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An Introduction to Periodization for
Physique Competitors

By Tim Lochhead

Periodization is derived from the Greek period referring to a division of time.  The concept here is to organize training into small, distinct periods of time to manage training for optimal results.  While the topic and related issues can be quite detailed, the purpose here is to introduce some fundamentals, increase knowledge and awareness, and I will finish by providing some useful information for physique athletes.

Periodization was originally developed for sporting athletes; therefore, we need to explore how a typical model is implemented for them to properly apply the methodology to physique athletes.  (Please note that this can include many types of physique athletes; fitness/bikini model, natural bodybuilder/figure etc.).

Periodization for Athletes

Many consider The Holy Grail on the topic to be Tudor Bompa’s book “Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training”.  The current version is the fifth edition and is coauthored by Gregory Half.  The authors explain that in order to maximize performance for a particular event, training should follow a certain sequence.

The classic example is an Olympic lifter needing to demonstrate high levels of power, but the basic format applies in many cases.  There are generally three main phases of training: preparatory, competitive, and a transition phase occurring between competitive seasons.  The preparatory phase typically implores a higher volume of training with lower intensities (intensity referring to the load of the weight).  This helps the athlete repetitively develop the proper coordination to complete their lifts, and develop a general base of conditioning on which to build strength and power.  Leading up to an important competition the volume is decreased and the intensity is increased.  So when it’s time for the World Championships, the lifter is their strongest with minimal fatigue.

From the principles of this text the following can be drawn in structuring training cycles:

  1. Determine what you need to do – ask what is the main the sport requirement (ex. strength, power, endurance)
  2. Determine the competitive period
  3. Work backwards from the end to optimally sequence training phases

Phases vary in length and depend on the schedule of the season.  Within each phase training is further divided (periodized) into smaller cycles.  Bompa has adapted a classic naming system: an annual plan is divided into macrocycles which are further divided into microcycles.  A microcycle is basically one training week.  A macrocycle typically lasts two to six weeks.  (To clarify some terminology you may have heard, another naming convention used more by Russians calls the annual plan the macrocycle, with mesocycles being the medium length cycle composed of microcycles).  We will use the ‘classic’ naming here.

A reason why all this has been studied is because earlier training systems used a more linear system, where only one physical quality was focused on for a long period of time.  For example, training for several months on strength only.  What happens is that by the end of these long phases an athlete loses gains made in developing a different quality from a previous phase.

To alleviate this problem, two basic periodization structures are offered.  One is the conjugate method, where two or more qualities are trained simultaneously with one quality being emphasized.  In a subsequent macrocycle the initial quality is maintained with focus shifting to another quality.  For example, a football player focuses 60% on strength with the remaining training dedicated to power and anaerobic endurance.   The next month (macrocycle) could be dedicated to 60% power work with strength and anaerobic endurance in a maintenance mode.

The second method is called undulating periodization for its wavelike sequencing.  Basically you dedicate shorter periods of time to developing one physical quality and rotate through goals.  For example, you spend 1-3 weeks on hypertrophy, 1-3 weeks on strength, and then 1-3 weeks on power.   The sequence of macrocycles is then repeated producing a wavelike pattern.  There can be overlap within each cycle, but the focus is clearly on one aspect.

Periodization for Physique Athletes

By now you understand that periodization is a way to peak performance for competition.  For physique competitors we are talking about peaking for a show or photo shoot.  In order to properly apply periodization to physique athletes we must understand what the main similarities and differences between ‘sport’ and physique athletes are, so appropriate adjustments can be made.  A difference for us is that peaking relates to getting lean.  This is an aesthetic quality opposed to a biomotor ability like speed.  When considering our competitive phase, there are both similarities and differences.  Let’s look at both of these items in some more depth.

Peaking Considerations

The application of periodization for peaking is pretty straight forward, as I will demonstrate.  All physique athletes already do this, perhaps without saying any fancy technical terms.

Say you want to be your leanest on November 6 – easy: follow a six/nine/twelve (I tend to like groupings of three, but use whatever works best for you) weeks fat-loss program leading up to that day.  Simple enough; see how you have already been periodizing yourself?

We can also note the concept of tapering.  Traditionally this is training volume is reduced to allow for recovery and coming back stronger – a form of supercompensation, and usually lasts around a week.  For a physique athlete, I don’t really recommend a true tapering period.  You can keep up your metabolic training sessions as close to the event as possible to get as lean as possible.  What I do recommend are a couple of days off not just to rest the body, but to get into an overall relaxed state for a fresh and vibrant appearance.  With fun things like tanning, registration, and other cosmetic or last minute details there are enough activities to keep us busy in the days before an event.

Ok – all is this fine – we have been using periodization to get ready for shows all along, but how can the principles of periodization be uniquely put to use by physique athletes?

Competitive and Long-term Considerations

This is where things get more interesting.  Typically, a physique athlete doesn’t need to set a World Record at an annual contest, rather, needs to be in top form for longer periods of time.  This may include being close to contest or photo shoot shape all throughout the year.  So, our competitive phase can be all the time.

The conjugate method may work better if you are planning on entering several shows in row, like a Spring/Summer/Fall season, or being close to photo shoot ready all the time.  You can always be doing some form of metabolic work mixed with another goal, like power or hypertrophy.  I feel this method works well for an athlete who is generally satisfied with their level of physical development.  You don’t need to focus on major goals that develop your physique in the first place, so you are more concerned with maintaining that physique while still improving this or that.

The undulating method may work better if you are focused on really coming in tight for a major show, having other camera opportunities placed around this, and/or having some down time throughout the year.  You still don’t have any true down-time, but may have a macrocycle where you aren’t exactly camera ready, like a hypertrophy phase.  You will run through building/developmental cycles leading into fat-loss specific macrocycle(s).

The next questions you may be thinking of are how to determine what to focus on, or sequencing options.  There are many possibilities here and this is another topic all together – it’s beyond our scope for now; however, we have a good understanding of what periodization is and how it can be used to our benefit.

Summing Things Up

Periodization is a way to structure your training cycles to maximize results.  Understanding this concept provides insight on the need for variety to mitigate training plateaus.  Whether male or female, just because we don’t display strength on stage doesn’t mean including strength and power training won’t help us look our best for the camera.

Decide whether you want to be camera ready more often, and review the competitive calendar and select your desired shows.  Decide which show is most important, as that will be the target to come in your best.  Consider arranging photo shoots around competition time; you might as well get the most out of all your hard work.  If you don’t have any photographer or industry contacts do not fret – there are plenty of resources available through the Fitness Star Network and opportunities for exposure can come from the competitions of course!

Do you need to be leaner all throughout the year or for a period(s) of time with some breaks?  Considering this will help you decide what type of periodization strategy to follow – namely a conjugate method (better for remaining leaner all year round) or undulating method (better for peaking at specific times).

If you fail to plan you plan to fail – now we have a better understanding of a methodology to help plan our efforts and get to the top of our game.  Cheers to happy and hard training!
Your Game-Changer