DPT-406- Exercise Prescription: Periodisation

You must first complete DPT-405- Exercise Prescription: Muscular Strength & Power before viewing this Lesson

When planning resistance training programmes, variety is a key factor in long term progression. A fundamental mistake of many trainers is to assume that there is one ‘magic’ workout that will deliver results to all of their clients. This approach is extremely limited and unproductive in the long term. Any resistance training programme is little more than a stimulus for the body to adapt to, and if long term progression is to be achieved, the stimulus must be changed on a regular basis (Kraemer, 2004). Resistance training programmes can be separated into training blocks that can be performed for a period of time in order to elicit an adaptive response. These blocks of training can be referred to as training phases or cycles. 

Each training phase can be viewed as a stressor that the body needs to cope with. The way in which the human body reacts to a stressor over time has been famously explained by Hans Seyle (Wathen et al, 2000). Seyle’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), although not originally designed for exercise, has been used to explain the need for variation within training programmes. The figure below provides a graphic depiction of the GAS.

The GAS starts with the introduction of a stimulus (exercise programme) that is novel or new to the individual (Kraemer, 2004). Initially, this new stimulus will lead to a decrease in performance during a period known as the alarm phase. This phase may last several days to several weeks. During this period, the client may experience fatigue, stiffness and soreness and a temporary drop in physical performance (Wathen et al, 2000). 

If the individual is able to cope with the new stimulus (i.e. survive it), the alarm phase will be followed by a period of adaptation. During the adaptive phase the body initiates a variety of biochemical, neural, structural and mechanical adjustments that lead to enhanced physical performance (Wathen et al, 2000). After a period of continuous exposure to the same stimulus, the rate of adaptation will slow down and eventually reach a plateau (Kraemer, 2004). Once a plateau has been reached continued exposure to the stimulus will result in the exhaustion phase. This is due to the inability of the body to tolerate the cumulative stress of the same stimulus over a period of time (Kraemer, 2004; Wathen et al, 2000). 

The exhaustion phase is characterised by a decrease in physical performance, as well as monotony, soreness and fatigue (Wathen et al, 2000). Continuing to apply the same stimulus through the exhaustion phase can eventually lead to a number of detrimental conditions. If the training stimulus is not removed or altered, or if active rest is not promoted, the client can become sick, injured or experience acute overtraining (Kraemer, 2004). The key aim of any periodised programme should therefore, be to maximise the adaptation phase and avoid exposure to the exhaustion phase. In order to achieve these aims, the trainer must ensure that periods of rest are scheduled into the periodised programme, and that the stimulus is changed on a regular basis. If the body is allowed a brief period of recuperation at the end of each training phase, it will be primed to receive and adapt to the next progressive training stimulus.

It is also important to mention at this stage that persevering with the same stimulus over a period of time may lead to a lack of progress for another reason. If an individual fails to change a workout significantly over a period of time and consistently fails to work hard within each workout session, the stimulus may not be significant enough to elicit an alarm stage (see GAS). This scenario would lead to a lack of progress, as there is no challenging stimulus that would necessitate adaptation within the body. Realistically, this situation is more common than clients consistently flirting with the overtraining scenario.  

Kraemer (2004) states the case for using the GAS as a theoretical framework for periodising training programmes. He suggests that the GAS emphasises the need for variation in training and more importantly, the need for withdrawal of the stressor at some point if the exhaustion phase is to be avoided. These two points reinforce the need for using a variety of exercises, set and rep schemes and so on, as well as programming recovery periods into the long term exercise schedule. 

The figure on the next page depicts the GAS as applied to a sequence of four consecutive and progressive phases of training. Assuming that the end of each phase contains an active rest period (e.g. an easier week), it is clear to see how the body can adapt to a series of progressive and challenging exercise stimuli. The programmed rest period allows the client to recover from the adaptation phase and get ready to tackle another training phase but from a higher level of adaptation (Kraemer, 2004). In this way, the muscular fitness levels of the client can be progressed over a period of time.

Practical application of periodisation requires the phasic manipulation of intensity and volume in order to build towards an overall objective. As discussed previously, it is not physiologically possible to continue to adapt to a training stimulus indefinitely. Attempting to do so is likely to lead to mental boredom, physical fatigue, decline in performance, injury and overtraining. 

The trainer should be aware that a long term training period (e.g. a training year) could be broken down into distinct phases. Traditionally, using the periodisation model, the long term training period can be split into the following phases or cycles.

Periodisation-specific terminology for training phases


Macro and Mesocycles

The macrocycle is the largest division of the periodised training schedule. The macrocycle is generally an expression of the overall training objective of the client.  When training for sports or athletic events a macrocycle will typically last for a year, although it can be longer. Elite athletes will often employ a four year macrocycle plan that builds towards an Olympic or world championship event. The macrocycle, or long term objective, can be broken down into a series of progressive mesocycles. Typically, a mesocycle will last several weeks to several months (Wathen et al, 2000). It is the mesocycle that is often referred to as a training phase.

A typical training phase should generally last 4-8 weeks. However, novice clients may continue to achieve progress on a new stimulus for longer periods (i.e. 8 weeks plus) whereas, very advanced clients may require shorter training phases in order to sustain progression, (i.e. 4 weeks or less). As well as adhering to the majority of the research based advice regarding phase length, the 4-8 week training phase guideline fits conveniently into the calendar monthly cycle. This can make the various training cycles easier to track and potentially easier to sell from a commercial point of view.  

By strategically varying the objective of each training phase the trainer can build logically towards the overall macrocycle objective. Simplistically, this progression should follow the basic progression pyramid approach as outlined previously. The client needs to ‘earn the right’ to progress to the top of the pyramid by performing the base layers first. The general sequence of endurance, hypertrophy, and strength should be adhered to. 

When planning to vary the training objectives for each training phase the trainer should adopt a logical approach. Key points to consider are making the intensity and volume increments manageable. For example, it would not be advisable to progress from a basic whole body endurance programme straight into a full hypertrophy based split routine. The jump in volume and intensity would be too much to handle.    

Implementing changes from one training phase to the next affords the trainer the opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of the periodisation concept. The table below shows set and rep schemes for the different resistance training objectives, however it should be noted that these are guidelines only and should be adapted to meet the requirements of the individual client. 

Training GoalStrengthHypertrophyEndurance
Load as % of 1 RM>85%67-85%<67%
Reps / duration1-56-1212+
Recovery between sets3-5mins1-2mins30-60seconds
Sets per exercise2-63-62-3
Frequency per muscle group1-2 x perweek1-2 x perweek2-3 x perweek

Resistance training guidelines

Consider the example in the table on the next page. In this case study, the client is a bodybuilder wishing to return to training after a long lay off period. Hypertrophy training requires moderate intensity and high volume. This client will need to build up both variables progressively in order to prepare the body for muscular gains and avoid injury and overtraining during the hypertrophy phases to follow.

Starting at the base of the basic progression pyramid, the programme initially focuses on developing muscular endurance. Within the initial endurance phases the intensity (weight) and volume (sets) progresses in preparation for the more challenging work to follow. 

A key area in this client’s long term periodisation plan is the transition from muscular endurance training to the hypertrophy phases. In order to make this transition smoothly a phase has been included that combines the hypertrophy and endurance guidelines. This phase has been entitled strength endurance. The strength endurance phase utilises hypertrophy intensity (weight and rep range), while maintaining the volume at manageable levels. This will allow the client to develop adequate tissue tolerance, anaerobic fitness and strength in the connective tissues in order to be able to handle the full hypertrophy workload.  

An additional key point to note from this example is the progression from hypertrophy in August, to a basic strength phase in September. Although this client’s overall objective is hypertrophy, a strength phase would be of benefit, as it would enhance neural pathways and motor unit recruitment, thus promoting enhanced force production. The change of stimulus to strength may directly lead to some hypertrophy; however it would also allow subsequent hypertrophy phases to be performed with greater force production potential (i.e. greater levels of strength). This may enable the client to recruit and subsequently fatigue higher threshold motor units during hypertrophy work, thus enhancing muscle growth potential. 

A final area to note in this periodised example is the change from the strength phase in September to the endurance phase in October. This marked decrease in intensity would provide the client’s body with an opportunity to recover from the rigours of a nine month incremental training schedule. This phase would be of additional benefit as it would allow the client to make a direct comparison between their October training status, and their fitness levels from a similar phase performed eight months earlier (phase E2b). Such direct comparisons can prove highly motivational and spur the client on to attain new levels of success. 

MesocycleSets/muscleRep rangeObjectiveNotes
E1215-20EnduranceWhole body
E2a2-312-15EnduranceWhole body
E2b3-412-15EnduranceWhole body
SE13-48-12Strength-endurance2 way split
H15-68-12Hypertrophy3 way split
H26-86-8Hypertrophy3 way split
BS14-84-5Basic strength2 way split
E33-412-15EnduranceWhole body
H26-88-12Hypertrophy3 way split

Review of set and rep schemes for periodised training year

By reviewing the previous example of a periodised training year for a bodybuilder returning to training, it is clear to see the benefits of logically including training phases outside of the client’s desired repetition range. It is important that the trainer understands the basic concept of periodisation in order to make logical inclusions in training schedules that are justifiable and achieve a deliberate aim. 

Stimulus-fatigue-recovery-adaptation model: 

When planning a resistance-training programme it is vital that the trainer understands the importance of recovering between workouts. The trainer should take steps to build sufficient recovery in to the microcycle schedule, i.e. the timeframe between repeating the same workout should be sufficient to allow recovery.  The diagram below illustrates how the fitness capacity of the body responds to a series of appropriately spaced resistance training sessions.

As depicted above, in the short term, fitness levels actually decline immediately following a challenging resistance training session. Imagine an individual attempting to repeat an intense resistance workout one hour after finishing the previous one. Fatigue will prevent that individual from repeating the same physical performance within such a brief timeframe. The individual would need to complete a minimum period of recovery prior to replicating (or exceeding) the previous exercise performance. This is why the variable of workout frequency is an important variable to consider when designing resistance training programmes.

The stimulus-fatigue-recovery-adaptation model suggests the processes that the body goes through in order to attain an elevated fitness level within the confines of a microcycle (i.e. from workout to workout). The stimulus (the workout) induces fatigue in the individual while simultaneously initiating a series of underlying physiological mechanisms i.e. biochemical, neural, hormonal (Stone, 2004). During the recovery phase these physiological mechanisms promote adaptations that allow the individual to perform at a higher level. This adaptation can be termed ‘supercompensation’ (Zatsiorsky, 1995). This process is dependent on three key variables:

  • the stimulus must be sufficient to cause fatigue and induce an adaptation (i.e. overload must be incrementally applied within the microcycles)
  • the recovery timeframe (i.e. the time between workouts) must be adequate to allow recovery and adaptation
  • the nutrition of the individual must be sufficient to support both the training and the recovery processes

If the recovery and adaptation processes are not permitted to occur on a session to session basis then a lack of long term progress will prevail. The inability to recover from an exercise stimulus could be due to excessive exercise frequency, volume and intensity, or due to inadequate nutrition and rest. This is why the trainer must plan logical and achievable workload increments, while simultaneously ensuring the nutrition and recovery bases are covered. A prolonged attempt to push an individual physically without permitting adequate recovery and nutrition will inevitably increase the risk of overtraining.

Microcycles – variable progressions:

As well as appreciating how to strategically plan training phases in order to progress a client over time, the trainer must also appreciate the importance of making appropriate session to session progressions. The success of any training programme is largely dictated by the very small performance increments that are made during each workout. The principle of progressive overload suggests that the client should strive to improve their previous workout performance on a regular basis. This could mean achieving one extra repetition, or performing the same number of reps with a marginally heavier load. 

Short term or microcycle progressions can be planned much in the same way as a sequence of progressive training phases. There are various short term loading patterns that can be used to achieve progress. Some popular examples have been given below.

Deadlift – workout frequency = 2 x per week

Step loading set and rep progression

Note the following points within this weekly microcycle progression pattern:

  • the resistance increments are very small from week to week – this is vital to allow progression
  • the client is exposed to the same stimulus twice prior to an intensity increase. This is to allow enough time for adaptation to occur
  • the final week of this training phase (week 4) is a recuperation week. The volume of work is decreased to allow some recovery. In this example, the intensity has also been decreased slightly. The recuperation week allows the next phase to be tackled with regenerated adaptive reserves

The diagram below shows three training phases performed back to back in a step loading fashion. The strategic inclusion of a recuperation microcycle (week) at the end of each phase promotes recovery within the process of the progressive three month block of training. Also note how each new training phase can start from the highest training load of the previous phase due to the inclusion of the recuperation weeks. This training format allows for new performance levels to be achieved and built upon over a prolonged period of time.  

Reverse step loading:

An alternative loading pattern for short term progression is reverse step loading. Bompa (1999) reports that several Eastern European weightlifting nations have employed this method to improve strength for competition. The figure overleaf depicts three consecutive training phases employing a reverse step loading microcycle pattern. The basic premise of reverse step loading is that the individual plans to tackle their heaviest load immediately following a recuperation period. This should ensure that they are physically fresh when undertaking the most challenging element of each training phase.

Linear and Non-linear Periodisation 

Most traditional models of periodisation are linear models. With linear periodisation each training phase has a specific objective with subsequent training phases building logically on the progress from the previous ones. An example of a linear periodisation model would be conducting successive training phases that moved from endurance to hypertrophy to strength. The general upward trend in intensity makes this a linear periodisation sequence. 

Non-linear periodisation models allow more variation of loading within each microcycle. For example, rather than performing successive training phases for endurance, hypertrophy and strength over a period of months, the non-linear approach would allow workouts to be performed for each of these objectives within the timeframe of 1 microcycle (1 week to 10 days). Kraemer (2004) suggests that this approach is more flexible with respect to catering to the client’s demands at any given time (e.g. if the client’s energy is low a light day can be performed).

A possible criticism of the traditional linear model is that the timeframe between repeating the same training objective may cause a detraining effect e.g. muscular endurance may deteriorate as the client performs lengthy hypertrophy and strength phases. The non-linear model accounts for this by introducing a variety of exercise stimuli over a short period of time. A non-linear example from Kraemer (2004) is listed below:

  1. 4 x 12-15RM
  2. 4 x 8-10RM
  3. 3-4 x 4-6RM
  4. 4-5 x 1-3RM

These workouts are cycled using a one day on, one day off pattern. The example given exposes the client to endurance, hypertrophy, strength and maximal strength loads over the sequence of four workouts. The traditional model of periodisation would take four mesocycle phases to achieve such variation. 

Zatsiorsky (1995) suggests that the inclusion of ‘retaining’ loads can be used to maintain fitness levels that are not the focus of the current training cycle. This involves the frequent inclusion of workouts for a non-targeted component of fitness that the client would wish to maintain. For example, a strength orientated programme might include 2-3 weekly strength stimulating workouts and one endurance retaining session (diagram below). 

A key point to remember is that there is no one ‘magic’ training programme that will work for everyone all the time. The role of the trainer is to introduce a variety of workouts that will keep the client progressing logically over time. It is suggested that both approaches to periodisation are utilised at different stages of client progression. Remember that it is advisable to build a muscular conditioning base before hypertrophy, strength and power phases are attempted.

Recovery Weeks  

If a client has trained through a prolonged series of progressive training phases, a complete recovery week (or longer) is advisable. During this time, the body is allowed to fully recuperate from the rigors of the extended resistance training effort. The client may experience a phenomenon known as the long term delayed training effect (LDTE – Siff, 2003). The LDTE theory suggests that fatigue can accumulate over a period of several months of hard training and that this accumulative fatigue cannot be supported indefinitely. Also accumulating over time is the adaptation inducing training stimulus. If the client takes a break from training, the body can recover from the fatigue and also experience performance improvements by adapting to the long term stimulus. This theory supports the widespread practice of performing a tapering period prior to athletic competition. The body can fully recover and adapt prior to achieving new levels of athletic endeavour.

If the trainer schedules recovery weeks into long term exercise programmes, certain activities and behaviours can be advocated to promote recovery. Massage, flexibility sessions or moderate non-resistance-based activities (e.g. swimming, walking) can all be promoted during the rest period. Also, the client should be reminded about the importance of appropriate nutrition during recovery as well as during the training phases.  Adequate sleep patterns and stress management techniques can also help the clients fully recover from a period of hard resistance training. Following a scheduled active rest recovery period the client should be mentally and physically invigorated and ready to tackle another extended period of resistance training.

Training Logs

In order to deliver a thorough and professional service, the trainer should keep detailed training records for each client. These records should be completed during each training session and compiled to produce an accurate training log that charts the progress of the client over time. 

Many individuals that train regularly with resistance fail to realise the importance of keeping accurate records of their training sessions. Training records are an invaluable tool as they provide an accurate picture of progress over time, and, more simply, they afford the individual the luxury of not having to rely on memory to recall sets and reps from the previous session. For the busy trainer, attempting to recall each exercise, set, rep, rest period and resistance for each client would prove impossible. This information is vital for appropriately progressing a client from session to session. Remember that short term training variable manipulations and a phasic approach to programme design are what drive long term progressions. Clients will not continue to pay a trainer indefinitely if they are not progressing towards their objectives. Use of a training log can help to achieve success by recording performance and allowing progressive overload to be applied appropriately.    

Combining Aerobic Training with Resistance Training

So far this chapter has focused on periodising resistance training programmes. This section will discuss how to introduce aerobic sessions into the weekly resistance training schedule. 

Most clients are not elite athletes and are therefore unlikely to require an ultra-specific approach to their training. The average client will generally benefit from a mixed training approach that incorporates both resistance and aerobic exercise. Accommodating both modes of training is a challenge that the trainer must deal with during the programme design process. The trainer must consider how to manipulate the volume and intensity of both types of training over time in order to achieve the desired result.

The first step towards incorporating aerobic and resistance training into the same programme is understanding the training objective of the client. This will dictate the relative proportion of either mode of exercise. Zatsiorsky (1995) suggests that a good periodised plan is a subtle trade-off between conflicting demands. Training hard for aerobic fitness gains is a conflicting exercise stimulus if the client has an overall objective of muscular strength or hypertrophy. This is because these components of fitness place diametrically opposite demands on the body (see table below). Simultaneously attempting to train maximally for both strength and aerobic fitness will lead to less than optimal results for both components of fitness.

If the client has an overall objective that is resistance-based, such as strength or hypertrophy, the majority of the training effort should be resistance-based. The trainer should focus on manipulating the resistance training variables appropriately as the phases progress in order to move the client closer to their goal. When performed concurrently with intense resistance training, a high volume of aerobic training would negatively impinge on recovery and adaptation processes, thus limiting progress. 

There are stages in the overall training macrocycle (long term plan) when a higher volume of aerobic training can be incorporated. If the trainer follows the principles of periodisation and manipulates the intensity of resistance training over time, there will be phases when the intensity is lower (endurance phases). Endurance and aerobic training are not hugely conflicting goals and may actually complement each other.    

The table above shows how aerobic training can be incorporated into an annual training programme geared towards hypertrophy. Note how the aerobic volume decreases as the resistance intensity increases. This will give the client a greater chance to recover from the intense hypertrophy training sessions, thus maximising growth potential. 

If the objective has an aerobic focus then the same principles will apply in reverse. Resistance training volume and intensity will decrease as the aerobic phases become more challenging. 

It is advisable to include some resistance training in the programme of an aerobically orientated client, just as clients with resistance-based goals should include a minimal amount of aerobic conditioning. The trainer may initially have to convince the client as to the benefits of a cross training approach, and then ensure that the volume and intensity of both training modes are manipulated appropriately to ensure optimal results. 


Bompa, T. (1999). Periodization: theory and methodology of training. Human Kinetics

Kraemer, W. (2004). Roundtable discussion: periodisation of training part 1. Strength and conditioning journal. 26(1)

Siff, M. (2003). Supertraining. Supertraining Institute, Denver

Stone, M. H. (2004). Roundtable discussion: Periodisation of training part 1. Strength and conditioning journal. 26(1)

Wathen, D. Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (2000). Training variation: Periodisation, in Strength training and conditioning, Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (Eds), Human Kinetics

Zatsiorsky, V. (1995). Science and practice of strength training. Human kinetics.

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