What is Periodisation?

So what is periodisation? Periodisation is a systematic method of progressive cycling aimed at long term progress in both powerlifting and weightlifting circles.

It is proven to be the most effective way to gain strength and muscular size.

A beautiful gym in central London, the perfect place to employ periodised training

How does Periodisation work?

The long-term cyclical structuring of your training allows you to plan for the immediacy, short-term and long-term. Periodisation is sport specific and is designed to help athletes peak at the right time.

Periodisation ensures that an athlete works in stages, managing fatigue and building a solid base for long-term improvements, including:

  • An Accumulation Phase: Where you build a strong base with high(er) volume workouts and the inclusion of GPP or hypertrophy
  • An Intermediate Phase: Where the specificity of your training begins to increase and the volume decreases slightly
  • A Peaking Phase: As specific as possible, typically geared towards lifting the most weight, running the fastest or jumping the highest

These phases are also known as micro, meso and macro cycles and proper use of them enables the athlete to peak in their performance for upcoming meets.

Diagram showing how microcycles flow in to form a mesocycle, that together create a macrocycle
Note how all microcycles flow in to form a mesocycle, that together create a macrocycle

Micro Cycle

A micro cycle, as the name suggests, is a shorter period of time that can refer to a specific workout or a week of workouts.

Generally speaking 3-6 micro cycles come together to form a meso cycle. An example of a micro-cycle could be a speed training block within the conjugate method of periodisation.

When this is combined with strength and hypertrophy blocks, it creates a complete meso cycle.

Meso Cycle

A meso cycle is slightly longer term and usually refers to a time period of 3-8 weeks. It’s common to perform a deload at the end of a meso cycle to give the body proper time to recover.

This helps prevent overtraining and working too far beyond their MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume).

For example, you may run a week of speed training, a week of power work and then a week of hypertrophy, followed by a deload. This would be a 3 week meso cycle plus a week for deloading.

Macro Cycle

Macro cycles require more context. Clearly they’re the longest serving cycle within ‘smart-training,’ and they allow for a more holistic view of it.

Say you have 2 meets coming up in the year. You can breakdown the 52 weeks and work backwards to establish when you need to peak and plan your micro and meso cycles around that.

If you were an Olympic athlete it becomes much trickier as you want to peak in 4 year periods.

Micro, meso and macro cycle approach of an Olympic athlete's raining
A more accurate representation of an Olympic athlete’s approach to training

Clearly you’ll compete in other events around that, but you need to be in peak physical condition when it rolls round. Without periodised training (or steroids), this wouldn’t be possible.

General Adaptation Syndrome (and Periodisation)

Periodisation is based on Hans Selye’s model of General Adaptation Syndrome, developed in the 1930’s, that was designed to demonstrate the body’s efficiency at restoring itself to balance or homeostasis.

His work was built on by Russian sports training theorists in the 60’s and they developed it to show how athletic performance is improved with the correct application of stresses.

It should be noted that all of these athletes were on PEDs, but the importance of recovery and undulation were elevated based on Selye’s research.

How does General Adaptation Syndrome work?

Essentially there are three stages to Selye’s model:

  1. Alarm Stage: The body’s initial response to stress (in this case training) and the release of the fight or flight hormone, perfected by evolution.
  2. Resistance Stage: The Adaptation Stage that occurs if the stress continues. For periodisation to be effective, the body must maintain this phase until overreaching, followed by a deload. This ensures continued progress as the athlete performs in stage of recoverable fatigue. Remember, smart training is hard training.
  3. Exhaustion Stage: When long-term stress isn’t removed and fatigue sets in. This increases stress and inhibits progress.

Periodisation for Bodybuilding

Within bodybuilding circles periodisation is slightly different. For a start absolutely nobody cares about natural bodybuilding. If you’re an ‘assisted’ bodybuilder, then your end goal isn’t to be strong, it’s to be in the best possible shape.

So the periodised training cycle is geared (excusing the pun) towards you being in the best possible shape. So volume and intensity are still key, but weight lifted isn’t relevant. They’re just trying to stimulate hypertrophy.

Periodisation for Powerlifting and Weightlifting

Whereas powerlifters and weightlifters have to peak at the right time in order to hit the best possible numbers at competition. This is where specificity, volume and intensity have to be properly managed in a periodised program.

As you get closer to your end goal:

  • Weightlifting meet
  • Start of the football season
  • Marathon

Your training must become more specific, intense and the volume must be managed to avoid overtraining. The weight(s) get heavier, the intensity gets higher and the volume typically decreases. You would then perform a deload pre-competition.

Powerlifter in a red vest deadlifting towards the end of his training cycle with greater specificity and weight
Powerlifter towards the end of his training cycle lifting with greater specificity and weight

So what is Specificity, Intensity and Volume and why are they important?

Specificity: The principle of specificity comes into play when an athlete is looking to excel at their craft. The more specific a lift or exercise is to a long-term goal, the higher the level of specificity.

Intensity: The simple definition of intensity is how hard the exercise is. You may have also used or heard of RPE training, or rate of physical exertion. The higher the RPE (graded out of 10), the higher the intensity.

Volume: Volume simply refers to how much work you do. How many reps and sets combine to equal x amount of weight or miles covered over a micro and meso cycle.

Working in smaller blocks of time allows the athlete to set specific targets and priorities centred around specificity, intensity and volume.

All of these variations are crucial to maximising gains and performance. The very nature of periodisation demands an increase in both intensity and volume as time progresses.

Volume and intensity cause growth and fatigue. Smart-training requires an increase in these over time for progress to be made.

For example, if in week 1 your strength training block for squats requires a 5×6 at 80% of your 1RM at 120kg. By week 4 your Strength block may have increased to a 4×4 at 87.5% of your 1RM, as demonstrated in the below table:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Exercises Beltless Back Squat – High Bar Beltless Back Squat – High Bar Back Squat – High Bar Back Squat – Low Bar
RM % 80% 82.5% 85% 87.5%
Set(Rep) 5(6) 5(5) 5(5) 4(4)

This slight increase in volume will build strength both in this meso cycle and in the long-term. Progressions of both volume and intensity in individual meso cycles for beginner to intermediate athletes is critical to success.

Specificity however cannot be ‘increased,’ but the athlete’s training must become more specific to the required lift as time progresses.

This is demonstrated in the above table. The meso cycle in question increases in specificity as time goes one. The reps and overall volume get lower, whereas the weight increases and the exercise gets closer to your competition lift.

If your competition squat is a low bar, belted squat, you might start your cycle in the accumulation phase by performing a high bar belt-less squat for reps.

As the meso cycle progresses the athlete gets closer and closer to performing a 1 rep max in the favoured low-bar, belted position.

Now Read: Powerlifting Belts – do you need one?

The 3 Types of Periodisation 

What is Linear Periodisation?

Linear Periodisation is the classic form of Periodisation. The format is especially suitable for beginners as it includes a hypertrophy block, a strength block, a power block and a deload in that order.

Each meso cycle has a goal and given the ease with which beginners progress, this is simple to follow and effective.

However the qualities gained in each phase don’t necessarily carryover to the next and it lacks in speed work and variation within specificity.

What is Daily Undulating Periodisation?

DUP (Daily Undulating Periodisation) is high frequency training (3-5 times per week) that employs a changing weight, intensity and load on a daily basis.

The focus will only be on one compound movement and one variation of that movement every cycle. Having the ability to alternate daily between loads and intensities (speed, power and strength) prevents your CNS from becoming fried.

DUP is a highly proficient method of Periodisation that improves technique and reduces muscle fatigue, allowing you to overreach with regards to your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume).

However the lack of accessory work and focus on one movement doesn’t allow the athlete to improve upon weak points.

What is Conjugate Periodisation😕

The Conjugate method attempts to rectify the ‘mistakes’ in Linear Periodisation and aims to develop qualities together that have a better carryover. Below is a dynamic effort day example from my training in 2017.

The Westside method is a classic example of this and employs both speed work and max effort training of the same lift in a micro cycle, swapping the lift out every 1-3 weeks.

This allows the athlete to improve their weak points and work with more variants of the lift. Typically conjugate blocks are run in 4 week cycles, 3 on, 1 off so you never need an extended break.

By improving your weak points, you mitigate the risk of overtraining as the loads you’re using aren’t near your conventional 1RM.

What type of Periodisation should I choose?

Now you may be wondering what the best choice of periodisation would be for your own training. There are too many variables to accurately assess this without first hand insight on the athlete, but a good starting point is to begin with a linear periodisation model.

Beginner athletes make gains on a session-by-session basis and a linear model is simple to follow, reinforces technique and sets specific goals for each meso cycle.

As a beginner athlete, I would recommend repeating this style of training until exhaustion, before moving in to a form of undulating periodisation.

As an intermediate athlete, a form of undulating periodisation would be more suited to your body. A model that allows more self-regulation and isn’t so mentally or physically taxing every day.

I think that powerlifting is the most mentally taxing sport I have ever done, but that’s a personal opinion.

Each week will incorporate speed work, power and hypertrophy in one format or another. The undulating model accounts for recovery, without allowing the body to fully adapt to the stresses of training. Absolutely crucial for continued growth and progress.

Programming in an undulating style enables the athlete to become well trained and hone their weak points, with a better week-by-week carryover than a linear model. Ideal for those not making beginner gains.

Diagram of Intermediate undulating periodisation programming 8 week program example
Intermediate undulating periodisation programming 8 week program example

The above is an example of an intermediate undulating periodisation programme; intensity on the vertical axis and time (denoted in weeks) along the horizontal axis.

It should be noted however that any ‘smart’ periodised training programme will incorporate some form of each type of periodisation.

It’s important to not just think of periodisation in these structured constructs, but to employ elements of each one to ensure you progress regularly.

This includes improving your weak points and employing speed, strength and power work that has consistent carryover.

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