Training Periodization

Training periodization is a bit difficult for most people to grasp.

In essence, the concept is relatively simple. But, because there are some misconceptions around it, many people feel confused as to what the term means and what it involves.

To help clear things up for you, we’ve put together this post. Today, we’ll go over what periodization is, the primary misunderstanding of it, and the different types.

Let’s dig in.

What Is Training Periodization?

In the most basic sense, training periodization refers to our long-term programming. More specifically, periodization refers to how we choose to expose the body to training stress over time.

In other words, periodization is about our planning of training variables over the long term, which typically involves periods of varying types and amounts of training. 

For example, if you train with moderate volume for three months and then increase the volume for the following three months, this is one type of training periodization. Here, the primary difference is the amount of work you do.

A Big Misconception About Training Periodization

As a whole, our training is the result of numerous variables that work together: training volume, frequency, intensity, effort, exercise selection, and more. Yet, when it comes to training periodization, many people talk about it as if these factors are mutually exclusive.

For example, undulation (which we’ll look at below) is one major way to categorize periodization, and many people like to say things like, “This is an undulated program.” The flaw with this kind of thinking is that we label programs and plans as something, but we don’t consider one crucial fact:

Almost every training plan in existence uses a combination of different elements to become what it is. In other words, no single training plan is ‘linear’ or ‘undulated.’ Each program includes elements of different periodization schemes because there is no way around that. In the following points, we’ll review the three primary ways in which periodization is defined, and we’ll share some examples for you to see what that is the case.

With that out of the way, let’s now discuss the three primary ways a plan can be periodized.

Linear Periodization

Linear periodization refers to a gradual improvement in performance over time. Typically, this is achieved by lifting a heavier weight or doing more repetitions with the same weight. How quickly you can progress mostly depends on your training status and ability to recover from training. The goal is to advance as fast as possible without sacrificing form. 

For example, a complete beginner might be able to see increases in weight and/or reps every week. An intermediate lifter might see these improvements every month. An advanced trainee might have to hit the weights regularly for months to see further improvements.

For example:

Week 1

Monday: 40 kg for 5x5

Wednesday: 47.5 kg for 4x3

Friday: 55 kg for 4x2

Week 2

Monday: 42.5 kg for 5x5

Wednesday: 50 kg for 4x3

Friday: 57.5 kg for 4x2

Week 3

Monday: 45 kg for 5x5

Wednesday: 52.5 kg for 4x3

Friday: 60 kg for 4x2

And so on. But, here is the thing:

This is not a purely linear periodization; it also has elements of daily undulation. You’re lifting one weight on Monday, another on Wednesday, and a third on Friday. Also, assuming that you’re not only doing one exercise per workout, you probably include some accessories and isolation exercises.

If you change those movements every so often, you now have elements of conjugate periodization.

As you can see, you might have set out to use linear periodization, but the other two types inevitably also come into play. Without them, your training would be:

  1. Incredibly bland and tasteless;
  2. Incredibly challenging to keep up because you will eventually find yourself having to use ridiculous amounts of weights;

As a whole, linear periodization is excellent, especially for beginners, and it works great in the long run. The downside is that progress becomes slower as you become more advanced, which can be disheartening for some lifters.

Undulated Periodization

Undulated periodization refers to the manipulation of weight, reps, and sets on a daily and weekly basis. The idea is, by doing that, you can build more strength and work toward more than one goal at a time - for example, strength, power, and muscle gain.

Here is how it might look like:

Daily undulated periodization

Monday - 75% of 1 RM at 5x5

Wednesday - 80% of 1 RM at 5x4

Friday - 85% of 1RM at 4x3

Weekly undulated periodization

Week 1 - 75% of 1 RM at 5x5

Week 2 - 80% of 1 RM at 5x4

Week 3 - 85% of 1RM at 4x3

But again:

Even if you want to base your training around undulation principles, you will also have to involve linear and conjugate periodization. For example, if you do more work over time, this will involve linear periodization. Suppose you change exercises or include variations of your main movements (e.g., high-bar back squat vs. low-bar squat with a belt). In that case, you will inevitably have elements of conjugate periodization.

Conjugate Periodization

Similar to undulation, conjugate periodization is an inevitable part of training. Wondering whether you should include it into your programming is like wondering whether you should go to the gym if you want results - there is no question about it.

Also, similar to undulation, conjugate programming should be used to some extent, but we shouldn’t go overboard. According to most research, doing multiple exercises for the lower body does a better job of building strength and muscle mass than squatting alone. But this doesn’t mean that we should do ten different lower body exercises to maximize the effects.

Like the other two types of periodization, conjugation can also work on different time scales. For example, you can do it weekly or mesocycle to mesocycle.

As far as benefits and drawbacks go, conjugation is crucial for long-term progress because it allows us to vary the training stimulus and keep things fresh and exciting. While it’s entirely possible to do three exercises for ten years and build a solid base, having a more varied approach to your training will likely yield better results. It will also keep overuse injuries at bay and keep your training more enjoyable.