Understanding Periodisation

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Hi there and welcome to a new post in the of Strength & Conditioning for Therapists blog series. Post 64 in fact.  I’ve been teaching online and in person a lot recently and a recurrent theme of questions that I get a lot focus on periodisation – so that’s what we’ll be covering over the next couple posts. In this post specifically let’s get the basics: Understanding Periodisation. Next time we’ll apply it to rehabilitation.

What Is Periodisation?

Let’s start with the basics. Periodisation is the purposeful division of a large training period into smaller blocks. These larger blocks are often termed macrocycles and the smaller blocks mesocycles.  The reason for organising training in this manner is to achieve a planned and systematic change in focus of each segment, or mesocycle to optimise specific adaptations. Further subdivisions, called microcycles can be factored in if necessary. See below.

To exemplify, consider all the elements necessary for elite performance; training to achieve elite levels requires a complex mix of many interventions within a given training plan. This could include strength, power, straight line speed, jump height, cardiovascular fitness … To train every single component intensely and in close proximity would risk overload, interference and a significant attenuation of adaptation. 

By understanding periodisation, you can see that it offers a framework by which training prescription can be systematically changed so that we can focus on specific things at different points. And in doing so we have a better chance of optimising each intended physiologic adaptation. The periodisation process usually culminates with an athlete achieving peak performance at the most important competition of that cycle, or year. [1,2], or 4 years cycle if it’s the Olympic cycle).

This sounds kind of similar to the rehabilitation process doesn’t it? At the commencement of a rehabilitation programme there are often a multitude of factors to focus on.  And whilst not every patient will be an elite athlete, many will still need to make quite substantial improvements across a range of indices. 

Periodisation can be a powerful tool here, in fact an essential tool so that we can achieve a number of adaptations whilst limiting the risk of overload, and overwhelm, and of course, disengagement!  But before we think about the rehabilitation setting let’ s cover some more of the basics.

Understanding Periodisation: Types

Linear Periodisation

Programs of classic, linear periodisation can be seen in strength-power programmes whereby programs begin with high volume low intensity training and progress towards low volume high intensity training, for example working progressively from a 8-10RM to 3-5RM (Fleck 2011).   

If the macrocyle represents the whole training programme, each mesocycle would represent a change in volume or intensity of loading.  For example, someone wanting to progressively increase their strength on a back squat may increase their load every 2-3 weeks.  Over a year, one would expect to perform several cycles of this programme.

Block Periodisation

In my opinion, this is the easiest to get your head around and apply to rehabilitation, and we’ll cover understanding periodisation and applying it in rehabilitation specifically in the next post.  This approach can offer a great framework especially for managing multiple rehabilitation outcomes and deciding on what to focus on when.

To exemplify a block model, a 12-month training or rehabilitation programme, or macrocycle, can be sub-divided into several distinct blocks. Below we’ve used 4 of these blocks – or mesocycles, but this can of course vary commensurate with the patient’s baseline conditioning and the intended goals of the rehab.  Within each 3-month mesocycle the microcycles (of 4 weeks in the example below) would represent the detailed exercise plans. 

I personally think that this is the easiest format to follow within rehabilitation settings and in the next post I’ll show your the way in which we can achieve this.

Non-Linear Periodisation

Non-linear periodisation in sport was first described by Peloquin in 1988 and it involves very frequent changes in training intensity and volume, perhaps even in successive training sessions. It’s important to note here that these variations are very much planned ahead of time; it’s not like managing athletes (or patients) on the fly, whereby the decision on what to focus on is made within the session.

A non-linear periodisation in sport training week could look something like:

  • Session 1: 3-5RM: STRENGTH FOCUS
  • Session 2: 8-10RM: HYPERTROPHY FOCUS
  • Session 3: 12-15RM: MUSCLE ENDURANCE FOCUS

This weekly cycle could be repeated for 3 – 4 weeks. If you sum up the volume of work done in each phase: Strength; Hypertrophy; Endurance and compare it to a linear approach of 4-week cycles it should be the same.

Understanding Periodisation: Which Model is Superior?

So I think we’re pretty clear that the literature shows that a periodised approach is superior compared to a non-periodised approach for the development of muscle strength. In terms of muscle hypertrophy, there’s a little less certainty in the literature for this.

In terms of which approach – recent meta-analyses and reviews indicate that gains in muscle strength are likely to be made with both linear and non-linear periodised approaches, but there is some suggestion that a non-linear, undulating approach may offer superior gains (3).

Do bear in mind here that the overwhelming majority of data here is taken from non-injured, healthy populations. There’s a real lack of literature on periodisation in patient populations.

The take-home message is that planning is key, whether that be in sporting or rehabilitating (or both!) populations. The consequences of not … we know that if we don’t think ahead things like the interference effect , insufficient overload, improper rest and recovery (click the links to read more) can all seek to jeopardise the intended adaptations that we want our patients to make.

Summary

Using a periodised approach to training and rehabilitation will undoubtedly offer superior benefits to non-periodised, and certainly ‘on the fly’ prescriptions. You don’t need to sit down for hours and construct a 12-month, hour-by-hour plan for each of your patients/clients. But, taking a bit of time to think ahead, formulate your thoughts about what you’re trying to change and the timeframe that you have for that will be a great start.

Next time we’ll introduce how you can use periodisation, simply, within rehabilitation settings to help you manage multiple rehabilitation outcomes and establish what to focus on, when. In the meantime, if you want to take it further, I’d encourage you to read my post on Conditioning Efficacy.

Coming Very SOON:

Look out for these – Masterclasses from some of the best names in the areas of S&C, Exercise Science, Research, Academia, Practice … on pertinent topics in S&C as applied to rehabilitation

References

  • 1. Brown & Greenwood (2005). Periodisation essentials and innovation in resistance training protocols. J Athl Training 42;367-373 [Link]
  • 2. Fleck (1999). Periodized strength training; A critical review. J Strength Cond Res 13:82-89 [Link, abstract]
  • 3. Evans (2019). Periodized Resistance Training for Enhancing Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength: A Mini-Review. Front. Physiol [Link]

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