When training athletes who have to be in peak condition for an event or season, knowing how to program effectively is extremely important! Successful programming can prepare an athlete to perform at a high level and reduce their risk of sustaining an injury. Failing to program successfully is inefficient and can be detrimental to performance.
This article defines periodization and reviews the aspects that makeup periodization. The aspects covered will give you a better understanding of the topic, which will aid in exercise programming for athletes.
What is Periodization?
Periodization is the term used for creating and programming phases of a training plan that target different training goals through the manipulation of different acute variables (load, sets, reps, rest) to best meet the desired outcome. Other goals of periodization are to manage fatigue and prevent overtraining (Plisk & Stone, 2003). Overtraining can occur when an intense training stimulus is maintained over a prolonged period of time (Bradley-Popovich & Haff, 2001) without adequate recovery between training sessions and other rigors of life.
Exercise programming is traditionally planned in cycles that range in length, from over a year, down to a week, or even a single day. The most common terms associated with periodization cycles are macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. A macrocycle is traditionally several months to one year in length. A mesocycle is 2-6 weeks in length, and a microcycle ranges from a few days up to two weeks in length. (Haff & Triplett, 2016)
Figure 1 - Periodization Cycles (Haff & Triplett, 2016)
When programming for an athlete, it is important to take into consideration the seasons of their sport. Periodization periods are almost concurrent with sports seasons, and they provide greater insight into the intensity and volume of training in the given periods. The preparatory period and the first transition period are almost in line with the off-season and preseason, respectively. The competition period is in line with the in-season, and the second transition period is in line with the postseason (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Understanding and implementing recommended volumes and intensities in different periods will help to prevent overtraining.
Figure 2 - A Periodization Model for Resistance Training (Haff & Triplett, 2016)
Linear periodization, otherwise known as traditional periodization, are cycles, or blocks, that focus on one specific training goal at a time. For example, a 6-week block of hypertrophy training, including a de-load week, and then a 6-week block of strength training, including a de-load week. In traditional periodization, in the linear fashion, intensity and volume would have an inverse relationship. In the early phases, such as the preparatory period, the intensity would be low, but the volume would be high. As the cycle progresses over time, this would switch, given their inverse nature. As the time nears the competition period, the intensity will rise, and the volume will be low. This would prepare an athlete to “peak” just before their competition. Peaking is the term used to describe an optimal physical conditions that will best aid performance. The amount of time that athletes want to be in peak condition varies between sports. It is common to peak for two weeks, and then enter a maintenance phase to preserve optimal physical condition. Both of which would be within the competition period, which would be in-season. Figure 3 shows an example of different training blocks over a four-month period, focusing on different aspects of training: hypertrophy, strength, and power.
Figure 3 - Linear Periodization
*Not in the context of a specific sport
Undulating periodization, also known as nonlinear periodization, is different from linear periodization as it consists of multiple training goals within the same phase. Undulating periodization can be implemented in a weekly or daily format. For example, one week the training goal may be hypertrophy, the next week strength, and the next week power. A daily undulating plan is where the training goal varies on each day. For example, imagine three full-body sessions a week, the focus in the first session of the week could be power, the second session could be stronger, and the third session could be hypertrophy. An example of this can be seen in Figure 4. In this scenario, the intensity and volume would differ between each session or each week. This will allow for greater, well-rounded progress due to a variety of physical adaptations occurring, not just one training goal being focused on at a time, and as a result, this method is less likely to be used prior to peaking.
Figure 4 - Daily Undulating Periodization
*Not in the context of a specific sport
What Does the Research State?
Simão et al. (2012) conducted a study that assessed the effects of nonlinear periodized, and linear periodized resistance training programs on muscle strength and muscle thickness. As a result of their research, Simão et al. (2012) believe that nonlinear periodization can be more effective at improving muscle strength and increasing muscle thickness compared to linear periodization. Simão et al. (2012) also state that nonlinear periodization can be beneficial in maintaining athlete engagement due to the variations between sessions, which reduces monotony. However, a limitation to this study was that the participants were untrained men.
A study conducted by Miranda et al. (2011) investigated the differences between linear, and daily undulating periodization on maximal and submaximal strength. Twenty resistance-trained men were selected for this study and randomly assigned to a linear periodization group or a daily undulating periodization group. Their results showed that daily undulating periodization had a greater impact on both maximal and submaximal strength gains in the leg press and bench press movements, compared to linear periodization. The effects sizes were larger in the daily undulating periodization group for both the 1 repetition max and 8 repetition max tests for each movement, showing that it was more effective.
In a point/counterpoint review comparing nonlinear to linear periodization models, Bradley-Popovich and Haff (2001) believe that nonlinear periodization programs may be superior to linear periodization programs due to the fact that overtraining is a likely factor that could occur during traditional linear periodization plans. In contrast, one aspect that should be considered is the extra workload placed upon the strength and conditioning professional when prescribing a nonlinear periodization plan, given the frequent changes in intensity between sessions.
Hoffman et al. (2009) carried out a study comparing the effects of a non-periodized training plan, a periodized linear training plan, and a periodized nonlinear training plan on strength and power. “The results of this study do not provide clear evidence to support either periodized linear, planned nonlinear or non-periodized training programs during a 15-week off-season resistance training program in college football players.” (Hoffman et al., 2009) Limitations were highlighted in this research, those being the selected participants and their physical condition at the time of the study. The following statement suggests that if the study were to be conducted at a different point in time, results may have been different, “Any of the resistance training programs would likely have stimulated rapid strength improvements” (Hoffman et al., 2009). One aspect of the result from this study can be considered valuable. It was found that upper body power, using a medicine ball toss test, was only significantly improved in the periodized linear training group. This could suggest that the accumulation of power-specific training closer to the end of a training cycle could provide greater improvements in power compared to other methods of periodization.
According to Buford et al. (2007), there is no difference between linear periodization, daily undulating periodization, and weekly undulating periodization in early phases of training, when training for strength. Their study included 28 trained males split into three training groups, as previously mentioned, and tested strength in the leg press and bench press exercises over the course of a 9-week period. In addition, outcomes from a study conducted by Hartmann et al. (2009) coincide with the finding from Buford et al. (2007), suggesting that “in short-term training using previously trained subjects, no differences in 1RM and power are seen between DUP and SPP” (Hartmann et al., 2009). In this study, the testing groups were daily undulating periodization, and strength-power periodization, the latter of which followed the traditional linear structure. These groups were made up of 40 male sports students.
The results shared by Buford et al. (2007) and Hartmann et al. (2009) are contrary to the claims made by Rhea et al. (2002), who carried out a study that consisted of 20 trained men following a resistance training program that focused on strength gains in the leg press and bench press exercises over the course of 12-weeks. When comparing results between the linear periodization group and the daily undulating periodization group, Rhea et al. (2002) claim that “making program alterations on a daily basis was more effective in eliciting strength gains than doing so every 4 weeks” which would support the use of an undulating periodization plan.
An opposite view is presented by Painter et al. (2012), who suggests that block training, otherwise known as linear training, is more efficient than daily undulating programming at producing strength gains in track and field athletes over an 11-week period.
Research that compares the effectiveness of linear periodization and undulating periodization is often assessed through the development of strength. Strength training is an important aspect to consider when programming for athletes because it is the leading intervention at effectively reducing injuries in sport, according to Lauersen et al. (2013). If greater strength gains can be achieved through either linear or undulating periodization, an association could be made that one method is superior to the other at reducing an athlete’s risk of sustaining an injury.
Ultimately, when programming, the goal is to prepare an athlete to meet the demands of their sport, and to develop them to a physical condition that will give them an edge over their competition! However, results from available research vary. Some studies claim that undulating periodization can provide greater strength gains compared to traditional linear periodization (Miranda, 2011; Simão, 2012), whereas there is also evidence to suggest that linear periodization is superior for strength gains (Painter et al., 2012). While there is evidence to support one method over the other, there is also evidence that suggests that the different periodization methods are equal at eliciting their desired goal (Buford, 2007; Hartmann, 2009).
The deciding factor that should determine which method of periodization is selected should be the desired training goals in relation to the athlete’s sport. Start by analyzing the selected sport and identify which physiological variables are most important. If a sport requires an athlete to be in peak condition for an event that may only be up to a few days long, for example, a track and field athlete, traditional linear periodization may be best. To support this, we can use the findings from Hoffman et al. (2009) that suggest that an accumulation of power training towards the end of a training cycle can have a positive impact on power output. This would be beneficial for track and field athletes. For a sport such as American football, undulating periodization may be more appropriate. Size, strength, and power are all key aspects that influence performance in football, so it makes sense to focus on them simultaneously throughout a training cycle. Given that football athletes are usually well-trained individuals with weight-room experience, the findings from Buford et al. (2007) and Hartmann et al. (2009) that state in short-term training, differences in periodization do not have any effect on training outcome would most likely not be applicable, given the long-term training age of football athletes.
Follow along and keep an eye out for an upcoming article that will be diving deeper into the topic of training goals and specific programming for athletes in different seasons throughout the year!
Bradley-Popovich, G. E., & Haff, G. G. (2001). Nonlinear Versus Linear Periodization Models. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 23(1), 42–44. https://doi.org/10.1519/00126548-200102000-00009
Buford, T. W., Rossi, S. J., Smith, D. B., & Warren, A. J. (2007). A Comparison of Periodization Models During Nine Weeks With Equated Volume and Intensity for Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), 1245–1250. https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-200711000-00045
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics.
Hartmann, H., Bob, A., Wirth, K., & Schmidtbleicher, D. (2009). Effects of Different Periodization Models on Rate of Force Development and Power Ability of the Upper Extremity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(7), 1921–1932. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b73c69
Hoffman, J. R., Ratamess, N. A., Klatt, M., Faigenbaum, A. D., Ross, R. E., Tranchina, N. M., … Kraemer, W. J. (2009). Comparison Between Different Off-Season Resistance Training Programs in Division III American College Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 11–19. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181876a78
Lauersen, J. B., Bertelsen, D. M., & Andersen, L. B. (2013). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(11), 871–877. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2013-092538
Miranda, F., Simão, R., Rhea, M., Bunker, D., Prestes, J., Leite, R. D., … Novaes, J. (2011). Effects of Linear vs. Daily Undulatory Periodized Resistance Training on Maximal and Submaximal Strength Gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1824–1830. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e7ff75
Painter, K. B., Haff, G. G., Ramsey, M. W., McBride, J., Triplett, T., Sands, W. A., … Stone, M. H. (2012). Strength Gains: Block Versus Daily Undulating Periodization Weight Training Among Track and Field Athletes. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(2), 161–169. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.7.2.161
Plisk, S. S., & Stone, M. H. (2003). Periodization strategies. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 25(6), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1519/00126548-200312000-00005
Rhea, M. R., Ball, S. D., Phillips, W. T., & Burkett, L. N. (2002). A Comparison of Linear and Daily Undulating Periodized Programs with Equated Volume and Intensity for Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(2), 250–255. https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-200205000-00013
Simão, R., Spineti, J., de Salles, B. F., Matta, T., Fernandes, L., Fleck, S. J., … Strom-Olsen, H. E. (2012). Comparison Between Nonlinear and Linear Periodized Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(5), 1389–1395. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318231a659