Periodization is probably the number one thing that took me from “working out” to “training.” When I first introduced more advanced techniques of periodization (such as undulating periodization) I had already been training for around 5 years. Yet, when I started to take advantage of it, I saw massive results that I hadn’t seen since my first days in the gym (referred to as “noob gains”).
I will make it simple; periodization is simply varying your training variables over specific, planned periods of time. If you aren’t familiar with the training variables that I’m talking about, go back and review the fundamentals of building a training plan.
An example will probably be the easiest way to describe how it works in action.
- Week one = 20 total sets
- Week two = 16 total sets
- Week three = 12 total sets
- Week four = 6 total sets
- Week five = 3 total sets
As you can see, the volume is slowly decreasing as the training program is carried out. Naturally, this also means that the intensity would increase. This makes sense because we know that volume and intensity are inversely proportional (the more sets you do, the less weight you can use).
However, this is a very simple approach to periodization. While it will get you more results than an “unplanned” program, it isn’t the best we can do. One thing to note before we move on though: the “total sets” above refer to only one exercise and are very conservative; it is likely that total sets would look much different in actual practice.
What I recommend instead (if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter) is a program centered around undulating periodization. This means that while there will be a “linear” nature to the program (volume decreases and intensity increases over time), it will take on a logarithmic design.
If you’re unsure of what exactly I’m referring to, looking at an increasing stock price perfectly illustrates the concept. If you are familiar with statistics and linear regression, you can see that while the data undulates, it is effectively linear.
A program centered on taking advantage of undulating periodization works the exact same way. You will gradually increase your intensity and weight used over the course of the program, but you will vary the volume (reps and sets) along the way to promote the most effective utilization of a given muscle group.
The core reason why this works is much more complicated, but it deals with the relationship between hypertrophy (muscle tissue growth), hyperplasia (increase of muscle tissue cells), and neuromuscular conditioning (“neuro” adaptations that take place from using heavier weights).
The relationship between these three “variables” is very important if you are a natural strength athlete (you don’t use PEDs). As naturals, we have to take advantage of all of the hormonal responses and muscular adaptations that we can.
Designing a program that uses this form of scientific “ramping up” is complicated and difficult to do if you don’t have experience in monitoring your own response to training volume. Currently the program that I personally use was created by sports scientists, nutritionists, and strength athletes. While I plan to share it in the future, for now it is too powerful to give away to someone who might not appreciate the level of work that was done on it.
If you’re interested in taking advantage of periodization, I would first urge you to make sure that you need it. If you are still progressing fast without it, you’re probably still in a “beginner phase” (this is nothing to be ashamed of; everyone goes through this phase for probably the first two years). If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Keep adding weight each workout and keep killing it in the gym.
For those of you that need to take advantage of some of these more advanced training concepts, first make sure that you have a solid grasp on how fast your body can recover. If you feel that you have a solid grasp on your Central Nervous System (CNS), start experimenting with mixing up your volume and intensity. You’ll quickly be able to recognize that incorporating multiple repetition ranges on certain days will dramatically “supercharge” your training.