Undulating Periodization for Bodybuilding
by Matt Perryman
Daily undulating periodization is a form of planning that occurs over the weekly level (though in practice the actual cycle may repeat anywhere from every five to 14 days). This is the most commonly cited version of ‘nonlinear periodization’, where the actual progress from workout to workout ‘nonlinear’ - so there’s no HIT-style “must add weight every workout” thinking in play.
The easiest way to do this is simply to create different “kinds” of workouts - say focusing on different rep ranges, exercises, or both - and then go through them in order. Once you’ve done them all, start over. It really is that easy.
I don’t really want to labor the theory side of things, since this is about laying out a workout, but I’ll touch on a few points.
Undulating periodization, at least using that terminology, is commonly credited to Charles Poliquin from a 1988 article he wrote for the NSCA Journal. In that article, he laid out a process for waving or undulating your workouts over brief cycles of 3-4 weeks, moving from accumulation to intensification training.
Accumulation is simply high-volume training - higher reps, more sets, more exercises, and so on. Intensification is the opposite, with a focus on heavier weights, lower reps, and an emphasis on pushing up your working weights. The idea is that by alternating the emphasis every few weeks, you prevent the body from stagnating and falling into a rut. The stimulus changes, so you keep progress going longer. There’s probably something to be said for slowing down the rate of long-term gains as well; it’s fairly easy to push yourself past your body’s ability to handle gains if you’re just mindlessly focusing on getting stronger. The variety keeps you from burning yourself out by pushing too hard, too quickly.
More recent research from different parties has looked into the concept of daily undulating periodization, where you rotate between different workouts over a weekly cycle, instead of Poliquin’s weekly cycles. Depending on how you arrange things this ‘weekly’ cycle could be anything from five days to 14 days.
How does this work? You might pick three or four different workouts and rotate them across a set schedule. So if you only want to lift Mon-Weds-Fri, and you have workouts A, B, C, and D, you’d just do them in that order on the three days you lift. You’d end up doing A-B-C, then D-A-B, then C-D-A, and so on. It’s a repeating cycle that doesn’t necessarily have to fit the seven-day week.
Of course, you can do a more normal workout as well, if that’s your thing. What you need to remember is that undulating periodization is going to alternate different kinds of workouts over a short span of time.
Setting up an undulating workout
If we’re just talking bodybuilding or general strength and fitness, the idea with an undulating routine is to get as wide a range of intensities and volumes as possible. So you might want a high volume/low intensity session, a moderate intensity/volume session, and a high intensity/low volume session. In practice this isn’t terribly different from the currently popular 5×5 “intermediate workout”. However, if you want to make this more specific for bodybuilding, you can tweak the philosophy a little - the easiest way to do this is to involve different rep ranges and more bodybuilding-specific exercises.
Workout A - 10-12 reps
Workout B - 6-8 reps
Workout C - 4-6 reps
This particular approach would be a good introductory routine using full-body workouts (although a split isn’t out of the question). If you want to do this on a three-day cycle, then you’ve got Mon-Weds-Fri workouts. If you want to do a four day version, then rotate through them M-T-Th-F. Be advised that four full-body workouts can be demanding, so you might want to alternate upper body and lower body if you go that route, something like this.
Monday - Upper (10-12 reps)
Tuesday - Lower (10-12 reps)
Thursday - Upper (6-8 reps)
Friday - Lower (6-8 reps)
Next Monday - Upper (4-6 reps)
Tuesday - Lower (4-6 reps)
Thursday - Upper (10-12 reps)
Friday - Lower (10-12 reps)
And so on like that. You repeat the cycle in order, as each day comes up.
With four workouts you’re just expanding things out a little more, with finer grades between the sessions. For example:
Workout A - 4×12
Workout B - 5×8
Workout C - 4×6
Workout D - 6×3
In this instance, you’ve got two lighter, high-volume workouts and two heavier, lower-volume workouts. Same rules apply as before - if you want to split things into upper body and lower body with four workout days, that’s fine as well. In that case, you’d end up with a two-week repeating cycle, where each workout is done once.
Westside Style: Mixed Workouts
In this approach, you’d mix and match a couple of styles. I think this is a nice approach because it gets you away from the theory and more into the practical side of things. Like it or not, the undulating workouts in the research are more of a convention than something that would be useful to someone actually training. I called this “Westside Style” because it’s based on the methods used by the namesake training system, combining very heavy weights and light, fast weights with more typical bodybuilding.
Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 workouts are a fine example of this put into practice: do some heavy work, then move on to pure bodybuilding. It’s nice, neat, and right to the point. The mixed-workout strategy will fit very well with split routines also, if you want to get away from the full-body workouts.
Three Days a Week
Three workout days each week assumes you’re lifting on three non-consecutive days, so Monday - Wednesday - Friday or Tuesday - Thursday - Saturday (which is a great alternative to beat a lot of the gym rush, I’d add).
Option 1 - Full Body
The full-body option is easy enough; I’ve already given an example of the layout.
Monday - Workout A (High Volume/Low Intensity)
Wednesday - Workout B (Moderate Volume/Moderate Intensity)
Friday - Workout C (Low Volume/High Intensity)
If you’ve got four kinds of workouts to do, then just stagger them. If you started with the above layout, then the next Monday you’d do workout D, then Wednesday you’d start over at A, and so on down the line.
Option 2 - Upper Body/Lower Body
If you want to do a split routine, but still can only train three days a week, just alternate them over a two-week cycle, like so.
Monday - Lower Body
Wednesday - Upper Body
Friday - Lower Body
Monday - Upper Body
Wednesday - Lower Body
Friday - Upper Body
Four Days a Week
While you could maybe get away with four full-body workouts, I’d not suggest it. This is best done with the alternating upper/lower split.
In this case, you’d just do the same workouts on a M-T-Th-F schedule, or Sun-M-W-F if you’d prefer. The former gives you two consecutive days off, while the latter makes it easier to spread out harder sessions. Your mileage may vary.
Wow, you really don’t care about being burned out
Although I’d really not suggest it for most people, in some instances you can actually get away with doing 4-6 workouts a week, although there are some caveats involved.
You can get away with a upper/lower split, but the best bet would probably be brief, high-quality/low-volume full body sessions. At least, full body in spirit, as it’s not what you might expect; in reality you might only do two, at most three, exercises. You’d just want to pick some “money” exercises that have a large effect and will benefit from regular practice.
The other option, which I tend to suggest even less, would be hacking up some kind of customized split based around upper/lower but with extra sessions to train specific body parts - like shoulders, calves, and da gunz.
Monday - Heavy Upper Body (Chest/Back)
Tuesday - Heavy Legs (Squats, thighs)
Thursday - Moderate Upper Body (Arm-dominant)
Friday - Heavy Back (Deadlifts, barbell row, hamstrings)
Saturday - Light Full Body (Shoulders/arms/calves assistance)
Something like that anyway. It’s based around the upper/lower split routine, but more specialized towards bodybuilding goals. You can come up with your own, depending on how many days you have to train and what not.
Keep in mind that you’re following the same principles of workout-undulation here: varying different kinds of workouts across this schedule, as opposed to just blasting yourself every day without any change.
Accumulate and Intensify
The big thing that people tend to gloss over is really changing the goal emphasis of the workout. Doing a workout that’s 4×12 is a big difference from 6×3. The former is high-volume, meant more to “pump up” the muscles than anything else. The latter is a high-load session meant to expose you to fairly heavy weights. Further, do you do 4×12 by adding weight each set, or do you use the same weight?
That’s the difference in accumulation and intensification. Accumulation is all about volume, so you’d do 4×12 with the same weight. Intensification would be different, working up to your best set of 12 reps. However, I would say that I wouldn’t write that as “4×12″. I’d just write “pyramid to best set of 12″ to avoid confusion; if you tried to actually do 4×12 in a pyramid, you’d wear yourself out before you got anywhere close to your best set of 12.
I think that mixing accumulation and intensification emphasis is just as important as changing the set/rep scheme. In fact, you don’t even have to change the rep range, just the number of sets and how you go about them. The accumulation phases will have you doing multiple sets with the same weight. Intensification would have you working up to a heavy top set for the day (pyramiding). Case in point, let’s use the upper/lower split and the four A-B-C-D workouts.
Workout A - 4×12
Workout B - 5×8
Workout C - 4×6
Workout D - 6×3
Each week, you’ll have two workouts each for upper body and lower body. So you’d do workouts A and B the first week, workouts C and D the second week. That two-week series makes one cycle, so you’d do this a total of four weeks, going through each workout twice.
Workout A - pyramid to best set of 12
Workout B - pyramid to best set of 8
Workout C - pyramid to best set of 6
Workout D - pyramid to best set of 3
Now we switch gears; instead of doing all those sets, you’d simply work your way up to your best, heaviest set of the day. You still do the same upper body/lower body split routine, and you’d still keep the same exercises. The only difference is your approach for the day. Since intensification is about working with heavier weights (even with the same rep range) and a focus on getting stronger, that’s what we do here: brief, hard sessions.
I suggested going through two cycles for the accumulation phase; you may or may not find that worth your time here. Some people may be able to set PRs going through the cycle twice, some may not. At any rate, it’s still important not to ignore the intensification phase simply because it breaks the monotony and stimulates your body.
The exercises you pick are going to be determined by a few things. Are you doing full-body sessions or a split? Are you trying to get stronger on a few key lifts, or are you trying to grow? Are you doing accumulation workouts or intensification workouts? These are the things you need to know.
This is important because you’ll see “do a full body workout, and on this day do 5×8″. Now, to me, when I see that prescription, I’m thinking “OK, I’m going to pick three money lifts, a squat, a press, and a row, for 5 sets of 8 reps”. In my mind, the implicit assumption is that if I do more exercises than that, I may stick to the 8-rep range, but I’m not doing 5×8 for everything. Not everybody thinks like that.
I’ve seen people actually go through and do squats, deadlifts, rows, chinups, overhead press, bench press, biceps, triceps, calves, abs, and anything else I’m forgetting all for 5×8.
Don’t do that.
I’m a minimalist when it comes to exercises on full-body sessions. I think most of your results come from a small number of exercises. One big lift for each movement is plenty - a squat (or deadlift), a press, and a row (or chinup). If you want to do beach work after that (calves, shoulders, arms, etc), pick a higher rep range and go work them for a few sets. That’s all it takes.
If you’re doing a split routine, you can do more exercises with a caveat. The advantage of a split is that it lets you diversify the rep ranges and exercises somewhat. You might end up doing 5×2 on your key lift, then go do another exercise for that part where you do 10-12 reps.
The rule of thumb: for a full-body workout, stick to a few key lifts and then a little bit of beach-work if you must; for a split workout, you can do more exercises but you need to mix and match the set/rep schemes.
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