The purpose of this article series is twofold. First, the article will discuss periodization, specifically focusing on the concept of undulating periodization. Second, the article will look at the need for strict training supervision and will make the argument that high quality supervision is especially important when using undulating periodization. This need for stringent supervision during undulating periodization is due to the need for adhering to precise training guidelines to differentiate between the various training protocols within the undulating training program design.
Definition of Periodization
Periodization can be defined as a logical phase method of manipulating training variables in an effort to increase the potential for achieving specific performance goals (19, 20). More specifically, periodization has been described as the planned manipulation of training variables to maximize training adaptations and to prevent overtraining (4).
The concept of periodization can be traced back to Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (18). This syndrome theorizes that systems adapt to stresses they are exposed to in an attempt to meet the demands of the stressor (18). The objective of the periodization concept is to optimize the principle of “overload,” the process by which the neuromuscular system adapts to unaccustomed loads or stressors. This optimization of the overload process is accomplished with frequent manipulation of the training variables so that the neuromuscular system does not have a chance to become accustomed to the applied stresses. This frequent variation is also thought to be beneficial by adding variation to workouts so as to avoid staleness and plateaus in strength gains (18).
It needs to be acknowledged that despite the fact that periodization has become common among strength and conditioning coaches and athletes scientific research concerning periodized strength training is sparse (5, 9, 22). This is supported by Stone et al (20) who pointed out that despite the wide acceptance and use of periodization actual research concerning periodized strength training is minimal. As suggested by Stone et al (20), most of the information concerning periodization is the result of observational evidence, anecdotal data, inference from related studies and a few mesocycle length periodized studies.
The basic principle of periodization involves a gradual shift in emphasis from a high volume of training (exercises x sets x repetitions) and low intensity (percentage of maximum effort) to a low volume and high intensity of training (11). The training year is divided into mesocycles, each mesocycle signals a change in the volume and intensity of training. Normally each mesocycle reflects a specific training goal for the respective period of training.
The two primary goals of periodization are (a) decreasing the opportunity for overtraining and (b) achieving a peak level of physical preparedness at the correct time and, for sports that have a specific season, maintaining that peak for the duration of the season (20). These goals are accomplished by correctly manipulating the training variables.
The decreased opportunity for overtraining is the result of the variation that occurs as a part of a periodized training program, not only from training cycle to training cycle but day to day variation as well (21). This variation seems to be especially important for highly trained strength and power athletes. In terms of peaking for performance research has demonstrated that even during a short period of time (7 to 12 weeks) a periodized program produces superior results as compared to a non-periodized program, especially in previously trained subjects (9, 21, 22).
The typical progression through the mesocycles of a linear periodization model starts with a preparatory or hypertrophy cycle, characterized by a high volume and low intensity of training (1, 11, 18). The goal during this period is to increase muscle mass and/or increase muscle endurance. Following this initial training cycle are typically two strength and strength/power cycles where volume gradually decreases and intensity gradually increases. Off-season training typically concludes with a peaking phase where the athlete prepares for a single competition (e.g., conference championship track meet) or moves into in-season training cycles (e.g. basketball) meant to maintain the increases in strength and power that have occurred during the previous training cycles (1, 11, 18). This progression is demonstrated in Table 1 below, adapted from Stone et al.
This classical approach to periodization has been dubbed linear because it is characterized by progressive increases in intensity while simultaneously reducing training intensity. In actuality the term “linear” periodization is a misnomer because by definition any periodization model is nonlinear made up of nonlinear variation in program design (7). Indeed, a basic tenet of periodization is nonlinearity (20-22).
This classical approach, as described above, is representative of two common mistakes seen in periodized programs (10). First, there is a continuous increase in intensity, allowing little time for regeneration or recovery. Second, the increase in hypertrophy that occur early in the training program is poorly maintained in periods of training where sets of five and fewer repetitions are performed, because volume is a prerequisite for best increases (and maintenance) in muscle mass (10).
To address these possible limitations of linear periodization a new periodization model, known as undulating periodization, was developed. The undulating periodized method is characterized by greater variations in volume and intensity through the duration of a training cycle (18). It was rationalized that short durations of training aimed at the hypertrophic response, alternated with short durations of training aimed at the neural response, would provide a better method than linear periodization (18). The reason for this belief is that prolonged linear intensification leads to neural fatigue which could compromise increases in strength. By alternating between high volume/low intensity training (hypertrophy/muscle endurance) and low volume/high intensity training (strength/power) neural fatigue is avoided and better increases in strength and power will occur (18).
In a linear periodized model these alternations in training emphasis occur after a period of several weeks or months of training. In contrast, with undulating periodization these alternations occur within the same week or even a daily basis (18). For example, training variables can be adjusted so that athletes perform sets of 12-15 repetitions on Monday, sets of 8-10 on Wednesday and sets of 3-5 on Friday. This program design would place considerable stress on the neuromuscular system because of the continuous large scale changes in program design. Theoretically it is this high level of stress that makes the program effective, resulting in enhanced increases in strength while avoiding plateaus in their training program (18).
Using this type of program design that alternates the stressors with daily manipulations of volume and intensity is common among strength and conditioning coaches in Eastern Europe, West Germany and Canada (17). Since linear overloading is hardly advisable to the athlete, the undulating approach should offer a more successful approach (16).
Another limiting aspect of linear periodization is that it may not be appropriate for all sports. Emphasizing a specific physiological training goal for an extended period of time to the exclusion of other physiological training goals for certain types of athletes may not be appropriate (7). For example, an ice hockey athlete needs a good level of basic strength but also needs high levels of power and muscular endurance because of the demands of the sport. Focusing on just one of these physiological components for an extended period of time (i.e., strength) while ignoring the other two components (i.e., power and muscular endurance) would not be advantageous for performance. This is in agreement with Gamble (7), who suggests that emphasizing a particular training goal for an extended period of time (as what occurs in linear periodization) to the exclusion of other aspects of performance will tend to be impractical when training certain types of athletes.
Undulating periodization has the benefit of promoting concurrent development of dissimilar fitness or performance capabilities, for example muscular endurance and power. Undulating periodization characterized by frequent adjustments in program variables theoretically could be used to elicit a specific array of physiological goals (16).
Such a goal would be incompatible with traditional linear periodization models which are designed to focus on a singular physiological adaptation in each training cycle (16). However, for athletes involved in a long season, where each contest is of equal importance, this may not be appropriate. For example, a football athlete, who may need high levels of hypertrophy to maintain adequate bodyweight, strength and power would be put at a competitive disadvantage if their in-season training focused exclusively on high intensity low volume strength and power training while ignoring the need for high volume training to adequately maintain muscular hypertrophy (7, 16).
If the undulating periodization program is carefully planned to result in diverse physiological adaptations, and the training variables are carefully manipulated to achieve the desired goals, simultaneous improvement in dissimilar adaptations is a realistic goal. A training program that utilizes this approach is potentially superior for athletes who require a multidimensional approach for optimal performance as compared to a non-undulating training program (16).
From a theoretical point of view, undulating periodization makes sense because of a superior stimulus for adaptation as a result of the frequent adjustments in neuromuscular stimulation (16). However, from a scientific basis data evaluating the effectiveness of this approach to periodization is sparse (1, 2, 18), and certainly many professionals believe that training for multiple physiological adaptations (i.e., hypertrophy and power) simultaneously is counterproductive because the extent of the adaptations could be diminished (16).
Kraemer et al. (13) did compare a daily multiple set version of undulating periodization to a non-periodized program in collegiate tennis players over a period of nine months. After testing subjects were divided into two groups. The linear periodized group performed three sets of 8 RM for weeks one through four, three sets of 6 RM for weeks five through eight and three sets of 4 RM for weeks nine through 12. The undulating periodized group followed the same pattern but performed each of the three repetition maximum schemes within the same training week, performing 8 RM during the first session, 6 RM during the second session and 4 RM during the third session. This cycle was repeated for 12 weeks with one week of active rest between weeks five and six.
The linear periodization group increased leg press and bench press over the course of the training program by 14.37 and 25.61 percent, respectively. The undulating periodization group improved in the same two lifts by 28.78 and 55.78 percent, respectively. The reason for the superior performance of the undulating periodization group was not evaluated in this study. It was speculated that, because all the subjects had been involved in a periodized program for two years prior to the study, this change in program design for the undulating group allowed the neuromuscular system to further adapt, resulting in even greater strength gains (13). It was also suggested (13) that it is possible that the greater increases in strength demonstrated by the undulating group were the result of introducing a different periodized program rather than the undulating periodization program being more effective.
Based on the results of this study it was concluded that undulating periodization results in maximal strength gains because of the added stress and variation this type of program design provides (13). As a result those interested in making strength gains might benefit from this type of training, especially those who have been training for a long period of time (13). Undulating periodization might be especially beneficial in helping elite athletes avoid the plateau effect in strength gains that often occurs in long term strength athletes. However further research is required to make this determination (13).
Another study looking at undulating periodization used three groups of athletes performing bench press and squats at various intensities over a six week period (12). Group 1 performed bench press for three sets of 10 at 60 percent of 1M and squats for five sets of three at 85 percent of 1 RM. The second group did just the reverse, performing five sets of three at 85 percent of 1 RM on bench and three sets of 10 at 65 percent of 1 RM on squats. The third group alternated the above methods every two weeks. After six weeks, the smallest increases were seen in the first group. The second group increased the first four weeks and then decreased the second two weeks. The third group, using the undulating method, improved the most (12).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we'll cover how to manipulate training variables and argue the need for strict training supervision during undulating periodization.
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