How to Use the Periodization Model to Gain Muscle
By Tony Poggiali
Bodybuilders don't get much respect. To some, we are freak shows, in town for the local circus at Billy Bob's Big Top; to others, we are walking chemistry experiments gone horribly wrong. Most bodybuilders, at one time or another, have dealt with some kind of negative comments regarding your lifestyle. Unfortunately, as with most stereotypes, the masses are ignorant and/or misinformed about what it is we do, and who we are. In fact, much of what bodybuilders do for a living (i.e. training and nutrition) can foreshadow what the rest of the world will eventually find out.
For example, from a nutritional standpoint, we have been eating "low-carb" for decades when we compete; however, it is only in the last few years that the general public finally caught on. Shouldn't we get some kind of royalty check from all these diet books? Also, we are the guinea pigs in the gyms that find out what works in regards to gaining strength, building muscle and, to some extent, drug use and abuse. The rest of this article will delve into what protocols bodybuilders use to increase their muscle mass (hypertrophy). Because scientists are not too concerned with massive physiques, at least from a research-driven perspective, the bulk of this article will be a combination of empirical and anecdotal discussions.
For starters, there are some assumptions the reader must make when dealing with any article on muscle-building:
1. Genetically-gifted athletes (i.e. mesomorphs) will generally have an easier time building size;
2. Hypertrophy gains are directly related to the degree of nutritional adherence and discipline;
3. Exogenous anabolic hormone use will generally yield greater gains in muscle mass.
With those out of the way, let's get rolling.
THE LAWS OF MASS Outside of the genetic/cellular mechanisms responsible for muscular hypertrophy, there are five "big picture" components needed for gains in muscle:
1. Muscle tension
a. The rate of that tension (a factor of peak force output)
b. The length of that tension (a factor of time)
2. Rest and recovery (repair of damaged muscle tissue)
3. Influx of anabolic hormones (endogenous and/or exogenous)
4. Provision of raw materials (nitrogen from amino acids; vitamins and minerals)
5. Positive caloric balance (calories consumed > calories expended)
All of these components must be met on a daily basis. If just one of the five is not considered optimal, or is lacking in quality, or missing altogether, gains in muscle will be compromised. To some extent, we have total control over all of the above. We determine how much we eat, how many calories we ingest and what raw materials we consume; we try to get plenty of sleep and rest; and, finally, we go through a continuum of breaking down and building up our precious muscle tissue. It is on that point that things get interesting.
WEST MEETS EAST
Much of what we know of the scientific principles of resistance training came from our iron brethren to the East, namely, the Eastern Bloc countries, which for years systematically destroyed all others in international weightlifting competition. That successful formula, which became known as "periodization", has enjoyed a resurgence largely due to American and European scientists working together to produce superior athletes. Briefly, periodization involves time periods (called cycles) ranging from one day to one year or more (four year cycles are common for Olympic athletes). Each cycle has distinct objectives, in terms of volume, intensity, duration, training percentages, etc. as they relate to the larger goal, or event. For example, if a high school basketball player was to employ a classic periodization scheme, it would be very similar to the following:
GOAL: Increase strength and hypertrophy
MACROCYCLE=12 months MESOCYCLE I=General Preparatory Phase-4 months (off-season) MESOCYCLE II=Strength Phase-3 months (off-season)
MESOCYCLE III=Power Phase-3 months (off-season)
MESOCYCLE="Maintenance Phase"-2 months (in-season) ***Each mesocycle would include detailed microcycle workouts, based on the objectives of each phase***
This is a proven method to increase performance-related variables in athletes. It has been written about ad nausea, and empirical evidence indicates it to be superior to conventional, non-periodized training philosophies. Bodybuilders will find little reward in the conclusions of most periodized training protocols as they are less concerned with muscle mass as they are with athletic enhancement. Remember, periodization methodologies are concerned with performance as the main outcome. Bodybuilding is concerned with physique development. Is there a conflict of interest? Maybe. Can the two co-exist? YES! Should bodybuilders rethink periodization as their foundation? YES! Not only should we use it, we must re-engineer our approach to building muscle using all the principles of periodization. In fact, you may be doing a very loose version without even knowing it.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Dr. William Kraemer, considered to be one of the most respected researchers in the field. It felt like I was in the presence of a Zen master, so I had to pick his brain. I bravely raised my arm to query. "Do you think that the principles of periodization can be applied to hypertrophy training, and as a follow-up, is there any advantage to undulating within a workout, as well as between workouts?" In a nutshell, he was not sure if hypertrophy and periodization were compatible, but that it deserved further research. I was glad he answered rather ambiguous and solidified my suspicions that there is far too little interest on hypertrophy, yet a plethora on other aspects of muscle function, including power, strength, and endurance.
Therefore, the best "science" lies in the gym: your hours of sweat; your anecdotal experience; your training logs. Without consciously using cycles of training, many bodybuilders use periodization methods, specifically undulating periodization, or non-linear periodization. [Herein referred to as UP, as opposed to linear periodization, the more classic variation that research seems to indicate is not as effective as UP].
The two main advantages of utilizing UP as it relates to bodybuilding are: 1) Prevention of over training/under-recovering and 2) Theoretically increasing strength and muscle. Our capacity to grow new tissue is somewhat limited by the amount and quality of our recovery ability. UP allows maximum intensity and volume at the same time which is antithetic to the traditional mode of linear periodization. While several factors can be attributed to over training, overstimulation of the neural system can be the biggest culprit. In other words, doing the same workout with the same weight in the same order at the same time, etc. for months, sometimes years will eventually lead to staleness (or exhaustion as Selye explains it). These are typically called plateaus in bodybuilding circles. It has more to do with your nervous system being over trained than your muscles, per se. To prevent this staleness, we must train smarter, including manipulation of our training variables--Frequency, Intensity, Volume, Duration-which is the basic guideline of periodization.
There is no "law" that says each cycle has to last any time period. In fact, a microcycle could last only one set! In my past training, I used microcycles within workouts as opposed to between workouts. My reps can range from 6 to 30 in one workout for the same muscle group.
CONCLUSION Books and articles on periodization have been authored by some of the greatest sport scientists of our generation. Modern names that come to mind include Mike Stone, William J. Kraemer and arguably the forerunner of all this, Hans Selye. Much of their research regarding periodization is applied to athletes and performance enhancement. The above discussion on hypertrophy is speculative at best. It is one part science, one part guesswork. But that is also its greatest asset! You can tailor your whole periodization blueprint to your physique and physiology, and it still applies! You have nothing to lose, and muscle to gain!
* Periodization, in theory, prevents overstimulation of the neuromuscular system, therefore allowing compensatory gains in LBM. This is partly due to a greater anabolic/catabolic ratio at any given time.
* Undulating (or non-linear) periodization dictates the athlete to change training variables to consistently and progressively make changes in his/her physique or performance.
* Cycles lasting as long as one day or up to one year allow the athlete to master the opportunity to prevent staleness/plateaus before they happen.
* Hypertrophy and periodization have received little research as the sole outcome, yet seem to be compatible in their application. Bodybuilders would seem to benefit to making calculated and precise changes in their routine.
Tony Poggiali competed in bodybuilding for 13 years. He currently owns Adrenaline Sports & Fitness in Cincinnati, Ohio. Please visit http://adrenalinesf.com for more information on his programs.
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