Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine - Part VI: Periodization, Yeah! But How? Plus: Tapering vs. Detraining

Image 1: Do you really need to plan your workouts months in advance to gain muscle and build strength?
In the past installments of this series you have learned how to integrate your workouts into your schedule, how to select the appropriate workout style(s), type(s) and parameters and what specific workouts for general health, hypertrophy, fat loss and strength could look like. In today's installment of the "Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout", we are going to take another look at what you have gotten so far and why this probably isn't the "be all and end all" of working out - no matter, how cleverly designed your workout routine may be.

Obligatory built-in progression (i + 1) vs. periodization

If there is one fundamental determinant training for strength, for fat loss, hypertrophy and, at least to a certain degree, even health have in common, it would unquestionably the "i + 1" principle - or put simply: The principle of continuous progression / overload. Obviously, every routine (the four I have introduced you to in the weeks before included) have a built-in progression - after all, they require you to train within a certain RM or put differently to increase the weight, whenever you feel that it becomes "too easy" to perform the prescribed number of reps. So, if you think of your current 100kg bench press, you can perform for 10 reps without ending up suffocating yourself with the bar, the i +1 principle would demand that you try (remember it is unrealistic to assume that you can increase reps and weight every workout) to bench 100kg for 11 reps or 102.5kg for 10 reps, the next time you hit the gym.

Now as easy as this may seem - I mean if you trained each muscle once a week and increased your bench by 2.5kg with each workout you would bench 230kg after one year - it usually does not work out in practice. And though the direct scientific evidence for this hypothesis is scarce, it appears prudent to assume that hypertrophy and strength are like master and slave - with your personal priority determining who is who.
  • hypertrophy priority - someone who's main goal is to increase muscle size must look at strength as a means to an end; he/she has to get stronger to expose her muscles to continously increasing amounts of weights and thusly permanent overload
  • strength priority - someone who's main goal is to increase muscle strength must look at size as a means to an end; he/she has to get bigger to be able able to lift heavier weights
If you take a closer look at the distinction above you will realize that it appears that no matter what you may have in mind, hypertrophy is more of a side-effect of strength (or lifting heavy objects) than vice versa.
Figure 1: Comparison of changes in arm and thigh girth in 20 pre-conditioned healthy young women (age ~20y) in response to a 12-week 3x per week training protocol employing linear or undulating periodization; the scientists found no statistical significant differences (adapted from Kok. 2009)
Despite the fact that there is there is insufficient scientific evidence for the superiority of periodized training for trainees whose only goal is to increase muscle size - there is evidence that it works and that it does not seem to matter whether you use linear vs. undulating periodization programs, cf figure 1 and the following mini-overview -
  • Stone. 1981 - 6 weeks: 6x 3x6 vs. 3x 5x10, 1x 5x5, 1x 3x3, 1x 3x2, subjects were trained college age male: Greater increase in lean body mass and decrease in percent body fat (determined by hydrostatic weighing ) than the non-periodized group.
  • Baker. 1994 - 12 weeks: 5x6 for core and 3x8 for auxilliary vs. linear vs. undulating periodization, subjects were trained young men: No differences in lean mass gains, or fat loss, but significantly greater increases in bench press and squat strength in the undulating periodization group
  • Kramer. 1997 - 24 weeks: 1x8-10 +forced reps vs. 2-4x 12-15, 8-10, 3-5 (strength pyramid) + 2-4x 8-10 (classic hypertrophy), subjects were Division III college football players: Similar increases in strength and loss in body fat, but significant hypertrophy only in the "periodization" group
- it appears prudent to assume that the incorporation of rather strength oriented periods into your hypertrophy routine does make sense.

Finding the right approach for you

If you look back at my "training programming", you will notice that at least the health and hypertrophy programs had a weekly or intra-workout periodization "built-in", so to say.
  • Health training template - full body hypertrophy + 5x5 strength workout (= weekly periodization)
  • Hypertrophy template - strength / power focus in the core movements (4x 5-6), hypertrophy focus in the auxilliary movement 2x10-15 (=intra-workout periodization)
The rational here is to make the constant weekly or at least monthly change between different workout styles obsolete or at least optional. The fat loss routine on the other hand is nothing you would do "indefinitely", anyways - instead of periodizing the latter, it would be more prudent to stop dieting and chosing an appropriate training mode to increase strength or size over a 3-6 week maintenance phase.
A training regimen that sucks is never "optimal": Even a program that may be "optimal" from a physiological stand point can produce inferior gains in strength and size, if it "just isn't for you"! For me, this is the case for any workout that will have me lift in the <3 rep per set range for more than one week (even when tapering, I usually stick to 5 reps). If you have to drag your a** to the gym, feel that your workout sucks and would be happy, if the gym burned down so that you could skimp on one week of the current block in your periodization regimen, your results will suck, as well - there is no debating this.
In the end it is thus (once more ;-) up to you, to decide whether you feel that it is necessary to further periodize your program. Personally, I have always faired well with 4-6 weeks on intra-workout or intra-week periodization programs. After those 4-6 weeks I would totally re-vamp my program, anyways - making changes according to my past progress and not to what XY wrote in his smart e-book about clever periodization.

There is still one thing to take away from classic periodization: Tapering!

There is yet one very valuable asset in the toolbox of classic periodization, the use of which appears to be beneficial specifically for the advanced trainee, regardless of whether he or she trains on a
  • linear periodization program, e.g. 3 weeks each of  hypertrophy (8-12RM), strength (5-6RM) and power (3RM) oriented training (optional peak week at 1RM), or a
  • undulating periodization program, e.g. 3 cycles of 1 week each of each hypertrophy (8-12RM), strength (5-6RM) and power (3RM) oriented training, or follow a 
  • "Hatfield-esque" intra-week or intra-workout periodization programm, as I outlined in the templates and elaborated in the previous paragraph,
And this asset is "tapering". Contrary to classic "detraining", as in dropping the bar on Friday and lying around on the couch for 14-28 days, tapering revolves around 2-4 weeks (if you want also only one) of intense but very low volume training.
Figure 2: Effects of 4 week tapering or detraining after a 16-week periodized strength training program in 46 competitive male Basque ball players (data adapted from Izquierdo. 2007)
In a 2007 study which compared the effects of classic detraining (dropping the bar, not training at all) to tapering (higher intensity - 3-4RM, lower volume - bench press and squat 4-6 sets total) on body composition and strength of 46 competitive Basque ball players (avg. 12 years of of regular training and competition) and found that the 4-weeks of training on an reduced volume, yet with an increased intensity, lead to reductions in body fat percentages and increases in bench press and half squat performance, while the "classic" detraining let to a profound decline in power in the upper and lower extremities and a minimal, yet compared to the tapering group statistically significant increase in body fat (Izquierdo. 2007).

Image 2: Adelfo's "famine phase" was essentially a very brief taper with reduced protein intake.
The take home message of this installment of the "Step by Step Guide to Your Own Workout" is thusly not to ask whether or not to periodize your training, but rather how to do it best - with the latter depending on your goals and preferences this leaves you with the aforementioned three possibilities, i.e. intra-workout, weekly, linear and undulating periodization, and emphases on strength or hypertrophy, with the latter being reflected in either the type (intra- and weekly periodization) of the workout, respectively their combination within your workout week, or the length of specific periods within your periodization regimen. Add in at least 1-2 weeks of tapering after every cycle (4-6 week intra- and weekly, or 6-12 week linear or undulating periodization) and you have made another step on your way to your ever-evolving "Own Workout Routine".
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