Periodization Considerations for the Physique Athlete
Written by: Jason Tremblay, President of The Strength Guys Inc.
Editing by: Andrew Vigotsky, Chief Research Officer at The Strength Guys Inc.
Periodization is one of the most organic and practical components of training theory, which is what makes it so fascinating to study and so fun to experiment with. It isn’t a far cry to suggest that periodization isn’t a very popular art form in the realms of bodybuilding, figure, fitness, and bikini competition. With experts now pushing undulating and block forms of periodization into the competitive scene, it appears that the art form is finally catching on – and thank goodness for that. What we will be discussing today is not a formal outline for how bodybuilding periodization should be formed, rather, this is a knowledge base and a foundation that will enable you to plan your training and sequence it in a more intelligent manner, therefore allowing you to avoid plateaus and become a better competitor.
Before we dig into the sequencing of bodybuilding periodization, there is some general terminology with which you should be familiar.
- Microcycle: A typical microcycle would be 1 week of training sessions.
- Mesocycle: A mesocycle is a group of microcycles, often combined into 4-6 week periods and referred to as a “training block”. (Issurin V. , Principles and basics of advanced training of athletes, 2008)
- Macrocycle: A macrocycle is a group of mesocycles, the macrocycle can last anywhere from 4 months to a year depending on the level of sport and the goals of the athlete.
For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on sequencing microcycles to form mesocycles, sequencing mesocycles to accumulate, and building off of physiological adaptations that a physique athlete may find very helpful. Let’s get started…
Program Design Basics
As a coach, one of the most common errors that I see is the “indefinite” program. There’s a start date, but there is no end date. This is an error that more experienced athletes know how to navigate with cybernetic and autoregulatory forms of periodization, but for the athlete who isn’t well versed in periodization – this error has a tendency to fly under the radar and cause unwanted training plateaus.
One of the most important components of program design is having a start date, having an end date, and knowing which adaptations you would like to achieve by that end date.
This thought process dictates everything that we do from exercise selection to training frequency, rest intervals, and cumulative program volume.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Training Adaptations
In his 2010 review, acclaimed expert in the field of training periodization, Vladimir Issurin, lists a concentrated focus on obtaining training adaptations as one of his 5 key factors affecting the duration of short-term training residual adaptations.9 What scientists have noticed is that longer term training adaptations will remain at a heightened level for a given period after training cessation. Interestingly enough, this period is variable depending on the type of adaptation achieved. Abilities associated with pronounced morphological and biochemical changes, such as muscle strength and aerobic endurance, have longer lasting effects than anaerobic-alactic or glycolytic abilities developed from training.3,9
Now, if we are using a traditional form of periodization where we are focusing on a broad variety of abilities at once, we don’t run the risk of de-training adaptations and, as a result, we don’t have to worry about all of this. However, if we are using block periodization, where we are only focusing on a select number of adaptations in each training phase – the risk of detraining becomes much more prominent. So we have achieved the physiological adaptations that we want, now this is where intelligent sequencing comes in
Maintaining Beneficial Training Adaptations
The demands of physique competition state that muscularity, symmetry, conditioning, and overall presentation dictate the competitive outcome.7 Breaking this down further, our main objective is hypertrophy – so training for hypertrophy year round would be our best option, right? Wrong.
Strength, Endurance, Power, and Hypertrophy are all webbed together. We can’t have one without the other.1 Furthermore, it’s recommended that a wide variety of rep ranges are utilized for hypertrophy training, thus we must train in each spectrum throughout the annual plan to maximize resulting adaptations.
If we know that adaptations, such as hypertrophy and muscular strength, are longer lasting than shorter-term glycolytic training adaptations, we have our basis to begin creating a longer-term mesocycle sequencing plan.
The Equation for Avoiding Plateaus
Progressive overload is essential to any training adaptation, and hypertrophy is no different.1
When the weight on the bar is going up and we’re training in a rep range of 6-12, it’s likely that we are making progress and improving muscular size as well.
The catch 22 of hypertrophy training is that working with percentages that frequently drop below 60% of the 1RM may not necessarily be optimal for strength gains.5 Therefore, strength gains aren’t as consistent with higher reps, and now we have a problem. Surprisingly, the solution is quite simple. Since strength adaptations are relatively long lasting, why don’t we perform a 4-week maximum strength program once every 4 months? This will allow you to add weight to the important bodybuilding lifts during low rep ranges, but there will also be a carry over into hypertrophy and endurance rep ranges as well.
Here is Step #1 of our equation for avoiding plateaus, don’t be exclusive with your hypertrophy training – take the time to get stronger!
What is Step #2? Alright, so now we are able to add weight to the bar – this is great. But there is one major problem… We can’t keep the weight on the bar for very long before the weights must be stripped so that we can continue to hit our designated number of reps per set. This poses the need for our shorter term glycolytic adaptations, these adaptations are going to help us buffer fatigue and recover in between each set more quickly – therefore allowing us to keep the weight on the bar for longer periods of time before having to drop.
Step #2 of our equation for avoiding plateaus is to incorporate muscular endurance training. The issue with muscular endurance training is that these adaptations are shorter lived, and therefore it may be wise to incorporate lengthier phases of endurance training, or more endurance phases into our program rotation. By keeping an elevated lactate threshold and enhanced fatigue buffering capabilities, we should have a nice carry over effect into our 6-12 rep range.
What about Step #3, what about Power? We have 2 different fiber types, slow and fast twitch. To go even further, our fast twitch fibers can be classified as either Type IIX or Type IIB.11 Fast twitch fibers show a greater capacity for hypertrophy than slow twitch fibers, therefore it may be wise to incorporate faster repetition training to maximize this capacity.4 Maximal speed is regarded as a short lasting adaptation, therefore if we wish to keep our bar speed up, we must train with fast bar speed frequently.8 This will have a nice carry over effect to the amount of weight we are able to lift, the amount of work we are able to perform in a condensed amount of time, and ultimately will increase the efficiency of our training.
Hold on a minute, I know what you’re thinking… Aren’t bodybuilders supposed to train with slow tempos? Well, not quite. Although utilizing tempo training may produce comparative gains in hypertrophy to normal tempo training, we must also consider how using less weight for cadence affects our strength gains.6 As we discussed earlier, our strength gains have a nice carry over effect to hypertrophy, and by connecting the dots together, one could surmise that it would be wise to train with faster concentrics and disregard tempo training to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
Step #3 of our equation is to put the puzzle pieces together. Power, Endurance and Strength all have a carry over effect into hypertrophy. Due to the short lasting nature of speed adaptations, we must not concern ourselves with slow tempo training.8 Incorporate power training into your annual training plan and be sure to train with quick concentric rep speeds when you are not in a power phase.
Tying the Equation Together – The Practical Components
Incorporating strength, power, hypertrophy, and endurance training is a wise strategy, but in order to truly inch closer to optimal, we must consider the lasting residuals of these adaptations. With endurance and power components being short-lasting, one could surmise that starting each 4 phase macrocycle off with a power-endurance phase would be wise. To execute this concept, simply up reps into the 15-20 range, train with quick velocities, and keep volume high.2
After this power-endurance phase, it’s time to test out our increased fatigue buffering capabilities with some hypertrophy training. Schoenfeld (2010), suggests that with hypertrophy as the primary goal of training, our repetitions should take place in between the 6-12 range. Keep rest times below 2 minutes, 6-12 reps per set, high volume, plenty of exercise variety, and plenty of frequency. 2,12
After a 4-6 week hypertrophy block , perhaps our strength has begun to stagnate. Now let’s run a strength program. Lower reps into the 1-5 range, start training over 80% of your 1RM, increase rest intervals to 2-5 minutes, and start adding weight to the main exercises that create the foundation of your hypertrophy routine.2 Once completed, our objective is to be able to transition back into hypertrophy while using more load.
My recommendation would be to follow the strength program up with a 1-2 week deload period, and then transition into another hypertrophy program.
Our aims of this hypothetical macrocycle layout are to increase fatigue buffering capabilities, take advantage of those enhanced capabilities in hypertrophy phase 2, and then increase max strength in phase 3 so that we can add more weight to the bar in phase 4.
Training throughout a wide variety of intensity ranges is what we know to be optimal for hypertrophy, take advantage of it!
Give this sequencing a try, and if you have any questions, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or me personally at Jason@thestrengthguys.com. If you’re interested in seeing more from our group, please follow us on social media.
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- Antonio, J., & Gonyea, W. (1985). Progressive stretch overload of skeletal muscle results in hypertrophy before hyperplasia. Journal of Applied Physiology , 1263-1271.
- Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (Vol. III). Champaign, Illinois, USA: Human Kinetics.
- Counsilman, B., & Counsilman, J. (1991). The Residual Effects of Training. J Swm Res , 5-12.
- Fry, A. (2004). The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Med , 663-679.
- Gonzalez-Badillo, J., Gorostiaga, E., Arellano, R., & Izquierdo, M. (2005). Moderate resistance training volume produces more favorable strength gains than high or low volumes during a short-term training cycle. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 689-697.
- Hatfield, D., Kraemer, W., Spiering, K., Volek, J., Shimano, T., Spreuwenberg, L., et al. (2006). The impact of velocity of movement on performance factors in resistance exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research .
- International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. (2014). International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Rules. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness: http://www.ifbb.com/rules
- Issurin, V. (2007). A modern approach to high-performance training: the Block Composition concept. Pyschology of Sport Training , 216-234.
- Issurin, V. (2010). New Horizons for the Methodology and Physiology of Training Periodization. Sports Med , 189=206.
- Issurin, V. (2008). Principles and basics of advanced training of athletes. Muskegon, MI: Ultimate Althetes Concepts.
- McArdle, D., Katch, F., & Katch, V. Exercise Physiology. Baltimore, MD, USA: Wolters Kluwer Health.
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research .
- Zatsiorsky, V., & Kraemer, W. (1995). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics.