Periodization 301: Review Of Periodization Models

Periodization, the systematic planning of exercise and athletic training. It is one of the cornerstones of high level sports and physical performance and without it, training has no context and no direction.

This series will cover the big picture as well as dive into the small nuances of what makes periodization such an important topic to learn for any aspiring strength & conditioning coach or high performance trainer. 

This fourth part will cover and review various periodization models and their defining characteristics. 

Read Part 101: Introduction
Read Part 201: Training Variation

Read Part 202: Training Effect & Phases
Read Part 301: Review of Periodization Models
Read Part 401: The Complexities and Problems of Periodization Theory

Traditional Periodization

Popularized by sport scientists such as Matveyev and Tudor Bompa, traditional periodization (TP) was one of the first models of periodization created. TP is characterized by the concurrent development of technical, cardiovascular and strength-related abilities, whereby the initial phase is high-volume and low-intensity in nature, progressing towards a low-volume and high-intensity training protocol.  

TP is often referred to as "linear periodization" because of its linear increase in intensity and linear decrease in volume over the training macrocycle. However, this name may be inappropriate when viewed on the mesocycle level, as TP programs still have undulating and wave-like characteristics. Dr. Michael Stone, a world-renowned sports physiologist also believes that TP is confused with the term "linear" because volume is sometimes erroneously calculated using the number of repetitions and sets. In order to properly calculate and monitor training stress, volume load with the consideration intensity must be used. While the set-rep scheme can remain the same, the intensity can fluctuate and change.

For example: 3 sets of 5 reps @ 70% of 1RM is vastly different from 3 sets of 5 reps @ 85% of 1RM in terms of motor unit recruitment and training stress. This common strategy in non-traditional periodization models where "heavy" and "light" days can be used, while the set-rep scheme remains the same. Volume load variation and undulation should define the periodization model and type, NOT the set-rep scheme alone. 

Even "non-linear" or non-traditional periodization models possess linear characteristics when viewed on the macrocyclic-scale, progressing from a state of high-volume low-intensity training, to lower-volume higher-intensity training. However, the undulations of volume and intensity occur more frequently on the mesocycle-level, perhaps week to week, or even day to day (daily undulating periodization). Due to all these factors, the term traditional periodization is better suited. The figure below shows the manipulation of volume and intensity over several phases of a traditionally periodized training program. 

Here is an example of a 12-week TP resistance training program:
Mesocycle 1 - Weeks 1-4: 5 sets of 10 reps @ 65-70% 1RM
Mesocycle 2 - Weeks 5-8: 4 sets of 6 reps @ 75-80% 1RM
Mesocycle 3 - Weeks 9-12: 3 sets of 4 reps @ 85-90% 1RM

In this example, the volume load is decreasing from each mesocycle, while the average intensity is increasing. The main characteristic of TP is that the variation of volume and intensity happen between mesocycles, with little variation occurring within each mesocycle. This goes in line with the concurrent development of physical attributes, where Tudor Bompa believes some traits are best developed together to avoid the interference effect. For example, hypertrophy-based resistance training will be paired with aerobic system development as they both improve under high-volume training. While strength and power training will be paired with anaerobic energy system development and explosive strength and power will be developed simultaneously with alactic and specific endurance work.

TP is more beneficial for novice trainees and lifters as intensity is increased at a slow and gradual pace (from one mesocycle to another), allowing for an un-rushed acquisition of structural and technical changes such as mitochondrial biogenesis and muscle hypertrophy to occur. As discussed previously in Part 201, the development of these abilities follow a sequential order, where hypertrophy and aerobic-based qualities are developed before power, anaerobic and alactic qualities. TP is an excellent model for novice trainees that have not been accustomed to high training volumes and intensities, and can prepare them for future workloads and perhaps other periodization models. 

Defining Characteristics Of A Traditional Periodization Model:

  • A macrocycle starts off with high-volume, low-intensity training
  • A macrocycle ends off with low-volume, high-intensity training
  • Physical attributes are all developed simultaenously
  • Variations and undulations in volume and intensity occur from MESOCYCLE to MESOCYCLE.

What Traditional Periodization IS NOT:

  • Not to be confused with "linear" increases in intensity from week to week. 
    5x5 @ 135lbs
    5x5 @ 145lbs
    5x5 @ 155lbs...
    This is a form a progression and is not a defining characteristic of the traditional periodization model.

Limitations of traditional periodization

While TP may be beneficial for novice trainees due to its concurrent development of physical abilities, it may be sub-optimal for intermediate or advanced athletes across a wide range of sports and performance settings. Many other factors also contribute to the need for a revision of the TP model of training, such as:

  • Need for contuinual progress and improved performance
  • Need for training stressor management in team sports
  • Sports that have multiple competitions or a longer competitive season

One major limitation of the TP model is that TP is optimized for climatic sports, sports that require only several performance or one performance over a short-time span. TP does not take into consideration  seasonal sports or team sports that usually possess a longer competition period. An aggressive taper in the pre-season or pre-competition phase of training prepares athletes well for the beginning of the competitive season, however can be detrimental in keeping consistent performance measures over the span of the season.

TP-based programs are also hard to implement with large groups of athletes that participate in regular sport practice, competition and travelling. Seasonal team sport athletes need to maintain a base level of physical fitness during the long in-season in order to prevent detraining effects, therefore the planning of physical training must be altered during the competition period and the pre-competition or preparatory period. Since there is little to no variation in volume and intensity between microcycles/within the mesocycles, using a TP model in seasonal or team sports can be problematic. Athletes are essentially "stuck" with a specific volume and intensity scheme in any given mesocycle, therefore TP is often suggested to be inflexible for scenarios in which athletes need lower or higher intensities of work.

For example, we'll compared soccer player A and soccer player B on the same team.

Soccer player A plays on the starting line up and gets a lot of playing time. 
Soccer player B is relatively new and doesn't get a lot of playing time.

These 2 athletes will need different strength and conditioning maintenance programs in between games and in the competition season because they have uneven playing times, and therefore stress their bodies different. The TP-model doesn't allow soccer player B to jump into more high intensity lifting and endurance sessions that are needed for him to maintain his fitness attributes if they are still at the beginning of a "higher volume" phase. There is a need for different periodization methods depending on the sport, and the position of each player on the team. In team-based sports whose competition season lasts 20-35 weeks, a TP model of training has shown to lead to reductions in maximal strength, muscle mass, maximal speed, as well as the ability to recover between matches (Citation 1, 2). 

Even in individual sports, the increase in financial motivation and total number of competitions a year (play more games/compete in more matches = more money) calls for the revision of the TP model in order to produce more consistent results year round. The slow, monthly-undulatory nature of TP cannot achieve this.

Non-Traditional Periodization

Much like how TP is mistakenly named linear periodization, non-traditional periodization is often called undulating periodization and misguidedly named non-linear. Non-traditional periodization should technically encompass all the variations and revisions of the original TP.

Firstly, the name "non-linear" is misguided because programs can be viewed as linear or non-linear depending on the size of the scoped used to view the training program. If you step back and look at the big picture, most programs will improve performance over time. If we draw a line of best fit, does this mean every program is "linear"? Perhaps.

Secondly, all types of periodized programs are also undulatory in nature, the degree or time-scale of which undulation occurs is what defines the different models of periodization and is dependent on the type of sport, athlete as well as the time frame given to prepare. 

For the sake of consistency, non-traditional periodization (NTP) will refer to any of the 4 specific subcategories: reverse periodization (RP), weekly undulating periodization (WUP), daily undulating periodization (DUP) and block periodization (BP)

Reverse Periodization

Reverse periodization (RP) is a model offered by Ian King, an Australian strength & conditioning coach, who characterized RP as initial phases of low-volume, high-intensity training, moving onto higher volume, lower-intensity training as a competition nears. This is essentially a "reverse" of the TP model. 

Since training variables in a periodized program are developed in a general to specific order, using a RP model-based program would be most suitable for long aerobic endurance sports like road cycling and running, which have competition demands that are high-volume and lower-intensity in nature. The TP model also addresses the general to specific continuum, but mainly for strength and power based sports.

Figure 2 and Figure 3 outlines the difference between TP and RP in terms of preparing for an endurance event (taken from "Base Endurance: Move Forwards with Reverse Periodisation").

Defining Characteristics Of A REVERSE Periodization Model:

  • A macrocycle starts off with low-volume and high-intensity training
  • A macrocycle ends off with high-volume and low-intensity training

Limitations of Reverse Periodization

The RP model shares many of the same drawbacks as the traditional model, notably, its inflexibility for team sport athletes and non-climatic sports.

An obvious limitation to reverse periodization is that it cannot be applied to power and strength sports, where competitions are high-intensity in nature. Since it is known that volume load is a larger contributor to fatigue than intensity, strength and power-based sport performance will suffer if an athlete heads into competition in a fatigued state. Even in the case where fatigue is strategically-controlled, reducing the intensity over the training cycle will hinder the expression of strength and power and violates the principle of specificity.

In addition, RP does not take into consideration residual training effects. Research has shown that high-intensity resistance training can improve time trial performance via improvements in maximal strength and RFD in elite cyclists - one reason to keep some high-intensity sessions when close to an endurance sport competition. High-intensity training adaptations detrain at a faster rate than cumulative low-intensity training adaptations, therefore if high-intensity training is not performed as competition gets closer, performance in endurance athletes that require intermittent bursts of high-intensity may suffer.

Research comparing RP with other forms of periodization showed that although RP was less effective for strength and hypertrophy compared to TP, RP was more beneficial than TP and daily undulating periodization for increasing muscular endurance (study 1, study 2). RP may be a viable strategy for endurance-based sports but has many pitfalls when applied to strength or power-based sports.

Undulating periodization

Undulating periodization, specifically daily (DUP) and weekly (WUP) undulating periodization are models that can be characterized by a greater frequency of variation in volume and intensity, achieved on the daily and weekly level. In comparison to TP, the greater variation of training is suggested to be more optimal for experienced athletes and team sports athletes.

DUP consists of day to day variations in volume and intensity. Below is an example of a endurance-based training and a resistance-based training set up.

DUP Configuration of 1 week in a 4-Week Mesocycle (Endurance Training)

  • Monday: Low Intensity Steady State
  • Wednesday: Lactate Threshold Training
  • Friday: High-intensity Intervals

DUP Configuration of 1 week in a 4-Week Mesocycle (Resistance Training)

  • Monday: 5x8 @ 70% 1RM
  • Wednesday: 4x4 @ 85% 1RM
  • Friday: 3x1 @ 95% 1RM

WUP on the other hand, consists of week to week variations in volume and intensity.

WUP Configuration of a 4-Week Mesocycle (Endurance Training)

  • 1st Week: Low Intensity Steady State
  • 2nd Week: Lactate Threshold Training
  • 3rd Week: High-Intensity Intervals
  • 4th Week: Unloading/Deload Week

WUP Configuration of a 4-Week Mesocycle (Resistance Training)

  • 1st Week: 5x8 @ 70% 1RM
  • 2nd Week: 4x4 @ 85% 1RM
  • 3rd Week: 3x1 @ 95% 1RM
  • 4th Week: Unloading/Deload Week

A popular example of a DUP-based program would be the Westside Barbell Method, while an example of a WUP-based program would be Wendler's 531 program.

Undulating periodization-based programs have become increasing popular across all sports because of its fatigue management and within-mesocycle variations. Coaches have found that volume and intensity can undulate from day to day or week to week, while still achieving the performance and physical attribute improvements comparable to more traditionally based training programs. This flexibility is particularly evident for in-season or athletes that are in their competition-season.

If a team coach requires a hard sport practice the day of a maximal strength training session, the maximal strength session can be pushed back in replacement of a workout targeting local muscle endurance or recovery when using a DUP model of training. DUP programs are also able to stimulate different energy systems and motor units all within the same week. Being able to stimulate both low-intensity and high-intensity adaptations within the same week has important implications for retaining physical performance during long in-season competition periods, a goal TP cannot achieve.

Another example: if a particular sport requires athletes to perform anaerobic work during playing time, but not so much aerobic throughout the in-season, the flexibility of DUP and WUP allows the inclusion of recovery and light aerobic sessions to retain and maintain a base level of aerobic conditioning without being chained to the confines of a TP-based training model where training intensity is based on the mesocycle goal.

The use of heavy and light days in a training week is also considered a form of DUP and can help manage fatigue more efficiently. As Nick Winkleman says: "DUP is great for maintenance, it allows for exposure but not depletion of energy or accumulation of fatigue".

The figures below shows the manipulation of volume and intensity over several phases of a DUP/WUP-based training program and examples of the use of alternating heavy and light days within a training week.

Undulating Periodization.PNG
3x/Week Training Frequency.

3x/Week Training Frequency.

4x/Week Training Frequency

4x/Week Training Frequency

Defining Characteristics Of An undulating Periodization Model:

  • Undulations of volume and intensity occur on a week-to-week or day-to-day scale

Looking at some Research

DUP's flexibility can also be utilized in scenarios where the training environment is unplanned or unpredictable. A study by Peterson et al (2008) observed the effects of DUP versus TP on experienced, trained firefighters, whose job is usually unplanned and stressful in nature. DUP was able to accommodate for these factors by rotating endurance-days, strength-days and power-days. These different pathways were stimulated in a way where no one system was overly fatigued while progress could still be made. At the end of the 12-week intervention, the DUP group saw greater improvements in strength, power and firefighter-specific performance measures.

Block periodization

Block periodization (BP) originally called the Coupled Successive System by Yuri Verkoshansky, was developed and popularized by figures such as Verkoshansky himself, Anatoliy Bondarchuk and Vladimir Issurin. BP is considered an advanced periodization-model directed towards advanced, elite-level athletes. The basis behind BP is that elite-level athletes who are reaching the functional limits of their physical performance require highly concentrated training loads in order to further increase performance. In BP, a concentrated high-volume load "block" of training is directed towards a select group of physical capabilities, where these adaptations can be realized in the subsequent low-volume block.

BP heavily involves the concepts of cumulative and residual effects and deeply emphasizes sequential development of abilities. This is suitable for athlete already possess a solid training base and are able to handle several microcycles of very high-volume concentrated training. Although this type of training provides an optimal amount of saturation on the physical abilities that are selected, it comes at the expense of other motor abilities that are pushed to the side. For example, in a block dedicated to power training, aerobic qualities and muscular endurance might be comprised, but the BP model accounts for this by including a minimal amount of work to at least maintain these qualities.

Terms like "accumulation", "transmutation" and "realiziation" are also used in BP to describe the sequential development of phases. The accumulation phase focuses on basic abilities such as aerobic endurance and hypertrophy, the transmutation phase focuses on sport-specific abilities, while the realization phase focuses on restoration and tapering. As one can see, there can be parallels drawn between BP-based and TP-based periodization models. The figure below shows the compatibility of different motor abilities based on the dominant motor ability trained during a block - proposed by Vladmir Issurin. 

Defining Characteristics Of A block Periodization Model:

  • The use of concentrated blocks of training loads
  • Deep emphasis on cumulative and residual training effects

Looking at Some Resesarch

Elite endurance athletes spend the majority of their training time utilizing low-intensity training, with small bouts of high-intensity training to peak for a competition. However, the specific organiziation of these 2 training zones and methods are still unclear. Research by García-Pallarés et al (2010) found that a BP model improved performance more than a TP model in elite level kayakers despite the BP program being 10 weeks shorter. Taking a look at the details of the study design, it should be noted that the BP program included a higher percentage of high-intensity training, therefore making it hard to conclude whether the benefits came from superior distribution of the training load, or the increased concentration of high-intensity training. When comparing different periodization models and different distribution of training, intensity and volume must be equated and accounted for.

In another study, Rønnestad et al (2012) looked at the effects of TP and BP on cycling performance in well-trained cyclist. The intervention lasted 4 weeks, while the volume and intensity of training were similarly matched between the TP and BP group. The TP group performed 2 high-intensity training sessions interspersed by high-volume, low-intensity aerobic training every week. The BP group performed a full week of high-intensity training consisting of 5 training sessions, followed by 1 high-intensity training session interspersed with low-intensity aerobic training for the subsequent 3 weeks. The results of this study showed the BP group improved their VO2max values, peak power output and power output at 2mmol/L blood lactate, while no changes occurred in the TP-based group.

Unlike the García-Pallarés et al (2010) study, the 2 groups in this study performed an identical number of high-intensity sessions, therefore the performance increase was most likely due to superior organization of training and not from an increased concentration of high-intensity sessions. Aside from these improvements however, lactate threshold and cycling economy remained unchanged in both groups, as expected by the researches due to the brief nature of the 4-week intervention. From this study, we see that a high concentration of training load allowed for a stronger training stimulus needed to improve performance variables in elite athletes. Whether that increase in VO2max has an influence on actual endurance race performance, is another question.

While not all programs will look exactly the same as the models above, many periodized programs share many of the characteristics of at least one of the models above. You'd even be surprised that some training programs deemed as "non-periodized" are infact, periodized to a degree.

Periodized vs. Non-periodized programs

A large majority of the research literature state that periodized training programs are effective across many measures of strength, power and motor performance for both men and women of varying training age and levels compared to non-periodized programs (Citations #1, #2). This should not come as a surprise as using kinesiology and sport science-based training methods allows coaches to view training adaptations in a more predictable course, and therefore they are able to adjust the subsequent training cycle to consolidate weaknesses or errors from the previous cycle. This is the overarching theme in sports planning and exercise performance. 

In cases where periodized training showed no benefits compared to non-periodized training, often, the subjects had a low level of initial fitness and/or the length of the intervention was not long enough. An example of this is a study on the effects of volume and intensity periodization on strength in novice trainees. When a "non-periodized" program was volume matched with a traditional and non-traditional periodization model, strength gains on the squat and bench press were similar between groups. Baker et al (1994) concluded that over short training cycles, non-periodized strength training programs result in the same gains a periodized programs. 

So what's the problem with short programs or study lengths?

Periodization models develop physical attributes in sequences and adaptations to training take time. Too short of an intervention does not allow this sequential development to happen. Future training cycles should be built upon using previous ones. It seems the benefits from a periodized program are accentuated when it is used in a longer time frame. When Stone et al (1999) analyzed 15 periodization studies, it was found that 13 studies showed improved results from a periodized program over a non-periodized program.

Rethink the term "non-periodized"

All programs, are infact, periodized to a certain degree. By now, you should know periodization simply means the structuring of training cycles. If there is no structure, there is no program. While some people may consider this semantics, it really isn't. A training program that offers random variations in training load and training variables is still a periodized program (a poorly periodized one). It can be even argued that variation and novelty itself is the key to performance increases, rather than strategically planning. 

Although some coaches might claim certain models of periodization are the "best" or are superior compared to other models, it is foolish to think that a one set of rules or a rigid system can accomodate the performance demands of athletes from different ages, sports and environmental constraints. 

Next time, we'll take a look at the application of these models and dive into why they're called "models" and not programs. We will also discuss the problems and limitations of periodization and what to do moving forwards.