WHAT IS PERIODIZATION – HOW TO PROGRAM FOR ELITE STRENGTH

Training is big investment.

It takes time out of your week, requires physical effort and mental energy and leaves you weak and depleted for days after each session.

There’s no doubt that the rewards are worth the sacrifice, as long term adaptations to strength training can improve everything from bone density and muscle mass to quality of life and a general sense of well-being (and let’s not forget about performance in your chosen sport).

The point is that your efforts should be optimized. Strength takes years to build and the difference between consistent yearly progress and stagnation that lasts many cycles around the sun will depend largely on how you plan your training.

That is where periodization comes in.

Introduction – What is Periodization?

Periodization is simply an organizational tactic. It is the practice of separating your training into deliberate strength training phases in order to progress consistently through your training year and to time a ‘peak’ at a specific contest.

All sports follow a periodization model, emphasizing broader goals in the off-season and goals more specific to the sport pre-contest. A fighter might benefit greathly from strength training at the beginning of a long training camp, but would not waste effort or risk injury by deadlifting 3 weeks before a fight.

For competitive lifting and strength training in general, each phase in a periodization scheme will prioritize different movements, volumes, and training frequencies to best suit the specific needs of the lifter at each particular point on the map. The first phase sets the ground-work and builds a wide foundation of skill and muscle mass to work with, then carefully transitions to a phase that will utilize those qualities to help with more contest-relevant tasks Taken all the way to the end, the real magic of periodization comes in with an expertly timed peak of contest specific performance at the end.

Let’s start with the layers of organization; periodization programs are broken into pieces that represent the long, medium and short term called Macrocycles, Mesocycles, and Microcycles.

What is a Microcycle? 

Think of this as one single training week. A microcycle is the smallest organizational unit of a periodization program next to the individual workout itself. One microcycle will run through all body parts and primary exercises being trained.

A layout of a microcycle from an off-season program we ran in 2021. 6 workouts were ran through on a MTThF split, making for a 9-10 day microcycle.

The reason we use ‘microcycle’ instead of ‘week’ is that these periods aren’t always 7 days. Novice programs might feature 2 distinct workouts that are each ran through twice in 7 days, making a 3-4 day microcycle. In contrast, more advanced routines might organize training on a 9 or 10 day split, which is an effective way of managing recovery for stronger lifters. The vast majority of you will be on a 7 day microcycle; just know the difference now so as to avoid confusion later on.

What is a Mesocycle? 

A mesocycle, often called a training block, refers to a chunk of several microcycles (training weeks) together. A mesocycle can last from a few weeks up to 6 or more and usually emphasizes the development of a single trait, such as size or power.

Mesocycles are often arranged so that the traits built up in one directly aid in the growth of those trained in the next, a tactic known as ‘phase potentiation’. For example, high reps and volume are typically done in the first mesocycle, which increases endurance and muscle mass. The following mesocycles are often long and heavy (making them very taxing) so the endurance prevents strength from dropping off as these workouts go on and the increased muscle mass raises the potential for strength gains from the low-rep work.

What is a macrocycle?

A macrocycle is the accumulation of all mesocycles together to form a full training cycle. It can be thought of as the completion of all strength training phases, hypertrophy, strength, and power. They can be structured very short, 6 to 12 weeks, or be stretched out over an entire year. The end of the macrocycle should peak with a contest performance before being started again from the top.

Different Strength Training Periodization Phases

Different texts will classify the different phases of periodization using different terms. Broadly, the phases will fall into a base-building phase, a sport-specific transition phase and a pure competition preparation phase. This method of organization isn’t peculiar to weight lifting; it is actually seen in all sports. Optimizing performance in Volleyball, Hockey, Football, Gymnastics, etc. requires similar organization in training, or else athletes risk being under-trained in the off-season and over-trained pre-contest.

In “Base Strength” and “Peak Strength“, I use the Base/Peak model to conceptualize how these phases should be arranged. The most universal factor between all forms of periodization is that training goes from broad to narrow, or base to peak.

Broad, non-specific work builds the base. This is higher volume (more sets and reps) done with lighter weights (to build confidence, technique and to let tissues adapt) with a variety of exercises (to encourage well rounded physical development that prevents weak areas from arising).

Narrow, sport-specific work chases your potential peak. This is done with all of the things that will help you specifically for contest day. Volume is lower (so that you can recover enough to demonstrate maximal strength) and weight is higher (to condition your nervous system to operate more efficiently). The exercises are very, very close to what you will be doing when you are actually on the platform.

The wider you build your base, the higher your potential peak is so it makes sense to improve those base qualities first to get the most out of your heavier, specific work.

Image from “Base Strength”

These phases labeled for strength-sports:

Hypertrophy (preparation) – also called accumulation, base or volume phase

Before heavy loads are handled, the lifter is best set up for success when movement patterns are refined, total work is high and plenty of muscle mass is gained. All of these qualities are taken care of in the hypertrophy phase where the lifter runs through a high number of sets and reps (much more than they are typically used to) in order to spur new growth. Work in this early mesocycle is usually in the 60-75% range. 

Ex: 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps at 60-75%

Different flavors of training might not use high reps, but volume will be high regardless. The important thing to note is that these phases are relative to the lifter and what they are used to. Athletes like Olympic lifters and some powerlifters who train very specifically might never go over 3 or 4 reps, so volume is increased in a hypertrophy phase by doing more total sets with more exercises. That may not be very high volume for a lifter who is used to sets of 10-12 at the same rep range, but it’s high for that particular lifter and that is what matters.

Ex: 6-10 sets of 3-5 reps at 60-75%

Strength (transition) – also called transmutation or intensity phase

Weights are increased as the repetitions drop. Heavy weights condition the nervous system to recruit more motor units and to do so faster. We have newly acquired muscle mass from the first mesocycle, which compounds how effective this one will be at developing new strength. The workload is also starting to become more strength-specific, meaning exercises are being selected for how close they are to the competition activity. Non specific movements are beginning to phase out and recovery is being optimized because we are doing less total work. 

Ex: 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps @ 75-85%

Peaking (competition) – also called realization or contest phase

Weights are now near maximal with volume very small and virtually no accessory work (so that you can be recovered enough to demonstrate maximal strength). General physical preparedness drops, meaning you are generally less ‘fit’ overall, but contest specific fitness reaches new heights. A true peak will leave you the most equipped to compete in this one specific task while slightly less equipped to do anything else. That’s the trade off of peak performance.

Ex: 2-4 sets of 1-3 reps @ 85-100%

Linear vs Non Linear Periodization


A periodization program that is broken into separate strength training phases over time, or mesocycles, that each emphasize a different skill or energy system is said to be linear, or sequential. These different phases exist in all types of periodization programs, but linear programs prioritize each phase in its own mesocycle before switching. These more traditional linear models start with low intensity and high volume and progress evenly towards high intensity and low volume (basically, go from light to heavy), where non- linear programs will move across the volume/intensity spectrum from within a week or even within a workout. The following are examples of the different types of periodization and how they specifically organize each strength training phase.

Classical/Linear Periodization


Classical periodization has been utilized in powerlifting and olympic weightlifting for over 50 years and is the most widely used form of programming among successful lifters. Fred Hatfield, Kirk Karwoski, Ed Coan, and other greats all used a linear form of periodization to set records that stood for decades. This type is linear, which mean from start to finish, weight gets heavier and reps get lower. Classical periodization moves through 3 phases: Hypertrophy, Strength, and Power, which are also described by other resources as Preparation, Transition, and Competition, or Accumulation, Transmutation, and Realization.

From a competitive standpoint, the introductory volume phases will be more broad and focus on reinforcing the base of the pyramid. It isn’t uncommon for powerlifters in the very beginning of a long cycle to fix weaknesses and build muscular size outside of the context of their competitive lifts. Main lifts can be substituted for close variations to correct weaknesses and make the lifter well rounded. This is essentially bodybuilding training where the point is to grow muscle tissue and adapt your body to an elevated amount of work. This phase will have higher volume, lower intensity, and more varied exercises and can last anywhere from 4 weeks to months on end.

Preparation Example: 
Main lift as prescribed, followed by 6 other exercises at 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps each.

Week 1: 5×10
Week 2: 4×10
Week 3: 5×8
Week 4: 3×8

As the program moves along, the lifter transitions into a strength phase, where the loads get heavier and the movements get more specific to the upcoming contest. This is where the raw mass and physical ability acquired in the introductory phase gets dialed in to a more singular goal. As the lifts become more contest specific, neurological changes are made that result in better fiber recruitment and more efficient movement mechanics. The body not only adapts to handling heavier weights, but gets better at moving it through space. Technique takes precedence, along with the fixing of weak areas.

Transition Example:
​Main lift as prescribed, followed by 4 other exercises at 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps each.

Week 5: 4×6
Week 6: 3×6
Week 7: 3×5
Week 8: 3×4

Finally, 1-2 months out from the contest, the lifter will enter into a peak phase. Working sets of unnecessary exercises are dropped so that recovery can be optimized. The loads will approach maximal capacity and only the exercises closest in nature to the competitive events will be kept. Heavy training like this (3 reps and under) is extremely taxing on the nervous system and cannot be trained indefinitely, but for the weeks where it is, strength gains are enormous. This is the very top of the pyramid, where specificity is king.

Competition Example: 
Main lift as prescribed, followed by 2 other exercises at 2-4 sets of 2-4 reps each.

Week 9: 3×3
Week 10: 2×2
Week 11: 1×1
Week 12: Deload for contest

Criticism of Linear Periodization

One of the drawbacks of linear modes of periodization is that in the process of prioritizing one skill or trait in each phase, other traits that are not prioritized can diminish. In the hypertrophy (muscle growth) phase, muscular size and endurance will increase, but maximal strength will drop. In the power phase, the nervous system will be optimized and heavy loads will move faster, but muscle mass will diminish. While these losses are minimal (or else the program wouldn’t work at all), it stands to reason that the perfect program will have lifters as muscular, strong, and powerful as possible. As a result, coaches have tried multiple ways of combining training phases to build each trait simultaneously.

DUP Training: Daily Undulating Periodization

​​DUP Training, short for Daily Undulating Periodization, takes a shot at solving this problem by taking each phase of training (hypertrophy, strength, power) and fitting them into the same work week. The same lifts are trained multiple times per week, with each session focusing on size, strength, or power. A common structure of DUP training is a whole body split, focusing on each big lift in one workout and repeating 3-4 times per week with varying repetition and set ranges.

Daily Undulating Periodization Ex. 1

                    Day 1        Day 2      Day 3
Bench         3×10          5×5         6×2
Squat          3×10          5×5         6×2
Deadlift      3×10          5×5         6×2

Each rep range will have some contribution to the development of strength, size, power, and endurance, just in different proportions. The idea behind DUP training is that the development of each one of these traits should, in some sense, aid in the development for the other. Properly executing a non linear periodization program means that a type of synergy is reached by training for these traits simultaneously. Combine with that the fact that training stimulus is varied from workout to workout (an important factor in preventing diminished returns from similar workouts), and DUP training appears to cover all bases.

There are only two simple principles of any Daily Undulating Periodization program: a.) the use of compound movements performed 3-4 times per week and b.) varied set and rep schemes from workout to workout. There are, however, a few considerations with Daily Undulating Periodization. With higher frequency training modes such as this, recovery can become an issue. The first recommendation with DUP training is to greatly limit accessory work with each lift. The program benefits from the fact that each trait is trained fresh, so coming into a workout still sore from the last will throw a wrench into the works. 

Aside from muscle soreness, DUP training can affect joint recovery: working the same joints with heavy compound movements 3-4 days per week can be murder on the tendons and connective tissue. Compounding these stresses by adding a bunch of extraneous work is sure way to get achy shoulders and sore knees. Remember, the goal is to get quality work in each specified rep range, not to obliterate the muscle like a bodybuilder 8 weeks out from the Olympia.

Any DUP program can be ran very simply with the same main lifts each workout, or a more advanced approach can be taken where the lifts are rotated out for close conjugates. For instance, you may find that your lockout is weak on a bench press, so one or two of the days can substitute a lockout heavy movement such as floor or close grip presses. Squats can alternate between high bar, box squats, and front squats. Bands and chains can be added. Use your imagination.

Daily Undulating Periodization Ex. 2

5×5 Day            3×3 Day                               4×10 Day
Bench             Wide Grip Pause                  Bench Board Press
Squat               Pause Squat w/ Bands       Front Squat
Deadlift           Sumo Deadlift                      Good Morning w/ chains

or, each day can schedule a different phase for each lift

Daily Undulating Periodization Ex. 3

Bench   5×5       Board Press     3×3         Dumbbell Bench   4×10
Squat    4×10     Front Squat     5×5         Pause Squat           3×3
Deadlift 3×3     Good Morning 4×10      Rack Pull                 5×5

As long as the basic principles are met, DUP training can be applied to any strength training program a variety of different ways.

Conjugate Training (Concurrent Periodization)

Conjugate Periodization became popular when Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell attempted to fix the same issues with classical linear periodization that DUP training dealt with. As a coach to world class powerlifters, it stood to reason that the highest level athletes would benefit from training as specific as possible for their chosen sport throughout the year. Classical periodization, however, had lifters spending the majority of their contest preparation far away from the loads they would be handling on contest day.

This raises an important questions for powerlifters: if training with maximal poundages in the main lifts is the most sport specific activity a powerlifter can do, then shouldn’t they train that way as often as possible?

Maxing out every workout can provide vicious strength gains in a very short period of time. The problem is that the nervous system can’t recover from these all out efforts week in and week out. What was observed in virtually all cases was a drop in progress after several weeks maximal training. Deloads, or periods of limited work, became common in heavy phases that ran more than 4 weeks in order to allow for proper recovery. What Louie Simmons realized is that, by rotating the lifts out (or conjugating) each week, the nervous system wouldn’t burn out and the deload week wasn’t necessary. Heavy lifting could be done continuously throughout the year, developing powerlifters to their skill in a much more specific way.

Since Maximal strength is trained for continuously throughout the year, that means that other traits (such as size and power) are trained concurrently. Just as with DUP training, conjugate periodization found a way to train for all traits simultaneously. With conjugate systems, strength is prioritized with the first 1 or 2 heavy compound movements, followed by accessory work done for size. A second ‘dynamic effort’ day is done at low percentages with high velocity as a means of building bar speed. A typical conjugate periodization program looks like this.

Each microcycle (training week), the primary lift is rotated out for a close conjugate (say, bench for board press) and the rest of the workout is completed as prescribed. Sets and reps may change, but the threshold stays the same: maximal strength in the beginning, strength/hypertrophy towards the end, and power development at the beginning of alternate days.

Notice how the accessory work for each day isolates all of the muscles that contribute to the main lift being done. The bench press day revolves entirely around developing that movement, by building strength and size in every muscle that contributes to it. Unlike DUP training, the conjugate system allows for plenty of accessory work because each lift is only prioritized twice per week, and one of the days is light speed work at 50-50%.

The Westside brand of conjugate training has a few hallmarks that make it distinct. For one, deadlifts are usually built up with box squats and good mornings, since heavy weekly pulling can fatigue the lifter and limit progress in other lifts. I’ve seen protocols where deadlifts are done weekly, once every two weeks, or not at all until right before a meet. 

The Westside conjugate system was developed for geared lifters, and squatting in gear took priority since it was a.) more technical and b.) contributed a much greater amount to the 3-lift total in a meet. Since frequent heavy deadlifts can be detrimental to heavy squat work, it makes sense that deadlifts were typically demphasized in favor of alternative methods. While 1,000lb+ squats and benches abounded, Westside was not known for producing the world’s best deadlifters. This is worth taking in consideration when determining your training goals. If building a monster deadlift is a priority, modifications must be made to allow for more frequent deadlift-type movements without overtraining. My recommendation would be to either place squats as an accessory on alternate days and keep deadlift conjugates as the main lower body movement, or even alternate squats and deads week to week (the Lilliebridges use this method).

Westside also uses plenty of accomodating resistance (bands and chains) to overload the strongest range of motion. This can help build up a strong lockout (which was hugely important to equipped lifters) and condition better rate of force development on the speed days. Keep in mind that these are preferences that are particular to this training camp and not necessarily ingrained in all concurrent periodization schemes.  

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