By Matthew Perryman
This is a basic introduction to periodization. Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just the basics outlined for those new to the topic.
Fundamentally, the body is an adaptive mechanism. In other words, you impose a stress upon it, and the body will respond to lessen the disruption caused by that stress. Bear in mind that the body is nothing more than an amalgamation of cells programmed to work together. In turn, these cells are essentially packaged biochemistry, a means of transforming chemicals and energy into different forms.
Like any machine, living cells have a limit to how much stimulus they can tolerate before they degrade or become damaged. However, unlike a machine, living cells have an ability to not only compensate, but supercompensate for that damage. This is the basis of all physical training—to stimulate the tissues of the body with the end goal of forcing an adaptation.
Supercompensation and Fitness-Fatigue
The body is a dynamic system designed to adapt to stimuli, which in this case is physical training. This stimulation and adaptation process can be described by a basic wave. The body’s state starts at a baseline and then declines as stress is added. When given the opportunity to recover, the body’s state will begin to increase back to the baseline (compensation) and will continue to increase past the original baseline (supercompensation). If not stimulated again, it will start to decline back to the original baseline (detraining).
The supercompensation model also postulates two other possibilities. If an additional workout is performed before the body supercompensates, the state will start a downward trend. If this keeps up, eventually the body’s reserves are depleted and the so-called overtraining syndrome sets in. On the other hand, if another workout is imposed at the cusp of supercompensation when the body is fully restored, then the process repeats and the body reaches yet another higher state. Obviously, the latter is the goal of training while the former should be avoided. In a sense, the supercompensation model is accurate, but it leaves out some critical information that can affect the prescriptions coming from it.
The more accurate fitness-fatigue model expands upon the supercompensation model. The supercompensation wave still exists, but it is the summation of two separate indicators—the fitness state and the fatigue state. According to this model, any training stimulus (i.e. workout) creates both positive (fitness) and negative (fatigue) aftereffects in the body. The fatigue effects mask the fitness effects, creating the short-term performance drop-off that is observed after a training session. However, the fitness effects are maintained by the body for a longer period of time than the fatigue effects. This leads to interesting new ways of organizing training to exploit this fact.
Instead of placing importance on fully recovering and supercompensating from each individual workout, the emphasis instead shifts towards accumulating fatigue over time, which also allows a greater accumulation of positive fitness gains. The fatigue can then be dissipated with rest while the fitness gains are retained. The idea is to plan progression over longer phases as opposed to trying to gain from session to session.
Remember though that the fitness-fatigue model doesn’t replace the supercompensation curve. It simply defines it as the summation of both positive and negative effects on the body. In other words, the supercompensation wave applies to a period of weeks or months instead of a period of days as it is normally used.
This theory also postulates that different types of sessions have differing effects on the positive and negative factors as opposed to the simple fatigue aftereffects of the supercompensation model. Not all training is created equal. High volumes of work create a less pronounced effect on fitness and fatigue, but one that lasts longer. Conversely, high intensities of work create a very strong effect on both, but the effect is short-term and delayed.
Basically, this means that you have to pay attention not only to the acute effects of training but to the aftereffects of this training as well. This is the essence of periodization. It applies not only between single workouts but between phases of training and even in a workout session. This is important to remember as it has critical implications.
The Training Load
The training load is the stress applied to the body to cause adaptation. It is typically defined by volume (the amount of work) and intensity (the magnitude of work). For all intents and purposes in strength training, volume is the number of reps done while intensity is the weight used. The tonnage (or total training volume) is the number of reps multiplied by the intensity. Although far from complete, it is generally a good way to measure the overall effect on the body
The content of the training load is just as important as the volume and intensity of the load. Content includes everything else about the load such as exercise selection, speed of movement, rate of force development, rep range, muscle action, rating of perceived exertion, and so on.
Stress, then, is a result not only of volume and intensity but of what is being trained and how it’s being done.
For example, compare a maximal squat to a high-rep set of leg extensions. Both use the musculature of the legs, but the commonality stops there. The maximal squat is an all out exertion of relatively short duration. Make no mistake—it makes use of the musculature. However, the primary stress is imposed on the nervous system, which is working overtime to make sure that the musculature is moving the load. This is contrasted by the leg extensions, which use higher reps, more time under tension, and thus involve more of the tissues of the quadriceps. In fact, unless the set is taken to muscular failure, where each rep requires a concentrated mental effort, the neurological stress is minimized and instead the muscle itself is the focus of the stimulus.
Neurological versus anatomical stressors
Training affects the body in two ways—through the nervous system and through direct effects on the musculature and associated tissues.
High volumes of work tend to place more stress on the musculature while high intensities of work stress the nervous system. In fact, it is this stress on the nervous system that represents the foundation of strength-oriented training. This is why a larger volume of work will create a longer-lasting increase in strength than high intensity work. The changes occur in the tissues of the body rather than being short-term neurological adaptations.
Neurological training is accomplished by using maximal loads, submaximal loads moved with maximal acceleration, or, to a lesser extent, submaximal loads repeated until muscular failure. These are the maximal effort method, the dynamic effort method, and the repeated effort method, respectively. In all instances, reps are kept between one and six, and typically longer rest periods of three to five minutes are used.
On the other hand, anatomical training is accomplished using the repeated effort method and a higher volume of work. The repeated effort method only becomes neurologically taxing when sets are taken to the point where it requires a concentrated effort to complete. In comparison to neurological training, anatomical training uses reps in the 5–12 range along with shorter rest intervals from 1–2 minutes.
Bear in mind that anatomical changes are primarily a function of volume, and the rep range prescribed is largely due to this. Reps between five and 12 allow for the volume to be maximized with a heavy enough weight to cause adaptation. A high enough volume of neurological work can and will do the same thing, but the systemic effects of training in this way would make it unadvisable in most instances.
The role of the mind
Psychology is very much tied into sporting performance. However, research has shown that it’s much more active than many people think. In fact, an athlete’s state of arousal is directly linked to the nervous system’s drive—that is, the amount of “oomph” you can put into a lift.
This is good in the sense that psyching up for a lift can improve performance. However, it’s bad because the focus on neural output represents what is possibly the greatest stress on the body. When the nervous system is depleted, the hormonal factors of the body follow suit and soon the entire system is run down. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it is a factor that has to be considered and cycled just as volume and intensity.
Cycling is nothing more than the variation of the training load over time. Much has been written over the years on exactly how to do this. The basic ideas revolve around the relationship between volume and intensity and the emphasis of the load’s content.
Volume and intensity will tend to follow either a linear or nonlinear relationship. The linear relationship posits that when volume is high, intensity is low and vice versa. This is considered the “traditional” model of periodization that is so widely promoted in the west.
Contrasting this is a nonlinear relationship (also called a fluctuating or undulating model). In this approach, volume isn’t necessarily inversely proportional to intensity. You can have phases of high volume and high intensity or a stable volume with increased intensity. The content of the load is loosely related to the volume. For example, increasing the rep range has the effect of increasing the volume used, which has the ultimate effect of lessening neurological effects and increasing anatomical adaptations.
The content of the load as well as the volume and intensity can be described as being either distributed or concentrated. Distributed loading places the volume smoothly and relatively equally across a given time interval. Concentrated loading places the volume in discrete blocks across a given time interval.
Remember also that all of these factors are just as applicable to a workout as they are to a weekly or monthly phase. It is all oriented toward exploiting the aftereffects of the preceding work.
This leads to the final piece of the puzzle—conjugate (sequential) organization versus concurrent (parallel) organization.
The conjugate approach organizes the training load into discrete concentration blocks of a single emphasis. These concentration blocks are alternated in a sequential fashion in order to develop qualities. The concurrent approach organizes the training load so that multiple qualities are emphasized. The qualities given the most emphasis can be and usually are rotated over discrete blocks, although this is more of an example of distributed loading.
Level of Qualification
The training age (experience) of the athlete determines much about how that athlete should train.
In almost all instances, a beginner can get away with a basic program emphasizing progressive overload from session to session as well as a concurrent training plan that devotes time to multiple motor abilities. As the athlete leaves the beginner stage, progression will move away from a session-by-session (microcycle) basis. Additionally, the ability to emphasize multiple motor qualities will diminish. By this point, a few specific types of workouts should be emphasized, with the goal being to improve from week to week (the mesocycle). The remaining qualities are maintained with light retaining loads.
An advanced athlete must take even more steps. It’s been shown that the conjugate sequence system produces the best results for advanced athletes. This is likely because the amount of devoted work towards a specific goal is very high, and there are no extraneous stressors to add extra fatigue to the system. This creates a very strong stimulus to adapt over a long period of time, moving away from the mesocycle progression of the intermediate.
This is a fine example of why the fitness-fatigue model and the extra information it provides are relevant to athletes. The supercompensation model alone would have an advanced athlete actually dropping volume and frequency to allow for complete recovery between sessions when what is required is actually more volume and training of the body to handle that volume. The conjugate sequence system adds this required volume, conditioning the body to handle it while still planning for restoration and adaptation.
All of this hints to a trend toward specialization over time. Simply put, the body can either be really good at a few things or mediocre at many things. Be it maximal strength, power, or hypertrophy, specialization becomes more and more necessary as an athlete advances. Fundamentally, all of this was discussed in the introduction. This is nothing more than an application of the fitness-fatigue model: stress, rest, and adapt.
Models of Cycling
There are about as many ways to implement periodization schemes as there are coaches and athletes because it’s very much an individual thing. However, there are a few basic models out there that have been in use. Here’s a few:
Traditional loading: This is the bread and butter cycle. Volume goes down while intensity goes up.
Step loading: The training load increases, stabilizes for a few sessions, and then goes up again.
Pendulum loading: The training load is smoothly and uniformly distributed across the phase.
Pyramid loading: The training load increases to a peak and then decreases slightly before increasing again.
Wave loading: The training load moves in a wave-like fashion from one emphasis to another.
None of these are inherently superior to another. In fact, the utility of one approach may be invalidated or even overlap completely with another depending on the time scale. For example, the traditional model is typically shunned for long-term planning. However, over a weekly or monthly phase, it can work just fine. When applied over a week, the traditional model becomes virtually indistinguishable from the wave model.
As stated, the number of ways to implement program design is highly individualized and goal dependent. You could have conjugated cycles based on two-week pendulum mesocycles with two qualities emphasized or eight week concurrent pyramid phases working on four qualities. The possibilities are nearly endless.
Periodization isn’t nearly the boogeyman it’s often made out to be. In essence, it’s nothing more than a few very basic principles that come together to allow one basic thing—adaptation caused by adding and removing stressors.
With a fundamental understanding of these principles and a little experience in understanding your body, designing programs becomes fairly trivial. Much of the material here was only briefly touched upon, mainly because it would take much more space to cover the topic completely and in detail. But the gist of it remains, and a foundation is better than nothing.
Matthew Perryman is a student of weight training and sports conditioning with over eight years experience. He has a passion for improving his knowledge and conveying it to others. Matthew is a firm believer in the utility of multiple approaches, using the appropriate tool for the task, and looking beyond the orthodox. More information can be found on his website at https://www.chemicalinsanity.com.