Let me share with you an email I received last week from an employee. It stated, “I would love a Words of Wellness on Periodization of your workout program for building mass, how long each period should be and what rep ranges, rest periods, frequency, sets and the splits should be for each.”
He also asked what my take was on hitting each muscle group really hard once a week versus performing a split where you hit each group two to three times a week with scaled back volume.
Those are great questions.
Let me start with the definition of periodization. The basic principles of training are frequency, duration, intensity, variation, and, most importantly, specificity. These principles should be considered in all training programs and applying them properly reduces the potential for overtraining. The concept of periodization was originally introduced by Lev Pavlovich Matveyev in 1961. The concept embodies and manipulates these basic principles in a way which may reduce the chances of overtraining and brings performance to the optimum levels.
Matveyev’s basic concepts are still present in today’s training where volume (reps) is high in the beginning of the program and decreases toward the end of the program. Cycles of a program can be listed as:
Microcycles: short cycles of 1 to 5 weeks
Mesocycles: medium cycles of 6 to 15 weeks
Macrocycles: yearly cycles of 16 to 52 weeks
This type of periodization is called The Linear Method Block, where you go from a block of hypertrophy to a block of strength and then a block of power. But a disadvantage of this type of Periodization is that while developing one block, the other blocks decrease or fall off to some degree.
That’s where the Conjugated Sequence Method comes into play and is by far the more popular of the two. This method develops one block or skill while maintaining others. During the Conjugated Method one can use different sequences of blocks and with shorter durations.
Example: One week would be the hypertrophy phase, the next phase would be one week of strength, then you would go back to hypertrophy the following week. One may even change the volume (reps) in the same week.
With the Conjugated Method one is also constantly rotating and changing exercises.
For one week, you may want to do a 1RM (1 rep max) or perform a max for reps on the Box Squat. The next week, perform the same but change the exercise to the safety squat bar. The following week, you could perform front squats for a 1RM or for a rep max. For fitness or bodybuilders, you could perform 8-12 reps, for 1-2 weeks, then reps of 45 seconds the next 1-2 weeks. But don’t be creative for the sake of being creative. Be creative to help you reach predefined goals.
If your goal is mass, as the email stated, then there are a couple of ways to go about this. First, there is what’s called “Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy,” which is muscle mass gained by higher reps. This hypertrophy comes about by an increase in volume of the non-contractile muscle cell fluid called sarcoplasm, which makes up 25-30 percent of the muscle size.
The other type of hypertrophy is called Myofibrillar. This mass comes about by using heavy weight but lifting that weight as fast as possible (1-5 reps). The heavy weight, along with the speed, increases the density of the myofibrils in the muscle fiber.
Rest periods would be determined by the exercises. Common sense would tell you that you need more time between sets of multi-joint exercises like that of the squat or dead-lift than that of a single joint movement such as a tricep extension. Always remember not to let fatigue affect performance.
The frequency of the workout where mass is involved can be anywhere from maxing out once a week on a particular exercise, which can be 1-5 reps, to working out the following session where that exercise is performed and more volume can be added.
As for working different muscle groups or movements, I believe that the muscular system can take a lot of volume up to a certain point, however, it’s the joints that one has to take care of. That’s why I like training an exercise and muscle group for mass only once a week. With athletes, one can go a heavy day the first of the week with high percentages, then a more dynamic or speed day at the latter part of the week with percentages at 30 to 70 percent of one’s 1RM. You can train the abdominals and calves more frequently, but they still need time for recovery between training sessions.
This would also answer the question of hitting a major muscle group hard versus hitting a muscle group 2-3 times per week. The muscles could handle it for a microcycle, but the joints could not. Notice I said microcycle. Soon, the central nervous system would burn out as well. Let’s say that you performed the back squat with a regular bar three times a week during a high volume cycle by doing 5 sets of 10 reps. The back squat three times each week would be pretty hard on the nervous system. However, with reducing the intensity and volume one could squat on a Monday, leg press on a Wednesday and front squat on a Friday, but I would still not recommend that type of training. Like all cycles done too long, soon the body would break down and you would likely get diminishing returns. It’s the old principle, “Something done over and over again, one gets no better at it or doesn’t improve.” I see this in the gym all the time. One must contently be changing. Volume, weight (intensity), exercises, routines, bands/chains—whatever!
Depending on just how much time you have to train each day, the number of sets can range from three on each exercise to 10. In other words, instead of going 3 sets of 10 you could switch it around to 10 sets of 3’s, depending on the amount of volume and intensity desired during a particular training period.
As for the splits, or dividing up different muscle groups where mass is concerned, that also can and should be changed every mesocycle, or when your body lets you know it’s time for a change. Then again, that’s what periodization is about.
Where athletes are concerned (as I stated above), I like the Westside Barbell system developed by Louie Simmons. With this approach, the upper body has heavy days and a speed or dynamic day. This is split with the lower body heavy and speed day. The Westside method would look something like this:
The chart is just a sample and can be modified with exercises added and adjusted many different ways. Many articles have been written on this type of program.
I hope I answered the different questions asked in the email. It was a great question and a great topic.
Overview of Periodization Methods for Resistance Training; By Mladen Jovanovic
Modern Trends in Strength Training, Vol. 1 QFAC, Bodybuilding 2001
Tsatsouline, Pavel, Power to the People, Dragon Door Publications Inc. 2000.
Chip Sigmon (CSCS*D) is the Wellness /Fitness Coordinator for Europa Sports Products.