Periodisation techniques in strength training

Periodisation involves the planning of training into different cycles so that athletes peak at optimum times throughout the year. A traditional periodisation approach is to start with high volume / low intensity training and then gradually progress to increase the intensity but reduce the volume.

Periodisation maximises the effect of Selye’s ‘general adaptation syndrome’ (GAS) theory, which argues that the acute effect of exercise is fatigue, followed by adaptation.

However if training occurs in the fatigue window performance will decrease, which may lead to injury or overtraining. Training in the adaptation window will enhance performance, which is the wanted outcome from a periodised training plan.

Basic periodisation

A basic periodisation programme also moves from general to more specific (e.g. speed and power) work as the competition approaches, which is known as linear periodisation (LP). This technique uses training blocks of 4-6 weeks to work on specific fitness parameters.

However endurance athletes may use a reverse linear periodisation (RLP) model as they need to improve local muscular endurance. Therefore endurance athletes may build up to a greater number of repetitions over time instead of decreasing repetitions to increase strength.

In a 15 week study carried out at the University of Arizona, 30 male and 30 female experienced weight trainers were trained according to three different periodisation strategies, as follows:

  • Three five week blocks working from 25 rep max (RM) to 20RM to 15RM (LP technique).
  • Three five week blocks working from 15RM to 20RM to 25RM (RLP technique).
  • A daily undulating programme (DUP) in which the workouts changed on a daily basis from 25RM to 20RM to 15RM and back again.

All groups trained twice a week, using three sets of leg extensions. At the end of the study, all three groups had made progress in muscular endurance, as assessed by the leg extension test, but the RLP group had made the largest gains.

Periodisation for beginners

The most suitable periodisation methods for a beginner would be the LP or RLP methods. This is because inexperienced athletes need time to adapt to training loads and technqiues such as plyometrics, squats and olympic lifts, which are both technically and physically demanding.

This idea was used in a 12 week study by comparing linear with non linear (NL) periodisation techniques in college American football players. The players in each group performed four basic exercises: power clean, squat, push press and bench press. The groups performed the following routines:

  • NL Group - Alternated between 3 x 4-6 reps of 70% 1RM and 3 x 2-4 reps of 90% 1RM.
  • LP Group – Performed three sets of 3-5 reps, 6-8 reps or 4-6 reps, depending on the exercise, all at 80% of 1RM.

At the end of the study period, the players were tested on bench press and squat. While there was no difference between the groups on the bench press results, the LP group increased their squat 1RM by an average of 13.8kg, compared with only 1.6kg in the NL group.

The authors theorised that since all the players were accustomed to the bench press exercise but were relatively inexperienced in the squat, more significant gains were made with the latter. This study showed that gains can be made in season using a basic periodisation strategy.

Figure 1: Fitness-fatigue theory

Fatigue Theory

There is however a problem with Selye’s GAS theory, in that it assumes there is an initial fatigue response followed by a fitness adaptation to training response. By contrast, Bannister created the fitness-fatigue model (see figure 1, above), which suggests that different types of exercise generate different levels of response, and that each training bout gives rise to simultaneous fitness and fatigue responses, the latter exerting a detrimental effect on performance and the former a positive one.

The performance improvement comes later, when the fitness effect has outweighed the fatigue effect, ie the athlete has recovered but the two effects happen together.

This model is different from the GAS theory because it allows athletes to use the different windows after training to perform different training functions, and to schedule their training accordingly.

Instead of treating all fatigue after training as the same, Bannister proposed that different sessions create varying levels and durations of fatigue and fitness.

Scheduling training and sequencing

Training with a high volume will will give rise to a lower, but longer lasting, overall fitness effect where as maximal intensity training has a greater effect on fitness but is less long lasting.

Fatigue following high volume training sets in almost immediately where as there is a delay in fatigue following a maximal intensity session.

Strength training

The effects of maximal strength training fall between those of maximal volume and maximal intensity sessions, with fitness adaptations as well as fatigue delayed. These delayed adaptations to strength training have been found to be greatest after a rest period.

Strength work using eccentric-concentric exercise shows greatest adaptation in speed and strength after 21 days’ rest, while strength work using eccentric or concentric exercises alone shows greatest adaptation 10-14 days later. But just try asking an athlete to take up to three weeks off before competing!

These varying effects of different volume and intensity workouts on fitness and fatigue have implications for scheduling training and for sequencing the order of weight training exercises within a session.

An example of this is complex training, where a strength exercise such as the squat is followed immediately by a power exercise such as the squat jump. This type of training allows a greater performance of the power exercise as the muscles are able to produce more force following the strength exercise. This has however only been evident in trained athletes.

A study by Chiu et al compared the effects of a heavy warm up (5 sets of 1 rep of 90% of 1RM squat) on squat jumps in trained athletes from explosive sports and recreational subjects. The recreational athletes jump performance decreased following the warm up while the trained athletes showed an increase.

So, while the immediate response to the exercise was fatigue for both parties, the trained athletes also experienced an immediate fitness effect, in that they were able to produce more power.

Trying to schedule workouts in a way that produces maximal fitness effects with minimal fatigue is difficult. However, it is the basis for intermediate periodisation strategies. Intermediate trainers use more intensive efforts including bounding, high loads and variations of exercises. Each week rather than each month has a specific purpose (see figure 2), with each new cycle of work increasing in intensity. The recovery week is necessary to allow adaptations to take place.

Figure 2: Intermediate periodisation weekly undulating programme for 8 week cycle

8 week training schedule

Within team sports, weekly schedules are easy to organise, as most matches are played once a week and sport specific training takes place at regular times. By linking in with these weekly cycles, the coach can plan his technical/tactical sessions around the intensity of the players’ conditioning, or the conditioning sessions can be placed before or after the technical sessions.

This concept can also be used so each workout is changed on a daily basis (daily undulating programme, or DUP) so that no one factor is overemphasised. This approach allows sessions to be scheduled in such a way as to capitalise on the fitness effects from the previous session (see table 1 below).

However, it is most useful in circumstances where workouts are closely supervised. In my experience, getting athletes to adhere to a weekly schedule is difficult enough without introducing this level of complication. DUP has been shown to be effective for off-season strength development, possibly because it is simpler to administer when there are fewer competing demands on athletes.

Table 1: Sample daily undulating programme (DUP) of 4 exercises






3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 x 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 x 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
Bench press
3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 x 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 x 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
5 x 5 reps
80% 1RM
6 x 2 reps
90% 1RM
3 x 10 reps
70% 1RM
Clean & jerk
3 x 5 reps
70% 1RM
5 x 3 reps
80% 1RM
6 x 1 rep
95% 1RM
3 x 5 reps
70% 1RM

It is important to keep sight of overall goals rather than individual sessions, and therefore tactical changes sometimes have to be made.

For example, Rugby Union players may experience varying fatigue effects from a game played on Saturday. If it was a forward dominated game, played in wet conditions, the front five may be physically and mentally shattered on the Monday, while the backs remain physically fresh. The coach must then either reschedule the planned workout for the front five or do something different, such as reducing reps or intensity, or organising a recovery session in the swimming pool.

Periodisation for elite athletes: Unidirectional training

Elite athletes who have been training for a long time can perform advanced workouts which vary in both content and workload. They can also focus on unidirectional training where they focus on one aspect of fitness at once for several weeks (e.g. strength) followed by a briefer focus on another aspect such as speed.

This allows a four week period of overreaching to be followed by a two week block with a change of emphasis to allow for recovery and therefore adaptation in performance.

The advantage of this system is that athletes do not suffer as a result of the demands placed on their body by other training. It also offers a period of concentrated training on one aspect, allowing for overloading and a subsequently greater effect on fitness.

Unidirectional training does, however, require an ability to tolerate heavy training loads without breaking down, which is why it should only be used by athletes with an advanced training age. Advanced short term recovery methods should also be used to prevent breakdown.

Short-term performance will suffer as a result of the overreaching part of the cycle, but the overall gains may be higher. Unidirectional training is difficult to use in sports with long seasons and very short off-seasons (such as Rugby Union, football and tennis) as the accompanying short term decrements in performance will be unacceptable to most coaches (not to mention most fans).

However, an off-season of three months can provide adequate time for this approach to work (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Unidirectional training during a 12-week off-season

12 week off season programme

Sessions are planned as follows:

  • Weeks 1-4 – Strength. Four sessions a week strength, 2 sessions technical, 2 sessions speed/agility;
  • Weeks 5-6 – Recovery. Two sessions a week power, 4 sessions technical, 2 sessions speed/agility;
  • Weeks 7-10 – Strength. As weeks 1-4;
  • Weeks 11-12 – Recovery. As weeks 5-6.

While the emphasis of each block is on one aspect of strength/fitness, that does not mean all workouts should be the same.

Advanced athletes have a greater technical ability to perform the more advanced lifts, and require greater variety of exercises and intra-session sequencing to force adaptations within the body and to stay mentally fresh.

It is important to remember that periodisation will not always lead to standardised improvements. Other factors, such as athletes perceptions, non training stressors and technical/tactical issues will also have an impact on the outcome.

Balancing training and recovery

One of the most important parts of periodisation is the balance between training and recovery. More intense training requires greater recovery to allow for adaptation.

It is also important that training is closely supervised by coaches who understand the concepts involved, to avert the risk of physical and mental overload leading to overtraining.

When considering the three different levels of strategies outlined in this article, it is crucial not to think of one as being better than the other, although one may be more appropriate than another.

If you are just starting out, for example, it is not desirable or even possible to train like an élite athlete. All three strategies allow for intense quality workouts, with sport specific training.

However, as training age increases, so does the body’s resistance to training methods. As the athlete’s technical ability and strength improves, so does his or her need for greater variety of exercise to provide new stimuli.

Therefore plan and periodise training based on the level of the athletes with all athletes gradually improving and moving on to more advanced periodisation models.

Courtesy of


1.          Selye H: The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw Hill, 1956
2.          Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (1), 82- 87, 2003
3.          Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (3), 561-565, 2003
4.          Bannister, EW: Modelling élite athletic performance. In: Physiological Testing of The High- Performance Athlete. MacDougall et al, eds, Champaign IL: Human Kinetics
5.          European Journal of Applied Physiology, 89, 42- 52, 2003
6.          Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (4), 671-677, 2003
7.          European Journal of Applied Physiology, 77 (1-2), 176-181, 1998
8.          Schlumberger & Schmidtbleicher: Development of dynamic strength and movement speed after high-intensity resistance training. In: Proceedings of the International Conference on weightlifting and Strength Training. K Hakkinen, ed Finland: Gummerus, 1998
9.          Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35 (1), 157-168, 2003
10.     Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 15 (1), 172-177, 2001
11.     Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 14 (1), 14- 20, 2000
12.     Verkoshansky YV: Programming and Organization of Training. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press 1988
13.     Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (4), 734-738, 2003

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