial fatigue.
These blocks are typically long in duration lasting eight to twelve weeks at a time with gradual increases in intensity. The block model should contain three phases as previously mentioned that target strength endurance, then strength and power, and finally peak strength/power for example.3
This model is typically best suited for advanced or more experienced athletes due to the concentrated loading periods that provide the required stimulus these athletes need to elicit physiological change. Novice athletes will likely be unable to recover from the strenuous loads this model presents and it can even be deleterious to performance.
Furthermore, careful attention must be given to high volume concentrated blocks within the competitive season as the cumulative fatigue can disrupt athletic performance. Baker mentions that undulatory models are suitable for athletes who have grown accustomed to linear methods but may not be ready for the concentrated loads that block periodization provides.3
Shifting the training focus regularly provides variety and helps eliminate the boredom often associated with continuous traditional programming.
Two-week phases alternating in focus are the suggested model, that vary slightly from the daily undulating periodized model which alters training focus and intensity every single day.
This method may also be beneficial for athletes who must maintain multiple physical qualities for an extended period of time or cannot afford to have a decrease in any one quality. The risk for overtraining or excessive muscle soreness, however, is high in this model which can also be harmful to athletic performance if not carefully monitored.19
An uncommonly researched method that’s similar to the previously mentioned progressive resistance model is what’s called the accumulation/intensification pattern.
This is suitable for introductory programs and allows one to focus on increasing reps before increasing load. An example is an athlete who would choose a load they can do for three sets of ten reps, and not increase the weight until they are able to successfully perform three sets of twelve reps with weight.3
Interestingly, Baker also suggests that exercises can be integrated by applying different models of periodization to specific exercises within the same training program.
Specifically, he mentions that powerlifting exercises such as the squat, bench, and deadlift could be loaded using a block method while assistance exercises follow an undulatory protocol.
This caters to the specificity of an exercise, as accessory movements tend to be neglected when focusing on maximum strength and power development.
Despite the model chosen, each will employ a method of tapering to recover and ultimately express fitness gained over the training period. This can occur over a microcycle for athletes who compete on a weekly basis, or mesocycle for those who have fewer major competitions.20
The difficulty in determining the precise taper duration is similar to that of the individual responses seen in training stimulus variability. Individuals will require different periods of unloading, seen by various levels of volume, intensity, and frequency reductions.
The general recommendation is somewhere between ten and fourteen days, with the understanding that periods lasting too much longer will begin to result in detrained athletic qualities.
Not every periodization method will offer the opportunity to peak multiple times, thus the method of organization must align with the given sport and training season.
Practical Applications of Periodization
Coaches should periodize resistance training for their athletes so that they recover properly, avoid overtraining, and adapt to programming in an optimal fashion.13
Understanding the key principles of Selye’s GAS theory support that periodized programs are often superior in producing strength, power, endurance, and hypertrophy gains when compared to non-periodized programs.10
Cyclical variations in volume, intensity, frequency, and specificity allow trainees to reach peak levels of performance for athletic competitions.9
Coaches should move from phases of general to specifically dedicated training blocks, subdivided into a macrocycle (annual or quadrennial plan for Olympic athletes), mesocycles (a month or multiple months), and microcycles (a week or multiple weeks) congruent with the anticipated competitions.
It is imperative to systematically structure the periodization plan according to the individual athlete’s capabilities, desired training outcome, time constraints, and important competition dates.18
Unique terminology and overlapping philosophies within each strategy lead sports scientists, coaches, and athletes to debate the most effective method for training, thus it is essential that coaches understand the majority of these strategies are similar with one another and categorized as either traditional (linear), block, or undulating (non-linear) by nature.
Furthermore, coaches may choose to sequence training so that particular periodization methods are used at different times of the year, or different athletes and exercises within the same cycle.3
Consideration of the individual athlete’s needs and training status should always take precedence when structuring a program.
Methods will vary substantially between the novice and advanced athletes thus training must be adjusted across the span of an athlete’s entire career as they move into a trained state.
Without proper periodization, coaches and athletes risk injury and the potential for overtraining or undertraining to a much higher degree than periodized programs.
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2. Apel, J.M., Lacey, R.M., & Kell, R.T. A comparison of traditional and weekly undulating periodized strength training programs with total volume and intensity equated. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 25: 694-703. 2011.
3. Baker, D. Cycle-Length Variants in Periodized Strength/Power Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 29: 10-17. 2007.
4. Bartolomei, S., Hoffman, J.R., Merni, F., & Stout, J.R. A Comparison of Traditional and Block Periodized Strength Training Programs in Trained Athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 28: 990-997. 2014.
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8. Gamble, P. Periodization of training for team sports athletes. Strength and conditioning journal. 28: 56. 2006.
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12. Herrick, A.B. & Stone, W.J. The Effects of Periodization Versus Progressive Resistance Exercise on Upper and Lower Body Strength in Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 10: 72-76. 1996.
13. Issurin, V. Block periodization versus traditional training theory: a review. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 48: 65. 2008.
14. Issurin, V.B. New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. Sports medicine. 40: 189-206. 2010.
15. Kiely, J. Periodization theory: confronting an inconvenient truth. Sports Medicine. 48: 753-764. 2018.
16. Lorenz, D., Reiman, M., & Walker, J. Periodization: Current Review and Suggested Implementation for Athletic Rehabilitation. Sports Health. 2: 509-518. 2010.
17. Painter, K.B., Haff, G.G., Ramsey, M.W., Mcbride, J., Triplett, T., Sands, W.A., Lamont, H.S., Stone, M.E., & Stone, M.H. Strength gains: Block versus daily undulating periodization weight training among track and field athletes. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 7: 161-169. 2012.
18. Plisk, S.S. & Stone, M.H. Periodization strategies. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 25: 19-37. 2003.
19. Rhea, M.R., Ball, S.D., Phillips, W.T., & Burkett, L.N. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. The Journal of strength & conditioning research. 16: 250-255. 2002.
20. Rosenblatt, B. Planning a performance programme. High-Performance Training for Sports. 247. 2014.
21. Stone, M., O’bryant, H., Schilling, B., Johnson, R., Pierce, K., Haff, G.G., & Koch, A. Periodization: effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 1. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 21: 56. 1999.