What Is Undulating Periodisation

Simply put, undulating periodisation (UP) is a handy programming method of alternating your training variables over a certain period of time. By period of time, I mean days, weeks or even months. UP works in such a way so that your adaptive responses to training stimuli are maximised and your recovery capabilities are optimised over time. A program that uses UP, will typically involve manipulating training volume and intensity regularly over the entire course of your training period. If you have been keeping up to date with my previous blog posts, you will know by now that for long-term size development, more work over time is key to maximising your gains. This increased work over time comes from both volume and intensity manipulation. Without alternating both, you would come across endless plateaus!

Training programs for general size development that utilise undulating periodisation, are a rarity. In fact, I have never actually seen anyone utilise an undulating-type scheme. In most cases, people will tend to stick with something ‘static’ or ‘linear’ in nature. In other words, their training plan consists of utilising the exact same training variables over time (e.g. reps/set ranges,) and more work simply by trying to increase the amount of weight on the bar on a regular basis. That’s it, nothing else is changed. There is no variation at all! Ok, this is an optimal approach to take if you have less than 6-12 months resistance training under your belt. Many beginners will end up making some quick and substantial progress this way. But for the majority of you with more experience, this linear approach will no longer work.

No matter how persistent you are, a linear scheme will just keep presenting you with stubborn road blocks. Honestly, any good coach should avoid these linear training scheme structures if you are no longer a beginner and are looking to further maximise your growth potential. If not, search for a different coach! You will thank me later.  

UP Maximises The Training Stimulus Response

Developing more size over time comes as a result of more work that you do over time. More work leads to more overload, which causes more stress placed on the body. As a result of this increased stress, your body is forced to adapt. By adapt, I mean simply developing more muscle. By developing more muscle, your body is able to better cope with the work you are placing on it. Which is what you want, it means your body won’t die! This work that you do comes from both training volume an intensity. Volume is a combination of the reps, sets and weight you use over time (this can be a single training session or over a week), and intensity (the weight you lift, typically a % of your 1RM). If you increase one or the other over time, then you will make progress. But, the problem comes when you keep increasing one or the other for long periods of time without giving your body a rest from either one.

Essentially, if you train with ONLY high-volumes or high-intensities for long periods of time without rest from it, something what is called ‘accumulation’ starts to take effect. In other words, your body is subjected to so much of a particular type of stress (either volume or intensity) that it can’t cope with it. As a result of these repeated bouts of a particular stimulus for too long, your body becomes so overloaded, that rather than adapting, it just starts to break down. Ok, not what you wanted! 

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Figure shows what is happening over time when a training program utilises no form of non-linear periodisation. While increasing either intensity or volume over time will allow for progress, past a certain point, ‘accumulative effects’ on recovery will begin to take effect. Too much volume or intensity for too long without cycling either one will lead to recovery issues. The body can only handle so much volume and intensity in a certain time frame at once, before it’s capabilities to deal with the total stress becomes overwhelmed. Thus, leading to reduced recovery abilities and hence regression in performance over time. 

 

While UP does a great job of limiting these accumulative effects on recovery capabilities, UP also does a great job at maximising the effectiveness of the training stimuli itself. Take for instance training intensity. Intensity training (low reps/high weight) is used specifically to maximise your capability to handle heavier weights. This is accomplished through improved neuromuscular efficiency. Simply put, improved coordination and use of the existing muscle mass you have. But what happens if you repeatedly train with high-intensities? Simple, you encounter fatigue. You can only train existing muscle mass so much before you do nothing more than spin your wheels. Ok, so how can you maximise the bodies response to intensity over training time? You give it more muscle mass to work with! New muscle mass can then be made more efficient and primed to handle heavier weights. This you can achieve through incorporating regular high-volume work into your program to stimulate hypertrophy. 

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Figure shows what is happening in a typical training program utilising undulating periodisation. Volume and intensity are varied on a regular basis. This could be on a session-to-session basis within a training week (daily undulating periodisation), or, alternated between training weeks (weekly undulating periodisation). Whatever you choose to implement, over time, regular alteration between volume and intensity work will maximise the bodies adaptive response to each as well as optimise recovery capacity. Together, this will allow you to utilise more intensity and volume work over time throughout the training period thus maximising muscular development. HV (High-volume), LV (Low-volume), LI (Low-intensity), HI (High-intensity). 

 

So let’s take a look at training volume. Unlike high intensity, high-volume utilises moderate intensities and moderate rep ranges to target maximal levels of metabolic stress creation. That which is implicated in maximising muscular hypertrophic responses. However, what happens if you just train high-volume for long periods of time without cycling it with any intensity training? Well, you don’t learn to handle heavier weights over time! Your high-volume training sessions become less efficient over time. Yes, you can increase the overall volume by increasing the sets/reps without increasing the weight on the bar, but let’s be serious, are you going to endlessly increase just the sets and reps without the weight? Not if you want to keep your training sessions as time efficient as possible!

Being able to handle heavier weight helps with increasing your overall training volume over time (e.g. you can lift more weight within the moderate intensity ranges for a given set/rep range during your high-volume training sessions). So with this in mind, as you can see, high-volume training maximises the effectiveness of high-intensity training over time, and vice versa. No road blocks. It is this complementary reinforcement between the two training stimuli that allows for long-term development without plateaus. What comes next? Maximal size development over time! 

This is why it doesn’t matter whether you are training for size or strength over the long-term. Cycling between high-volume and high-intensity periods will not only maximise the effectiveness of each one (and thus your size and strength development), it will also reduce the effects of poor recovery, thus allowing you to do more work over time (which again, improves your size and strength development). UP is a valuable training methodology to allow you to achieve both of these things for maximal gains. The best training routines out there are usually the ones that utilise some form of non-linear periodisation, such as UP. 

Sample Scheme

There is little to find on the internet regarding general size development programs utilising the undulating periodisation approach. Most of what you will come across on UP, will be geared towards training programming for competitive athletes. However, if you are wanting to make consistent size gains over the long-term and you are not planning on becoming a competitive athlete, there is little to find. you’re a bit stuck! Well, to help you out, I have put down below a sample program of how you might utilise daily undulation in a general size development program. But, it’s only one sample and only one of the many ways in which you might set up a daily undulating type program. However, the sample program will show you some key things to look out for when developing an undulating-type training program for muscle mass. 

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This upper/lower, 4 day per week undulating scheme has been split into two blocks (each block lasting 4 weeks). Each 4 week block undulates between upper (one higher-volume and one lower-intensity day) and lower (one higher-volume and one lower-intensity day) days. In the first 4 week block, more work is done by adding more weight each week and keeping the rep/set ranges the same. After the first 4 week block, the second 4 week block resets back to the original weights you used in week 1 of block 1. Progress in this second block is made by increasing either the reps or sets and keeping the weight the same. At the end of this block you could introduce a deload week (e.g. working the entire week at 50/60% of your 1RM with moderate set/rep ranges in order to recover from the last 8 weeks worth of work). This is useful as even in an undulating scheme, you can’t keep increasing the total workload indefinitely without some form of taper off/rest/de-load periods. You can then begin the scheme again – utilising different intensity ranges, rep and set ranges.

**It’s also handy to remember that with any scheme, the work you do in a given session can be changed on the fly. Some days you might be feeling better than others. How you ‘feel’ will influence what you can do in a given session. If you feel good and everything feels easier than usual, you might be able to do more than what was planned for the day. Go for it, do an extra rep or 2, an extra set, or more weight. If you feel worse than usual, then do a rep or 2 less, 1 set less or slightly less weight. The important thing is that over time, you are doing more work.