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Comparing Periodization Strategies for Women

Study reviewed: Bartolomei, S., et al. 2015. Block vs. weekly undulating periodized resistance training programs in women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29 (10), 2679—87.

If your clientele includes women looking to boost their muscular strength within a specific time frame, creating periodized weight–training programs for them is a great idea. The question is: How should you structure the program? Bartolomei and colleagues' study published in 2015 offers guidance on two possibilities.

Benefits of Periodization

Periodization means creating a systematic, structured weight–training plan that manipulates variables such as volume (repetitions and sets), intensity (resistance load), frequency (times per week) and rest (between sets and between workouts) over a specific training period.

Periodization programs are designed to produce maximum gains and reduce the risks of overtraining, which can lead to declining performance. Research suggests periodized training programs do a better job of developing muscular fitness than nonperiodized programs (Harries, Lubans & Callister 2015).

Two relatively new periodization programs for women are block periodization and weekly undulating periodization (Bartolomei et al. 2015). Block periodization (BP) is a Russia–developed program using phases of 2—6 weeks, with each phase targeting a specific training stimulus (e.g., strength, hypertrophy, power). Bartolomei et al. note that BP phases move progressively from hypertrophy to strength to power. In contrast, weekly undulating (WUD) periodization progresses from high volume and low intensity to low volume and high intensity over periods of several weeks—"mesocycles" in resistance training parlance (Bartolomei et al. 2015).

BP and WUD had never been scientifically compared in a female population, which inspired the researchers to conduct this study.

Study Volunteers

Bartolomei and colleagues recruited 17 recreationally trained women who had never used periodized training but had done resistance training (free weight and/or machine) at least once a week for the past 2 years. The women had also done at least one bout of squats each week within the past year. They were randomly assigned to two groups:

  • Block periodization (BP): 9 women, average age 24.7 years, body weight 137 pounds and height 65.5 inches.
  • Weekly undulating periodization (WUD): 8 women, average age 23.2 years, body weight 132 pounds and height 63 inches.

Resistance Training Protocols

Before the study, the women spent 2 weeks learning how to perform all the exercises correctly. Then they worked out three times a week during the 10–week study. Everybody did the same exercises:

Monday: squat, countermovement jump, bench press, military press, leg curl

Wednesday: dead lift, prone barbell row, latissimus dorsi pull–down, preacher curl

Friday: sumo dead lift, leg extension, incline bench press, barbell triceps extension and high pull (For the high pull, start by holding the barbell slightly wider than shoulder width with knees and hips flexed; explosively extend the hips and knees while pulling the bar up to chest level.)

Figures 1 and 2 outline the BP and WUD designs used in the study (the programs did not include dietary interventions). Volunteers were instructed not to do any other type of training or play any sports during the study.

Before-and-After Assessments

The study measured strength two ways: 1-RM tests (the most weight a person can lift once) of squats, dead lifts and bench presses; and maximal isometric midthigh pull strength using an isometric dynamometer, which measures force. Arm and thigh circumference measurements documented changes in body composition. Percent of body fat was also measured.

Study Results

Neither group showed any change in body weight from 10 weeks of training. However, fat mass decreased by 4% in the BP group and 7% in the WUD group (remember, the study had no dietary intervention). After 10 weeks of training,
both the BP and WUD groups showed similar and significant increases in strength and power. However, the WUD group showed significantly better improvement (+27.7%) in lower–body strength than the BP group (+15.2%). Both groups significantly increased arm muscle circumference, with the WUD group up 15.1% and the BP group up 11.2%.

Additionally, thigh circumference grew significantly more in the WUD group (+5.8%) than the BP group (+1.6%). It is interesting to note that the arms showed a greater change (in both groups) than the legs. Bartolomei et al. (2015) suggest the contrasting changes between upper body and lower body may have been due to the complexity of the lower–body exercises. However, since both the upper body and lower body were trained at the same relative intensities, this difference may be more a result of a variance in time adaptation of the upper– and lower–body musculature in women. This interesting finding warrants further investigation.

Bottom-Line Message for Trainers

The WUD group had greater lower–body strength gains, bigger increases in thigh and arm circumferences, and more significant changes in fat mass. This suggests that for recreationally trained women, early adaptations (up to 10 weeks) appear more responsive to the WUD training protocol.

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