Very rarely is anything truly new in the strength training world, especially when it comes to programming. Yes, methods change and the industry perpetually matures, but the fundamental programming pillars that started in the strength world still hold it up today. (After all, the concept of linear progressive overload may go back to ancient times.)

The progression within these pillars is what most deem as new, there will always be tweaking to match niches, demands, and needs – and that’s a good thing. The constant evolution of training styles and methods is what keeps the industry from stagnation.

At times it can be overwhelming with all of the different strength training methods out there, but if you sit back and research, you’ll realize that has some real benefits. First, it gives us options to choose from; options allow us to try and find the optimal program for our training needs. Second, it allows us to understand why different professionals program the way they do.

The next time you read something like 5/3/1, think about why Jim Wendler may have chosen the sets, exercises, and reps the way he did. Lastly, it makes us learn, and although this task can be a big ask, the payoff is always personal growth. My guess is, if you’re looking for a specific training adaptation, it’s been tried and tested before.

To help you out, we’ve taken the 3 most commonly used forms of strength training periodization and broken down the what, whys, and whens. Chances are, you’ve been doing these your whole strength training career — you may just not have realized it.

History of Periodization

Our general understanding of periodization is largely built upon Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) theory from roughly 1950. This theory points out the three phases the body undergoes when experiencing a new stimulus. These phases are: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

  • Alarm: The initial shock of a stimulus; an example would be the excessive soreness you feel at the beginning of new programs.
  • Resistance: The adaptation to the stimulus; this is where we begin to get better at handling the workload and progress in a program.
  • Exhaustion: The decrease from overstimulation; an example of this would be overtraining, or overreaching.

The whole point is to remain in the resistance stage; in this stage, the body performs optimally (or closer to it). Every form of periodization is a different method to prolong the resistance stage. How we choose to go about this is dependent on our training history, activity, and goals.

Periodization Feature

Another contributor to periodization theory was an army physician named Thomas L. Delorne. In 1945, Delorne found himself in a dilemma: he needed to create a means to properly rehab soldiers’ injured from the Second World War. In the 1940s, physical rehab methods were lengthy and had a tough time accounting for the needs of injured soldiers, thus leading Delorne to experiment with a progressive load method. By 1948, Delorne had refined his methods and found success in doing so. His patients rehabbed quicker and more efficiently.

Time Frames in Periodization

Periodization has various cycles that are classified by amounts of time: macro (annual), meso (weeks to months), and mico (workouts, days, weekly). Below is a diagram that illustrates an example timeline of different training cycles in relation to one another.

Periodization Timeline

1. Linear Periodization

What is linear periodization?

Linear periodization is the most commonly used style of training, and it’s probably the style you did naturally when you first started lifting. This form of periodization is described as a training plan that gradually increases volume, intensity, and work by mesocycles in an annual training plan. Progressive overload is a major key to the success of this training stylel think about 5×5 programs. Every workout, you’re adding weight and gaining strength at a slow, steady rate. 

Why should I use it?

Linear periodization is a great for building a strong foundation, progressing in one variable, and working towards a peaking point. This programming style is useful for those who are newer to training, and while that point can be argued, it’s definitely the easiest periodization style to understand, thus my reasoning.

When should I use linear periodization?

1. Peaking point: Since linear periodization is written for an annual training plan, it’s easy to cater this training style to a slow progressive peak. For example, if you have a marathon in February, you’d start your program around April-May and slowly work towards peaking in February while avoiding burnout.

2. Beginner: Most beginners need to build a strong foundation before they can try advanced training styles. Linear periodization is a great way to slowly build a base without losing focus on what’s important – building your foundation.

3. Short seasons: Athletes with short seasons who have one or very few competitions close to each other benefit with linear training. This allows a slow buildup to their peak or competition. 

2. Non-Linear/Undulated Periodization

What is non-linear/undulated periodization?

Non-linear and undulated periodization rely on constant change in stimuli throughout training cycles. As opposed to a linear periodization that focuses on gradual increase of one variable, this style manipulates multiple variables like exercises, volume, intensity, and training adaptation on a frequent basis. The time frame for these manipulations can be daily, weekly, or even bi-weekly. Non-linear periodization is more advanced than linear and incorporates multiple types of stimuli into a training program.

Why should I use it?

Non-linear periodization is an excellent way of individually training one variable and secondarily training others at the same time. It’s often used for those with advanced training backgrounds and longer sport seasons. For example, think about a program that has you train strength one day, then power two days later – this is non-linear.

When should I use it?

1. Advanced trainees: Someone who has a mature training age (2+> years) can benefit from the constant manipulation of variables for various training adaptations. For example, focusing on hypertrophy one day, then aiming for strength the next. The reason we say advanced is because an advanced trainee will have an existing strength base to build upon. 

2. Longer sport seasons: Athletes who have longer seasons will benefit by changing up variables more frequently. For example, an athlete in the peak of their season has multiple needs to perform optimally. By changing the focuses from something like hypertrophy to power, you can help prevent burnout within one variable, such as CNS fatigue from too much power training.

3. Block Periodization

What is block periodization?

Block periodization is arguably the “newest” periodization style. The concept of block periodization focuses on breaking down specific training periods into 2-4 week periods. Each block encompasses three different stages: accumulation (50-75% intensity), transmutation (75-90% intensity), and realization (90%> intensity). The goal behind these smaller, specific blocks is to allow an athlete to stay at their peak level longer. Since most sports have longer durations and call for multiple peaks, block periodization is often prescribed. Within the training season, athletes will only focus on adaptations they need specifically for their sport, if an athlete doesn’t need endurance, they won’t train for it.

Why should I use it?

When trying to maintain a high level of athleticism for competition over an extended amount of time, block can be a great tool. By frequently training specific training adaptations you work towards progressing in your sport with the variable you need, and avoid burning out.

When should I use block periodization?

Multiple peaks: Sports that require an athlete to peak multiple times during a season – aka multiple competitions/games a year – can benefit from block training. The most important variable is accounting for the athlete’s needs and the rotation of blocks to allow optimal performance.

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