Straight Out of Line: An Understanding of Periodization

There are only so many hours in the day, only so many day in the week and only so many weeks in the year.   And then there is the fact that there always seem to be so many things to work on, snatches, jerks, cleans, handstands, double-unders and then some where in there we still just want to be able to be stronger and faster.   How do we prioritize? How do we fit it all in? How can I plan to make it all happen?


First, take a deep breath. Fitness is a marathon not a sprint. We don’t have to be better at everything RIGHT NOW.  The journey can be enjoyed just as much. But we can make a plan to make it all so much easier to manage. This is where we start talking about periodization.

Periodization is a systematic shift of training focus through varying training cycles. We only have so much time, and our bodies can only handle so much at a time. We can’t multi-task our lifts, so we have to prioritize. Periodization involves planning “cycles” that allow us to focus on one area at a time so that we can get better over time.

Periodization allows us to manage our load, intensity and recovery.  Periodization can be used to help make sure that we hit our peak performance in time for a competition or event, but not wear ourselves out in the process.  Training can be as general or as sports specific as needed.

Building Blocks

Think about it as building blocks, but we don’t want to just start piling blocks. We start with what we want to accomplish and then we break it down to the pieces that we need to make it all fit.

  • Macrocycle – Long range training cycle (1 year or less) made of several smaller cycles. Usually organized with a goal, competition, or peak in mind.
  • Mesocycle – Mid-range training cycle – Generally 3-4 weeks long and encompassing a specific training focus. Made up of several Microcycles
  • Microcycle – Short-range training cycle – Generally 7-10 days long. May encompass a specific focus, or be part of a larger cycle.
  • Training Session – some people will have one training session a day, others may have two a day and other may only have one every other day. One workout period.

Cycles may rotate to focus on hypertrophy, strength, explosiveness, speed, power, technique, aerobic capacity, sports performance, energy systems or body composition (bulking/cutting).  These length and design of the cycles are based off of the athletes goals and intentions.

Regardless of the design purpose, there are different ways to break up our training though.  The most common are: Linear, Non-Linear , and Block.

Linear Periodization

This is the simplest and most common form of periodization. The basic concept involves a steadily increasing intensity through the course of many microcycles.  One common protocol is to take your big lifts, Bench, Squat, Deadlift, and Strict Press and each microcycle (each week) doing a series of 5 sets of 5 reps of each exercise.

Week 1

  1. Bench: 5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%Linear Progression
  2. Squat: 5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%
  3. Press:  5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%
  4. Deadlift:  5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%

Week 2

  1. Bench: 5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%   Add 5% or 5lbs
  2. Squat: 5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%  Add 5% or 10lbs
  3. Press:  5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%  Add 5% or 5lbs
  4. Deadlift:  5 Sets of 5 Reps @60%  Add 5% or 10lbs

This process can repeat and repeat until the athlete either peaks in time for competition or plateau’s and their body can no longer adapt to the weekly increase in load.  Linear Progression generally progresses through mesocycles focusing on  hypertrophy, maximal strength, and power production.


  • Athletes can see progress for a long time (upwards of a year) before reaching a plateau, and if programmed correctly can overcome plateaus and continue to see progress
  • Programming is easy to implement and progress is easy to track.
  • Widely used by body builders and powerlifters to develop maximal strength and hypertrophy
  • Best utilized for novice and beginning lifters.


  • Very regimented and long process
  • Despite progress can deter some athletes due to lack of variety in program.
  • Strength progress can come at cost of other skills or athletic attributes

Non-Linear Periodization

Sometimes known as undulating periodization, this relies on more frequently rotating micro- and mesocycles. Generally this takes the form of weekly modifications of the training cycles.  This tends to be a common style associated with much Crossfit programming.  Crossfit training is not random, there is a program but it resolves itself to be constantly varied in order to promote constant adaptation.  The strategy is to create enough variation in stressors as to force the body to continually adapt.

An example might be:

  • Week 1: Back Squats – 5 Sets of 5 at 75-80%NonLinear
  • Week 2: Front Squats – 7 Sets of 2 @ 90%
  • Week 3:  Back Squats –  3 Sets of 10 @ 65-75%
  • Week 4:  Over Head Squats – 3 Sets of Unbroken Max Reps at 95lbs.

All of these are working out squat strength and technique but each is a different stressor


  • Allows for flexibility in programming
  • Increased strength and CNS activation
  • Limits plateauing that occurs in more advanced athletes


  • Limited hypertrophy due to lack of consistent stimulus.
  • harder to track weekly progress without re-testing.

Block Periodization

Block Periodization can sometimes be considered the balance between Linear and Non-linear periodization. In this case workout focus changes about every 4-6 weeks. This allows a short range linear style progression through a series of microcycles. This is shorter than the cycles utilized in Linear Periodization, but not shifting as quickly as those in Non-linear Periodization.

Some trainers will utilize a series of rotating Accumulation and Restitution cycles, others will utilize cycles of Accumulation, Transmutation, and Realization.  Either style utilizes the basic premise of programming higher volumes, lower intensity and then building into cycles of more skill specific or explosive/dynamic movement; ending with may intensity and lower volumes.



  • Moderate hypertrophy
  • Easier to track progress
  • Minimal/limited deterioration of other skills


  • Does not produce as much hypertrophy and maximal strength gains as Linear periodization.

How does periodization help me or my athletes?

As a coach/trainer/programmer, there are many things that we have to consider when we working with athletes. The first question is the most important.

What are you training for?

Working out without a goal is just exercise, it requires a goal to be training. There are so many different things that we can look to gain from our training. Strength, Power and Speed, Endurance and aerobic capacity, Fat Loss and body composition, Energy system development, and sports performance.  Training should be created with the focus of reaching the appropriate end state.

The next consideration is the athlete?  Unless someone’s livelihood is based on their performance then life will not revolve around training. For most of us, training will fall a little bit further down the list. Behind all the responsibilities of the rest of our lives. Work, kids, family, etc etc…. Then you have to throw in things like business trips, vacation, holidays, allergies, pregnancy, and anything else that could interrupt a training plan.

We have to keep this in mind when trying to create a program for out athletes.  Unless you have an athlete that can be consistent and regimented for long stretches then Linear Periodization, despite all its benefits may not work.  Non-linear periodization may work for programming for a very varied group but then it becomes easy for people to lose interest, not because the workouts aren’t interesting enough but because progress becomes much harder to track. In many cases, block periodization works well because it is not as regimented as Linear, so if an athlete misses a day then they haven’t missed a big chunk of the program. At the same time, it does provide enough consistency to allow progress to be more readily tracked.

In the end your programming is only as effective as your athletes ability to follow it. We can sit for hours and orchestrate the best program in the world but if it kills your athletes or they lose interest and quit, then you are not helping anybody. At the same time, if you make a program that is always fun and easy then you face the same problem of not eliciting enough adaptation for your athlete to get better.  It is a delicate balance of providing the training that they need to get better and at the same time keeping in the elements that an athlete enjoys.

One of my favorite examples are the days when there would be a 5 or 10k run programmed. Oddly enough, that would be the days that people wouldn’t be able to make it in. But then everyone would show up for 1 Rep Max days.  Going for a new PR is fun, 30 minutes of chasing someone around the block isn’t for most people.

Some times you can use a little creativity and find a way to make it interesting. Make it a game, make it a race,  or you can program and say that it’s a 1 Rep Max day and then watch as everyone shows up and sees 1 mile run for time. I don’t recommend always lying to your athletes, but……sometimes you got to do what you got to do.

Know your athletes, know their level of commitment, and know what you can do to help make your athletes better.






For further Reading

Dave Tate’s Periodization Bible



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