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4 Reasons Why I Think Undulating Periodization Sucks

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Yeah, yeah, undulating periodization is as hot as David Beckham lately... except... I don't know anyone who uses it.

There are only so many ways you can organize your training when you need to develop more than one or two motor qualities:

1) Train all necessary qualities in successive "phases," which might last anywhere from one to six weeks per phase. This is known as "linear" periodization. For example, you might work on increasing muscular hypertrophy for three weeks, then maximal strength for three weeks, and then strength-endurance for three weeks. Linear periodization sucks so bad on so many levels that no one really uses it, and I remain to be convinced that anyone ever used it. The main problem of course, is that by the time you're in your third phase, the quality you worked so hard to develop in the first phase has all but evaporated. It's kinda like studying German in 9th grade, Spanish in 10th grade, French in 11th grade, and Italian as a senior. Every year you start all over again, despite the fact that you never get anywhere.

2) Train all neccesary qualities at all times, but in seperate workouts (undulating periodization) Borrowing from the previous example, on Mondays you might train for hypertrophy, then you'll train for maximal strength on Wednesdays, and finally, strength-endurance on Fridays. It's kinda like "spirit week" at my daughter's school- on Monday it's pajama day, on Wednesday it's hat day, and on Friday it's twin day. Undulating periodization does serve one purpose however, as does spirit week: it alleviates bordom.

That said, I have four fundamental problems with the undulating approach:

• No one actually trains this way. Probably because:

• If you can only use one rep bracket per workout, you're limited to performing many exercises only once per week. As an example, let's say that on hypertrophy day you perform 5 sets of 12 with 90-second rests. For maximal sterngth day you use 6 sets of 2 with 3 minute rests. And on strength endurance day you use 4 sets of 25 with one minute rests. Using this approach, how often can you perform the most valuable lifts, such as snatches, front squats, pistols, deadlifts, push presses, and chins? Answer: once per week. Not enough, even for maintenance purposes. Further, if you're a strongman or kettlebell enthusiast, how often can you perform tire flips or kettlebell snatches? Again, once per week. If you never want to make any progress, that's a perfect frequency.

• When you do "mixed" workouts, late high-rep sets benefit from the previously performed low rep work. OK look- I know everyone says that mixing different motor qualities is inherently evil and all that, but I actually see a synergistic benefit in working heavy to light over the course of a workout- emphasizing nervous-system work early in the workout actually facilitates hypertrophy and/or endurance training later in the workout. And consider this: if you start your endurance training after maximal strength or power training, it's like you've got a head-start, thanks to the fatigue accululation you've already induced.

• Almost every athletic event or physical task starts fresh and ends fatigued- so why not train that way? When you think about it, it doesn't matter if you're talking track and field, tennis, skiing, badminton, or powerlifting- you start off fresh and finish off tired. The aformationed events differ only in extent. This might be the least-appreciated aspect of the specificity principle when I think about it.

Which leads us to the final, best, and arguably only way to organize your training:

3) Train all neccesary qualities at all times, training every quality in every (or at least most) workouts. I've already pointed out the benefits of this approach by picking apart the other alternatives, but perhaps the best argumant for this approach is that everyone trains this way.

At least everyone ends up there, eventually.

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Comments

  1. Dan on Aug 2, 2007 1:43:32 PM:

    Doesn't this directly conflict with the article called "21-day itch", where you propose to train in exactly the way you say sucks in this article? Did I misunderstand the 21-day itch article or have you moved on in training philosophy?

  1. Charles on Aug 2, 2007 4:08:00 PM:

    Hey Dan- probably a combination of both. The plan outlined in The 21-Day Itch does allow for more than one quality to be trained each session. But generally speaking, I don;t favor that approach for most contexts any longer (although almost any form/style of training that contrasts with the usual can be used as a form of active recovery once or twice a year.

  1. Kurt on Aug 3, 2007 6:06:53 AM:

    I've been using an undulating periodization program for the past couple of years with consistent progess. I now squat just under 400 lbs in competition. I've put over 100 lbs on my deadlift to 450 lbs. I'm 50 years old and compete in the 148 lb class. From week to week I continue to set new PR's. I've made more progress with this system than a Westside style of training.

  1. Charles on Aug 3, 2007 7:18:16 AM:

    Kurt, would you post a typical weekly training cycle for me?

  1. Kurt on Aug 3, 2007 8:44:09 AM:

    Posting training session over a 1 week period would not explain the system. This system was explained to me at a powerlifting seminar by Larry Maile, the president of the USAPL and coach of the USAPL National team. A cycle last from 4 to 8 eight weeks and has Peak weeks and flat weeks. During peak weeks heavier weights are used for the main lift and each Peak week thereafter weights are increased. I know of other world class lifters who use this system. I've had to play with the system a little to find how to get consistent progress.

  1. Charles on Aug 6, 2007 8:03:12 AM:

    Kurt, that sounds more like linear periodization actually, but without more detail, I'd just be speculating...

  1. Thomas on Aug 7, 2007 1:39:07 PM:

    Charles, that is a strange comment to make to Kurt. You just said in your article that linear periodization sucks so bad that no one ever uses it. Yet you suggest that Kurt is following it rather than undulating periodization, as a possible explanation for why his results are so outstanding??? Huh? I think you are being caught guilty of overstating your case in the above article for marketing effect. Most likely the truth is Kurt doesn't spend 2/3rd of a training week lifting anything in the 12 - 25 rep range as in your article example. If he is "undulating" anything it is probably within a much tighter rep range, which brings him probably in line with what you were trying to say in your article.

  1. Charles on Aug 7, 2007 2:34:12 PM:

    Hi Thomas,

    No, I'm not suggesting that Kurt's results are outstanding because he's using a linear system- in fact, I'm not exactly sure what he's doing in terms of periodization since he hasn't yet provided those details.

    That said, I stand by my statements about both linear and undulating periodization schemes. If Kurt is making great progress on either system, I'd assert that either:

    1) He could be doing better using a conjugated system, as I advocate for in the post, and/or...

    2) Kurt's results have more to do with his personal atrributes (work ethic, good nutrition, etc) than they system he's using.

    But either way, I hope Kurt will provide us with more detail, because it's a worthwhile discussion!

  1. Scott on Aug 9, 2007 9:20:14 AM:

    This approach, of course, aligns with EDT, a very unique and effective approach I might add.

    I have a question re the comment made by Charles concerning limitations in frequency for key movements when using an undulating periodization. Do not most programs allow for one day per body part (ie Monday=chest day)? Even EDT seems to allow for one day per week for blasting a certain BP. Waterbury, whose method Charles has praised recently, utilizes undulating periodization extensively. You praise this method because it works to maximize motor-skills and workout volume. And this seems to be an improvement volume-wise over the more traditional programs that hit a body part once a week. I am not sure how conjugated periodization would allow for more weekly volume per BP than undulating periodization.

  1. steve fireman on Aug 9, 2007 12:58:12 PM:

    So how does all of this reconcile with EDT?? I have been using Alwyn Cosgrove style undulating periodization. I have made some improvements but I am a freak and alos do too much cv and endurance work. Nevertheless- I need advise on mixed qualities as I am never just focussed on one thing -maybe I should call my workouts "ADD." I suspect many athletes who are not elite in anything, like me play or compete in many differnt sports. In any given week, I like to run a couple times, play basketball, cycle and lift 3 times... mixed stuff. Now what?

  1. Scott on Aug 9, 2007 2:54:48 PM:

    I can see it aligning with EDT in that EDT utilizes heavy lifting and endurance in the same workout, in the same Zone. EDT can also be mixed with more traditional set/rep combos, as supplementary exercises... if I am understanding this correctly.

  1. Scott on Aug 9, 2007 2:59:16 PM:

    ...however, it is interesting that Charles states conjugative method is superior because it enables one to add endurance work at the end of a workout, after strength and power exercises. Classic EDT (non-hybrid) of course reverses this, placing the lighter reps at the beginning and the heavier reps at the end of the Zone.

  1. phil on Aug 12, 2007 9:50:18 PM:

    Scott, in reference to lighter at the beginning and heavier at the end, my understanding is you picked 1 weight that you use throughout the zone and therefore what you call lighter seems lighter because you are fresher and what you call heavy seems heavy because of fatigue - which is exactly what coach says you are fresher at the beginning and tired at the end

  1. Dave on Jan 22, 2008 7:54:28 PM:

    Phil/Scott

    As I understand it, using EDT your load stays the same all the way through the training session and does not change until you have gone up by twenty percent (in number of reps) of your original PR Zone.

    As to the comments about undulating periodization, the reps schemes are much tigher. If you read one of the studies published in the NSCA journal (can't remember the name, but if you are a member, then you get it mailed to you) the reps schemes used were 12, 8, 10 on three different days. They may not have been in that order, but that was the range used. I think Charles Poloquin, who gets a lot of credit for popularizing this style uses a tighter scheme as well.

    I have set personal 1RM records using undulating periodization. However when using it in a strength phase, my rep scheme is usually 3 on day 1, 1 on day 2, and 5 on day 3. I think it is a great system and I think saying nobody ever uses it is just an uninformed statement. Obviously someone does, or at least two someones on this board does. That said, I think there are a million ways to skin this proverbial cat. Be wary of anyone who tells you they have the absolute best way to train. What they are saying is that it is the best way they have found to train. train.

  1. Francisco Tavares on Nov 30, 2009 9:18:46 AM:

    Undulating Periodization (u.p.) is another kind of train periodization that can be used. I'm a personal trainer so i don't work directly with perfomance as must of you guys do. But i use the u.p. in a linear periodization. I do a normal linear periodization (Bompa model) and the i use u.p. at the end of the cycle... or .... i do "crescent u.p." I start with AA then HYP then MxS (maximum strenght) and then i mix HYP with MxS for 2 to 4 weeks, then i do ME (muscular endurance) and at the end i do another u.p. cycle with HyP, MxS and ME for a few (2 to 4) weeks. Like i said, my target is not perfomance, my target is my clients goals, soo my periodization changes a lot.

    It's just an opinion!

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  1. Shane Miller on Jun 8, 2010 11:45:50 AM:

    To Everyone:

    The underlying concepts of how the human body adapts to stress must first be considered before trying to pick a perdiodization model to use.

    Each scheme is designed to allow you to stress the body in a way that taxes the nervous system as well as the muscular system.

    Use any scheme long enough and you'll probably notice a reduction in adaptation even with optimal management of the variables.

    For example, if you've been following an U.P. scheme for a while (16 weeks) and have had progressive success, your success in the following 16 weeks will likely be less and so on.

    Switch to a Conjugate or even Linear scheme for a while and you're likely to make better gains that staying with the same U.P. scheme.

    And yes, keeping a tighter range of the variables is important. A U.P. scheme trying to mix in Max Effort (3RM), Hypertrophy (12RM), and Lactic Acid Tolerance (25RM) work is definitely going to produce less than optimal performance simply because of the infrequent training of each.

    But when a football player who needs to be big and strong, he'll have great results using a U.P. scheme with Monday 4x6 reps, Wednesday 4x3, and Friday 5x8 or 5x10.

    Although individual requirements need to be addressed before any scheme is chosen as a guy who's huge and has decent conditioning, but lacks top end strength would obviously do better with a different set up.

    Hope this information helps put things in perspective.

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  1. Alex "Dude Where's My Muscle" Siddy on May 14, 2011 10:03:01 AM:

    I have been using undulating periodization for quite some time now and have always made consistent results using it.

    It's true everyone has a unique physiology and respond better to different training variables, stresses, and stimulus. So many approaches will work.

    Undulating periodization is a perfect fit for me and like they say "if it ain't broke, why fix it?"

    Alex Siddy

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