Periodization Applied to Bodybuilding

The meaning of the term “periodization” is “a division into periods.”1 A Google search for “periodization” provides a mix of history-related books and books related to strength and conditioning for sports. In the context of training, periodization refers to dividing a longer training cycle into periods. Each period has/is

  • specific objectives (to accomplish specific physiological adaptations);
  • different but related structure and content of training; and
  • sequenced in a specific way to enhance the end result of the training cycle.

When competitive bodybuilders go through a bulking and then a cutting phase, that’s an example of periodization.

Several training systems, such as linear and nonlinear periodization, apply periodization by changing the number of repetitions per set on a regular basis.2 These types of training programs generally result in greater increases in fat-free mass than programs without variations.(2) However, it is worth noting that none of the periodization models studied is designed with hypertrophy as the target end result.

To fully understand how to benefit from periodization, it’s helpful to look at the basic physiology of why periodization is needed.

1. Principle of accommodation

If the athlete performs the same exercise with the same training load over a long period of time, performance improvement decreases. This is the principle of accommodation (which is often considered a general law in biology) in action: According to this law, the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time.3 Most of us have experienced the principle of accommodation acting on our own bodies when we make initial great gains on a program only to plateau after a few weeks.

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2. General adaptation syndrome

Briefly, the general adaptation syndrome describes how the adrenal glands respond with an initial alarm reaction followed by a reduction of an organism’s function to a (noxious) stimulus. The key to continued adaptation to the stress is the timely removal of the stimulus so that the organism’s function can recover.4 We “obey” the general adaptation syndrome by incorporation of a de-load week in our training programs (as recommended on this website).

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3. The development of certain physical capacities is enhanced by first developing other physical capacities

Structural strength is defined as the strength of bone, joints, tendons, ligaments, attachments and muscle mass. Functional strength includes maximal strength, speed strength, strength speed, reactive strength, strength endurance and endurance strength.5

The development of structural strength must precede the development of functional (maximal) strength. This is because initial strength gains for beginners predominantly are caused by a more effective activation of skeletal muscles with a minimal improvement in muscle mass.6

Further, it’s generally accepted that tendons respond more slowly to training than muscle tissue.7 This creates a situation in which the muscle tissue is disproportionately strong compared to the tendons. Contractile tissue that is stronger than tendon strength poses a risk to the intramuscular tissue as well as the muscle-tendon connection. Muscle tendon connections with this strength imbalance tend to rupture with the application of low- or high-velocity excessive loads.8

However, improved maximal strength can also have a beneficial effect on structural strength and thus muscle mass.

The one-repetition maximum (1RM) is the weight that can be lifted with good form once and only once. Typically, a lifter can perform about 10 repetitions with 70 percent of the 1RM.9 Ten repetitions are in the middle of the 8–12 repetition bracket, often considered the optimal bracket for stimulating increases in muscle mass. If a lifter increases his/her 1RM, he/she can use a heavier load in the subsequent hypertrophy phase, thus increasing the stimulus for muscle gain.

The 20-week program below is based on the classical periodization scheme, but with a twist to suit the goal of maximal hypertrophy at the end of the cycle. The twist is an added hypertrophy phase in the end of the cycle (after the maximal strength phase) to make use of the increased strength from the maximal strength phase. It’s worth noting that if you train hard enough, eat well and rest, hypertrophy is likely to take place in all phases of the program.

This 16-week cycle is built with some of the highly effective programs you can find on this website. Because there’s an overlap in training effect between each phase, it’s recommended – for this specific cycle – to use each program for four weeks. If you keep making gains, you can extend each phase of the program to eight weeks.

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Weeks 1–4: High-Rep Program

Use 12–20 repetitions per set and follow the template as outlined in the High-Rep Program.

Week 4 is a de-load week

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Weeks 5–8: Alternate Training System

Use 8–12 repetitions per set. This rep range is very similar to the template outlined in the Alternate Training System Program.

Week 8 is a de-load week.

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Weeks 9–12: Rest-Pause (Back B)

Use 4–8 repetitions per set as outlined in the Back B program in the Rest-Pause Program.

Week 12 is a de-load week.

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Weeks 13–16: Alternate Training System

Use 8–12 repetitions per set.

Additional tips to make the program work:

Make sure to start each phase with a 12-, 8- and 4RM load. This means that for the first workout in each phase, you must find a weight that’s challenging for 12, 8 and 4 repetitions. Note that these numbers are the low numbers in the respective repetition windows. Stay with the load you’ve found until you can complete 20, 12 and 8 repetitions with that load in one or more sets. Note that 20, 12 and 8 repetitions are the higher number in the repetition window.

Periodization can and ultimately should be applied to all training variables.10 This article shows a way to apply periodization to the number of repetitions per set with the purpose of maximizing hypertrophy.

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  2. Fleck S, Kraemer W. Designing resistance training programs. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2004.
  3. Zatsiorsky W. Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  4. Kraemer WJ, Vingren JL, Spiering BA. Endocrine response to resistance exercise. In: Baechle T, Earle R, ed. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008: 41-64.
  5. Siff M. Supertraining. Denver, CO: Supertraining Institute; 2004.
  6. Häkkinen K, Komi PV, Tesch P. Effect of combined concentric and eccentric strength training and detraining on force-time, muscle fibre and metabolic characteristics of leg extensor muscles. Scand J Sports Sc. 1981;3:50-8.
  7. Kannus P, Jozsa L, Natri A, Jarvinen M. Effects of training, immobilization and remobilization on tendons. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1997;7(2):67-71.
  8. Stone MH, Karatzaferi C. Connective tissue and bone response to strength training. In: Komi PV, ed. Strength and Power in Sports. 2nd ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; 2003: 343-360.
  9. Baechle, T, Earle R, Wathen D. Resistance training. In: Baechle T, Earle R, ed. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008: 377-412.
  10. Jensen K. The flexible periodization method. Mississauga, ON: The Write Fit; 2010.

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