There are some questions in life that are always accompanied by a little bit of controversy and leads to people arguing about which is correct. Some of my favorite arguments include: the ranch versus blue cheese debate, does pineapple belong on pizza, and is Die Hard a Christmas movie? In the training world, coaches can’t seem to shake the topic of periodization and they have been arguing for years whether periodization is necessary for success in a training program. Read this article to find out why periodization has been in the midst of controversy, what that intimidating word means, and if you should be using periodization in your own training programs.
What is the definition of periodization?
“Periodization is defined as variations in training specificity, intensity, and volume organized in planned periods or cycles to promote long-term training and performance improvements” (NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association 2021). In layman’s terms, it’s basically setting up your training program into specific segments to reach a specific goal. Periodization is often structured with 3 types of cycles known as the macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle.
If you are an athlete:
a macrocycle refers to the entire sports season
A mesocycle refers to a particular training block within that season (e.g. the pre-season)
and a microcycle refers to the shortest training cycle, which is typically a week’s worth of training within the mesocycle.
In popular strength training programs, you may see training structured into blocks or phases such as hypertrophy, strength, and power phases where 4 weeks each are dedicated to these goals. In this example, the phases of hypertrophy, strength, and power are considered the mesocycles. Each individual week of the 4 weeks is considered the microcycles of this plan.
Periodization is used to direct your training towards achieving your specific goals while providing your body with different degrees of stress. Training is also programmed in a way to create hard mesocycles of training where the body is forced to adapt to heavier weights or higher workloads in training. Easier mesocycles or microcycles, which are commonly referred to as a “deload” or active rest, are programmed to facilitate recovery after these hard bouts of training. It is frequently used in the world of athletics, as entire training programs are structured at the macrocycle level all the way down to each microcycle to promote peaking at the most important time in the athlete’s sport, such as a championship event.
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Why the controversy surrounding periodization?
You can perform a quick internet search and find there are many individuals who claim that periodization is dead. In a thought-provoking review paper from Kiely(2017), the author explains that since the theory of periodization first emerged, the science of stress has evolved extensively from its historical roots. Periodization theory continues to refer to the Walter Cannon and Hans Selye models of stress which popularized the ‘fight or flight response’ to help an animal deal with a stressor. Selye’s model was based on the application of stress to rodents and he later said he never considered the application of this model to sports training (Kiely 2017).
Another aspect to consider is that the theory of periodization was developed with the high-performance athlete in mind. An advanced athlete has their life revolve around their training. In a well-periodized model at the professional level, all the training is planned to be cohesive among the sport coach, strength and conditioning professional, athletic trainer, nutritionist, and athlete. What about the average person where training revolves around their life and it isn’t a major priority? After all, people with regular jobs and regular families get sick, go on vacation, and work gets busy. Since the original theory upon which periodization has been built has since evolved, should we throw out the concept of periodization? Since people will end up missing some training sessions and life will sometimes get in the way, should we just stop planning altogether and just show up to “workout”?
Why you should use periodization in your training programs
Despite the science evolving and periodization is based on what appears to be an outdated theory, as a strength and conditioning professional I still believe we should be using periodization in our training programs. However, I don’t believe that we should live or die by what has been written on a piece of paper or a chart in Microsoft Excel as human biology is more complex than a theoretical model of how long it takes to adapt during a mesocycle. Planning each training session down to each individual unique variable such as sets, reps, weight, rest between sets, and exercise used is likely way too advanced and not necessary for the average trainee. However, having a flexible periodized approach that is designed to target a specific goal using blocks of time and alternating variables like intensity and volume will result in more success than having no plan at all.
“If there is one self-limiting tendency among coaches, it is the focus on numerical or set models rather than on underlying principles and programming strategies in the design of training programs” (Stone et al. 2007). I interpret this as saying that coaches should place higher focus on training principles and the underlying goals we are hoping to accomplish, rather than getting caught up with the exact numbers like sets, reps, and percentages used in a training program. The principles which we know to be true and used as a basis to accomplish our goals are progressive overload and the SAID principle. “Progressive overload is defined as progressively placing greater-than-normal demands on the exercising musculature” (NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association 2021). The principle of specificity is summarized by the acronym SAID, which stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands (Morissey, Harman, and Johnson 1995). The SAID principle refers to the idea that the body’s neuromuscular system will adapt to the demands placed on it, no more and no less (Stone et al. 2007).
Training For Longevity
The Concept of Specific Progression
In a properly periodized program, you will find that progressive overload is increasing over time. Depending on your goals, this could mean a few different things. If your goal is to get stronger, weights used during exercise will become heavier. If your goal is to run a marathon, the distances run in training will increase as you get closer to the event. If your goal is to increase the size of your muscles, increasing volume over time is going to have the largest effect on gaining muscle. In each of these examples, variables such as weight, distance run, or volume performed are all increasing over time. This is important to recognize as the first week of a training program should feel easier than the 10th week of your training program. Manipulating variables to increase or decrease over time is the concept of periodization! If you are training for a marathon, are you going to go out and try to run 26.2 miles when you haven’t yet ran 2 miles? Are you going to slowly build over time so your body gets used to running longer distances? A well-designed periodized program sets this up so your body is ready to go when it’s time to run the marathon, and tries to minimize additional stress like injuries along the way.
The SAID principle requires you to train aspects like a position in the range of motion, a specific exercise, or speed of a movement in order to improve and accomplish your training goal. In the example of a powerlifter who needs to prepare for the back squat in competition, the powerlifter will want to practice the range of motion required to reach proper depth. While the front squat and other forms of leg exercises can improve leg strength, the powerlifter will want to train the back squat since that is what is required in competition and more practice with the movement will result in greater skill acquisition. Since powerlifting is a sport designed around how much weight can be lifted, the powerlifter will want to train with heavier loads as he moves closer to the competition to prepare for the heavier weights and slower bar speeds. If the powerlifter only uses light weights and high reps, or moderate loads but faster speeds, he still is not preparing for the exact demands of the sport. A properly designed periodized program may train other movements and other variables outside of the competitive season to allow for active rest, but the variables specific to powerlifting will be present throughout the majority of the plan.
Use RPE for flexible periodization
As previously mentioned, the human body is more complex than what is written on a piece of paper. One of the critiques of periodization is that it did not take into account the person’s subjective perception of the intensity and overall effects of the loading. The strength training plan calls for 2 reps at 90%, but the trainee was up all night the previous night studying for a big exam, and now that 90% could feel more like 100%! Mel Siff recommended a combined objective-subjective approach in which zones of workload intensity are planned in advance, but tactics can be adjusted as necessary based on technique/technical evaluation by the coach as well as performance feedback from the athlete regarding perceived effort and fatigue (Stone et al. 2007).
In research by Helms et al.(2017), the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is considered to be a beneficial tool for prescribing training intensities in powerlifters. In another study from Helms et al.(2018), volume can be effectively autoregulated using RPE as a method to dictate the number of sets performed. Although it may take a trainee some time to learn how to use RPE correctly, I believe it can be useful in the overall design of a periodized training program. Generally, the RPE will increase over the periodized training plan as the trainee begins to challenge themselves more with the concept of progressive overload. RPEs can undulate and change depending on the goals of the microcycle such as if the trainee is preparing to set a PR, a competition, or ready for active rest.
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Using periodization for your goals
What goals do you want to accomplish? This will dictate how you set up your overall training program. In my case as a strength and conditioning coach, I work with individuals who focus on health and body composition. If they have no specific goals or competitions they are working towards, I will still set up their plans with a loosely based periodization model.
For example, most individuals when they start training lack an aerobic base. Literature suggests that aerobic fitness enhances recovery from high-intensity exercise and has a high impact on general overall health (Tomlin & Wenger 2001). I know that my clients will miss sessions due to work or vacations so instead of planning each individual session, I plan their training to be in a block of time that is dedicated to improving their aerobic fitness. I may schedule the training to be focused on this goal for the next 18 sessions. If the client is training with me 3 times per week and does not miss any sessions, it will be 6 weeks dedicated to improving this goal. If the client ends up missing some sessions along the way, I extend the microcycles to fit the planned 18 sessions. We adapt to what life throws our way and still stay on track with the overall periodized training plan. We are flexible in our approach with both the weights and volume used, as well as when the sessions are being performed, to help lead to having the greatest adaptations in our training plans.
You will often see popular strength and conditioning programs train multiple qualities like improving strength and hypertrophy at the same time. In a 4 day training split, you may see 2 days that are dedicated to improving strength with an emphasis on heavier weights and lower reps and 2 days that are dedicated to hypertrophy with an emphasis on lighter or moderate loads, but performed with more reps. This is an example of a non-linear periodized program, where the loads and intensities are varied across the training days to deliver different results. This type of periodized program may benefit those who are looking to improve in multiple areas at the same time.
While periodization can be confusing and controversial, it doesn’t have to be. It should be a part of a well-designed training plan by using time and training variables to create a better response in adaptations and goals of training. Including concepts such as progressive overload and the SAID principle help to create a better-periodized plan, while RPE can help dictate the weights and volume used depending on the person’s subjective experience. If you miss a few sessions, allow yourself the time to build back up again without throwing out the entire program. Consistency is what matters most in training over time.
Learn How To Train For Longevity
Fitness is not about using such a high intensity that you are unable to get off the floor afterward. We are all about hard work, however, we want to make sure you are able to workout across the lifespan both safely and effectively. The number one reason why people no longer participate in an exercise program is due to injury, let’s prove that statistic incorrect by using a fitness program with the intended goals of getting you in shape while avoiding injury! To do so, the first 4 weeks is meant to load your tissues to create a movement base this ready to take on the next 8 weeks. Let’s also make sure that we are not just addressing the physical you but are helping you become healthier by giving you methods to decrease your internal load via positive self-talk and gratitude practices.
NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association. (2021). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (Fourth ed.). Human Kinetics.
Kiely, J. (2017). Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Medicine, 48(4), 753–764. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y
Stone, M. H., Stone, M., & Sands, W. A. (2007). Principles and Practice of Resistance Training (First ed.). Human Kinetics.
Morissey, M. C., Harman, E. A., & Johnson, M. J. (1995). Resistance training modes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 27(5), 648-660. https://doi.org/10.1249/00005768-199505000-00006
Helms, E. R., Storey, A., Cross, M. R., Brown, S. R., Lenetsky, S., Ramsay, H., Dillen, C., & Zourdos, M. C. (2017). RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(2), 292–297. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001517
Helms, E. R., Cross, M. R., Brown, S. R., Storey, A., Cronin, J., & Zourdos, M. C. (2018). Rating of Perceived Exertion as a Method of Volume Autoregulation Within a Periodized Program. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(6), 1627–1636. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002032
Tomlin, D. L., & Wenger, H. A. (2001). The Relationship Between Aerobic Fitness and Recovery from High Intensity Intermittent Exercise. Sports Medicine, 31(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200131010-00001
About The Author
Ryan Nosak, MS, CSCS, SCCC
[P]rehab Writer & Content Creator
Ryan was born and raised in Throop, Pennsylvania and he has worked in the world of fitness since he was 15 years old. Ryan realized he had a deep affinity for strength training and how it can alter the human mind, body, and spirit. He began his coaching career in high school by coaching his friends through strength training sessions, which inspired him to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.
Ryan spent 10 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach with stops along the way at Penn State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Robert Morris, Charlotte, and DePaul. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and operates his own training practice, RyNo Strength, out of Studio DelCorpo in Chicago, IL. He specializes in fat loss, body composition, strength, and sports performance training programs.
Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from Penn State and a Master’s in Sport Management from Western Carolina University. In his free time, Ryan enjoys training for bodybuilding, eating at the amazing restaurants in Chicago, and spending time with his wife and dog.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.