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Practical Periodization

Practical Periodization: Training Tips for All Fitness Levels

Reading Time: 19 minutes 4 seconds

BY: James Wilson

DATE: 2024-05-14

Periodization is one of the most important parts of a fitness program’s ultimate success. Yet, few trainers and gym-goers truly understand how to employ the concepts and principles behind it. The lack of a bridge between theories and their practical, everyday application is partly to blame. 

Here we attempt to bring periodization down to a practical, usable level. While it is provided with trainers in mind, anyone who works out can use and benefit from the following information.

Meeting Fitness Goals with Periodization

When designing a client's program, it’s important to have a long-term plan. While day-to-day workouts are what most people think of when picturing their personal trainer, real results don’t come overnight. Nor are they the result of a single workout—not even after months of workouts. The cumulative effects of years of workouts produce dramatic results.

Getting started on the road to a fitness lifestyle is often easy. That's why there are so many weight loss "gurus" in the fitness world. Anyone can take an overweight person who has never exercised, instruct them to do 20 jumping jacks and walk around the block while curling soup cans and they will lose weight. 

Getting them to actually accomplish their fitness goals and live the fitness lifestyle takes a whole lot more. Namely, it takes a periodized plan.

What is Periodization Training?

Periodization is the practice of splitting a program into distinct training phases. Each phase or period builds on the former periods' progress.

The three parts of a periodized plan are:

  • Macrocycle – the entire program, usually a training year

  • Mesocycle – 3-6 week periods within the macrocycle

  • Microcycle – the actual training week within each mesocycle 

Periodization is incredibly complex. Entire books are devoted to the subject and how to use this concept. One recommended reading is Periodization Training: Theory and Methodology by Tudor Bompa, Ph.D. Another is Periodization Breakthrough by Steven Fleck, Ph.D., and William Kramer, Ph.D. Both books are excellent sources of in-depth information on this subject.

What we will cover here is a brief overview of periodization. This will provide a basic understanding of what periodization is and how it works. It also teaches how to get yourself or a client started on a periodized program. First, we'll discuss the benefits of this training plan.

Training Periodization Leads to Absolute Strength Gains

The goal of any strength training program is obviously to increase muscle strength. But more specifically, it should improve absolute strength. Absolute strength is the basis for all other types of anaerobic strength. Since most daily activities are anaerobic by nature, this is a crucial component of fitness to improve.

Periodized training improves absolute strength by: 

  • Increasing the amount of muscle fibers being recruited to lift the weight

  • Improving the coordination of the different muscle groups being used

  • Decreases how much the antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups contract and interfere with the movement. 

Training in this manner allows for large increases in strength. And it does this without large increases in muscle mass. This helps a trainee achieve both better absolute and relative strength. 

Relative strength is how much weight can be lifted in relation to a person's bodyweight. For example, imagine someone who can squat 250 pounds at a bodyweight of 160 pounds. They would have a higher relative strength than someone able to squat 250 pounds at a bodyweight of 200 pounds. Relative strength is very important in most sports. Any athlete, from weekend to professional, would be wise to work on this quality.

How much absolute strength a muscle can produce is related to its cross-sectional area. This means that bigger muscles have more strength potential than smaller muscles. This is why a periodized program will typically work on muscle hypertrophy first and then absolute strength. An ideal periodized program alternates between the two until it’s time to back off, then spends time on a lower-intensity program.

Additional Periodization Training Benefits

Research has found several benefits of following a periodized training cycle beyond developing greater muscle mass and strength. One is achieving peak performance in elite distance runners. Athletes in this category include marathon and half-marathon runners.

It improves performance, in part, by improving muscular endurance. A 2022 study involved both periodized and non-periodized kettlebell training. The non-periodized group used the same training load throughout the study. The periodized group used loading progression. The group engaged in periodization training had significant improvements in their muscular endurance while the other group did not. This highlights the value of this protocol to an endurance training program. (1) 

Another benefit of periodization training is injury prevention. A 2021 study involved 21 rugby players. Some completed a constant load training program. The rest were in a progressive training group. Only the progressive training group had greater hamstring strength. This strength helps reduce injury risk. (2)

How Periodized Training Works

The reason a periodized plan works so well is that it never allows the body to fully adapt to the imposed stresses placed on it. However, it is not as simple as taping a bunch of training programs to the dartboard, and then tossing a new dart every 4-6 weeks to decide which ones to do. 

A logical progression is required for effective program design. Otherwise, you’re leaving your or your clients’ training fate up to blind luck. They deserve better than that. So do you. And you will be able to give it once you understand how. 

Intensity Is the Key

There is a simple logic to periodization’s intensity progression. Intense weight training builds up muscle strength faster than tendon and ligament strength. So, it only makes sense to spend some time doing a lower intensity, higher rep phase—especially at the beginning of a program. This helps to correct the imbalance. After the foundation has been laid and any imbalances have been corrected, it’s safe to start working at higher intensity levels.

Before we go in, it’s important to understand what is meant by “intensity.” This word is tossed around loosely by the fitness media today. However, it does have a concrete definition. This training variable refers to the percentage lifted of your one repetition maximum (1RM). The higher the percentage, the higher the intensity level.

While intensity is defined as a percentage of 1RM, this doesn’t mean you need to know this number to successfully develop a program. It would be negligent to take a beginning trainee and perform 1RM tests on them. Instead, find a weight that allows your client to complete the number of reps associated with their desired intensity levels

Finding a client's 1RM should only be attempted with clients who have an outstanding level of fitness. They should also have no medical conditions, such as hypertension, that would preclude them from such an attempt. 

Many charts exist for estimating 1RMs from higher repetition maximums. These should be used when necessary. Keep in mind that some degree of error exists in these charts. So, use the average of two or more for a more accurate prediction.

Different Types of Periodized Training Plans

There are a few different ways to structure periodized training:

  • Block periodization. In block periodization, each macrocycle is broken down into three mesocycle blocks. These blocks are accumulation, transmutation, and realization. Intensity increases from one block to the next, progressing to 90%.

  • Linear periodization. This is also referred to as traditional periodization. It involves a more gradual intensity increase. At the same time, training volume is decreased. The goal is to reach maximal strength at the end of the training protocol.

  • Non-linear periodization. This type of plan is sometimes called undulating periodization. It involves changing training intensity and volume more often. Generally, both are changed on a weekly basis throughout the entire program. 

Foundations of a Solid Periodization Model

No matter which periodization model is used, a fitness foundation must be laid first. This foundation involves basic exercises and movements to strengthen tendons and ligaments. This prepares the body for the training stress ahead. It also helps reverse the effects of disuse in beginning clients. 

This training phase usually employs a relatively higher number of reps (10 to 15) and moderate/high volume (2 to 4 sets, 8 to 12 exercises). This is referred to as an anatomical adaptation (AA) phase. It lasts anywhere from 1 to 12 weeks, depending on the beginning fitness level of the client. The higher this level, the shorter the AA phase will be. 

A workout utilizing one exercise per body part in a circuit training fashion is a great example of such a program. This stage works perfectly as the "Guided Discovery" for beginning clients.

Increasing Training Stress by Increasing Training Intensity

Once the foundation is laid, it’s time to increase training stress. At this point, the program should be employing some sort of training split. This involves literally splitting up muscle groups and training them on different days. 

The split chosen should be tailored to the client’s schedule. You may be convinced that training biceps once every three days is best for maximum results. However, if this doesn’t fit into your client's schedule, it doesn’t matter. So, be realistic when designing a client's program, especially about training days and what training split is used. 

An example of a popular and effective 3-day split over the course of a week is:

Periodization 1 embedded image

Note that the days listed are suggestions only. This type of split can be tailored to a variety of schedules. The main point is that all three days are not done in a row.

The next intensity level is comparable to a bodybuilder's routine. During this phase, there is an increase in volume and intensity. But that is offset by the use of a training split that allows for longer recovery periods for each body part. This type of program generally includes 4 to 8 sets in a workout per large muscle group and 1 to 3 sets for smaller muscle groups.

Don’t make the same mistake as a lot of trainers and place equal emphasis on all body parts. Smaller muscle groups don’t need anywhere near the volume that larger muscle groups do. Regardless of the muscle group being worked, use an intensity that allows for the completion of 6 to 12 reps per set. 

Moderate rest periods of 1 to 2 minutes between sets are also typical of this type of routine. Training in this way, using moderate volume and intensity, is great for inducing muscular hypertrophy. That’s why most "bodybuilder" routines fall into this category.

The third level of intensity is the highest. This phase concentrates on absolute strength levels. This type of program uses 5 to 10 sets for larger muscle groups and 2 to 4 sets for smaller ones. Longer rest periods of 2 to 5 minutes are also used. This helps to ensure that enough ATP is regenerated to continue with the same workload. 

Not all clients will progress to the point of safely being able to use such high-intensity levels. However, for those clients with a good level of fitness and no medical reasons to not participate in such high-intensity programs, such as high blood pressure, working on absolute strength from time to time is vital to a periodized program's success.

Periodization Training Begins with Determining Fitness Level

Now that you have an understanding of periodization and why it follows the progressions that it does. The next step is to assess a client's beginning fitness level and get them started on a periodized program based on that initial assessment. 

At the same time, remember that periodization is complex. As such, few clients will fit perfectly into a specific model. It is only by continually educating yourself that can you tailor a periodized program to a client's individual needs. This overview is simply meant as a way to demonstrate some of what was discussed earlier about periodization. It also gives a place to start in designing a periodized program for a client.

First, let's establish the four general categories of clients: 

  • Deconditioned: This client has no exercise history and medical conditions or red flags. This includes obesity, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, arthritis, etc. For both legal and professional reasons, these conditions MUST be under control to undertake being their trainer.

  • Beginner: This client has less than 2 years of strength training experience. They also have no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags.

  • Intermediate: This client has 2+ years of continual strength training experience. They also have no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags. Your average fitness buff falls into this category.

  • Advanced: This client has 5+ years of continual strength training experience and no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags. A serious fitness buff or athlete falls into this category.

These categories are not set in stone. Some clients have trained for 10 years and still need to be treated as intermediates or even beginners. Some intermediates may be serious enough to be considered advanced. Trainers must use personal judgment when assessing a client’s fitness level. If any doubt exists, err on the side of caution and pick up the intensity level later if necessary.

Periodization Stages for Training Program Development

The beginning fitness level classification is used to determine how long will be spent laying the fitness foundation. It also determines how fast the client will progress to higher intensity levels. First, let's review the different stages (mesocycles), and then we’ll cover possible ways to arrange them based on a client’s beginning fitness level.

Stage 1

  • Type of program suggested: Circuit Training

  • Intensity level: Low (30-60% of 1RM)

  • Rep range: 10-15

  • Total sets per muscle group: 1-3 per exercise

  • Number of exercises per muscle group: 1

  • Rest between sets: 0-60 seconds

  • Duration: 

  • Deconditioned- 6-9 weeks

  • Beginner- 3-6 weeks

  • Intermediate- 3-6 weeks

  • Advanced- 1-3 weeks

Sample Stage 1 Workout

Periodization 2 embedded image

Exercises in each training session are performed in a circuit fashion. Repeat this workout three times a week, allowing at least one rest day between weight training days.

Stage 1a (for Deconditioned and Beginner clients only)

  • Type of program suggested: Upper Body/ Lower Body Split (repeat as many times as needed

  • Intensity level: Low (30- 60% of 1RM)

  • Rep range: 10-15

  • Total sets per muscle group: 2-6

  • Number of exercises per muscle group: 1-2

  • Rest between sets: 0-60 seconds

  • Duration: 

    • Deconditioned: 3-6 weeks

    • Beginner: 3-6 weeks

Sample Stage 1 Split Pattern Workout

Periodization 3 embedded image

Repeat this split pattern as many times as needed.

Periodization 4 & 5 embedded image

Side note: Although abs and lower back are technically part of the upper body for practicality, they are included in the lower body program.

Stage 2 

  • Goal: muscle mass

  • Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to the client's schedule

  • Intensity level: Moderate (60-80% of 1RM)

  • Rep range: 6-12

  • Total sets per muscle group: 

    • Large Muscle Groups: 4-8

    • Small Muscle Groups- 1-3

  • Number of exercises per muscle group: 1-4

  • Rest between sets: 60-120 seconds

  • Rest between weight training days: At least one day

  • Duration: 3-9 weeks

Sample Stage 2 Workout

Periodization 6 embedded image

Note: Allow at least a day of rest between weight training days.

Periodization 7 embedded image

Note: a1 and a2 designate two exercises to be performed in a superset fashion. Do one set of the a1 exercises and, while resting, perform one set of the a2 exercise. Repeat until all prescribed sets for those exercises are completed before moving on to the next exercise(s).

Periodization 8 & 9 embedded image

Stage 3 

  • Goal: absolute strength

  • Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to the client's schedule

  • Intensity level: High (80-100+% of 1RM)

  • Rep range: 1-5

  • Total sets per muscle group: 

    • Large Muscle Groups: 5-10

    • Small Muscle Groups: 2-4

  • Number of exercises per muscle group: 1-2

  • Rest between sets: 120-240 seconds

  • Rest between weight training days: At least one day

  • Duration: 3-6 weeks

Sample Stage 3 Workout

Periodization 10 embedded image

Note: Allow at least one day of rest between weight training days.

Periodization 11 embedded image

Example Periodization Models

These periodization models are examples only. While they can be used with success, don’t rely on them for every client. Continually educate yourself in the fitness and strength-training field. This enables you to design your own models, tailoring them to each individual client. 

Remember, however, that above all, a good periodization model is flexible. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments mid-program if necessary.

periodization 12 embedded image

Tailoring Periodization to the Training Goal

As noted earlier, very few clients will fit perfectly into the above periodization model examples. Most will have a specific goal that they are working toward. This makes it necessary to personalize their program. This is not as hard as it may seem, though. With a few minor adjustments, you can quickly tailor a periodized program to any client.

You must first establish what the client's goal is. If you are dealing with a beginner, then their goals are usually vague. Most often, they revolve around “losing weight and toning up.” More advanced clients will have more concrete goals. They may want to gain 5 pounds of muscle, for instance, or add 25 pounds to their bench press. The more concrete the goal, the easier it is for you to design a plan. Try to help those clients who do not already have them to form specific goals.

It's also your responsibility as a trainer to make sure their goals are realistic, or that the client is not putting their health at risk trying to achieve them. A great example is women who want to emulate the look popularized on the cover of fashion magazines. Most women do not possess the body structure or body type to achieve this look. Yet,  many have dieted and exercised themselves to exhaustion trying to achieve it.

The same can be said for young men trying to emulate professional bodybuilding heroes. Once again, this is an unachievable look by most, especially without chemical enhancement. However, many people let this quest consume their entire existence. Sometimes it leads them to experiment with dangerous methods.

It’s a personal trainer’s job to guide these clients toward realistic goals and safe exercise and dietary practices. Although a last resort, it may be necessary to drop a client if they absolutely refuse to follow a sound, safe exercise program. You could be held liable if something happens to them while they are working with you. So, not only are they putting themselves in danger, but your career as well.

With that said, let's look at how to tailor a program for different goals. Overall, you want the client to spend more time in the stage that emphasizes their goal. 

  • If they want more muscle mass, double up on the time spent in stage 2. 

  • If they want to get stronger, spend more time in stage 3. 

  • If they want to improve aerobic capacity, add a stage where aerobics are more emphasized than strength training. 

  • If they are an athlete and trying to improve relative strength, spend less time in stage 2 and more time in Stage 3. 

Once you get a feel for what each stage does for a client, you will know what stage(s) to emphasize for their goals.

A Word About Training for Fat Loss

Fat loss is kind of a tricky subject as far as working out is concerned. A trainer can have everything about a workout program dialed in, with the client following it religiously. Yet, if that same client is not also following a sound diet and taking in fewer calories than they expend, the fat will not come off. In a diet and exercise program, diet is usually the limiting factor. But most clients fail to understand how important diet really is to fat loss.

Workout progression for someone looking to lose fat would be similar to clients wanting to add lean muscle tissue. By adding lean muscle mass, you increase your metabolism and make it easier to burn fat. Lean muscle tissue also gives that lean, muscular look that people desire but most don’t know how to get. 

The reason that you see so many people at the gym who look thin but still have flab is because they spend countless hours doing cardio and lifting light weights for a high number of reps. Thus, they fail to add lean muscle mass.

Weight loss is not the goal of an exercise and diet program. Fat loss is. Failure to offset the diet and cardio portions of a program with muscle maintenance/gains through weightlifting will result in a less-than-desirable physique and endless frustration.

It’s also important to dispel a couple of strength training myths concerning fat loss. The first is the myth of low reps for size, high reps for cuts. This is absolutely not true. Instead:

  • Low reps produce strength with little weight gain

  • Mid-range reps are best for muscle growth

  • High reps in the 15-20 range are good for strengthening tendons and ligaments. 

  • Very high reps are good for increasing the aerobic strength of the local muscle groups being exercised and beneficial for specific sports training but usually have no place in an average fitness program

Diet is what gets you cut up and defined, not doing 20+ reps for an exercise.

The next myth is perhaps the most persistent one of all. Have you heard that to see your abs, you have to do countless sit ups? Or how about those machines that hit your "trouble spots" of the inner thigh and side of your glutes? 

The myth of spot-reducing is a fallacy. Your body is genetically predetermined where it will lose fat first and in what order it will go away. Again, diet is the major factor here. Doing all the sit ups in the world will not get your six-pack to show any faster.

So, what does all this mean? Fat loss is not achieved only through aerobics, weightlifting, or diet. It takes an integrated approach to help clients realize their fat loss potential. If they aren’t losing weight and you know that your training program is dialed in, then, barring a medical condition, the client is simply eating too many calories.

There is no impossible scenario. Every overweight individual can lose weight and achieve their goals. With a properly designed periodized program and your guidance and support, along with the occasional reality check, your clients will succeed.

Wrapping It All Up

There you have a practical example of how to use periodization. While it is a rather simplistic example, it is highly effective and a great place to start your quest for more knowledge on the subject. 

Just remember that you can never know enough about periodization training. So, read everything you can get your hands on regarding this subject. If you haven't been using a logical progression in your training programs, you're probably selling the results they produce short. Stop making this mistake and apply what you've learned today.

To learn more about periodization, check out ISSA's Personal Trainer certification program. This program covers a variety of training methods that can help you or your clients get better results.

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  1. Santos, E. R. T., Junior, De Salles, B. F., Dias, I., Simão, R., & Willardson, J. M. (2022). Effects of six-week Periodized versus Non-Periodized kettlebell swing training on strength, power and muscular endurance. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9022701/

  2. Severo-Silveira, L., Dornelles, M. P., De Lima-E-Silva, F. X., Marchiori, C. L., Medeiros, T. M., Pappas, E., & Baroni, B. M. (2021). Progressive workload periodization maximizes effects of nordic hamstring exercise on muscle injury risk factors. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 35(4), 1006–1013. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002849

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