“Manipulating all the variables of training so that an individual reaches peak performance at the most appropriate time” is one popular definition of periodization. Another definition is that periodization is “a type of fatigue management system that uses training cycles that repeat.” However you explain it, the most well-known form of periodization is the model proposed by Russian sports scientist Leonid Matveyev nearly 50 years ago.
Matveyev’s periodization model proposes that training should gradually progress from low intensities and a large volume of work to high intensities and a low volume of work. To review, in weight training volume refers to the number of reps and sets performed, and intensity refers to how much weight is lifted in relation to an individual’s best result for one repetition.
Let’s compare an exercise performed for a 3x3 protocol to one performed for 10x10. The sets of 3 reps would be considered high intensity and low volume, and the sets of 10 reps would be considered low intensity and high volume. The sets of 10 may seem harder (and thus more “intense”), but you can use heavier weights for sets of 3, so the intensity is considered higher.
In a paper published in 1981 called “A Hypothetical Model for Strength Training,” US researchers showed how to covert Matveyev’s periodization model into a weight training program.
The program consisted of three phases, each phase lasting three to four weeks. The first phase had the lowest intensity level and the highest volume, and the third phase had the highest intensity level and the lowest volume. A fourth phase that uses low reps but with light weights could be added to enable athletes to peak for competitions or maintain a high level of fitness for an extended period. Here is how the US sports scientists broke down the workout in terms of reps and sets:
Phase 1: Hypertrophy, 3-5 x 6-12
Phase 2: Basic Strength, 3-5 x 6 (or less)
Phase 3: Strength and Power, 3-5 x 1-5
Phase 4: Peaking or Maintenance, 1-3 x 1-3
In the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s textbook, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, a 17-week program using this periodization model was presented. This program progressed from sets of 8-12 reps in the first phase to 1-2 reps in the maintenance/peaking phase.
One problem with the American workouts was that the time between the first and third (and fourth) phase was so long that the trainee would lose much of the muscle mass gained in the first phase. To resolve this issue, Dr. Mike Stone, one of the authors of the paper published in 1981, said that muscle mass could be maintained by performing an additional set of 10 reps during the second and third phases.
Even though he wrote this periodization model, Matveyev warned that there are many problems with it when applied to athletics. For example, it would be difficult for athletes to work on their sports techniques when performing workouts involving a high frequency of sets to failure for several weeks. Another issue is that for advanced athletes, the phases are performed for too long and these athletes would quick reach a state of diminishing returns. In the NSCA version, the first phase was six weeks long. As such, this type of training system would be more appropriate for a beginner who takes longer to adapt to a workout.
One positive consequence of the periodization model presented by Dr. Stone and his colleagues is that it got the strength coaching community away from looking at a single ideal set-rep protocols, such as 5x5 or 5,4,3,2,1. In the early 70s, one multiple-set/rep periodization protocol was presented by Dietmar Schmidtbleicher, a German sports scientist who wrote about this in a track and field coaching publication.
Schmidtbleicher’s model alternates between shorter periods of higher volume and lower intensities to periods of higher intensities and lower volume. This protocol would help maintain the muscle mass developed in the first phase, and the variety prevents the trainee from completely adapting to the workouts. The following is an example of this periodization model:
Weeks 1-2: 3 x 10
Weeks 3-4: 5 x 6
Weeks 5-6: 3 x 8
Weeks 7-8: 5 x 4
Sports scientist Dr. Mel C. Siff has written extensively on Russian training methods, even co-authoring a textbook on the subject with Russian sports scientist Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky. Siff said that the focus on this one Russian periodization model is not a true reflection of Matveyev’s body of work, which includes discussions about a variety of periodization models. This is true, but the popular model of periodization Matveyev created may be a good starting point for beginners.