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  • Nate Johnson

3 Types of Periodization in Strength Training

Whenever you step foot into the gym, it’s important to have a plan! That way you have defined steps that will bring you closer to your desired outcome: building muscle and getting stronger! How exactly do you make a good plan? This is the kind of question you have to answer when you’re writing a training program.

No matter how you decide to write your training program, most people could figure out that you probably shouldn’t be doing exactly the same thing every day. If you did the same exercises, the same amount of sets and reps, and used the same amount of weight, then your progress would stall pretty quickly. You might be able to get away with it if you just started training, but it’s not such a great idea in the long run. You have to change something! But what specifically, when do you make those changes? Congratulations, you just described periodization!

It really is that simple. Periodization describes changes in your training program no matter what they are. But that’s not the whole story. There are a lot of changes that you could make! How you make those changes is the name of the game.

Before we dive into the three types, we first need to talk a little bit about how we think about changes to a program. In general, we take a “change as little as possible” approach. When you first start a program, our goal is to see how you respond to that program. If you respond really well, your strength is increasing, and you’ve gained some muscle mass, then we definitely don’t need to change anything! Just keep doing what you’re doing. However, if you’ve been training for some time and you find that your progress is stalling, then that’s something that we need to address.

Perhaps, during one of your goal reviews, you tell us that you don’t feel like the training is hard enough. Maybe you don’t feel very challenged during the majority of your workouts. This might be a sign that your intensity is too low. To respond to this, we might pay more attention to your RPE ratings to make sure that they are accurate. Then we’ll see if that did anything.

If it does, then, just like we said before, keep doing what you’re doing! You get the idea. Gradually introduce changes as needed, wait to see if there is a response, then continue the process. If you’re going to be strength training for the rest of your life, and we sure hope that you do, this is a mindset that you will need to adopt.

This kind of approach to training is process-oriented rather than numbers-oriented. While the reps and the weights are important, they are only a means to an end. This is one reason why your performance on a given day is not very important in the grand scheme of things. Every time you come to the gym, you have a certain amount of performance capability to work with. And this amount changes all the time! By adopting a minimalist approach to training unless proved otherwise, you are able to respond adequately to stalls in progress.

Now let’s get into three types of periodization models in training.

1. Linear Periodization

This is probably the most common in the strength training world. Linear periodization is defined by a gradual decrease in volume and increase in intensity.

To understand this periodization model better, let’s apply it to our most recent program, The Press Protocol. For those of you who have run through it, you’ll remember that your first couple of weeks were defined by higher volume and lower intensity. The main lifts went up to four sets of eight reps at an RPE 7. Then, as the program went on, the volume gradually dropped down while the intensity ramped up.

There are lots of pros with this model of periodization. The first of which is that it is pretty simple. Programming a gradual progression of volume and intensity doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. However, some applications of linear periodization are better than others.

For example, The Press Protocol is a 12 week program. And as we just covered, the intensity of the main lifts started at RPE 7. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to increase the RPE weekly for every set. You would end up at RPE 10 by week four, but where do you go from there? This is why, at a certain point, the intensity was gradually increased by designating each set with a certain RPE rating. For example, this is why you did pause squats for five sets of four reps with 2 sets at RPE 7, 2 sets at RPE 8, and 1 set at RPE 9. This kind of progression allows us to gradually increase overall intensity throughout the duration of the entire program.

It is also very effective because it moves your training in a certain direction. If you are trying to get stronger in the sense that you want to increase your ability to move maximal loads and produce high amounts of force, linear periodization accomplishes this pretty well. The adaptations at the beginning of the program are fairly general as the volume is higher. You will probably gain some muscle mass, develop an overall work capacity, and set the foundations for the rest of the program. When the volume begins to decrease and the intensity increases, you channel the adaptations that you developed at the beginning of the program in order to produce higher amounts of force.

Whenever you write a program, you need to remember that your training should be specific to your goal. If you want to put up a big press by the end of the program, the progression of a linear periodization model prepares you for that task by design.

However, there are some downsides as well. The first is the risk of plateauing. Think about it! If you only change two variables, and you change them in exactly the same way every time, your adaptations will not be as robust in the long term.

For all of you coffee drinkers in our readership, think about the first time you had a cup of coffee. Odds are that you felt like you were bouncing off the walls! You were very sensitive to caffeine. But after a while, if all you did was drink one cup every day, your level of response would decrease as your body got used to the dose of caffeine. If you wanted to get that same feeling of alertness and focus, you might think you need to increase your dose!

But it would be a bad idea to do this forever. Pretty soon you’d be drinking a dozen cups of coffee a day and it doesn’t do anything for you anymore. If anything, you may have some bad headaches and trouble sleeping all of a sudden!

Instead, you might choose to have different amounts of caffeine on different days, depending on your energy needs. And if it has really become a problem, you might decide to go caffeine free for a while so that you can become re-sensitized.

The same principle applies to training. If all you did was decrease volume and increase intensity for every single program, you’re probably going to hit a wall at some point.

This model of periodization can also get monotonous. It’s important to enjoy your training, and it might get kind of old if you’re just doing the same thing all the time. When you get to the point that you don’t even like your training anymore, odds are you’re not gonna do it for very long!

I remember when I ran my first strength training program back in high school. I gained a lot of strength from it! However, when I got to college and I was still running the same program, my adaptations started to slow down and I was getting bored with training. It was only until I tried a new program that I started to enjoy the process again. My first program had his purpose for a time, but it was time to move on.

2. Block Periodization

So if you need to do something other than decrease volume and increase intensity over time, what else is there? Block Periodization breaks up a training program into blocks of time. In the majority of instances, these blocks of time are anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks. But in most instances, it’s common to see four weeks for each block.

As it turns out, The Press Protocol also follows a block periodization model as well. The first block of training was a developmental block where general adaptations of strength and muscle mass were acquired. The volume scheme was pretty high, and the intensity was relatively low. The next block was a specialization block where the focus of training narrowed. The rep ranges decreased, and the intensity climbed up. The last block was a peaking block where the training most closely resembled the end goal of maximal force production. So the weights were really heavy and the volume was at its lowest.

But this sounds a whole lot like how we described linear periodization doesn’t it? You’re exactly right! The volume and intensity progression is the same. However, not all programs based on block periodization necessarily follow this progression. Sometimes training blocks can increase volume throughout the progression while incorporating some heavier work along the way. The main point is that each block in a program has a different priority.

3. Undulating Periodization

So far we’ve covered linear periodization which progresses volume and intensity continuously, and block periodization which subdivides training priorities into time blocks. Undulating periodization follows a similar model to block periodization in that it divides training focus into units of time. However, undulating periodization operates on a smaller time frame, typically on a per week or per day basis.

For example, let’s say you have three days of training ahead of you. Your first day is hypertrophy focused, so you’ll be doing higher rep work and really focusing on feeling out the muscle. Day two will be a maximal strength focus. You’ll be working with lots of heavy singles for your main lifts, and you may have some back off sets in the lower rep range. Day three will be a general strength day. In this case, your volume will be somewhere in the middle and your intensity will follow suit.

This kind of approach to training is common in competitive powerlifting, specifically in training styles known as Westside or conjugate style training. In addition to the variations in volume and intensity, undulating periodization is often accompanied by lots of variation in exercise selection.

It should be noted that exercise selection can be changed in linear or block periodization as well. As a matter of fact, it’s usually a really good idea! In the context of strength training, you are trying to produce a stimulus that yields an adaptation of strength development. Sometimes, after you have exhausted volume and intensity selection, choosing a different exercise can make all the difference.

There are a lot of different models of periodization beyond these three. But these are by far the most common in the ones that you’ll see implemented here at Steel. While you might feel a little lost in all the details, remember the principle of “change as little as possible”. That mindset is what has produced these different periodization models. They might have fancy names and lots of jargon, that’s all it is at its core.

Hopefully you’ve gotten something out of this little educational piece and will be able to see it in our product. Now let’s get after it!

And if you want to get after it with us, CLICK HERE and fill out the form! We'll contact you within 24 hours to schedule a zero-pressure phone call to see if we're a good fit to work together!

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