The science of building muscle Part 4: Periodisation

September 10, 2020

The Science Of Building Muscle Part 4: Periodisation

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Increases in muscle mass cannot continue indefinitely with the same training programme. Eventually, gains will occur less frequently, and you will experience plateaus or decrements in performance, increased risk of injury, and other symptoms associated with overtraining, such as a reduction in immune function, reduced levels of the muscle building hormone testosterone, and even a loss of muscle mass (1).

Therefore, in order to achieve long-term gains, you need to apply the principle of ‘variation’ to your training programmes. Although this can be as simple as regularly changing exercises in your workouts and having ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ days, it is best achieved by systematically varying workload by using a technique known as ‘periodisation’ (2).

The Concept Of Periodisation

In short, periodisation is the planned variation in a training programme to maximise performance gains and while minimising the risk of over-training and injury (1). Typically, this involves adjusting the intensity and volume of training.  Studies comparing non-varied and periodised programmes, found that non-varied training programmes can result in training plateaus, whereas periodised programmes provide more consistent gains (3).

Traditionally, periodised resistance training has been used to optimise the development of strength and power in competitive athletes. However, it has also been shown to be effective for recreational and rehabilitative exercise objectives and for building muscle. For example, a study by D’Souza (4) investigated the effects of non-periodised training programmes versus periodised programmes on strength and muscle mass in untrained individuals. The results of the study showed that the periodised programmes elicited greater rates of muscular adaptation compared with the non-periodised programmes.

A number of periodisation models exist. They range from simply alternating hard and easy training sessions to highly complex models employing designated training periods known as micro, meso and macro-cycles, with single to multi-tapering models that elicit peak performance for a single competition or for multiple annual events.

Due to its complexity, an in-depth discussion of periodisation is the beyond the scope of this article. However, we will look at its use for increasing muscle mass.

Periodisation Models

Two of the most commonly used periodisation models are referred to as the classic linear periodisation model (LP) and undulating periodisation (UP), both of which have been shown to increase muscle mass (4,5).

Linear Periodisation

The linear periodisation is characterized by a decrease in training volume and increasing training intensity as the programme progresses. This means that a relatively high total number of repetitions is performed at a low intensity (i.e., lighter load) when the programme is initiated, and as training progresses, the total number of repetitions decreases as the load increases (3).

This method is often used when maximum strength and power are the goals.

For example, a powerlifter employing this method over a six month period in preparation for a competition may begin their programme performing 4 sets of 10 for the first 4 weeks, by weeks 13-16 they may have progressed to 4 sets of 5, and by week 24 they may be performing 3 sets of 2.

Although linear periodisation has been shown to increase muscle mass in beginners (5), the focus on increasingly heavier loads may make it less suitable for building muscle in the long-term and may lead to accumulated neural fatigue caused by extended, ever increasing training loads (3).

Undulating Periodisation

Undulating periodisation (UP) involves the manipulation of the training variables over a much briefer period. In practical terms, this means changing the repetitions performed and load lifted for each workout (6). This provides greater variation in volume and training intensity over a relatively short period. For example, an individual may perform 4 sets of 6 RM on the first workout of the week, 3 sets with a 10 RM on the next training day and 5 sets with a 3 RM on the last training day of the week (3).

UP’s frequent variation in training stimulus, may not only help to prevent plateaus but may also help to maintain an individual’s interest and motivation for long-term resistance training (7).

Perhaps the easiest way of applying some of undulating periodisation for building muscle is to vary the training load over a 4-week period. For example:

Week 1 – medium (8-12 RM)

Week 2 – heavy (5-8 RM)

Week 3 – light (12-20 RM )

Week 4 – medium (8-12 RM)

This provides a variety in training load within a range that can increase muscle mass.

Unloading

A phase referred to ‘unloading’ should be included in a periodised programme to help avoid plateaus and over-training and to enhance performance and recovery. Typically, this lasts for a week and involves a reduction in training load (3).

There are a number of approaches you can employ to unload. The most common involves maintaining the same volume but reducing the load by an average of 30-40% (3). So, if you normally perform 10 reps to failure with 100kg, you would reduce the weight by 30-40kgs but still perform the same amount of reps. Therefore, you’re not working to failure.

You may also choose to reduce the volume of your training (i.e., the number of sets). Alternatively, you may choose to swap resistance training for a completely different activity, such as bodyweight circuits, swimming or some other recreational activity.

When To Unload

Unloading typically occurs every 4-6 weeks, but can be as infrequently as every 12 weeks. The precise time would depend on an individual’s fitness level and the intensity of their programme. Competitive athletes often plan an unloading week between different phases of their programme to prepare the body for the increased demands of the next phase e.g., between the basic strength and the power phases (3).

There are a number of signs that you need to be aware of that may indicate the need to unload. These include an unexplained reduction in performance, joint soreness, lack of motivation, and tiredness (6).

Summary

Research tells us the variety is essential for long-term gains in muscle mass. This can take many forms from having ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ days, cycling exercises in and out of your programme and periods of not working to failure to complex periodised programmes. With experience, you will find which is the right approach for you.

 In Part 5 of this series we will look at the use of specialised training techniques to maximise muscle mass.