• Introduction
  • The basics of periodization
  • Microcycle
  • Mesocycle
  • Macrocycle
  • Linear periodization
  • Reverse linear periodization
  • Nonlinear periodization
  • Tapering
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Detraining: a partial loss of training-induced adaptations.
  • Hypertrophy: an increase in muscle mass.
  • Macrocycle: an annual training program.
  • Mesocycle: a 3-4 month training program.
  • Microcycle: a 1-4 week training program.
  • Neuromuscular system: muscles and all the nerves connected to them.
  • Tapering: a reduction in training volume leading up to a competition.

Introduction

The world is full of articles and books about the ”best methods to increase strength”. Despite the myriad of training principles, periodization remains the most effective way to optimize training for strength, endurance, speed, etc. 

The concept of periodized strength training refers to dividing your yearly conditioning program into smaller blocks, each with a specific training focus. Although this method has been used by the athletic community at least since the late 1950s, few published studies have investigated the most effective periodization approach for muscular strength development for a wider population. However, there is enough anecdotal evidence to validate periodization as a highly effective training tool. 

This post explains the basics of periodization, and what makes it such a fundamental factor in athletic training.

The basics of periodization

Periodization of training refers to a systematic approach to planning and programming in order to have specific physical and metabolic adaptations. It is an overall concept of training that divides seasonal seasonal process into several smaller phases or cycles (microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle). Each of these phases has a varying exercise stimulus (training/volume) with planned periods of rest. These phases also build upon the last one, which allows for physical and metabolic adaptations to occur. 

To maximize the adaptations to a specific training load, several training variables (see below) must be taken into consideration. The manipulation of these training variables within a specific cycle is called programming, which is arguably the greatest challenge that trainers face when designing and modifying annual training programs.

  • Volume (repetitions & sets)
  • Exercises (number of exercises, exercise choice)
  • Recovery periods (rest between sets & exercises)
  • Resistance (the % of one-repetition maximum used during a set)
  • Training frequency (number of training sessions per week)
  • Training split (how weekly training is divided, what muscle groups are prioritized) 
  • Type of muscle action (eccentric, concentric, isometric)
  • The direction of the movement (vertical vs horizontal loading)
  • Time under tension (how long the muscle is contracted)
  • Open vs closed kinetic chain

Our understanding of periodization stems from Hans Selye’s (1907-1982) General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which describes the body’s response to stress. GAS occurs as a result of three phases. The initial phase is known as the alarm/reaction phase which refers to the acute training effects of strenuous exercise (soreness, stiffness, reduced performance). The second phase is the resistance phase, which is where your body adapts to a certain training load (reduced soreness, less stiffness, better tolerance to activity, and improved performance). The last phase is known as the exhaustion phase, which occurs when the stress is stronger or lasts longer than what your body can adapt to. This can result in overtraining, general fatigue, and lower motivation. 

Increased physical demands cause the body to adapt to the stress by improving muscular performance (supercompensation). However, without progressive overload, no further adaptations are needed. A periodized program helps avoid plateau by continuously stimulating the neuromuscular system in various ways, while giving the body enough time to recover. Thus, maximizing improvements in performance while minimizing fatigue and risk of overtraining.

Two of the most common periodization models are linear periodization (classic periodization) and nonlinear periodization (undulating periodization). Both programs begin with high volume-low high-intensity training and gradually transition towards low-volume high-intensity training. This usually takes several months to complete. A structured approach like this adapts your body to perform at a higher intensity and increased training load. Thus, maximizing your strength/power after the last training phase for peak athletic performance during competitive season.

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Periodization


Divides annual training into small cycles(microcycle, mesocycle & macrocycle)Microcycles last for 1-4 weeksMesocycles last for 3-4 monthsMacrocycles last for 12 monthsLinear periodization varies load & intensity across predictable mesocyclesNonlinear periodization varies load & intensity more frequently(daily, weekly, biweekly)Training increases in intensity & peaks during competitive season

Microcycle

A microcycle is the shortest training cycle of a periodized training program, typically lasting for one to four weeks. In most situations, a microcycle represents your weekly training schedule, which can be varied via several workout split methods.

Each microcycle is planned according to where it is on the macrocycle (3-4-week cycle). Therefore, microcycles can be used to vary the level of stress (rest, progression, volume/load, exercise choice, etc.) during weekly training. 

Mesocycle

A mesocycle consists of 3-4 microcycles and usually lasts approximately a month (21-28 days). It also determines the training target for this specific period by focusing on exercises with similar physical adaptations. For example, hypertrophy, maximal strength, power, etc. Mesocycles are also often separated by a deload week to help the body prepare for the increased demand of the next phase, and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.

Experienced athletes may want to utilize the full 28 days in a single mesocycle, with 23 days of relatively hard work and five days of rest (23/5). Less experienced individuals may benefit from a 21-day mesocycle, with 16 days of training and five days of recovery (16/5).

It is recommended that you start with a 21-day cycle to ensure safe progression. As you train and improve, you can also move on to a 28-day mesocycle to provide a stronger stimulus for your body.

Macrocycle

A macrocycle is the longest of the three cycles, typically lasting for 12 months. This ”seasonal program” provides you with an overview of your annual training and competition schedule. This allows for long-term planning and preparation. Macrocycles gradually transition from high volume training (more repetitions and sets) to high-intensity (more resistance and less repetitions) training. Thus, working towards optimizing strength and power output (peaking) for the competitive season. A macrocycle is usually divided into preparatory, first transition, competition, and second transition phases.

The preparatory phase

The preparatory phase occurs during off-season, when no competitions take place. The focus of this phase is to develop a foundation for higher-intensity training in the following phases and periods. The general preparatory phase takes place in the early early stages of the preparatory phase and includes high training volumes at low intensity (50-75% of 1RM, 3-6 sets of 8-20 repetitions, or training endurance at a low heart rate zone). The main goals are to increase muscle mass, develop endurance, or both. The specific preparatory phase shifts the focus to sport-specific exercises that strengthen the muscles essential to the main movements in your sport. This phase involves plyometrics and resistance training higher intensity (80-95% of 1RM) and moderate volumes (2-6 repetitions, 2-6 sets). Thus, ultimately preparing you for the competitive season.

The first transition phase

The first transition phase, also known as preseason, is the link between the preparatory and competitive periods. The main focus of this phase is building strength and power for enhanced athletic performance. This is done by combining heavy (87-95% of 1RM) and low loads (30-85% of 1RM) to optimize training adaptations for both fitness components. The training volume is usually kept very low during the first transition phase (~2-5 repetitions per set, ~2-5 sets). Thus, preparing you for optimal performance during the competition phase. 

The competition phase

The competition phase is the time of year when athletes consistently participate in several games, meets, and competitions, leading up to the main events of the season. To accommodate for regular competitions and ensure peak performance, both training volume and intensity must be modified. The overall training focus should be on sport-specific exercises instead of building strength or endurance. For example, resistance training should include high-intensity exercises with low repetitions (2-8 per set). Similarly, long endurance activities should be substituted with intense sprints with short recoveries between sets. These intense exercises stimulate the muscles and ensure optimal performance during competition.

In order to sustain peak performance during the competition phase, both strength and power levels must be maintained at an optimal level. Training too little can lead to detraining (a partial loss of training-induced adaptations), whereas training too hard may compromise/reduce your performance due to physiological fatigue. How well these can be balanced is a crucial component in athletic success.

The length of the competition phase also varies greatly depending on the sport. Team sport athletes usually have a longer season, which means that high-level performance has to be maintained for an extended amount of time. A maintenance program for team sport athletes often consists of moderate volume training at intensities of 85-93% of 1 RM during the competition season. Athletes of individual sports sometimes have a competition season of only a few weeks. Peaking athletes utilize exercises ranging from very high to low intensity, with low training volume during the competitive period. 

The second transition phase

The second transition phase is used to link two annual plans (macrocycles) together. The transition phase facilitates physiological and psychological rest while maintaining an adequate level of general physical fitness (~40-50% of competitive phase). During this time, the focus should be in general training with reduced loading. The transition phase generally lasts for 2-4 weeks, although it can also be extended to six weeks if needed (e.g. younger athletes). The new preparatory phase should begin only when you are fully recovered from the previous competitive season. However, similarly to the first transition period, recovering for too long can lead to detraining. Finding a balance between training and recovery is crucial for athletic development.

A training routine can be varied by changing exercises, number of repetitions & sets, duration, intensity, and workout schedule.

Linear periodization

Linear periodization (classic periodization) refers to a periodized training program that continuously grows in intensity towards the season’s main competitions. Here is one example how mesocycles can build up to an annual macrocycle:

Hypertrophy
(preparation phase)

Strength & Power
(1st transition phase)

Peak
(competition phase)

Recovery
(2nd transition phase)


8-10 reps

4-6 reps

1-3 reps

12-15 reps


4-5 sets

3-4 sets

3-5 sets

3-5 sets


Low intensity

Moderate intensity

Very high intensity

Low intensity


High volume

Moderate volume

Low volume

Low volume


4 weeks

4 weeks

4 weeks

4 weeks


There are a number of benefits to this type of periodization. First, because each phase focuses on a specific training parameter, it makes repetition and loading schemes predictable. This is ultimately determined by what phase of training you are in. Second, linear periodization ensures that different components (strength, power, speed, etc.) are trained step-by-step.

However, linear periodization also has its downsides. Its main disadvantage is that it builds up to one single main event of the season. Thus, it may not be optimal for sports with several events and longer competitive seasons. Additionally, some training parameters may be difficult to maintain when transitioning to a new phase (e.g. maintaining strength in a power phase).

Reverse linear periodization

Reverse linear periodization follows similar modifications in load and volume as linear periodization, but in reverse order. Thus, increasing volume and decreasing load as the season progresses. For example, increasing the volume weekly from 4-6 maximal repetitions (RM) to loads of 12-14 RM closer to the competition phase of the season. The theory behind this is based on lifting loads at a lower relative intensity. However, since you will be doing more repetitions and sets, this allows you to build local muscle endurance – and even muscle mass due to a high training stimulus.

Most studies have found linear periodization to be more effective for strength and hypertrophy than linear periodization, whereas, reverse linear periodization has demonstrated greater muscle endurance improvements in some studies. However, the general consensus is that reverse linear periodization is no more effective than other forms of periodization in improving sports performance. To fully assess its effectiveness and usability in endurance training, more studies are needed.  

Nonlinear periodization

Nonlinear periodization (undulating periodization) refers to a model where volume and load are varied more frequently (daily, weekly, biweekly). One example of this is performing a high-volume/low-intensity session followed by a low-volume/high-intensity session the next week. In linear periodization, a cycle would consist of increasing the load of the same exercises until the block is finished.

Frequent changes in training variables provides a multifaceted stimulus for the neuromuscular system (muscles and nerves). This can lead to improved training adaptations when compared to traditional linear periodization model. Nonlinear periodization also allows for changes in the training program according to recovery status and competition schedule. Because this model offers more room for modifications, several training parameters can also be trained simultaneously (e.g. strength and power on the same week). This ultimately makes it easier to have several peaks in performance throughout the season.

However, nonlinear periodization is not a perfect approach to training either. First, frequent variation in training load might not be suitable if an appropriate strength base has not yet been established. This may cause you to increase training load too much and too quickly. Secondly, because nonlinear periodization aims to develop several performance characteristics at once, it may not allow each component to be optimally developed.

Tapering

Tapering refers to a reduction in training load leading up to an important competition. It is believed that consistent training can cause excessive fatigue and overstress the neuroendocrine system. Lowering the training load before competition allows the body to recover, get rid of the negative effects of training (e.g. stress and fatigue) and reach an optimal anabolic state (muscle building state). Tapering has been proven to significantly improve performance in numerous sports that rely on strength, power, and/or endurance.

The three most common tapering strategies are the step taper, linear taper, and exponential taper. A step taper involves a sudden drop in training volume (-50%) on the first day of the taper and maintaining it throughout the tapering period. A linear taper describes a gradual decrease in training volume (e.g. -5% of initial volume). An exponential taper reduces training volume at a rate proportional to its current value (e.g. -5% of the previous session’s volume). Exponential tapers can also have fast or slow decay rates. There are also more modern tapering methods, such as the 2-phase taper that still need further research.

Overall, the most effective tapering strategies tend to last around two weeks, with an exponential reduction of 41-61% in training volume. However, it is important to maintain the intensity and frequency of training sessions to have a beneficial impact on performance. In short, volume seems to be the variable that needs to be considered when tapering for peak performance.

A periodized training program grows in intensity as the season progresses.

Final thoughts

The theory of periodization was first established approximately five decades ago. Although there is a relatively small amount of objective research regarding periodization, there is enough anecdotal evidence to validate it as an effective training method. In fact, principles such as Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), Dr. Thomas Delorme’s Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) principle, and progressive overload (PO) all support the periodization model.

Besides consistent training, your program should also have sufficient time for active rest. For example, planning 4-6 weeks ahead allows you to have a cutback week (intentional reduction in training load), two weeks of heavy intensity training, followed by two weeks of tapering (reduced training volume) before competition. This ensures that your body is fully recovered from training and ready for the most important events of the season.

Did you learn anything new about periodization of training? Let us know in the comments.

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