Resistance Training 201: Periodization for Long Term Progress

Planning exercise and physical activity is an important skill to understand for athletes, coaches, and health care professionals alike.  Having a well-rounded program provides the athlete with “what to do,” but the program design can often answer the “why to do,” help direct goals and establish a systematic approach to make and track progress.  While not everyone might identify as an athlete, anyone that participates in physical activity can identify a personal motive that keeps them active and striving for progress.  Some of these motives might include performance, aesthetics, general health and wellbeing, or even management and or prevention of clinical conditions.  The individual prescription and programming would differ in each of these cases therefore it is important to assign appropriate training loads and volume. 

Periodization is a systematic blueprint that involves varying training aspects including but not limited to volume, frequency, intensity, types of exercise or even types of equipment used.  It is an efficient way to ensure long term progress, avoid overtraining, and work on different training goals.  It can also help to bolster adherence to programs and prevent plateauing.  For a better understanding of periodization it is helpful to outline some basic terminology.  Macrocycle refers to the long-term duration of the program, typically one to two years.  Mesocycle breaks down the macrocycle into smaller segments, typically 4-8 weeks. The microcycle cycle breaks down the mesocycle and is comprised of individual training sessions, generally one-week durations.  Consistency is essential to long term progress. One individual exercise session is never enough to elicit a training response, so understanding how to plan macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles is an effective way to predict and track progress.  While there are many infinite program styles here are some tried and true favorites:

  • Linear periodization – each mesocycle changes emphasis, typically starting with high reps at moderate resistance and progressing through lower rep high resistance schemes.  This helps develop a well-rounded profile of muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength and power.  Linear periodization is a fantastic way to help novice and intermediate athletes develop, but may limit more advanced athletes.
  • Undulating periodization –  an effective way to train multiple goals at the same time.  Microcycles include different training sessions throughout the week specific to the goals.  Examples include training high, moderate and low intensities on different days of the week.  It could also change training goals throughout the week by dedicating specific days towards endurance, strength, power etc.  Another example could be a triathlete who determines different days to train running, cycling and swimming. 
  • Nonlinear periodization – mesocycles and microcycles are not selected by set progression or sequence.  A good example of this is an athlete training throughout the year for a given sport.  The periodization is influenced by the the off-season, pre-season, in-season and post-season.  The focus of training is different in each phase.  The off season focuses on general athletic abilities, pre-season is much more sport and skill specific, in season training is aimed at maintaining the gains made and optimizing performance and post season focuses on active recovery.  Nonlinear periodization can also allow for autoregulation of exercise sessions meaning the individual can determine when to push harder or pull back. Going “off- script” from the outlined program based on individual perception and ability can help reduce injury and track progress throughout the program.

While there is no perfect program design, periodization is incredibly useful tool to optimize your training.  Understanding your goals and current abilities and weakness can help design your program and make a plan to progress.  Goals and abilities certainly change over time, therefore the types of training should change to accommodate.  Another important feature of periodization is to help minimize overtraining, fatigue, and mental burn out.  In many cases, less is more.  Having proper rest is essential to long term development and prevent injury.  One of Dr. Carfagno’s favorite pieces of advice is to plan an in season and off-season schedule.  While not everyone is involved in team sports or competition, the idea applies just as much to the weekend warrior and recreational athlete.  Planning periods of recovery does not mean sit at home and do nothing.  Active recovery can include lowering intensity, cross-training other skills or sports, focusing other aspects of health and fitness like flexibility and mobility.  It can also include cognitive recovery using mind body therapies, yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, forest bathing and other calming and relaxing activities.


Alex Edwards, CEP, CSCS

Exercise Physiologist



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