We lift weights for a reason. Is it because it reduces stress or gets us away from the kids? Maybe. Is it because we're sadists and like limping to our car with puke on our face? Yeah, I guess... but ultimately I lift weights as a means to an end.
I like being strong. And I like it when people look at me and know it.
There's plenty to be said about the spiritual aspects of lifting; how it's good for character building and learning something profound about yourself and how you only really grow when faced with an overwhelming obstacle.....but in some parallel universe where lifting weights doesn't get me jacked and strong, guess what..... I don't do it. And in the future when weight training is replaced by more invasive means of gaining superhuman qualities(something on the order of genetic modification or fucking robot arms) I'm all over it. But for now, eating a lot and training really hard are the two best tactics I have for realizing my destiny of becoming a living sasquatch.
Periodization is the most common term thrown around with respect to training, usually in the context of some over-hyped program attached to so and so's ebook. In these articles, Greg Nuckols and Dr. Mike Israetel do a pretty damn good job of obliterating the common lifters misrepresentation of this term. To give you the cliff notes, periodization is simply the manipulation of volume, intensity, and exercise selection over time to produce a desired result. Emphasis may change, but all periodization schemes use the same elements of conjugation (changing exercises), linearity (adding weight), and undulation (changing volume/intensity). The following is a brief synopsis of the most common schemes that make up the online miasma of competitive programming.
Linearity, or progressive overload, is probably the most well understood component of training. Jerry did squats on monday with 225lbs for 5 sets of 5 reps. On Friday, Jerry did squats with 235lbs for 5 sets of 5 reps. Mathematically, more work was done on Friday than Monday. Adding weight to the same set/rep scheme increases both volume and intensity, creating a stimulus that will coax an adaptive response from your energy systems, muscle tissue, nervous system. 5x5 and other similar routines that rely on simply adding more weight over time are linear in nature and are usually referred to as 'linear progressions'.
Squat 5x5 twice per week, adding 5lbs each session.
Squat 10,8,6,4,2, adding 5lbs each session.
Squat 70%, 65%, 60% to failure, adding 5lbs each session.
It doesn't fucking matter, just add 5lbs each session.
This is probably my favorite for clients because it's simple. Like, simple enough to not get confused or distracted or overwhelmed. And it allows enough work with the same movement to establish proficiency. I can't tell you how many people are actually strong, but just suck at a lift because they don't do enough quality practice with it. Keeping the weights light in the beginning gives opportunity to establish a solid technical base that will pay off dividends once the weight increases.
One issue is that the first several weeks may be overly easy. Why take 3 weeks to work up to weights that are actually challenging? Yes, it takes time to acclimate to volume, but it can feel like you are wasting your time in this phase. Common progressions now incorporate an intensity set to failure on the last set to mitigate this lack of effort. If the first week is done with 70%, the first day may go 5, 5, 5, 5, 13. By continuously trying to beat this rep record each session with 5lbs more, you are getting growth from effort while still building the volume base for later on.
Obviously, this cannot be ran indefinitely without reps eventually being missed. The common long term solution for a simple linear progression is to reset once working sets turn into grind-fests: weights return to the starting week plus 5% or so and the routine is ran again.
Linear or Western Periodization
The other solution to stalling on a linear progression is to taper sets and reps to accommodate continuously increasing weights every week. This is traditional western periodization.
To get more in depth, high volume, low intensity work(usually 3-5 sets of 8+ reps) of a compound movement is fantastic for building muscular size and rep capacity. Low volume, high intensity work(3 sets or less with 3 reps or less) is more specific to strength and will lead to more muscle fibers being recruited at once and in a shorter period of time. The early phase builds muscle tissue, the later phase allows you to use it maximally. Since direction is an important part of intelligent programming, it only makes sense for competitive lifters to continuously add weight and lower reps over time until they peak for an upcoming meet. A cookie-cutter Western periodization program looks something like this:
The phases are broken into three parts: Accumulation/Preparation (8+ reps), Transmutation/Transition (4-7 reps), and Realization/Competition (3 reps and under). There is a pattern here of broad work transitioning into narrow work; rep ranges are less strength specific at the beginning but movements are also less contest specific. Keep in mind that these principles of going from general to specific work over time outline the basic off season/on season periodized programming of other sports as well. These parameters can also change if, for instance, the cycle starts 16 weeks out from a meet or if the lifter wants to spend more time in the accumulation phase to add some much needed size.
Some of the pitfalls:
Because each phase emphasizes one quality and these qualities are separated by a number of weeks, retention of each trait doesn't last the entire cycle. Mass gained in the accumulation phase will not last through the end of the realization phase, and absolute strength gained in the peaking phase doesn't last through the accumulation phase of the next cycle. That isn't to say that this program doesn't work; in fact it works great. But lifters who have advanced greatly off of this type of scheme for a long time have expressed frustration with diminished returns. This highlights that what works for one lifter at one time in their career may not continue to work indefinitely.
Conjugated periodization simply refers to the frequent rotation of exercises replacing the rotation of sets and reps. Since the nervous activity responsible for absolute strength is a skill, it stands to reason that it should be trained as often as possible and not be allowed to atrophy during a long volume-only phase of training. However, maximal work done at 3 reps or less with the same exercise will lead to a drop in performance after several weeks. Deloads became a popular way to bypass this phenomenon: 3 weeks of max effort work followed by 1 week of substantially reduced effort. Eventually, it was discovered that max effort work can be done without a deload if exercises were routinely swapped for close conjugates. For instance, changing your grip on a bench press and incorporating a pause makes it just different enough to prevent regression while being similar enough to stimulate improvement in your competition setup.
Louie Simmons Westside method relies on this conjugation of exercises to constantly condition maximal strength year round while concurrently training for speed and hypertrophy. In this way, all of the phases of western periodization are combined into one phase that is trained continuously. Max Effort work (1 set at 90%+) is done with the main lift for that day, followed by hypertrophy work (3-5 sets of 5-20 reps) for all muscles that contribute to that movement. An alternate day is scheduled 72 hours later for dynamic effort, or speed work (50-60% for 8-12 sets of 2-3 reps).
Proponents of conjugate methods swear by them, but there are many considerations to be made. First of all, classic Westside exercise selection is directed towards geared lifters. Since squat suits and bench shirts add an immense amount of support at the bottom portion of the lift, exercise selection typically focuses on top end strength (board presses, floor presses, high box squats, rack pulls, etc.). Raw lifters must be maximally strong through the entire lift, so exercise selection must incorporate bottom position work (paused benches and squats, deficit deadlifts, etc.).
Also, it is very easy for less experienced lifters to lose the thread of 'carryover' from conjugates to their main lift. A lifter may be weak off the chest in a bench press and opt for board and floor presses over several weeks of training, only to find that there was loss of strength over all from lack of work off the chest. More options can potentially lead to more complications, which is why it is important to have an experienced coach or lifter as a resource.
Undulating simply means changing and in the context of this scheme, refers to sets and reps. A common undulating periodization routine would be three days of squatting every week following a different volume and intensity protocol every session.
Mon 5x5 Weds 4x2 Fri 3x10.
Since progress is made linearly (by adding weight each week), this turns out to be a simple twist on a linear program. Also, notice that multiple phases are being trained concurrently in the same week. This echoes aspects of conjugated methodologies and reinforces the lack of exclusivity in each type of periodization program.
A huge benefit of undulating periodization is that the same lifts are trained 3 days per week, which means that there is more opportunity to dial in the main movement, or whatever close conjugates are being used. However, any program that relies on several main lifts being trained 3 or more times per week (like most linear periodization schemes) must throttle back accessory work. The stimulus comes from breaking rep and set PRs, and you must be fresh to do this. There is no conceivable way to recover for other sessions if your first bench day is followed by a typical 'chest' workout. Dial in the lifts, work the rep ranges, put out effort, and you will grow.