Think about how you approach your gym session. So you grab your training gear and “off to the gym you go” right? Wrong. One thing is missing – a plan. Having a structured, planned training approach can stop you hitting a wall in progression, help avoid overtraining, and get through those plateau’s that have been holding you back. Whether you’re training for a marathon, bodybuilding or strength sports, a well planned mid/long term plan can seriously boost your results.
Our bodies react and adapt to stress as a method of survival. Training is simply a form of stress on the system – with the intention of adapting to the stress of training and recovering to become bigger/faster/stronger. Too little stress or stimulus from training will result in little or no adaptation and therefore no progress. Too much stress will lead to injury and overtraining and also a lack of progress.
Managing the stress of mid and long term training is called Periodisation. Typically periodisation dictates not only how much or how intense training is at a given time, but also what specific areas are to be focused on and when.
So we have a goal in the future and now need to structure a training programme to get us there. The training year is often broken down into manageable chunks. The smallest being the training session (or day), the training week referred to as the microcycle, the monthly cycle also known as the mesocycle, and the yearly training plan or macrocycle.
Linear periodisation is the traditional Western method of periodisation for athletes. The yearly training cycle is split into mesocycles (monthly) each focusing upon a single aspect of training. The most common way to arrange this is:
Endurance – Hypertrophy – Strength – Power
Endurance work consists of 1-2 sets of exercises of between 15 and 30 repetitions. Rest periods are kept relatively short at around 30-60 seconds. The endurance phase conditions athletes for the upcoming cycles and provides a base of fitness, strength and skill to be built upon.
Hypertrophy phases require 3-4 sets per exercise, consisting of 8-12 repetitions. Rest is increased slightly but usually no more than two minutes between sets. This phase is designed to build muscle size and therefore protein requirements rise during this phase. The use of True Whey throughout this cycle will ensure the body has sufficiently useable protein to help increases in size.
Moving into the strength phase, sets increase again; typically 5 sets of 3-7 repetitions with longer rest periods of up to 5 minutes. Weights used will tend to be 80-90% of a 1 rep max (1RM) with the prime goal of becoming stronger.
Finally the power phase, sees weights increase again into the 90% 1RM range for 1-3 reps. This phase can be the most taxing, where calories must remain high and recovery strategies are employed when needed. Using Recovery XS and Alpha Men will speed recovery and help to provide vitamins and minerals to minimise stress levels during the power phase.
Athletes following linear periodisation start with a high amount of volume at a low intensity (endurance phase). They then and finish with high intensities and lower volumes and, as a result, a higher level of skill in the trained movements. This approach to training has proven to be successful for many elite athletes and trainees.
Common strength and bodybuilding training plans tend to fall into a single factor of linear periodisation, however, many fail to adopt any methods to overcome stagnation over the longer term.
Non-linear periodisation attempts to combine two, or more, aspects of training and improve them both sequentially or simultaneously e.g. strength and power. Rather than spending 4-week cycles training a single aspect, non-linear periodisation attempts to train multiple factors continually throughout the whole training cycle. Mesocycles during non-linear approaches are often used to transfer the previous training cycles into a competitive context, or to deload the training stress prior to competition.
In order to avoid stagnation and ensure progression is continual, during non-linear periodisation, some method must be applied to control the training stress. This usually comes in the form of variety of exercise choice or variety in rep ranges, load and/or tempo. Rep ranges tend to be adapted to first, so a variation in rep ranges is essential for longer term progression. Following this exercise, selection should be rotated less frequently, and the training emphasis changed less frequently.
Quite possibly the most well known non-linear periodisation method in strength sports is the ‘Westside’ method. Westside typically trains the development of maximum strength and speed concurrently for strength athletes. Training weeks are split into daily workouts which develop either maximum strength OR speed, with accessory work falling into either traditional strength, hypertrophy or endurance rep ranges.
Example of a Westside training week (microcycle)
Westside strongly recommends using circa-max phases (pre-competitive mescocycles) and periods of deloading, prior to competition in order to transform the training effects into performance increase.
A non-linear approach to periodisation can make managing the training stress more difficult. Many of the non-linear approaches, such as Westside, often allow a massive amount of flexibility to accommodate differing weaknesses in different athletes. Without the knowledge of an experienced coach, however, this can be a ‘trial and error’ method and perhaps not always productive for the average person.
Applying these lessons to your training
Periodisation in sport/your training will help to ensure you avoid stagnation, overtraining and also reduce injury risk. But what method is best? For the average gym-goer looking to build a powerful muscular physique, a combination of both approaches may be optimal.
Ideally, to get as big or as muscular as possible you want to spend as much time working in the hypertrophy rep ranges as possible. Progression of weight used in exercises will lead to gains in muscular size – so a linear approach with increases in weight, may be optimal. Applying non-linear methods of rep rotation every 4-6 weeks will help ensure stagnation and adaptation are held off, however, to maximise progress you want to stay close to the hypertrophy rep ranges (8-12 reps) for as long as possible. Starting a training cycle at the higher end of the rep range with lower weight and progressing to the lower end of the rep range with higher weight. Once both of these have been exhausted you can then have a deload, or restoration week to maximise your gains and return to the start again, with a change in exercise selection to allow progress to continue.
This pattern could then be repeated with a complete change of exercise selection yet still with a focus upon building muscle and working in the hypertrophy range. The deload week is critical and will allow the body to adapt to the heavier weeks of training and recover ready to begin the next cycle. As in any training program, adequate rest and nutrition will ensure progress is constant and allows longer training periods of progression.
Summary of the benefits of periodisation
Whether you choose to follow linear, non-linear, or adopt a mixture of periodisation principles, for progression of any ability some form of periodisation is necessary for maximum results in the long term. Give it a try and prepare for increases in poundage and gains in strength and muscle.
MyProtein athlete Martin Brown is a current overall British Powerlifting champion and has won British titles in two weight divisions. His best lifts are a 410kg Squat, 260kg Bench Press and a 330kg Deadlift at 102.8kg. As a full-time personal trainer, having worked with clients of all ages, abilities and athletes from various sports, Martin helps people to improve performance in everything from everyday living to competing at an international level in Martial Arts. Here he details his thoughts on periodisation and provides advice on managing and organising your training for long-term progression.