Periodization For Bodybuilders!

Are you interested in long term results and effectiveness in your training? Then you better have at least a basic understanding of 'periodization'.

Are you interested in long term results and effectiveness in your training? Then you better have at least a basic understanding of "periodization." This 2 part article will give you the basics and then some on one of the hottest debated topics in strength training for sport as well as bodybuilding. Hang on tight; it's going to be a wild ride!

What Is Periodization?

In basic English, periodization is simply the organization and planning of training. In sport, this planning is usually based upon achieving maximum physical abilities (strength, speed, power, etc..) for a given competition or period of competitions. In bodybuilding, the training might be organized around a specific bodybuilding contest.

Most bodybuilders actually plan or instinctively "periodize" their training in line with specific goals anyway (lose body fat, bring up a lagging body part, etc ). In general, if you have a specific goal for a period of time, then essentially you are using periodization. Let's take a look at where this concept originated but first, here's a list of the common terms for the different stages and components of modern periodization:

  • Training unit: Refers to the actual "daily" workout
  • Microcycle: Usually refers to a week of training
  • Mesocycle: Usually refers to a period lasting 2-4 months
  • Macrocycle: The largest unit of time lasting anywhere form 1 to 4 years (Olympic cycle)

To the athlete or sportsman this type of terminology might serve useful. However, for the average bodybuilder and physique competitor these terms are not used much and might serve as a source of confusion for some. Therefore a will not use them in this article.

Where Did Periodization Come From?

In reality, periodization, has been around since the ancient Greeks in their preparation for the Olympic games.

1. In fact, many ancient civilizations used forms of organized training to physically and mentally prepare their armies for battle. However, the modern and popularized approach to periodization was developed by Russian sports scientist Leo Matveyev.

2. Matveyev's basic premise with periodization was that training(for sport) should begin with a general physical preparation phase(GPP) where the training intensity is kept low and the volume is kept high.

This in turn would help to develop some basic hypertrophy, strengthen ligaments, tendons, other connective tissues, and basically build a "base" from which further training could take place. Think of the GPP phase as a foundation of a house; the larger the foundation, the bigger the house.

As the training continued, intensity would gradually rise to become more sport specific while the volume would be reduced. Also, more time would be spent in actual "practice" of the specific sport so less overall volume of supplementary resistance training would be necessary. The trend in classical periodization is basically to go from general conditioning activities and progress to more specific physical preparation (SPP) activities for the sport. A common example of the classical approach to periodization is shown below. It should be noted that there are many different types of periodization schemes to follow. The following is a popular version or what is know as the "western" or "linear" approach to periodization.

Phase 1: GPP/Hypertrophy Phase

Length Of Phase Sets Reps Load (%1RM) Rest Interval (between sets)
4-6 Weeks 4-5 10-20 50-65% 1-2 Minutes

Phase 2: Strength Phase

Length Of Phase Sets Reps Load (%1RM) Rest Interval (between sets)
4-5 Weeks 4-5 4-6 75-85% 3-4 Minutes

Phase 3: Power Phase

Length Of Phase Sets Reps Load (%1RM) Rest Interval (between sets)
3-4 Weeks 3 3 85-95% 4-5 Minutes

Phase 4: Peaking Phase

Length Of Phase Sets Reps Load (%1RM) Rest Interval (between sets)
2-3 Weeks 2-3 1-3 95-100% 5-7 Minutes

Phase 5: Active Rest Or Transition Phase

Length Of Phase Sets Reps Load (%1RM) Rest Interval (between sets)
2-4 Weeks 1-2 10-15 50% 1-2 Minutes


While on paper, this may appear to be an example of a well designed training program it has some serious drawbacks.

After the initial hypertrophy phase, the muscle mass built is not adequately maintained by the heavier weight and lower volume of training. There is much research which shows that long term hypertrophy is a function of the volume of training. So, if one is progressing to heavier weights but the volume is reducing, it will not be as easy to maintain the mass gained in the previous phase.

After going through a cycle of maximum strength work, it may be several months before heavier loads are lifted again. Therefore, maximum strength has to be partially redeveloped since there is no guarantee that increased muscle bulk from the hypertrophy phase will make you stronger. Contrary to popular belief, increased muscle size does not equate with increased strength.

All one has to do is look at Olympic weightlifters and notice how much stronger they are pound for pound than the average bodybuilder. In fact, some of the biggest bodybuilders are actually quite weak for there size. If they were to work on their strength for a while it might help them overcome size plateaus.

Basically, each time through the cycle, muscle mass and strength are either being built or lost but almost never simultaneously maintained which leads us to our next question: Why not maintain some level of strength and hypertrophy training all year long? That way, you don't have to keep reestablishing your hypertrophy and strength over and over again.

Modern Periodization

All this discussion now leads us to modern periodization cycles which are drastically different from the linear model shown above. Probably one of the best examples of how to scientifically design an effective training program is the training of the Westside Barbell Power lifters led by innovative power lifters Louie Simmons and Dave Tate.

Louie and Dave have used science to effectively design a system of training that if followed, will almost guarantee improvements in strength as well as size. Now while their training is focused around the sport of power lifting and the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted in three lifts (bench, deadlift and squat), it does have some application to bodybuilding and for those looking to add some serious mass!

With the modern approach to periodization elements from all the required methods of lifting for that specific athlete or bodybuilder are maintained all year round and it is only the volumes of each that are changed based upon the athlete/bodybuilder's short and long-term goals. The major recognized methods that are available to the lifter are as follows:

The Repetitive Effort Method (aka Bodybuilding Method)

This method is the most commonly used method in bodybuilding training and typically involves the following parameters:

Reps: 8-15
Sets: 3-5
Load: 60-80% 1RM
Rest Intervals: 2-3 minutes

The type of hypertrophy gained from the repetitive effort method is often referred to as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. It is associated with an increase in the fluid volume of non-contractile elements within the muscle such as mitochondria, capillary density, and glycogen. Think of the well known pump that you get when doing high reps with biceps curls. Temporarily you might look like Arnold, but later on your muscles shrink down to their normal size. This type of hypertrophy isn't the permanent kind were after so it should make sense that this should not be your only way of working out!

The Maximal Strength Method

This method is most commonly used in weightlifting and powerlifting training. By weightlifting I am referring to Olympic style weightlifting(snatch , clean and jerk). The loading parameters are as follows:

Reps: 1-5
Load: 85-100%
Rest Intervals: 3-7 minutes

As you can see, this type of training is almost opposite from the previous method. While it most certainly can lead to increased hypertrophy, as is evident by the higher weight classes of weightlifters and power lifters, it's primary goals is improved neuromuscular recruitment of the involved muscle fibers which increases strength. The type of hypertrophy associated with maximal strength training is often referred to as "myofibrillar hypertrophy."

It is associated with increased growth of the actual contractile elements, the myofibrils. These are the protein parts of the muscle fibers and are responsible for generating the tension or force that allows us to move. This type of hypertrophy is often referred to as "real muscle growth." In other words, this type of growth is more permanent and doesn't just fade away as your lose your pump.

The Dynamic Effort Method

This method of training will probably be very new to most bodybuilders as it is mainly being used by power lifters, weightlifters and speed and power athletes. The basic premise is that if you use a moderate load, somewhere between 50-70% of your ARM, you can produce higher levels of speed. The higher levels of speed lead to increased levels of tension in the muscles and also teach the nervous system how to recruit muscle fibers more quickly.

Essentially, this is speed training and can actually make you stronger when you return to heavier loads. MLE Sigh, in his excellent text Super training also refers to this type of training as "explosive strength" work and it can help to increase how quickly a muscle or group of muscles can produce force. To conclude, this is really an untapped method of training by the bodybuilding community and it's inclusion in your program can lead to some big payoffs!

Here are the common loading parameters for the dynamic effort method of training:

Reps: 1-5
Sets: 6-10
Load: 50-70% 1RM
Rest Interval: 45-90 seconds
(usually 3 reps are used per set)

Note that the reps are low even though the load is fairly light. The reason for this is to avoid fatigue. Fatigue of any kind slows down speed of movement. As the speed of movement drops off, so to does the corresponding levels of muscle tension and subsequent firing of muscle fibers. If you keep the reps below five, you ensure higher quality of movement and have less chance for technique breakdown. Also, note that the rest intervals are shorter than usual. Since you are not training to failure or fatigue, the rest interval can be shortened.

Other Important Factors

GPP Work:There are many coaches and trainers of athletes who are starting to realize and remember the importance of what are called "general physical preparation" exercises. These exercises are great for building a foundation of basic strength and cardiovascular functioning that can enhance your ability to recover from exercise. They also can be used in the following ways:

  • As a general fat-burning and metabolism boosting workout
  • As a preliminary period of training prior to more advance methods of exercise such as "plyometric training."
  • As a dynamic warm-up prior to your weight training or field conditioning workouts of any type.
  • As a tortous "finisher" at the end of a workout.

GPP exercises usually range from mostly bodyweight exercises such as jumping jacks, mountain climbers, hops, skips and jump-rope; but can also include rock climbing, hiking, biking, running, and the playing of team games such as volleyball, basketball, and tennis which provide good full-body stimulation for improved levels of fitness.

Also, light dumbbells, kettle bells, sand bags, wheel barrels, and medicine balls can be used as great GPP devices. For more information of GPP work, see contributor Josh Henkin's many articles on the topic.


It should be noted that the above methods are by no means complete or exhaust the many ways of training with resistance. They are shown because they are the most commonly utilized in various schools of the iron game. In fact, a lot of hypertrophy work that might be used by a power lifter, weightlifter, or other speed/power athlete might be borrowed from bodybuilding methodologies.

You see, all the different methods and schools of training have value for us all! Why get stuck in the rut of using the same old methods when there are so many useful ones to choose from? In part 2 of this article I will give an example of how to put modern periodization to use. This will demonstrate how useful a little scientific application can be when designing a bodybuilding or other type of conditioning program.

If you have any questions I can be reached at Don't hesitate to send me a message with your comments or thoughts. Until next time....train hard...train smart!

  1. Siff, M. C. (2000) Supertraining. Supertraining Institute, Denver, CO 5th edition.
  2. Tsatsouline, Pavel (1999) Power To The People. Dragon Door St. Paul, MN.
  3. Tate, Dave (2001) The Periodization Bible-parts 1 & 2