How to Gain Strength Faster Using Periodization

If you went into a gym and asked some of the guys there what’s their method for adding weight to the bar, they will most likely not have a system for it. They’ll probably say they increase the weight when they feel they can do it or when the reps feel easier.

That’s fine. In the end, getting stronger is what’s important, it doesn’t matter how you do it.

However, the strategy you use for increasing the weights in the gym can have a big impact on your rate of progress.

The progression models most commonly used in training programs are simple and non-periodized. For this post I will call them “constant repetition models”.

Examples of Constant Repetition Models

By constant repetition model I mean doing the same number of sets and reps every time an exercise is performed. The goal is to either add weight to the bar while keeping the same number of reps or to do more reps with the same weight.

For example, a gym goer might train chest on Mondays and for incline bench press he might do 3 sets of 6 reps:

Incline Bench Press Workout 2

6 reps x 80 kg / 175 lbs
6 reps x 80 kg / 175 lbs
6 reps x 80 kg / 175 lbs

When he can do 3 sets of 6 he either adds more weight to the bar or tries to do one extra rep in the first set. The next workout he adds 2.5kg or 5 lbs to the bar in each set:

Incline Bench Press Workout 2

6 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
5 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
4 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs

Because the weight is heavier he loses one or two reps in the second and third set. That’s normal. The goal of the following workouts is to add back the reps in the second and third sets until he does 3 sets of 6 again.

Incline Bench Press Workout 3

6 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
5 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
5 reps x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs

When that happens he can increase the weight and repeat the whole process.

This is probably the most widely used progression model in the world. And for good reason – it’s simple and it works!

Another way to progress with constant repetitions is by microloading. Microloading means doing the same number of reps each workout but adding very small plates to the bar every time. Adding only 1 kilogram or 2.5 pounds to the bar is not enough to cause a reduction in reps.

So for 3-5 weeks at a time, you can very slightly increase the weight on the bar using microplates while doing the same number of reps.

This progression model worked great for me when I was doing the Kinobody programs. I was doing reverse pyramid training and every workout I would keep the reps the same but add two very small plates to the bar. At the end of a month of training I would lift about 2.5 kg or 5 lbs more than before.

Countless people have used steady progression models like these to build impressive physiques or reach incredible levels of strength. This is probably how you train as well and you’re happy with the results.

However, while constant repetition models are simple and effective, observations and research show that they are almost always outperformed by periodized models.

Periodization. I’m sure you heard about it before and it was confusing. Let’s explain what it is.

What is Periodization?

Periodization is loosely defined as the way you plan your training (volume, intensity, rest periods, tempo) over time. In way, every progression scheme is periodized because you always have some plan for how you’ll train in the next few months. But to make a distinction for this video we’ll consider the progression schemes that have very little planning to not be periodized.

There are many forms of periodization and I’ll briefly explain some of them in a minute. But what’s important is this: regardless of the periodization model used, research indicates that they almost always produce better gains than constant repetition models.

For example, in this review article, 13 out of the 15 studies examined showed periodization to be produce better gains. And the two studies that showed similar results were both done on beginners, who we all know respond well to any training program. Here are the three most popular forms of periodization:

Linear Periodization

With Linear Periodization you have distinct training cycles 4-6 weeks in length where you start with high volume and low intensity and progress to lower volume and higher intensity.

For example you might do 3 sets of 8 in week one, 3 sets of 7 in week two, 3 sets of 6 in week three, deload, and then start another cycle with a slightly heavier weight than before.

Week 1 – 3 x 8 reps x 60 kg
Week 2 – 3 x 6 reps x 62.5 kg
Week 3 – 3 x 4 reps x 65 kg
Deload
Week 4 – 3 x 8 reps x 62.5 kg
Week 5 – 3 x 7 reps x 65 kg
Week 6 – 3 x 6 reps x 67.5 kg
Deload
etc.

Block Periodization

With block periodization you have distinct blocks of time dedicated to improving an ability.

For example, you might have 6 weeks of training dedicated to improving muscle endurance and work capacity. This would be called a volume accumulation phase. The goal is to become able to lift heavy loads for larger volumes than you could before.

6 Weeks of Volume Accumulation

Week 1 – 50 reps per muscle group x 2 per week
Week 2 – 60 reps per muscle group x 2 per week
Week 3 – 70 reps per muscle group x 2 per week
Week 4 – 55 reps per muscle group x 3 per week
Week 5 – 60 reps per muscle group x 3 per week
Week 6 – 65 reps per muscle group x 3 per week

You might start with a training frequency of two times per week and do 50 reps for each muscle group per workout. Over the next 5 weeks you would slowly increase the number of sets and reps you do per workout instead of adding weight to the bar.

From week 1 to week 3 you would increase the number of reps done per workout by 10.

In week 4 you would increase the training frequency from two times per week to three times per week and reduce the reps done per workout by 15. This way you increase volume further while still ensuring good recovery.

After those 6 weeks you would therefore be able to do twice as many reps with a given weight than you could previously.

After reaching this new level of work capacity, the next 6 weeks could be a block of training dedicated to improving strength – called an intensification phase.

Week 1 – 55 reps x 3 per week
Week 2 – 50 reps x 3 per week
Week 3 – 50 reps x 2 per week
Week 4 – 50 reps x 2 per week
Week 5 and 6 – 40 reps x 2 per week with lower intensity

The work capacity you built previously now supports your strength progression when you steadily increase the weights you’re working with. Because your body can recover from a much higher volume load that you’re doing, it can overcompensate and lead to strength gains instead.

So you might cut back frequency to 2 times per week and bring down volume to 50 reps per muscle group per workout. What you’ll notice is that your strength increases very rapidly.

Block periodization can also be used to develop certain muscle groups. One block where you focus on chest, the next one on developing legs, the next one on developing your back, and so on.

Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP)

Daily Undulating Periodization is a progression model very popular among powerlifters and some bodybuilders. It involves doing the same exercises two or three times per week but changing the rep range every time you train.

For example:
On Mondays you train in the 6-12 rep range with moderate intensity, focusing on hypertrophy.
On Wednesday you train in the 1-3 rep range with moderate-high intensity, focusing on power and technique.
On Friday you train in the 1-6 rep range with high intensity, focusing on strength.

Hypertrophy, Power, Strength DUP

Mondays 6-12 rep range, moderate intensity
Wednesdays 1-3 rep range, moderate-high intensity
Friday 1-6 rep range, high intensity

Each time the muscle is hit with a different stimulus.

Why does Periodization Produce Better Gains?

What’s interesting about periodization models is that they seem to produce better strength gains even when volume and intensity are matched.

In a study by Rhea et al. two group of people trained their bench press and leg press for 12 weeks – one group using a non-periodized progression model and the other group an undulating periodized program.

Guess what happened?

The periodized group made twice the gains even if training volume and average intensity was the same!

Here are the details:

The non-periodized group trained each movement with the same number of sets and reps three times per week. They did 3×8 three times per week for 4 weeks, then 3×6 three times per week for 4 weeks, and then 3×4 three times per week for 4 weeks.
Their Bench Press increased by 14% and their Leg Press by 25% on average.

The undulating periodization group changed the weight and rep range every time they trained. They did 3×8 for each movement one day, 3×6 the next training day, and 3×4 the last training day of each week. They continued with that pattern for the 12 weeks of the study.
Their Bench Press increased by 28% and their Leg press by 55% on average.

That’s a big difference! So how can we explain these results?

The physiological explanation is that periodizing your training reduces the repeated bout effect. The repeated bout effect means that your muscles respond less and less every time you expose them to the same stimulus. So by changing the rep range often your muscles respond more strongly to the training stimulus because it’s new every time.

Greg Nuckols analyzed this study in an article called “In Defense of Program Hoppers” and he concluded that this simple explanation cannot fully account for such a big difference in the progress made by the two groups. He argued that the main advantage of periodization is most likely psychological.

Doing the same workout over and over again becomes boring and stressful.

Imagine that for the next 6 months you had to train the same way every workout – 3 sets of 6. No matter how you felt, you would go in the gym and push as hard as you can to add weight to those 3 sets of 6.

At some point you’d feel mentally exhausted. For example, after a personal record that took a lot of effort you would doubt that you can surpass your previous performance.

Periodizing your training allows you to get excited about each one of your workouts. You’re never doing the same thing and you can always progress in some way. By decreasing the number of reps, you can lift more weight and that makes you excited. By going back to a higher number of reps, you get excited to see if you can lift more than last week.

Enjoyment and novelty can impact training performance. If your workout routine seems fresh and challenging, it will seem easier and you’re going to put more effort into it.

It may very well be that variety is the factor that improves results, not periodization per se. However, that variety needs to be planed. If you change your training too often or without following a logical scheme your body will not have time to adapt to what you’re doing. That’s why people who change their routines too often don’t see good results.

But it all sounds so complicated…is it worth it?

My approach to fitness is to put lifestyle first. The main goals I have in life are not fitness related and I know this is the case for the majority of my audience as well. So I always strive for simplicity in the nutrition and training programs I create.

For a long time I didn’t want to learn about periodization because I thought it was overly complicated and did not fit my philosophy. Who cares about a slight improvement in results if that makes me obsessed about training?

But then I read Eric Helm’s book The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid and I realized periodizing your training is actually simple. It takes no more effort than simply tracking your workouts.

Here’s how the periodization model I use now looks like:.

workout 1 – 8, 8, 8 x 80 kg / 175 lbs
workout 2 – 7, 7, 7 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
workout 3 – 6, 6, 6 x 85 kg / 185 lbs
workout 4 – 6, 6 x 80 kg / 175 lbs
workout 5 – 8, 8, 8 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
workout 6 – 7, 7, 7 x 85 kg / 185 lbs
workout 7 – 6, 6, 6 x 87.5 kg / 190 lbs
workout 8 – 6, 6 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs

In the first week of the month you choose a weight you can do 3 sets of 8 with without hitting failure or needing a spot.
In the second week you increase the weight by 5 lbs or 2.5 kg and do 3 sets of 7. So you increase the weight but decrease the reps by one.
In the third week you do the same. You increase the weight by 5 lbs or 2.5 kg and do 3 sets of 6. You increase the weight but decrease the reps by one.
The fourth week is a deload week where you cut the number of sets in half and use a lower weight.
In the 5th week you start the cycle all over again but this time with a weight that’s 5 lbs or 2.5kg heavier than the previous month.

Of course, thing don’t always go as planned. Sometime your workout may go like this:

workout 1 – 8, 8, 8 x 80 kg / 175 lbs
workout 2 – 7, 6, 6 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs (instead of 7, 7, 7)

Instead of doing 3 sets of 7 you do 7, 6, 6. What happens now?

It’s simple, you keep the same weight for the next workout but drop a rep:

workout 1 – 8, 8, 8 x 80 kg / 175 lbs
workout 2 – 7, 6, 6 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
workout 3 – 6, 6, 6 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
deload – 6, 6 x 80 kg / 175 lbs
workout 5 – 8, 8, 8 x 80 kg / 180 lbs
workout 6 – 7, 7, 7 x 82.5 kg / 180 lbs
workout 7 – 6, 6, 6 x 85 kg / 185 lbs
deload – 6, 6 x 80 kg / 175 lbs

What’s important, is that you do not go to failure trying to complete the reps. If you see the second to last rep was very difficult, it’s better to stop the set there instead of grinding the last rep.

This is the training style I picked up from the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid. It is also the training style my ShredSmart Program is built around.

I’ve been doing it for about 8 months and what I’ve noticed is that I no longer plateau on the main exercises. The progression is much more predictable and I’m more relaxed in the gym.

I remember that when I trained using reverse pyramid training and microloading I was always stressed before the main lifts. That’s because I was afraid of failure. There was a pattern that frustrated me.

I would make good progress for 4-5 weeks and then out of nowhere I would lose a bunch of strength and spend the next 3 weeks building back up. I now know it was because I never took deloads. I thought I could push for progressive overload continuously but it’s not possible. At some point fatigue catches up to you and you lose strength. I’m going to address the importance of deloads in depth in a future video.

So, if you:

  • Get bored from doing the same number of sets and reps every week
  • Plateau often
  • Lose strength unexpectedly
    I encourage you to try this progression model. It should fix all these problems.

Now, the best approach for really advanced bodybuilders is to combine elements of all forms of periodization. So doing block periodization that includes DUP and linear progression. Eric explains how to do that in his book. But I believe it’s unnecessary for most of us and too complicated to apply. Besides if your full time job is not working out, you will most likely miss workouts and mess up the whole model.

For the average intermediate and advanced-intermediate applying just the linear periodization model should be enough to avoid plateaus and speed up progress.


If you want to learn exactly how to set up your routines using a periodization model I highly recommend you read my ShredSmart Program or Eric’s book The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid. Not only that but you will learn what to do if you can’t progress from month to month or if you miss a workout.

ShredSmart is suitable for intermediates and lifestyle oriented people while The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid is suitable for advanced lifters looking to optimize their training as much as possible. The choice is yours.

1 Comment

  1. Boryah on May 17, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Hi Radu
    Is workout 1=week 1?
    i train each body part twice a week, so
    How to progress?
    Every week or every workout?
    If every workout than the 5 week cycle will decrease to 2.5-3 week is it ok?

    Also check the lbs in the example you given there is a typo.
    Great content as always.

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