A New Form Of Periodization: Now We Are Thinking Long-Term
A few articles back I talked about linear periodization (LP) as a training system for gaining size and strength. Even though LP can be used as an effective short-term training method of making gains, what do you do in the long-term? If the effectiveness of LP after a short period of time weakens, what is then your next option to be able to go further with your weightlifting goals?
Well, this is where conjugate undulating periodization (CUP) comes in. This form of periodization is essentially a collection of different periodization variables: conjugate, undulating and linear, all of which I will explain in this article. The benefit of CUP is that it allows you to plan your training in such a way so that you can keep it varied and therefore optimized for maximal gains. I guess the real magic of CUP is that it can be designed in a way that means you will never stall in your training progress. In fact, many weightlifters who utilize CUP in their training, say they have been able to make PRs week in and week out. Progress setbacks seem to become a distant past with CUP.
What Does Conjugate Mean?
Whenever you come across periodization, conjugate will simply mean: changes in exercises. Changing your exercises regularly is one of the best ways of making sure you can stay making those optimal gains over the long-term. The two main benefits for exercise selection in CUP are the law of accommodation and the principle of specificity. For one, if you keep using the same few exercises over a long period of time, eventually they stop being a potent growth stimulus for your body. In other words, the longer you use the same stuff, the quicker the effects of accommodation will kick in. What makes CUP such an effective weight training method is that the need for high exercise selection means you are constantly getting your body to respond and adapt to a changing stimulus.
“Changing your exercises regularly is one of the best ways of making sure you can stay making those optimal gains over the long-term”.
The second reason is the principle of specificity. As a weightlifter your goal is strength and size, therefore you have to train in a certain way to achieve that. That means basing your routine around mainly compound exercises. But that doesn’t mean just the traditional bench, deadlift, row and press, but all the different variations that come with them. The benefits of compound movements means you are able to optimize your routine to make maximal gains, but also the ability to transfer the performance benefits gained on one exercise over to a similar variation of it.
In this situation, it becomes almost impossible to stall: weak links are eliminated, strong links are reinforced, and constantly your body is forced to adapt to a whole range of new movement patterns. The important thing to remember with CUP is that you never spend too long doing the same exercises. But, if you do change your exercises they need to be specific and transferable. In other words, they still need to be specific to achieve your size and strength goals but also, they need to reinforce each other to allow you to progress overall.
Say you perform a full body workout 3 times per week. The range of exercise selection could look something like this (rotating your selection say every 3-4 weeks):
Barbell Flat Bench
Standing Barbell Overhead Press
High Bar Back Squat
Barbell T-Bar Row
Push Press From Floor
Front Barbell Squat
Trap Bar Deadlift
Flat Barbell Bench Press (With bands)
Z-Press With Bands
What Does Undulating Mean?
Another important aspect of CUP is the term undulating. This simply means changing your volume AND intensity within a time period. This can typically take place WITHIN the week between training sessions as well as BETWEEN training weeks themselves. Both will play an important role in helping you to make those long-term gains in size and strength. Typically in most training programs, people will tend to keep one variable the same for an extended period of time while attempting to progress in the other. Or, if they do decide to change these training variables, they will tend to stick to the same ranges. In both cases, eventually you will stall. The reason for this is simple.
“This can typically take place WITHIN the week between training sessions as well as BETWEEN training weeks themselves”.
When it comes to size and strength, both volume and intensity will reinforce each other. You can’t endlessly go with just wanting to gain strength or just size. Both will complement each other. Even if your focus is primarily on one, you are still going to need to develop the other quality to progress. This is why the best weightlifting routines will always be designed to reinforce both size and strength qualities. Contrary to what most people think, powerlifters don’t only just train for pure strength. In fact, many powerlifters will tend to do a significant amount of volume (hypertrophy) work in order to further develop their maximum strength capabilities.
Likewise, even if your goal is primarily hypertrophy, you can’t always stick with high-volume stuff for optimal gains. You will eventually run into all sorts of problems if you just keep increasing sets/reps endlessly without being able to shift more weight on the bar. The optimal scenario would be to also work on increasing your maximum strength potential so that for a given volume you could lift more. This would spare you of potential recovery issues that could occur by doing an uncontrollable about of sets/reps.
Typically in high-intensity training, you will be working in very low rep ranges at a high % of your 1RM. This type of training will act to stress, reinforce and strengthen the qualities of your neuromuscular system. The level of working efficiency of your neuromuscular system will lead to strength expression. This is simply your ability to move more weight on the bar. The more efficiently your neuromuscular system works, the more you can move. The problem is if you keep pounding yourself with high-intensity work, your neuromuscular system becomes fatigued and depleted. It can only do so much. This is why you can’t always just train high-intensity.
Unless you’re superman of course! When it comes to high-volume work, you’re working in a moderate rep range, at a moderate % of your 1RM that focuses on muscle size. Not only does this give you a rest from high-intensity training and allow your neuromuscular system to recharge, but also this new muscle tissue increases your potential maximum strength (1RM) ceiling. In other words, your neuromuscular system now has extra muscle tissue to work with and stress. On the flip side, this is why you also can’t train just high-volume. If you do, you will never develop your strength and the only way to compensate would be to increase your sets/reps. This is ok, but at a certain point you are just going to hammer your recovery and cause potential injuries.
“Typically, I like to alternate between volume and intensity during the week and between weeks”.
So, when it comes to size and strength gains, volume and intensity are going to be your main concern. Typically, I like to alternate between volume and intensity during the week and between weeks. For both volume and intensity, you will want to change the reps and sets between each session within the training week, but also between training weeks. No two volume and intensity sessions should have the same rep/set ranges continuously. The trick is to keep alternating and varying the two training stimuli enough to keep your strength and size development going. If one lacks, it’s eventually going to bring the other one down with it. Not what you want! So, how could you plan undulation into your routine?
Say you perform a full body workout 3 times per week. My volume and intensity could look something like this:
(Monday – High Intensity – 90-100% 1RM)
Conventional Deadlift (3 x 5 reps)
Barbell Flat Bench (3x 5 reps)
Standing Barbell Overhead Press (3 x 5 reps)
High Bar Back Squat (3 x 5 reps)
Barbell T-Bar Row (3 x 5 reps)
(Wednesday – High Volume – 75-85% 1RM)
Sumo Deadlifts (5 x 12 reps)
Push Press From Floor (5 x 12 reps)
Z-Press (5 x 12 reps)
Front Barbell Squat (5 x 12 reps)
Pendley Row (5 x12 reps)
(Friday – Moderate/light Volume – 60-70% 1RM)
Trap Bar Deadlift (4 x 8 reps)
Flat Barbell Bench Press (With bands) (4 x 8 reps)
Z-Press With Bands (4 x 8 reps)
Pin Squats (4 x 8 reps)
Meadows Rows (4 x 8 reps)
(Monday – High Intensity – 90-100% 1RM)
Conventional Deadlift (6 x 2 reps)
Barbell Flat Bench (6 x 2 reps)
Standing Barbell Overhead Press (6 x 2 reps)
High Bar Back Squat (6 x 2 reps)
Barbell T-Bar Rows (6 x 2 reps)
(Wednesday – High Volume – 75-85% 1 RM)
Sumo Deadlifts (4 x 15 reps)
Push Press From Floor (4 x 15 reps)
Z-Press (4 x 15 reps)
Front Barbell Squat (4 x 15 reps)
Pendley Row (4 x 15 reps)
(Friday – Moderate/Light Volume/Recovery – 60-70% 1RM)
Trap Bar Deadlift (3 x 10 reps)
Flat Barbell Bench Press (With Bands) (3 x 10 reps)
Z-Press With Bands (3 x 10 reps)
Pin Squats (3x 10 reps)
Meadows Rows (3 x 10 reps)
As you can see, I am making sure that during the week I am alternating between high-volume and high-intensity. Here I have added a moderate/light volume day as the third training day, but really it’s up to you. You could use this as a recovery day between one high-intensity and high-volume session, or, you could add in an extra high-volume/intensity session depending on what your priority is and the level of your current work capacity/training experience/time schedule. If you wanted, you could even replace this with an accessory-based session to bring up any lagging muscle groups or problems that could be holding back the performances of you’re high-volume and intensity sessions. Whatever you decide, the main thing here is to remember that you want to be alternating between high-volume and high-intensity on a weekly basis, but also to make sure that your reps and set ranges are different within and between your weekly volume and intensity sessions.
What Does Linear Mean?
A good periodized scheme should not only include elements of conjugation and undulation but also those of linear. After all, you need to be able to have some measure of progress. It’s all good changing sets, reps and exercises, but if you haven’t got anything to measure over time, then it’s difficult to see if you are progressing or not. Typically there are two things you can do to improve over time: try to increase training volume or the amount of weight you put onto the bar. In a purely LP scheme following this approach would quickly send you to a jamming point (if you are not an absolute beginner). But, with a periodized scheme based on a high degree of undulation and conjugation you are less likely to encounter the problems of accommodation that you might experience in a LP scheme. Therefore, you are more likely to make consistent gains in more volume and intensity over time.
“Typically there are two things you can do to improve over time: try to increase training volume or the amount of weight you put onto the bar”.
For most of you (assuming you are not an absolute beginner) you should be able to make progress on a weekly basis. But that is only if your program contains both elements of conjugation and undulation. For instance taking the above scheme, say you are training on a Monday (high-intensity session). The following Monday you should be able to increase the amount of weight you can use. This could also apply to your high-volume sessions. If you wanted, you could also split this linear progress into two time periods. For instance, you could spend 3-4 weeks working on increasing the weight, then the next 3-4 weeks maintaining a desired weight and trying to increase volume (sets and reps). Then alternating.
It’s important to realize that even with CUP, results will depend on your level of training experience. If you are really advanced, then even with a CUP scheme, week on week progress might not be possible. In fact, it might become a monthly thing! Say you are a really advanced and you make a PR on a Monday session. It might take 4 weeks of previous Monday sessions to allow you to achieve this (rather than weekly). As you become more experienced, changes in exercise selection, volume and intensity and how you manage your recovery days will need to become adjusted so that you can continue making progress over time.
Make CUP Your New Best Friend
If anyone asked me: how should I program my training for optimal size and strength gains, I will always tell you around the concept of CUP. I will never recommended to you anything else. This system of weight training in my eyes is just infallible. Particularly, if you are past the beginner stage and linear methods of training no longer make the cut for helping you achieve your goals. Dig into any weight lifting textbook; ask any competitive weight lifting athlete and their coaches and they will all tell you the same thing: CUP works!
The only problem with CUP is that it’s not very clearly defined. What I mean is, there’s no one size fits all way of using all the elements of CUP to put together a perfect training scheme. No one really knows what the best way is. There are a few systems out there that make use of CUP (Westside Barbell – check it out!), but really there is no definitive rule on how you should use each element. That really is up to you! But, if there is one thing I can recommend, that is to start thinking more about using conjugation, linearity and undulation in your own training. It’s the best decision I ever made with mine and it’s been such a great feeling constantly progressing week in and week out.
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Have you ever heard of CUP? Ever though about using CUP in your training, but don’t know how to? Let me know for tips!