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Periodization for Bodybuilders – Part I

Okay, before I get started I want to make sure everybody is sitting down. In this article, I’m not going to talk about diet, leptin, set point or anything like that. Instead, for the first time in a very long while I’m actually going to write a training article. I know, you’re shocked, which is why I asked you to sit down first. People tend to forget that I actually started life as an exercise physiology nerd. In fact, I spent years studying it. Then I got more interested in nutritional biochemistry and that’s been my focus for the last several years. Basically, I still follow exercise physiology research, it’s just not my main focus.

Okay, with that out of the way, onto the topic of this article: periodization for bodybuilders. Now, if you go into most gyms, you’ll usually find people working out in vastly different ways: there are your pumpers, the guys who go heavy all the time, etc. But, for the most part, the guys who pump always pump and the guys who go heavy always go heavy. Most bodybuilders tend to stick to a fairly static rep range (could be 6-8 or 10-12 depending on what theory of growth they ascribe to) but it’s rare to see a given individual change that much. HST’ers are a notable exception (more on HST below).

Basically, it seems like bodybuilders are pretty much the last folks to jump on the periodization bandwagon. As above, most of them tend to stick with the same types of training year round and they pretty much always go balls to the wall. The idea of changing anything (except maybe exercise choice to ‘shock the muscle’ or what have you) just doesn’t seem to be as prevalent among that subculture.

The problem with non-periodized training

Before tackling the issues of periodization, let’s look at some of the problems inherent in non-periodized training. One problem is simply that people get bored doing the same thing all the time. Mental staleness can be as real as physical staleness and changing something about training (whether it’s exercise selection, exercise order, rep count, or whatever) can rekindle interest in working out. More interest usually makes people work harder and that alone can generate results.

A second issue is that, even for bodybuilders, there are different components that can be trained/manipulated which contribute to maximal size. Of course there’s actual myofibrillar hypertrophy (an increase in the size of the contractile fibers). There’s also sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (an increase in non-contractile components of the muscle such as glycogen, water, minerals, mitochondria, etc). Capillary density can also be improved (increasing nutrient availability to muscle fibers). You get the idea (note: this topic is discussed in greater detail in my Ultimate Diet 2.0 book, pimp, pimp).

A third issue, of course, is one of physical adaptation. Over time, the body seems to adapt to a given training style. More accurately, it stops adapting (positively anyhow) and may actually start regressing. Changing training variables from time to time (even if it’s simply to back off the intensity and build back up again) can help to prevent physical staleness.

What is periodization?

At its simplest, periodization simply refers to some sort of methodical (or semi-methodical) variation in training. Changes can occur in terms of volume, intensity, exercise selection, rep speeds, rest intervals and any other of the myriad training variables. Most athletes periodize to one degree or another. Usually the goal of periodization is to develop fitness towards specific competition periods (or even a single major competition, think Lance Armstrong in the Tour De France).

Obviously competitive bodybuilders will periodize towards their competition but I think that even recreational bodybuilders (guys who just want to be big and ripped or just plain big) can benefit from structuring their training as well. That structuring, regardless of the specific type, goes under the heading of periodization. So with that basic introduction, I want to look at some of the common models of periodization and then move into how bodybuilders might approach periodizing their training.

Linear periodization

Perhaps the most common (at least the most well known) model for periodization is the simple linear periodization model (usually being accredited to a Russian scientist named Matveyev). This model starts from a fairly high volume of low intensity activity and moves gradually towards a lower volume of high intensity activity (the model is actually a bit more complicated than that and I’d suggest anyone who is truly interested in the topic pick up Mel Siff’s “Supertraining” book for a more detailed discussion). So an Olympic or powerlifter would move from fairly high volumes with a low intensity (intensity being defined here as % of 1 rep maximum) to a low volume of high intensity activity. So the powerlifter might move, over the span of 16 weeks, from a rep count of 12-15 to 10-12 to 8-10 to 6-8 to 5 then to triples and doubles, finally peaking for the meet.

Bryan Haycock’s HST program is essentially a linear periodized model moving from 2 weeks of 15 reps to 2 weeks of 10’s to 2 weeks of 8’s to 2 weeks of 5’s to 1-2 weeks of negatives, then a week break after which they begin the process all over again. I should note that it is also periodized within a given 2 week cycle, moving from a submaximal weight to basically a repetition maximum (RM) load by the end of the 2 week cycle.

There are other linear approaches to periodization out there as well although they may be structured a little bit differently. Ironman magazine has long recommended that bodybuilders train in 8 week blocks, taking 2 weeks to ramp up the intensity (in this case defined as effort, taking each set to positive failure) and then working full bore for the next 6 weeks to make strength and size gains before backing off for 2 weeks and ramping up again.

Anyone familiar with the basic Hardgainer magazine approach should know that Stuart McRobert and the rest of the HG crew has generally recommended a similar approach; take several weeks to ramp up training and then work full bore for some period of time (some HG authors use cycles of 12-16 weeks while at least one recommends extending the cycle, adding weight to the bar, for as long as you can).

Tudor Bompa and Fred Koch (who seems to have stolen Bompa’s approach pretty much verbatim) have both suggested a linear periodized scheme for bodybuilders that is more along the lines of bulking and then cutting. You start with a few weeks of anatomical adaptation (basically low intensity training to condition connective tissues), then move into hypertrophy training (generally a fairly high volume of work in the 75-85% 1RM range), then to maximal strength work (85% 1RM or less), and then to cutting (a strange program centered around 100-200 reps per exercise, something I find profoundly silly).

On and on it goes. As I said above, linear periodization is probably the most common approach to periodizing. But it has problems.

The problems with linear periodization

In recent years, linear periodization has come under fire from a number of different strength experts. Vladimir Zatsiorsky (author of “Science and Practice of Strength Training”), Charles Poliquin and powerlifting guru Louie Simmons all jump to mind. The problem, they note is this: while you are training one biomotor capacity (i.e. muscular endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength), the ones not being trained are going to hell (ok, not their exact words). But you end up detraining one capacity while you’re developing another.

For example, a powerlifter working in the 10-12 rep range (more of a hypertrophy range) is going to be losing maximal strength capacity (and all of the adaptations that go along with that). An endurance athlete doing nothing but low intensity endurance training is detraining leg speed (for sprinting) and lactate threshold capacity (the highest intensity that they can maintain without accumulating too much lactic acid). Studies done years ago found that athletes moving into low rep ranges (for maximal strength) frequently lost muscle size. Adding back even one high rep set (remember this, it’s important) frequently prevented the problem.

Solution number one: nonlinear periodization

One of the first proposed solutions for the problems above was something usually referred to as nonlinear periodization. Both Poliquin and Zatsiorsky recommended alternating 2-3 week blocks where a given capacity was emphasized and others were trained at maintenance.

So a Poliquin type program might entail 2-3 weeks of 10-12 reps, 2-3 weeks of 5-6 reps, 2-3 weeks of 7-9 reps (the return to high reps help to avoid muscle loss), 2-3 weeks of 3-5 reps, etc.

Zatsiorsky’s approach was slightly different but he was addressing the needs of other types of athletes. Basically, working in 2-3 week blocks, specific biomotor capacities (i.e. strength, power, endurance) would be emphasized while other capacities were trained at maintenance. So a 3 week block where aerobic endurance was emphasized would see lactate threshold training worked at maintenance and then the focus would switch, lactate threshold would be emphasized while aerobic endurance was maintained. I should mention that Bompa did occasionally give lip service to that type of alternation in his books; you’d alternate a few weeks of maximal strength training with a few weeks of hypertrophy training.

Solution number two: conjugate periodization

Conjugate periodization has probably been promoted most heavily by aforementioned powerlifting guru Louie Simmons. Claiming that old school linear periodization is dead (nobody tell Ed Coan), Louie believes that conjugate periodization (developed, of course, in Russia) is a superior way to train. For a more detailed examination of the conjugate system, I’d suggest “Supertraining” by Mel Siff. As well, there is a rather long article dealing with the development of the conjugate training in the Elite FTS Articles section at Elite fitness (

In his system, all aspects of powerlifting performance (bar speed/technique, maximal strength, hypertrophy, general physical preparation) are trained at the same time, simply with a different emphasis on each. Bar speed and technique are trained with speed work (10 sets of 2 or 8 sets of 3 with a submaximal weight), maximum strength is trained with multiple low rep sets and hypertrophy is trained with multiple higher rep sets. General physical preparation consists of sled dragging and other exercises (folks interested in Simmon’s system should read everything on the Elite Fitness website). Perhaps more related to the conjugate system is the introduction of specific exercises (done on max effort day) that specifically support the competition lifts. Weak points are determined regularly and new exercises are introduced to address them. Ideally, one exercise builds on the last exercise with the lifter’s overall performance going up.

Some other options

Of course, the above hardly describes all of the possible options available. One is to simply combine training and train different aspects of the muscle in the same training cycle. An old skool (you’re all elite and shit when you spell stuff wrong) approach to training was to follow warmups with 3-5 heavy sets of 5 (training a combination of maximal strength and myofibrillar hypertrophy) with multiple sets of 12-15 (training sarcoplasmic elements).

Along those lines, John McCallum recommended warmups followed by 3 sets of 5 (3 minute rest) followed by 8 sets of 10 (with 30 second rest!) for maximum size gains. It’s almost power training followed by German Volume Training.

In my Ultimate Diet 2.0 (pimp, pa, pimp, pimp), there are three different workout types (high rep/short rest, medium rep/medium rest, low rep/long rest) cycled through the training week to achieve specific responses and adaptations (it’s also integrated, of course, with changes in diet but I said I wouldn’t talk about diet in this article). The old Bulgarian Burst/Serious Growth system was similar in design: high reps early in the week, medium reps in the middle of the week, low reps at the end.

The above described type of training can be very workable but that’s not really the point of this article: I want to talk a little more specifically about how bodybuilders can apply basic periodization concepts to their training.

But since this thing is already 2 weeks late and running long, I’m going to chop it at the halfway mark and leave everybody hanging (especially before Justin flies out to Austin to bitch smack me for making the issue late). In part II I’ll talk about more specific applications of periodization for bodybuilding.