Many people have a specific strength training program that they stick with for months or years. However, many studies show that this can cause your results to plateau over time. The secret to improving your results is periodization. Periodization simply means planned variation of one or more the your program variables over time, like number of repetitions or amount of weight lifted.
Periodization vs. non varied:
One meta analysis found that periodized (varied) programs, do in fact, beat out non varied programs even after controlling for volume and the amount of weight lifted. Periodization was superior for beginners, intermediates and the advanced. It also provided greater benefits for people of all ages. The benefits of periodization, usually manifest themselves after 9 weeks or more as it helps people break through training plateaus. Another review found that periodized programs resulted in greater motor performance, greater lean body mass and declines in percent body fat.
There are 2 major types of periodization: linear and nonlinear. Linear periodization typically involves increasing the amount of weight lifted and simultaneously decreasing the number of repetitions performed over time. So, you might lift 8- 10 repetitions for 4 weeks, then 6-8 repetitions (and more weight) for 4 weeks, then 4-6 repetitions (and more weight) for 4 weeks. One study tested to see the impact of a periodized plan on bench press and squat results over a 16 week period. The first group of participants performed 5 sets of 10 reps at 78.9% of their 1-RM (the most weight they can lift for 1 rep). The second group performed 6 sets of 8 repetitions at 83.3% of their 1-RM. The linear periodized group performed 5 sets of 10 reps at 78.9% of their 1-RM for 4 weeks, 6 sets of 8 repetitions at 83.3% of their 1-RM for 4 weeks, 3 sets of 6 repetitions at 87.6% of their 1-RM for 4 weeks, and 3 sets of 4 repetitions at 92.4% of their 1-RM for 4 weeks. The fourth group was the control. The researchers found that the groups were not significantly different from each other after 4 weeks for both the bench press and squat. However, at 8, 12 and 16 weeks the periodized program was significantly superior for the bench press (see below). For the squat, the periodized program was significantly superior to the first group at 8, 12 and 16 weeks and superior to the second group at 16 weeks.
Nonlinear periodization means that training variables aren’t necessarily varied in a single direction. Variation also typically occurs on a daily basis. If someone lifted 3 days a week, they might perform 4- 6 repetitions per exercise on day 1, 12- 15 repetitions on day 2 and 8-10 repetitions on day 3. One study compared nonlinear periodization with linear periodization. The nonlinear group varied training biweekly on weeks 1- 6 and daily in weeks 7-12. The linear group increased weight and reduce repetitions every 4 weeks. The researchers found that the nonlinear program resulted in significantly greater results for the bench press and bicep curl over the linear program. The differences for the lat pull down and triceps extension were not significant, but the gains were greater for the nonlinear program as well (see below).
Other studies have either found that nonlinear periodization is significantly better than linear periodization or have found non significant differences.
Consider starting a nonlinear periodization program (if you haven’t already). It might sound complicated at first, but all you have to do is vary your program on a daily basis (alternate between 12- 15 repetitions, 8-10 repetitions and 4- 6 repetitions, for example). Good luck!
Fleck, Steven. “Non-linear periodization for general fitness & athletes.” Journal of human kinetics 29.Special Issue (2011): 41-45.
Fleck, Steven J. “Periodized strength training: a critical review.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 13.1 (1999): 82-89.
Rhea, Matthew R., and Brandon L. Alderman. “A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs.” Research quarterly for exercise and sport 75.4 (2004): 413-422.
Simão, Roberto, et al. “Comparison between nonlinear and linear periodized resistance training: hypertrophic and strength effects.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26.5 (2012): 1389-1395.
Willoughby, Darryn S. “The Effects of Mesocycle-Length Weight Training Programs Involving Periodization and Partially Equated Volumes on Upper and Lower Body Strength.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 7.1 (1993): 2-8.