A lot of beginners email me with questions like, “How many reps should I be doing on this exercise?” I also see lots of fitness publications which say, “Do x reps with y weight,” or, “If you do x reps, then rest for y seconds”. This is presented as if all one needed to know about training is one set of numbers. While the number of reps in a set tells part of the story of how hard you’re working, it doesn’t explain everything.
If I say to you that I’m driving my car at 80 km/h, that tells you a bit, but what’s also important is whether I’m in second or fifth gear while doing that 80 km/h. In fifth gear, the car’s not working terribly hard and the intensity is low, but in second gear, that engine is just about to explode out of the hood.
Leaving aside my problems with learning to drive standard, what I’m getting at is that knowing the “speed”, i.e. the number of reps, is not enough. You also need to know how hard that weight is to lift, i.e. the gear. If I lift a weight for 10 reps and it’s pretty easy, that’s not a whole lot of work. But let’s say I have a weight that is nearly as much as I can lift for one rep. 10 reps of that will probably take me the afternoon to execute, and it’ll be a whole lot different from my body’s point of view than 10 reps with the light weight. (And it’ll probably irritate the rest of the people at the gym waiting to use the barbell.)
Thus, more sophisticated lifters (hint: that will be you after reading this) learn to talk about intensity and volume.
Intensity can be defined in various ways, and usually it is defined relative to something else. In lifting, intensity is frequently used to express what percentage of one’s maximal weight one is using.
Let’s say that the most I can do for one all-out, blood-vessel-exploding rep on a particular exercise is 100 lbs. That 100 lbs. is referred to as my one-repetition maximum (1RM). You can have other “RM”s, such as 3RM or 5RM, but most often the 1RM is used as a standard.
Intensity would then be expressed as a percentage of that 1RM. Thus, if in this exercise I choose to lift 50 lbs., then I would say I am working at 50% of my 1RM. If I chose to use 75 lbs. in this exercise, I would say I am working at 75% of my 1RM.
Volume is generally defined as the total amount of work (sets x reps x weight) done in a particular workout (or for a particular exercise).
Let’s take two workouts. In one workout, for exercise A, I do 3 sets of 8 reps at 100 lbs. My total volume for exercise A in that workout (3 x 8 x 100) is 2400. In another workout, I do the same exercise, but for 3 sets of 2 reps at 150 lbs. My total volume for this exercise in this workout (3 x 2 x 150) is 900, obviously much lower.
Now that we’ve done all that clever math, what does it mean? It means that you need to look at the big picture when planning your workouts. Looking at either intensity or volume alone won’t allow you to plan training optimally. When planning a workout, you must think about both volume and intensity.
Thus we come to the foundation of what is called periodization, or planned variation. For workouts to be consistently successful, intensity and volume should be varied over time. Working with a high intensity and/or high volume consistently results in insufficient recovery, and will eventually lead to overtraining, while working with intensity and volume that is too low will not be challenging enough to stimulate growth.
Using periodization means that you need to develop both a short-term (micro or mesocycle) plan and a long-term plan (macrocycle) for your training.
Periodization was originally aimed at athletes who would have a competition and offseason, and train accordingly over a period of time to meet varying expectations. There are a zillion ways of organizing training for the competitive athlete, most of which don’t concern you as a lifting neophyte, except to note that “for everything, there is a season.” Even though the most athletic thing you do might be getting under the occasional barbell, it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from this kind of planning.
For the competitive athlete, the benefits of periodization are pretty obvious. Competitive athletes have different stages of readiness and skill development over time. Baseball players, for example, aren’t going to be trying to perfect their technique in December, but are rather recuperating from the summer season, and perhaps working on some general fitness. Or sitting on the couch and chowing down a few Philly cheese steaks, from the looks of some of them.
But let’s say you’re an average lifter who has no World Series plans in the immediate future. What are the benefits of periodization for you?
- Allows for planned variation in training program, while maintaining a coherent structure (like, you’re not just changing stuff just for the sake of changing it, but with a bigger picture in mind).
- Gives a clear and specific outline of what you should be doing every day, every week, and every month in the gym.
- Shows you measurable progress in strength gains.
- Can help you develop skills and abilities in various domains, such as:
- muscular endurance
- hypertrophy (muscle mass gain)
- strength gains
- technical skill (e.g. in a sport)
- power and explosiveness
- Balances the demands of your workout with proper recovery.
In my experience, periodized training allowed me to make gains in all rep ranges. My endurance for high-rep work improved, as did my ability to push the envelope of the high intensity range.
making a plan
Now that I’ve sold you (hopefully) on the benefits of periodized training, how do you make a short and long term plan for periodization?
step 1: identify priorities
Begin by looking at the page on goal setting, and write down your goals, both short and long term. Although periodization can help you develop more than one thing concurrently, it’s best to keep focused, so don’t do the equivalent of asking the magic genie for 100 more wishes by trying to do everything at once. Start with 2-3 key goals.
Keeping goals constrained doesn’t mean you won’t do anything else. You might get lucky and make progress in other areas while you do this. (If that happens, hey, free dummy.) It just means that you accomplish the most when you’re focused.
Make the goals as concrete as possible. “Get stronger” isn’t bad. But “improve my squat by 10 lbs” is better.
step 2: define cycles
Once you have a goal or three, define your microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles.
A microcycle is two or more training sessions which are different from one another. So, for example, let us say that during one week we have workout A, workout B, and workout C, all of which are in some way different from each other. That week is a microcycle.
A mesocycle is a series of microcycles that together form a unit. So, let’s again say we have workout A, B, and C comprising our week-long microcycle. We might then decide to repeat that microcycle for a period of 8 weeks. That 8 weeks is our mesocycle.
A macrocycle is a series of mesocycles which, again, form a unit (have you figured out the oh-so-complicated pattern yet?). Let’s take our 8-week mesocycle and repeat it over a period of 6 months. Maybe that 6 months is part of our offseason for our competitive athlete. Or maybe 6 months is wintertime when you stay in the gym and don’t do outside sports. In any case, 6 months is our macrocycle, composed of 3 eight-week mesocycles, which in turn are built from 8 one-week microcycles.
Let us say that we have as our short-term goal to increase our 1RM squat weight by 10 lbs. Let us say that we have as our long-term goal to compete in a powerlifting competition in one year. Adding that 10 lbs. might be the work of one mesocycle, while competing might be the end result of one or two macrocycles.
forms of periodization
There are many forms of periodization. Here I will deal only with the most basic and common ones: linear and conjugated periodization. I’ll also only use two variables: volume and intensity. We’ll apply these ideas to a hypothetically simplified lifter.
If you are interested in developing more complex periodized programs, check out the work of Tudor Bompa. Bompa is not the only source on periodization (Mel Siff has a good section about it in Supertraining, as do the folks at Ultimate Athlete Concepts), but his works are likely the most easily available to Western readers.
The basic contention of this simplified form of periodization is that volume exists in an inverse relationship to intensity. In other words:
- as volume goes down over a period of time, intensity goes up
- if you’re using heavy weights (i.e. high intensities) you shouldn’t do a lot of volume
- if you’re doing a lot of reps (i.e. high volume) you should use less weight
What does this mean in real terms? Let’s return to our example of increasing 1RM squat weight by 10 lbs. We can play with volume and intensity in a couple of simple ways.
The premise of a simplified linear periodization program is that you start out with high volumes and low intensities. Over time, you increase the intensity and lower the volume. Intensity here is defined as a percentage of the one-rep maximum, or 1RM. Volume can be defined as the total number of reps in a workout (e.g. 3 sets x 10 reps = 30 reps total).
Let’s say we know our 1RM is 100 lbs, just to make it easy.
In our squat example, that might be as follows:
Week 1 – 3 sets x 15 reps @ 55% = 55 lbs
Week 2 – 3 x 12 @ 65% = 65 lbs
Week 3 – 3 x 10 @ 75% = 75 lbs
Week 4 – 3 x 8 @ 80% = 80 lbs
Week 5 – 3 x 6 @ 85% = 85 lbs
Week 7 – 3 x 4 @ 90% = 90 lbs
Week 8 – 3 x 2 @ 95% = 95 lbs
Week 9 – Take the 1 rep max
On week 9, we discover that our new 1-rep max is 110 lbs. Success! Now, we restart our program on week 10 as follows, rounding the weight as needed:
Week 10 – 3 x 15 @ 55% of new 1-rep max = 60 lbs
Week 11 – 3 x 12 @ 65% of new 1-rep max = 70 lbs
And so on.
One major criticism of linear periodization is that it takes too long to get from beginning to end, and that lifters may lose some of what they’ve accumulated along the way. To get around this problem, some folks like to use conjugate periodization, which is organized in sort of a linear way over the mesocycle, but also alternates lighter and heavier days within the microcycle. Lighter days can be endurance days, explosive days, and/or assistance exercise days.
For instance, using our squat as the example:
Monday (heavy): 3 x 2 @ 80%
Thursday (light-speed): 3 x 5 @ 50%, explosive reps
Monday (heavy): 3 x 2 @ 85%
Thursday (light-speed): 3 x 5 @ 55%, explosive reps
And so on.
More on conjugate periodization:
Dan John’s newsletter (PDF)
Dave Tate (Elite FTS) on conjugate method
how do you know it’s working?
Using a 1-rep max (or any-rep max) is one good assessment tool. But it doesn’t really matter what type of assessment you use, as long as it’s something that’s reasonably easy to quantify, and something that you measure regularly.
If you find that you consistently overestimate how much progress you’ll make, re-evaluate your workouts/nutrition, re-evaluate the timeframe; and/or re-evaluate your goals. Maybe you aren’t pushing hard enough throughout the mesocycle. Maybe you need a little longer to get where you want to go. Or, maybe your goals are just not feasible within the timeframe. Ninjas were not built in a day!
If you find that you end up overshooting your goal and making too much progress, then… uhmm… well, who complains about too much progress?
Typically, I like to work in shorter cycles (6 weeks) and smaller incremental increases (5 lbs.), but mesocycles can range in length from 4 weeks to 16 weeks. I get bored chasing the same goal for too long, personally, so the shorter cycles allow for a good blend of change and constancy. The longer your mesocycle, the more gains you can plan for. So, for example, you’re quite likely not going to increase your squat 1RM by 20 lbs. in a 6-week cycle, but you may be able to increase it by 20 lbs. in 16 weeks. (Maybe.)
Remember that there are lots of ways to periodize. These range from super-simple to “Annie, get your calculator”. Even having a heavy, medium and/or light day in your workout is a good start.
Just remember the basic principle: volume decreases as intensity increases. When you do your new 1RM, rest a little extra afterwards. The higher the intensity, the greater the demand on the body and mind. Once you’ve rested a little, then start all over again with a new goal.
To recap, the basic principles of this form of periodization:
- Volume decreases as intensity increases
- Base your plan on a projected rep max (RM), most often a one-rep max (1RM), but you can pick another number such as 3RM or 5RM
- Make your projected 1RM relative to the amount of time you plan to use for your mesocycle; in other words, don’t try to add 20 lbs. to your squat in 4 weeks. Roughly a 1 lb. increase per week is a good formula, so 10 lbs. in 10 weeks, 5 lbs. in 5 weeks, etc.
- To calculate the percentages of 1RM from week to week, try this simple formula (there are others, but this one is easy to start wtih). Work towards your projected 1RM in 5% increments and 1-2 reps. When you’re figuring this out on paper, it helps to start with the projected 1RM and work backwards. So, you can easily figure out that on the last week of your cycle, you do 1 rep at 100% of your projected 1RM. Then work backwards from that: the second-last week you do 2 reps at 95% of your projected 1RM, the third-last week you do 3 reps at 90%, the fourth-last week you do 4 reps at 85%, and so forth.
- However, don’t drop your intensity below about 45-50% of current 1RM. Lower than that and you’ll see no benefits.
- Anything can be periodized, but it makes the most sense to periodize major compound lifts.
- Consider your workout plan as a whole. If you’re decreasing volume, make sure you don’t add volume somewhere else (again this rule is not carved in stone, but for a periodization beginner it’s a good guideline). Don’t run a marathon on the same day you take a new 1RM, or your body will be very pissed at you. And if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
- Make clear long-term and short-term goals. If you are just lifting for general strength improvements, and not planning to have a competitive season, the long-term goals need not be as specific as the short-term ones.
- Use outcome-based decision making. In other words, use past progress and experiences to help you judge program success and future changes or improvements. Don’t just change for the sake of change. Keeping a good workout log will help with this.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
me for periodization!
Of course now you want to make your own periodized routine, don’t you, you greedy thing!? Here are some ideas for getting started, and some E-Z periodization calculators! Remember that you don’t necessarily have to periodize the lifts they recommend. You could just as easily substitute other types of presses for bench press, frinstance.
The Texas Powerlifting Scene site has several periodization calculators based on Compensatory Acceleration Training (sounds fancy-cool, don’t it?).
ExRx has a basic powerlifting program based on squat, bench, and deadlift.
My readers are so smart! They make things!
For download (both files in Excel):
From reader Lisa, a 12 week periodization program generator. She writes: “All you have to
do is fill in your Exercises, reps and weights on the first page (tab) ONLY and it generates an entire 12 weeks worth of workouts, alternating from easy high volume to very hard low volume and difficulties and volumes in between. I’ve achieved really incredible results using periodization and I want to take the confusion out of periodization to help others. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out is to get the numbers to round up or down to the nearest
5 lb increment. I created it only for a 3-day split since that’s probably the most common.
From reader Greg, an 8 week periodization program generator. He writes: “Just enter the 1 rep max and it displays all eight weeks’ weights. It even figures out things like the “pause squats” with 70% for that day’s weight.”
From reader Teresa, a revised 4-week program generator. She writes, “I’m only about 5
months into weight training after over 25 years of not ‘working out’ (I’m 48 and on
a weight loss regime). So a slow rotation was not enough of a work out for me. My muscles and the results were showing that I was undertraining. So I rearranged some stuff and customized it to the exercises I like best. There are also some things I can not do due to past injuries (lunges are definitely out). The attached schedule is what I came up with. It really helps me keep the workouts interesting and I definitely see gains each month. Maybe it will help other novices.”