It seems that I end up writing this article every few years. The information doesn’t change that much, by my evaluation of it and thoughts on using it sure do. I look back at some of my early articles on the topic and I see what’s basically a re-hash from Supertraining and the other Russian books I used to drool over. That always makes me cringe a little, though at the same time it’s amazing how a few years of experience can color your outlook.
These days I try to take a more pragmatic look at the topic. Periodization, put as simply as possible, is the organization of the training process with two particular goals in mind:
- Managing the stress after-effects of your workouts (both positive and negative)
- Managing your training goals (strength, endurance, technique, etc.)
To simplify it further, we can say that periodization handles what you train and how you train it. For most of you reading this, the what will be strength training; you won’t be concerned with anything else. If you’re in a sport that requires you to be more than ‘just strong’, then you’ll have several whats. The how is going to be a matter of volume (sets and reps) and intensity (weight on the bar) – the numbers, in other words.
The rest of it is details. As with all details, people tend to focus on them to the exclusion of the big picture.
Clarifying the Language
Without a doubt, the language used to talk about “organization of training” is the greatest source of confusion. The first problem is that much of the concepts that have crept into common usage originate in Russian manuals or come from Russian coaches. For those unaware, Russian isn’t a language with Latin or Germanic roots, so a lot of the words won’t translate directly into English the way some other languages can. This means that any translation from Russian concepts into English concepts is going to be imprecise; translators often have to use a “best fit” approach. The problem is that much of the definitions (and of course the arguments) are contingent on a precise word meaning.
Even the actual word periodization was originally used in one specific context, to describe one particular model of training. This was what we now call the linear model of periodization, developed by a fellow named Matveyev. Matveyev’s linear model was easy enough to describe. Over the course of a training year, the athlete would gradually move from high-volume/low-intensity training to low-volume/high-intensity training.
The linear model is what crept into the West, being hailed as one of the original “Soviet secrets”; in fact, Matveyev’s model became synonymous with “periodization”. With time, the word began to mean any planning or organization of training.
That’s why everybody and his brother will label a program “periodized”. Some of the Russian coaches have spoken up on the matter, saying that they just called the idea “programming” – which is just another word for program design.
In any event, the word stuck, and it’s now a part of the lingo, so we have to deal with it. For our purposes, periodization means planning and organization of training. What I’ve found over the last few years is that you have to actually operate with two sets of vocabulary in mind: what the original Russian material says, and how the word is actually being used in the strength & conditioning community.
Matveyev’s Linear Model: Pros and Cons
As I stated, Matveyev’s original periodization concept was a simple thing. The athlete started out early in the training year, what would be the off-season equivalent, with high-volume/low-intensity training. Week by week, volume would drop and intensity would rise. The idea was to move towards a peak, or the best performance of the year.
You’ve probably seen a variation of this program at some point. It rarely appears in the original year-long format, but I’ve seen it in 12-20 week iterations. It always starts out with a “hypertrophy” phase, switches to a “strength” phase, then a “power” phase, and there’s usually a “peaking” or “conversion” phase in there too.
This modified version came from Tudor Bompa, who adapted the linear model to a strength program. Bompa’s linear model is an example of both the how and the what being changed. From phase to phase, you change both the goal emphasis and the volume/intensity.
Now, I can certainly point out flaws in that methodology, as have many other know-it-alls; you might even be one of them yourself. However, I’ve done some hard thinking on this and there are some finer points to consider.
The first issue is peaking. The astute among us have realized that most sports don’t need a single annual peak. They have multiple peaks across the year, or in some instances, they need an athlete that’s ready to go year-round. If you’ve got a sport with a defined in-season and off-season, the linear model might be more effective – but you’d have to adapt it to the time frames involved.
No matter how you look at it, the idea of year-long, single-peak planning is just not a good one. However, even Matveyev himself pointed that out, stating that his model was more of a thought exercise than a practical training model, so I’m not exactly sure who got the bright idea to consider the year-long model as effective.
You also have to consider the goals of the athlete at hand. Strength athletes (and you can lump bodybuilders in with that crowd) have different needs from athletes that have varying skill or conditioning requirements as part of their sport. It wouldn’t make sense to lay out a blanket suggestion for both parties.
Think of any mixed-quality athlete, someone that needs skill/technique and conditioning just as much as strength. That person has to lift weights sure, but he’s also got to practice his technique and improve his endurance. Imagine a martial artist that never sparred, or a rugby player that never did any conditioning. They might be strong, but they’d suck at their sport for lack of specific ability.
Now think of a strength athlete like a powerlifter or an Olympic weightlifter. In those cases, strength training is the sport. One of the largest drawbacks of the linear model is that it can’t effectively train multiple qualities at once; while this is true, it’s also completely irrelevant for someone that only has one quality (strength) to train.
While there certainly are reasons to explore other options besides linear periodization, it’s also short sighted to claim it’s ineffective. Remember, we can still point to some very strong men that got that way using the linear model. Ed Coan, to this day one of the most impressive powerlifters to ever live, used the linear model in his own training; it certainly didn’t stop him from setting record after record. In multiple weight classes. Some of which still stand.
Thus the major problem in my mind is not linear periodization itself. The problem is attempting to use it over the span of an entire training year or with athletes for whom it’s inappropriate. In shorter blocks, say 8-12 weeks, there’s no reason it can’t be effective if your goal is “just get stronger”. I mean, it’s just progressive overload. While some of the exceptionally strong guys might need more flava in their workouts, I think it’s a stretch to just come out and say that ‘linear periodization doesn’t work’.
The issues will only start to crop up when you have athletes with needs with might take priority over “just get stronger”. In that case, you’ll have to start juggling.
With all the drawbacks to the linear model (real or otherwise), coaches have been seeking solutions that still give the benefits of planning while getting around the drawbacks. This has lead to the current fad of nonlinear models. As the name would indicate, nonlinear periodization doesn’t involve straight-line progress.
This can take two forms, dealing with either strength progression (how) or with program organization (what).
In the first case, we’re just talking about ways to progress in strength over time. Instead of blindly adding weight to the bar every time you walk in the gym (as so many people are convinced they have to do), nonlinear methods will take the long way, adding weight across individual weeks or even months. This is where your cycling (like the 5×5) or undulating models will come in – and longer stuff like accumulation/intensification.
Again, strength athletes will have little to worry about in terms of different kinds of training. Unless you’ve actually got some other sport that you’re training for, you’re worrying about this needlessly. If you’re a powerlifter or bodybuilder, you’re just strength training. You’ll be concerned with changes in the volume and intensity of your strength training, sure, but that’s still part of the how, not the what.
Nonlinear models can divided into Daily Undulating Periodization and Weekly Undulating Periodization. The “undulating” just means that you’re doing several different workouts in a repeating cycle; I’ll give you one guess as to what the “daily” and “weekly” mean.
Daily Undulating Models
What’s “undulating” is volume and intensity. The easiest way of doing this is just changing the rep range. Doing your best set of 10 will be higher volume and lower intensity than your best set of three by definition. Taken together, the volume and intensity of a workout will reflect the workout stress, or the amount of stimulus your body receives. Don’t get locked into the idea that the rep range has to change, though. You can change the workout stress without changing the rep range. Changing rep ranges just makes it easier.
The best example of changing workout stress would be the intermediate-state 5×5 routine from Practical Programming, which is currently popular in a lot of the Internet circles. I’m a fan of this program myself; it’s about as solid as it gets for basic strength training. You have a high stress workout (high volume, moderately heavy weight), a light workout (low-moderate volume, light weight), and a medium workout (high intensity, low volume) each week.
Despite being “nonlinear”, undulating programs still tend to add weight linearly between the same kinds of workouts. Even the 5×5 is a form of linear progression – just that it’s linear between similar workouts, not between every workout.
The difference is that there are several kinds of workouts to “spread out” those linear gains, so they don’t happen as quickly. Yeah, you read that right. One of the goals of nonlinear/undulating periodization is to actually slow down your rate of strength gains. This helps to ensure that you’re getting enough rest between similar workouts so that you can actually keep progressing. You can actually add weight to the bar faster than your body can adapt, which is what undulation is trying to prevent.
The 5×5 is a special case; it doesn’t use different rep ranges, but it does use different volume and intensity combinations. Further, it’s an informal cycle as opposed to the well-planned cycles that we normally associate with linear periodization. Instead of planning out an 8-12 week phase, you just add weight until the workouts get hard, then reduce the weights say 10-15% and start all over again. This might have you building up to a peak every six weeks or so, then backing off and repeating.
Further, you can specialize or prioritize one of the workouts. Say you want to prioritize the high-stress day – you’d make that your focus during the week, trying to drive the weights up. For the high-intensity day, you’d just take a token lift, heavy but not enough to really sap you. The high-stress workout would be the ‘money’ workout for the week. Obviously this applies to other such undulating methods as well.
In the research regarding DUP, they take the normal 12-week linear cycle and compress it down to one week. Instead of going from 10-12 reps, to 6-8 reps to 4-6 and then 1-3, you’d do one workout of each over a week. Although this isn’t identical to the 5×5, it’s the same idea: some workouts are higher-volume and lower-intensity, while others are low volume and high intensity.
A third option would be step loading, which would have you sticking with a given weight for 2-3 workout sessions, then adding weight and repeating. This can be a useful option when you’re intentionally trying to limit stress, such as in-season training or while dieting for a bodybuilding show.
These arrangements work because both the 5×5 and the “classic DUP model” use full body workouts performed several times a week. If you’re using a weekly split kind of routine, then you’ll have to consider other options – this kind of planning doesn’t really mesh well with splits. It can, but it takes some tinkering.
Weekly Undulating Models
That would be where weekly undulation comes into the picture. Much like its cousin, WUP varies the workout stress on a regular basis, just on a larger scale. Since the changes are made on a weekly basis, this is where most anyone using a split would want to look.
The Wave-like cycle changes the stress every week. You’d identify “heavy” weeks, “medium” weeks, and “light” weeks, then rotate between them. The easiest way to do this would be to just alter the rep range, and this would probably be ideal for bodybuilders. If you’re after strength goals, something more like the 5×5 would be an option – sticking with more or less the same rep range, but changing the number of sets and the weight on the bar to vary stress.
The Pendulum cycle alternates back and forth between “strength” emphasis and “hypertrophy” emphasis every 2-4 weeks. In this case, you’d change both your rep ranges and your exercises. A strength phase would be conservative, focusing on maybe 2-3 lifts, a lot of sets, and low reps. A hypertrophy pahse would focus on exercises for all the muscle groups, fewer sets per exercise, and higher reps.
Finally we have Block Periodization. As the name would imply, this approach divides training up into sequential blocks, each with a specific goal. For a strength athlete, block periodization just looks like a short version of the linear model with “hypertrophy”, “strength”, and “power” phases.
The difference is that instead of spending four weeks on each one, you might only spend 2-3 weeks on each block during a longer training cycle. Maintenance training is done throughout the training cycle so that you don’t detrain. You can also play around with the volume and intensity more so you can exploit that rebound/overshoot effect that comes from deliberately overreaching.
This is a bit much for the needs of most people, but it can be useful for some.
Concurrent or Conjugate: Lessons from the Westside argument
One of the biggest “controversies” I’ve read about in the last few years has to do with the Westside Barbell powerlifting routine. Specifically, I’m talking about the never-ending argument: is Westside conjugate periodization, or is it actually concurrent periodization?
Did I lose you? For those not in the know, here’s some background.
Westside has four weekly workouts, two for the bench press/upper body and two for the squat/deadlift/lower body. One session trains heavy weights (max effort workouts), while the other trains lighter but faster weights (dynamic effort workouts). The max-effort workout develops maximal strength, which is your ability to fight against very heavy, slow-moving reps. The dynamic workout trains explosive strength (usually just called “speed”), which is the ability to quickly “turn on” your muscles and create force very quickly.
From a neuromuscular viewpoint, explosiveness is considered a different “skill” from static strength. If you want to get good at it, you have to train it. The idea is that you’d develop explosive strength to complement or possibly even improve your slow/static strength. Instead of training with grinding reps that you have to fight or strain, you’d train to push as hard and as fast as you possibly can, making the reps smooth and fast.
So far so good. The thing is, in a powerlifting competition, you’re not being tested on your ability to move a weight as quickly as possible. You’re being tested on your best effort, which will be a slow, grinding lift no matter how you look at it. While you might be able to improve your explosiveness to a degree, I really doubt if your “explosive 1RM” will have much carryover to your “grinding 1RM”. However it could help, which is probably the whole point. Now, here’s the question: do we consider max-effort and dynamic-effort workouts as being different skills? Or do we just say it’s all strength training and be done with it?
I want to point out that virtually all research done into “concurrent training” deals with the simultaneous development of mutually-exclusive goals. By “simultaneous” I mean “trained within the same week”. The mutually-exclusive goals in question would be aerobic endurance and strength training (which is anaerobic). These two types of training tend to cancel each other out, and we see time and again that trying to develop both concurrently (simultaneously, within the same week) will tend to hamper both.
In that regard, it’s considered smart to train these qualities in sequence (conjugate periodization), not in parallel (concurrent periodization). By doing that, you can focus on one for say 4-6 weeks, develop it, then move on to the opposite – not unlike the block periodization model (in fact, they’re effectively the same thing). This is why you’d do most of your high-volume/aerobic stuff early on – it tends to develop quickly, so you bring it up early in the year and then maintain it while you’re building up strength.
Here’s the question though: even if we assume that max-effort and dynamic-effort workouts are training different “fitness qualities” (which is questionable), are they mutually-exclusive? I see no reason why they would be. Both train neuromuscular skills that strongly overlap. Both put similar stresses on the muscles and related tissues. These aren’t mutually-exclusive goals; these are complementary.
You can certainly train complementary skills in parallel or in sequence; the training adaptations won’t cancel out in the same way as mixing aerobic and anaerobic exercise. There’s no reason you can’t develop both simultaneously, in other words.
In that sense, powerlifters aren’t actually training multiple qualities in the same way as other athletes. While powerlifters can and probably should diversify their training, the only thing they’re actually concerned with is getting stronger; they don’t have to actually emphasize the other stuff. Now, I concede there is something to be said for prioritizing some goals over others. You might want to focus your efforts on bringing up a particular lift, and thus you’d spend a block of 4-6 weeks working to build it up. However I don’t see prioritizing or specializing on a particular lift as being “different motor qualities”.
You might benefit from having some phases that focus on developing “speed”, and some that focus on “strength”. The thing is, you could just as easily argue that you’re training “heavy” and “light” phases. Neither of those requires any kind of sequential goal-training voodoo; it’s just specialization.
If we use the argument that Westside is concurrent because it has several different kinds of workouts, then any program that uses different rep ranges across a week would also be concurrent. Since strength training methods tend to be complementary, not mutually-exclusive, I don’t see how this can apply. The analogy would be more like using heavy days and light days, just changing the volume and intensity. You’re just changing the how, not really altering the what.
Conjugate periodization is really nothing more than the block periodization model I went over before. You’d emphasize one or two things and maintain the other (potentially conflicting) goals; every so often, you switch over to a new emphasis. That’s how you develop conflicting goals over the long run. Concurrent periodization trains those same goals in parallel – during the same week, which is widely thought to be ineffective for advanced athletes.
Yet we see time and again that a Westside style works for high-level competitors. It’s premature to claim that Westside “doesn’t work for advanced lifters because it’s concurrent periodization” when it obviously does work. This would lead you to the equally obvious conclusion that just maybe Westside isn’t actually training concurrent qualities – it’s just strength training that uses different volumes and intensities. I’m suggesting neither of these definitions apply.
You read that right. In terms of periodization, Westside is neither conjugate nor concurrent. Westside is just a strength program that varies the volume and intensity and incorporates unique exercise selections.
Let me put one more nail in this coffin. Reading some comments from Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, I noticed an interesting point. The word “conjugate” takes on two different meanings, depending on the usage.
The first is his conjugate-sequence system, which I’ve discussed; it’s just conjugate or block periodization. Verkhoshansky seems to use the terms more or less interchangeably. However, he also identified the conjugate method as coming from the Dynamo Club, a Russian weightlifting club from back in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is where it starts to jive with Louie’s comments. Verkhoshansky said that the conjugate method from the Dynamo Club was based around the rotation of many special exercises for the body, which were used to strengthen weak points in the competition lifts.
What it seems is that nobody bothered to consider that the word “conjugate” might have two different meanings in relation to two different ideas. Westside isn’t a conjugate-sequence form of periodization (and it wouldn’t benefit from that anyway), but it does make use of the conjugate method in the max-effort workouts. I told you that language was a big part of the problem.
So what is Westside? Going by the models I’ve listed so far, it’d just be a particular interpretation of daily undulation. It’s more complex than the usual DUP models floating around, and it’s heavily specialized for powerlifting as you’d expect from a powerlifting routine; but the different workouts are rotated and repeated across a weekly cycle – and that’s all that’s required. It might be tempting to pull out the concurrent/parallel label, but in practice, it’s just strength training with the goal of getting stronger.
Planning is only as complex as you make it. We can trot out these exotic models and wank over them all day long; trust me, a lot of folks do that, and I’ve even been one of them.
One thing that experience has shown me is that strength athletes and bodybuilders tend to benefit from simplicity when it comes to workouts. If you’re coaching athletes, or are an athlete yourself, you’ve got some justification for looking into more complex strategies, but the vast majority of people worrying about the “correct periodization model” are the same ones forgetting about “just getting stronger” on the basic exercises.
Even the much-hated linear model can make even relatively strong guys get stronger. Some of the other more complex approaches might be fun to experiment with or to break through a plateau, but at the end of the day, what you need is to find something that you’ll stick to and something that lets you work towards getting stronger.