Periodization is a basic concept in all sports. Professional athletes need to divide their training into several phases: this is usually general physical preparation, sports-specific preparation which is peaking before a major competition and of course a period of resting.
The longest period of training is called MACROCYCLE. It is most often one year but some athletes can be training for bi-annual competitions and in such case their macrocycle would be two years. Olympic athletes consider the whole 4-year period between Olympic Games as one long macrocycle.
A macrocycle consists of several shorter periods or MESOCYCLES. One mesocycle cas last as little as 2 weeks and as long as 4 months, depending on the specific sport.
Mesoclycle is in turn divided into MICROCYCLES. A microcycle is most often 1 week – for purely practical reasons. But if your training plan is strictly 4 days training and 1 day rest and you choose to ignore weekends then your microcycle will be 5 days.
Finally, every microcycle consists of TRAINING UNITS. Most of us will probably have 1 training unit a day (the daily workout) but some pro athletes can have up to 3 workouts a day.
The macrocycle of a typical pro bodybuilder consists of bulking phase, cutting phase peaking for Mr. Olympia or other competition and some period of rest.
Is periodization for amateur athletes too?
Although most amateur bodybuilders usually ignore periodization, it has several distinctive advantages that just cannot be ignored:
- Athletes using periodization achieve better results in strength and body composition. This was proven by several scientific studies.
- Alternating between periods of heavy training and light-to-medium training. This approach is essential for joint health.
- Avoiding endless routine with no change in sight. The psychological impact of long routine on training results shouldn’t be underestimated.
- Deconditioning of CNS (Central Nervous System). You can’t increase the load forever. But without gradually increasing the resistance load your results will be smaller. The period of rest between macrocycles will enable CNS to “forget” the load and you can start with lower weights again.
- Aerobic training. For some bodybuilders (especially for hardgainers) it is not the best idea to include aerobic training in every macrocycle. They can alternate between bulking macrocycles without aerobic training and lighter macrocycles with some cardio included.
The common misconceptions
Before you start planning your own macrocycle, you need to learn something about common approaches to periodization in bodybuilding.
The problem is that most authors still work with old, non-scientific ideas when offering their training plans. What do I mean by non-scientific? These are surely well-meant plans but they are only based on personal experience and not on scientific research.
The common approach by a scientist is as follows:
- Gather information and experience
- Create a working hypothesis
- Try to confirm (or invalidate) the hypothesis by trials and research
Unfortunately we are witnessing a different trend in the bodybuilding community:
- Gather information and experience
- Create a working hypothesis
- Give it a catchy name, say to everyone that this is the ultimate muscle-building method and make as much money on it as possible
Why do I say this in article on periodization? Because when surfing the web, you will read many periodization programs for bodybuilders based on flawed theories.
So before we start to build our own macrocycle, let’s refresh our knowledge about muscle and strength building:
a) Low reps and high resistance (over 75 or 80% of 1RM) are best for power but they will also build muscles. Research shows that 8-10 reps are not superior to 3-5 reps for muscle building.
b) Lower weights (even 30% 1RM) repeated to failure will stimulate muscle growth just as well as higher resistance would, although it will do less for strength development. In this case it is pointless to prescribe a specific number of reps. Muscle growth will be stimulated by muscle exhaustion so failure is the aim.
c) Slow movement (like 3 seconds contraction and 3 seconds relaxation) will ultimately deprive the muscle of oxygen and increase the anabolic stimulation in a mechanism which is probably similar to reps to failure.
d) Ideal breaks between the sets are 2-3 minutes. We are not aware of any credible research showing that shorter or longer breaks have any advantages.
The General Adaptation Syndrome
Periodization in sports is largely based on the theory of body response to stress, created by the Hungarian-Canadian scientist Hans (Janos) Selye (1907-1982).
Selye coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) which can be broadly described as 3 phases of reaction to any kind of stress, whether physical or psychological:
- Alarm reaction. This is the “fight or flight” response accompanied by release of nutrients for muscular action but also by release of some catabolic hormones (in our case, resistance exercise is the stress factor).
- Stage of resistance. Body adapts to stress – in our case by building new muscle tissue and increasing strength.
- Stage of exhaustion. If stress lasts too long, the body will lose its ability to adapt and the adaptation mechanisms break down. In reaction to psychological stress, stage of exhaustion can include high blood pressure and myocardial infarction or total loss of immunity. In sports, it will mean overtraining, catabolic processes and injuries.
In bodybuilding and other sports we subject our body to stress and we expect it to adapt by increasing strength and improving body composition. We are deliberately inducing the stage of resistance but we also try to avoid the stage of exhaustion. This is best done by periodization.
Common forms of periodization in bodybuilding
Periodization in bodybuilding training usually involves manipulation with training volume and training intensity. The basic approach is to start with high volume and low intensity and gradually decrease the volume while increasing intensity.
Practically it means starting with high repetitions and low weights and decreasing the number of reps while increasing the weight.
Some strength athletes choose to increase the weight to the point of temporary overtraining (correctly called overreaching) and then return to lower weights.
There are several similar methods based on this form of periodization.
Typically, one would start with 10-12 reps and appropriate weight (let’s say 60% 1RM). The number of reps would gradually decrease to 1-3 and weights would increase towards 95% 1RM. Then, a transitional phase would follow with some 30% 1RM and high reps (13-20).
Before implementing a periodization plan aimed at muscle growth you should realize 2 important facts:
- Most articles on periodization you will find in bodybuilding magazines and websites are actually powerlifting programs. They are aimed at maximum strength gains, not muscle mass increases.
- Most periodization programs are working with old dogmas (more reps with less weight is for muscle growth, less reps with higher % of 1RM are for strength) and do not implement the new findings on muscle growth.
In part 2 of this series I will introduce you to the most popular powerlifting periodization plans. We will discuss their strengths and weaknesses and their usefulness in bodybuilding training. In part 3 we will try to create an effective bodybuilding periodization plan based on latest scientific data.