August 02, 2021
As a student of fitness, one of the most important concepts of training to learn is periodization, especially as you move from novice to intermediate, and even more so when you start to become advanced. Periodization is not a new concept, having been around since the 1950s, and most people employ some form of periodized training whether they know it or not, but doing it and doing it right are two different things. By truly understanding periodization, you can maximize your results in the gym or in your respective sport. To start, you need to know the basics, which is the three cycles of periodization training: Macrocycle, Mesocycle, and Microcycle.
In this post, we are going to explain what periodization is and how the macro, meso, and micro cycles relate to it. With that, you will be able to structure your training in a way that allows you to reach peak performance, prepare for an event, or simply achieve your fitness goals. The information below will also help you to realize the purpose and planning behind many tried-and-true strength training programs and athletic programs.
In the most basic sense, periodization refers to how you organize your training over various time periods. It’s about breaking down long periods of time (i.e. 1 year) and long term goals into phases so you can structure your month-by-month, week-by-week, and day-by-day training in a way that progress and effort contributes to the big picture (your long term goal).
Essentially every training plan and program has some form of periodization. So, it’s likely that you are already employing periodization tactics whether you know it or not. The only way this is not true is if you do the same exact workouts with the same exact variables (exercises, order, intensity, sets, reps, tempo, and rest) without ever taking a rest or deload period all year round, which would be surprising. Periodization is almost an instinctual part of training...
Be that as it may, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to know what periodization is. By understanding the concept thoroughly, you can use it to your greatest advantage, and this applies to fitness for bodybuilders, powerlifters, and athletes. Just because you may be using some form of periodization already, doesn’t mean you are doing it right.
With proper use of periodization, you can maximize your gains while reducing your risk of injury and overtraining. It also helps to keep your training fun and fresh.
Periodization works hand-in-hand with progressive overload. While planned progressive overload is essential for getting stronger, bigger, faster, etc., at some point you will hit a wall and likely end up overtraining with progressive overload alone. This is where periodization plays an important role. By breaking your training into phases and altering intensity & volume, you can manage fatigue and continue to make progress toward your overarching goal(s).
When it comes to competitive athletes, periodization is vital. It will allow you to time peak performance for competition, as it’s obviously not possible to maintain peak form all year round. Moreover, periodization will help you to manage and systematically attack all the various aspects of fitness that you need to work on. Athletes need to work on strength, endurance, explosiveness, speed, agility, balance, specific sport skills, and so on. That’s a lot of different things compared to someone who just wants to build muscle or strength.
For beginners, there is no need to worry about periodization. If you want to learn about it, cool. But by simply training hard, focusing on good technique, and progressively making your workouts harder (progressive overload), you can get really far. Newbie gains are incredibly linear. And if you do get fatigued, take a week off or a week of much lighter training (deload week) and then get back to it.
Note: The rest or deload week is an aspect of periodization, by the way, but the point is, you just don’t need to overcomplicate the concept of periodization as a beginner.
Honestly, this applies to a lot of intermediate lifters too. However, if you are an intermediate lifter or you are training for a specific sport or competition, then it’ll be good to learn and start to utilize periodization to your benefit.
As for advanced trainees and athletes, periodization is very important and will provide notable effects over the years. But, if you are advanced, then you already know this.
All in all, once you move out of beginner territory, periodization is incredibly important as progression is not linear. It’s not like the progressive overload story of Milo of Croton where he carried the newborn calf on his shoulders and continued to do so day by day, and as the cow grew, he got stronger. This kind of long term perfectly linear progression is not possible. As you become more advance, the path of progression is curvilinear, but if you use periodization with progressive overload smartly, the path will most certainly be up and you can continue to improve in a more streamlined manner.
The first thing you need to learn about periodization is the basic structuring of periodization cycles.
There are 3 cycles:
Note: Depending on your mesocycle and microcycle, you can also break it down even further into Training Units (or Training Days), which would be each individual workout. Obviously, each individual workout needs to be planned and together make up your microcycle.
A macrocycle is the time period of training toward a long term goal, such as a powerlifting competition, bodybuilding competition, a marathon or a sport season. The length of a macrocycle will depend on the person.
Overall, just think of the macrocycle as the “big picture”. The purpose of a macrocycle is to establish a long term goal and use the other cycles to work towards it. The length of a macrocycle will depend on what you are training for.
Within a macrocycle you may also have phases (and a phase can be made up of one, two, or multiple mesocycles)...
An athlete will generally have 3 phases in their macrocycle (which are separate from their mesocycles):
A powerlifter may have 3 phases within their macrocycle too...
These phases within the powerlifter’s macrocycle can also be made up of multiple or just one mesocycle. For example, the peaking phase may just be one mesocycle, which leads into the competition.
A mesocycle is a single training phase within your macrocycle. They usually range from 4-8 weeks, but can be shorter or longer. As such, you will have multiple mesocycles within your macrocycle.
A single mesocycle will usually focus on one training quality or target (i.e. strength, hypertrophy, or endurance) and will typically consists of an accumulation period (progressive overload) and end with a short rest or deload period.
Think of your mesocycles as medium term goals.
Using a powerlifter as an example again...
Let’s say a powerlifter has two meets a year, one at the end of May and one at the beginning of November:
For powerlifters, this type of plan is cyclical, with each year hopefully making continued improvements and reaching new PRs.
As you can see, depending on the goal of the mesocycle, length of time for a mesocycle will vary. For people who just workout for fun and want to improve on a personal level, then you can simplify things and keep your mesocycles to perfect month long blocks, that way they fit nice and neat into a calendar year. Everything can be individualized and specific to your desire.
A microcycle cycle is essentially a week’s worth of training, but a microcycle can be shorter or longer depending on the training plan/mesocycle. A batch of microcycles makes up a mesocycle. Each microcycle will have its own short term goal and each microcycle within a mesocycle works towards the goal of the mesocycle.
For example, let’s say a mesocycle is focused on increasing training load and the mesocycle is 5 weeks long:
Essentially, the first 4 microcycles are accumulation cycles, with each week getting harder (increasing load), and the final cycle in that mesocycle block is a deload cycle.
The above example could also be structured in 6 weeks, if the trainee felt they had another week of accumulation in them. It could also be shortened to 4 weeks total.
Here is another example of week long microcycles, but this one is for a 3 week long mesocycle:
Microcycles can even be as short as 1 day. Here is an example of a mesocycle that is just a week long (one training week), which means each microcycle is just one training day:
Each of those training days is a microcycle.
These are just a couple examples of how microcycles and mesocycles can be structured. We can’t say what is best for you as we don’t know your training goals, but as you can see, there is a lot of ways to go about programming.
When it comes down to it, the microcycle is the most important of the 3 cycles (macro, meso, and micro) as without crushing your microcycle, you will never achieve the goal of your mesocycle and thus your macrocycle. The best thing you can do as a novice or intermediate lifter is follow a tried and true program.
Microcycles and Mesocycles can be very unique, so you will see many different implementations of them in various programs. There are many different types of periodization models built into programs, such as:
Don’t worry too much about the types of periodization just yet. If you are following a program, it will outline what you need to do in regards to these different methods.
Let’s look at some periodization examples so you can get an even clearer picture of how macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles work...
Macrocycle: 12 months (preparing for a powerlifting competition)
Mesocycle 1: 2 months - Offseason (focus is on recovery and maintaining general conditioning)
Mesocycle 2: 4 months (focus is on mass accumulation and hypertrophy/bulking- must be in calorie surplus)
Mesocycle 3: 6 weeks (focusing on improving peak strength for bench press)
Mesocycle 4: 6 weeks (focusing on improving peak strength for squat)
Mesocycle 5: 6 weeks (focusing on improving peak strength for deadlift)
Mesocycle 6: 2 months (focus on overall peaking and making appropriate weight for meet - calorie deficit if needed to cut weight)
Following that 6th day in the last microcycle is the powerlifting meet! Now, it's time to crush PRs in competition...
...then, it all starts again.
While this is a very general template, it represents the concept of periodization pretty well.
AVERAGE JOE/JANE WHO WANTS TO GET STRONGER
Let’s say you have a simple goal of getting stronger over a 3 month period...
Macrocycle: 12 weeks (getting stronger)
Mesocycle 1: 4 weeks (focus is on endurance)
Mesocycle 2: 4 weeks (focus is on hypertrophy)
Mesocycle 3: 4 weeks (focus is on strength)
Related: How to Improve Muscular Strength
AVERAGE JOE/JANE WHO WANTS TO GET "BEACH READY"
This is an example of someone who simple wishes to get shredded for summer (which in this template is just 3 months away)
Macrocycle: 12 weeks (the goal is to get shredded for beach season)
Mesocycle 1: 4 weeks (focusing on muscle maintenance and increasing metabolism)
Mesocycle 2: 8 Weeks (fat loss)
You are now beach ready...
The above emplates are just three of countless ways periodization training cycles work. As you can see, even diet can play a role in periodization!
We hope this helps you to simply understand the concept of periodization cycles. The concept applies to people from all walks of fitness.
All in all, no matter what your goal in fitness is, breaking down everything into manageable steps (cycles/phases/blocks) and using a well-thought-out plan will always produce the best results. Small steps are the best way to tackle big goals, and that’s what periodization and the macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles are all about.
If you have any questions for us, please feel free to contact us by email.
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