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By Stefan Ianev
Periodisation is the systematic arrangement of training into cycles to prevent stagnation and achieve peak performance.
Over the last few years several reviews and meta-analyses have been conducted looking at the effect of periodisation on muscle strength and hypertrophy. At this current point in time, the general consensus is that periodised training programs lead to greater gains in strength and hypertrophy than non-periodised programs, with no difference between linear and non-linear periodisation models (1-3).
In the context of hypertrophy, we need to remember that the muscle fibers only respond to mechanical tension, and provided they experience a sufficient level of mechanical tension, how you get there doesn’t matter as much.
However, it is the central nervous system that innervates the muscle fibers, and if we are unable to recruit the high threshold motor units, the hypertrophy stimulus will be suboptimal.
Since mental fatigue can decrease performance, which is likely due to an impaired ability to recruit the higher threshold motor units, the systematic and planned variation of acute training variables can help reduce mental fatigue and improve performance. Therefore, periodisation is more important for the mind and nervous system, rather than the muscles per se.
There are 2 main types of periodisation including:
Linear periodisation involves the progressive increase in intensity and reduction in volume, over the course of a macrocycle. A macrocycle typically refers to the overall training period, which is usually between 3-6 months.
An example of the linear model for a 12-week hypertrophy block could look like:
Weeks 1-4: 10-12 reps
Weeks 5-8: 8-10 reps
Weeks 6-8: 6-8 reps
This model would work well for lifters who enjoy increasing the weight each cycle because it keeps them motivated. And, as long as you are getting at least 5 reps per set, the reduction in volume should not negatively impact hypertrophy.
Non-linear or undulating periodisation, which was introduced in the late 1980s by renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin, involves the manipulation of volume and intensity in a wave-like or undulating pattern, instead of in a linear fashion.
Some authors have suggested that undulating periodisation may produce superior gains in strength and hypertrophy because it incorporates more frequent variations in loading (1). Since linear periodisation generally entails lengthy time periods spent in a specific loading zone, the lifter might quickly adapt to the training stimulus, which may result in stagnation (1).
There are several different types of undulating models which exist. The original model which was proposed by Charles Poliquin involves alternating 2-4 week blocks emphasising higher volume and lower intensity, termed accumulation blocks, with 2-4 week blocks emphasising higher intensity and lower volume, termed intensification blocks.
An example of the undulating model for a 12-week hypertrophy block could look like:
Weeks 1-3: 10-12 reps
Weeks 4-6: 6-8 reps
Weeks 7-9: 8-10 reps
Weeks 10-12: 4-6 reps
More recently, other forms of undulating periodisation have been proposed such as weekly undulating periodisation (WUP) and daily undulating periodisation (DUP). Weekly undulating periodisation involves manipulating the intensity on a week-to-week basis.
An example of a weekly undulating model for a 12-week hypertrophy block could look like:
Week 1: 10-12 reps
Week 2: 8-10 reps
Week 3: 6-8 reps
Week 4: 10-12 reps
Week 5: 8-10 reps
Week 6: 6-8 reps
Week 7: 10-12 reps
Week 8: 8-10 reps
Week 9: 6-8 reps
Week 10: 10-12 reps
Week 11: 8-10 reps
Week 12: 6-8 reps
Daily undulating periodisation is also known as concurrent periodisation, because you are training multiple qualities or intensity zones within a micro cycle. This involves undulating the intensity on a workout-to-workout basis.
Day 1: 10-12 reps
Day 2: 8-10 reps
Day 3: 6-8 reps
As we mentioned earlier, at this point there is not enough evidence to definitively say one model is better than another. It likely depends on the individual and how quickly they get bored staying on the same program. With daily and weekly undulating periodisation you can also keep the same exercises from workout to workout and just vary the intensity, or you can vary the exercises as well.
For example, you can do more compound work on the heavier days and more isolation work on the lighter days. This is where the art of coaching comes into play, and over time as you acquire more experience, you will be able to make better choices about which direction to go based on the specific client.