By Kaushal Sumedh
When you talk about periodization you are talking about the careful structuring of your training. Training is organized on different time scales; you organize training from micro cycle to micro cycle, from meso cycle to meso cycle which leads to the goals you have set for one complete macrocycle. Although the duration of each cycle is going to be based on the objectives that we are looking for within each cycle, the principles remain the same. Periodization simply put is to organize your training in such a manner that it leads to positive outcomes over time.
You can say that the logical approach to organize training would be to organize it in such a way that one cycle leads to another where the previous cycle sets you up for further success for the next. After all, everyone wants to get better over time. Therein lies the main logic of phase potentiation.
Phase potentiation refers to the careful and intelligent management of training phases in order to achieve a positive outcome. The first step of understanding the logic of phase potentiation is the realization that a certain type of training phase now, can improve the gains from a different type of training later. The adaptations you get from your current training should therefore allow for greater adaptations in your next phase.
The rather obvious point here being that in order to achieve your goals, you need to carefully structure your training so that each phase seamlessly transitions to the next and allows for the ultimate expression of whatever it is that you're trying to do. If you had, for example, a competition in 6 months from today, your entire training should be planned in such a way that each preceding phase of training catapults you to the next until competition day where you have peaked and are ready to demonstrate your hard work.
When you talk about periodization, you're referring to different components that have been studied over a period of time. Although some may believe that these components are mutually exclusive from one another, they actually aren't.
The major components that we use to define how training plans are periodized are:
Changing the training variables in order to expose the body to different variables. This can be done either daily (DUP) or weekly (WUP). You could either have undulation within the week or on a week to week basis. If you are training particular movements with higher frequencies, then undulating your intensity and volume within the week is something you could do in order to provide enough stimulus but also give you time to recover since the frequency is higher. You could also change training variables around in such a manner where it can be done on a weekly basis in a rotating percentage as shown in the graph or in a Heavy Medium Light fashion as the example below:
Week 1: Medium Deadlifts, Medium Bench, Light Squats
Week 2: Light Deadlifts, Light Bench, Heavy Squats
Week 3: Heavy Deadlifts, Heavy Bench, Medium Squats
This sort of layout can be used in case of a late intermediate or advanced athlete such that pushing all 3 lifts at a very high absolute intensity might cause recovery issues such that fatigue generated from one lift negatively affects the other. This is a situation you don’t want to be in as you don’t want one particular lift to affect another negatively. One strategy coaches use in these situations is to take timely deloads for a particular lift as opposed to a complete deload week itself. You might see a strategy like this implemented in a one lift only competition, like a deadlift only competition; you might push your deadlift, but take a backseat on your squat and bench press progression in order to give enough reserves to peak your deadlift.
How much you undulate training variables will once again be individualized based on past training data but there is quite a lot of evidence that varying degrees of undulation has shown to be quite effective as long as the undulation isn’t extreme as it might interfere with directed adaptation (more on this later). An example of this would be where you would have one squat day during the week at a higher intensity whereas the second squat day within the same week you would squat with just 10% lower than day 1 while keeping the volume the same. Another option would be to have one strength day and one hypertrophy day, or even have one max effort day and a speed day. All of these are just varying degrees or strategies of undulation where there is a wave like pattern either within the week or on a week to week basis based on what the athlete requires.
The focus on increasing a particular variable in a linear fashion which can also be associated with the term progressive overload as progressive overload is about performing better over time and this will be linear in the grand scheme of things. Traditionally when you talk about linear periodization, you are referring to increasing intensity while volume either stays the same or reduces over the time period. An example of such a system would be moving from 4 sets of 10 reps on Bench Press at 65% of 1RM to 3 sets of 5 reps at 80% of 1RM over the course of multiple weeks. As mentioned, total volume dropped (from 4 sets/40 reps to 3 sets/15 reps) while intensity bumped up (from 65%-80% of 1RM) over the course of a training cycle. The greatest issue with this model is that almost nothing in life is linear and the body is not an exception to this. A linear model will work really well for novice lifters but might not work well for intermediates or advanced lifters as their training requires much more careful planning.
There are two trains of thought here. One Trefers to exposing the body to different stressors simultaneously and to get better at multiple qualities at the same time. The other is to rotate or change exercises frequently like Week 1 :2 Board Bench Press, Week 2: Floor Press, Week 3: 1 count Paused Bench.
Although there will be times when you will need to change exercises for different reasons (covered below in the specificity vs variability section), constantly changing exercises will lead to you not getting enough practice with particular movements which then leads to not getting proficient at one particular thing. This does not allow you to create the neuromuscular adaptations that you will require for you to get better at what you really want to get good at.
Concurrent periodization refers to focusing on two different adaptations simultaneously within a given training week. You will often see people have one day specificially for strength and one day for building hypertrophy in their weekly programming where on the strength day they have higher intensity and lower volume and vice versa on hypertrophy days.
Eg: Day 1: Strength Focused Squats (Low Bar) Day 3x5 @ 80%
Day 2: Volume Focused Squat Day (Low Bar/High Bar) 4x8 @ 62.5%
Day 3: Recovery or Squats accessory Day (Belt Squat) 3x15@RPE 7
This one has similar issues that conjugations style of thinking has since strength is actually specific to the rep range itself - you don’t want to try and get better at your 1 rep max and your 10 rep max within the same block. Although they both do have a relation and it isn’t just black and white, there are times when you should focus on a particular rep range to get better at executing at that rep range. One example I can give you is when you are peaking for a competition. You don’t want to be doing high reps when you get close to the competition as you want to be specific for the goal of executing your single reps on the platform.
Block periodization traditionally used to mean choosing a particular movement while keeping other movements on the back seat. You would focus on the movement you have chosen for a period or block of time or just one specific adaptation at a time by dividing a training cycle into distinct blocks namely accumulation (Volume/Hypertrophy Block), intensification(Strength/Intensity Block) and realization (Peaking). The latter version of block periodization is very similar to linear. Both the models start with higher volume/lower intensity and intensity increases while volume drops to accommodate higher intensity. An example of a 16-week plan incorporating such system would be:
Accumulation Block: 7 weeks, 60-75% of 1RM with higher set/rep scheme, more room for variations of comp lifts. e.g.: From 4x10 of High Bar Squats @65% to 3x7 of HB squats @75%of 1RM over 7 weeks
Intensification Block: 5 weeks, 70-85% of 1RM (4x4/5x3), volume drops. Specificity is increased so more volume is dedicated to competition lifts and variations are replaced by competition specific lifts in most cases. e.g.: Low Bar replaces High Bar Squats, LB Squats 4x6 @75% to 3x4 @ 85% over 5 weeks
Realization Block: 3+1weeks (peak and taper, highly specific, exposure to singles at higher intensities (90+% of 1RM) e.g.: LB squats with full comp gear 3x1@ RPE 8 to 1x1 @RPE 9.5 over 3 weeks followed by a week of taper.
The main issue with this however is that while it sounds like it is effective for the movement you have chosen; it is not the best way to progress forward as other movements are not prioritized enough for you to either maintain or progress like you otherwise would have and this could actually end up being inefficient.
If you take a look at every single periodization model I have mentioned above, they all have their own pros and cons. Neither of them are superior or lead to superior gains on their own. A purely linear plan will not yield the same results once you are past your novice phase. Undulating from either a daily or weekly basis also doesn't seem to achieve too much simply on its own, conjugation style may have you changing exercises before they even let you adapt and reap the actual results, specific blocks are way too focused on one particular adaptation concurrent is focused on multiple aspects and thus leads to not getting good at anything, a king of none, a jack of all trades. I can see where this can lead to some confusion.
So, what exactly is the best way to periodize and when to use what? Well, it's contextual and based on what you're looking for and understanding that no good solid training program that is built using sound training principles is completely devoid of one strategy from the other. All of these strategies have a time and place and actually work together a lot more than you would think. All good training programs use these models to some degree in order to achieve what they are looking for.
Since training is multifactorial and there are so many things to think about when you create sound training programs, the next question you may have is how do you know what works and what doesn't? The easiest way to answer this question is figuring out what doesn't. Over the last 50 years or more, strength coaches have constantly dabbled in different methods, created programs that use one method or mixed multiple methods together in order to find what seems to work. Over this period of time and cumulative effort from multiple coaches, you see that there are particular things that most strength coaches tend to avoid.
To give you an example, strength coaches found out that some form of undulation is better than pure linear periodization. Initially it was hard to figure out how much of an undulation was acceptable in order to create positive outcomes, but over time coaches have more or less figured out how much undulation is too much or too less.
Another example is lifters who use conjugate style training where they rotate exercises on a week to week basis. This is something that most strength coaches, other than Westside Barbell coaches do because they have found that this to not be optimal (particularly for newer athletes to the weight room). However, that does not mean that you should not change exercises/movements over time, it simply means that doing this every week is not the best strategy.
Similarly, extreme undulations in rep ranges and weights within a week where you have one high rep day and another low rep day would only create an interference effect, or in other words, it would disrupt directed adaptation where it hinders with the current adaptation you are chasing. Directed adaptation is a sub principle of specificity where you are sequencing stressors in order to achieve a particular adaptation. If your goal is hypertrophy then you want to focus and work towards the adaptation of hypertrophy. This is also why strategic periodization is used to maintain some aspects of fitness while other aspects are the focus.
By now you would have understood that every type of periodization model we have discussed has some positives and some negatives. In essence, the point I really want to drive home is that there is no one size fits all when it comes to periodization strategies, rather that all of them have a role to play together. Good sound programs use them all together in some way, shape or form.
Another topic that needs to be discussed in regards to phase potentiation is specificity vs variability. You need to understand the need to change exercises based on what you are looking for, when there is space for more variability in training and when you will need to be more specific in our training.
Specificity and variability lie within a continuum. A continuum means that both aspects are similar to each other in small differences, however either end of the spectrum contrast each other. Although specificity is pivotal to get better at a particular task as it only makes sense to practice what you need to get better at to actually get better at it, there is a point of diminishing returns. Being overly specific can lead to getting desensitized to training, whether it is rep ranges or the exercises/movements that you perform. Desensitizing to particular movements can lead to what we call a negative feedback loop, a situation where you don't get the returns that you would otherwise get if you weren't so desensitized to the movement itself. Another fact that we know is that strength is a skill that is also rep range specific. If you want to get better at singles, then you should be practicing more singles. However, you will also need to consider the fact that training with singles at a high intensity always will have a certain level of risk that comes with it. Not to mention the amount of breakdown you might have created along with the "gaps" you create when you become too specific. You end up giving up on some aspects of fitness when you get overly specific. Thus, it is important to understand that variability in training is also very important. Variability in training not only gives you a chance to re-sensitize to training stimulus and certain movements, it also gives you a mental break where you have time to add in other exercises or movements that you might get to enjoy. Another good reason to add in variety into your training would be in a hypertrophy phase. A bigger muscle is potentially a stronger muscle given all else is equal - the bigger the engine the more the capacity to produce force. When it comes to specific hypertrophy, it is important to choose exercises that work for you and that more or less comes down to your leverages and how they all play together in order to give you the best possible outcome in terms of hypertrophy. This will later give you better gains when you switch to a more specific training program. There is much more space to add in variability when you are away from a particular event. The goal of adding variability in training should actually lead into your specific goals.
Another thing you need to keep in mind when we talk about specificity and variability is that you don't want to venture too deep on either end of the spectrum as you don't want to completely lose the adaptation you have built in previous training cycles. You still want to maintain enough frequency and intensity of training to maintain previous adaptations. For example, when we do a hypertrophy training block, even though our goal is hypertrophy we don't quit doing the 3 lifts that are specific to powerlifting, you still want to be familiar and somewhat proficient in those movements even though you have time for your next major event.
When we talk about making a periodized plan for any athlete, we need to consider all of the factors we discussed above, the pros and cons of each periodization strategy and how each one can fill in the gaps that the other one creates. Any time a good coach sits down to create a program, he/she considers every single feature that matters, the athletes individual goals and responses to different types of training, the sport itself to consider how specific they need to get and how much variability they can get to further aid their sport and the current phase of the athlete’s career until the next competition/goal.
This unified view of periodization is what modern periodization has come down to. It is a systematic inclusion of different strategies of periodization that carefully converge together in order to create an "ideal" training program for the individual/athlete you are dealing with. I say ideal in quotes because there really isn't an ideal program, at least not yet. The way pretty much all good coaches’ programs for their athletes is by keeping in mind what works, what doesn't work based on their training history over the course of their athletic career and then filtering things out, manipulating training variables and choosing strategies that fit the athlete’s narrative. There is not one pure and perfect method of periodization but rather there is a unified system of training where ALL strategies are used to some degree together to fill in the gaps that the other one has created.
Earlier on in this article, we talked about how phase potentiation is the careful structuring of training phases put together where one phase potentiates the athlete into the other. I would like to sum things up by giving you an example that I believe most people can understand.
Think of your macro cycle as a pyramid. Let us consider a 16-week macro cycle as an example, where at the end of the macrocycle you have a competition. All of your training from now until the end of your training will be targeted towards you performing your absolute best on game day. The bottom of the pyramid is where you lay your base, your foundation that should potentiate you into a phase that helps you get towards your goal. The bottom of the pyramid allows for more variability, the higher up you go, the need for specificity increases. Keep in mind that the exercise you choose at the bottom of the pyramid should help you in your specific sport, you shouldn't stray away too far from what you actually need to do in order to get better. This 16-week macro cycle is basically divided into different mesocycles where each mesocycle helps you get ready for the goal at the end of the 16-week macrocycle.
It is important to understand all the concepts that I have discussed in order to create sound training macro cycles that are carefully planned over the course of an individual/athletes career. There are multiple strategies that can work and it is important to understand each one of them individually and also think critically in order to see how you can mix different strategies that can lead to much better results.
About the Author
Kaushal is the owner of Iron Creed Coaching Services, working closely with Dr Anshuttam Mishra and Ajitesh Sharma. He is a competitive powerlifter with a passion for strength and all things training. Having earned his bachelor's degree in computer science, he found that the corporate life wasn't for him and dove head first into coaching in 2018. His mission is to improve the quality of training in the Indian fitness industry and continue to lead by example.