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Resistance Training Periodization in Women: New Insight for Training Design

Periodization offers a specific strategy for helping women get stronger with resistance training.

It has been well documented that appropriate resistance training can help people across a broad range of ages, fitness levels and health statuses. Resistance training improves muscular strength, muscular endurance and body composition while assisting the body to manage chronic ailments such as diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, bone and joint diseases (osteoporosis and osteoarthritis), and depression (Warburton, Nicol & Bredin 2006).

While the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults perform resistance training of their major muscle groups 2–3 days per week (ACSM 2014), these guidelines may be too general to help some women achieve maximal strength gains. After all, designing a high-quality resistance training program is fraught with variables such as movement patterns, number of sets, number of repetitions, training load and rest periods.

Periodization addresses those variables by altering the volume (repetitions × sets), intensity (load), exercise selection and rest (between sets and workouts) in distinctive cycles to optimally improve musculoskeletal fitness while preventing overtraining (Lorenz, Reiman & Walker 2010). Recent research suggests that resistance-trained women respond similarly to resistance-trained men who used identical periodized resistance training models, and that women can experience a greater percentage increase in strength than men (Kell 2011).

Comm Periodization Models

Periodization is typically divided into three primary models:

  • linear (LP), which increases intensity while decreasing volume as training progresses over a period of weeks (see Figure 1)
  • reverse linear (RLP), which modifies intensity and volume similarly to LP, but in reverse order
  • undulating (UP), which changes volume and intensity from day to day within a week

Classic Strength Training Chart

The Study: Prestes et al. 2009

Prestes et al. (2009) conducted a comprehensive and original study examining the differences between LP and RLP in recreationally trained females; this column reviews their results.


Twenty women between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteered for this study. All had a minimum of 6 months of strength training experience at base line. The women did not use ergogenic aids and were instructed to maintain their normal diets during the study.

Strength Training Program

The women were divided into two groups that completed 12 weeks of strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To ensure ideal recovery, every fourth week was an active-relief week, in which the subjects did two training sessions of exercises at a 12-repetition maximum (12-RM, meaning they could complete 12—but not 13—repetitions to momentary muscular fatigue).

Exercises were divided into training A and training B to provide exercise selection variations during the week (see Table 1 for exercises and Table 2 for rest periods between sets). Training A exercises were conducted on Monday and Friday, while training B exercises were completed on Wednesday. In the following week, training A exercises were performed on Wednesday and training B exercises on Monday and Friday.

Each session averaged 50 minutes and was supervised by a strength and conditioning specialist. In the LP protocol, intensity increased each microcycle (1 week), while volume decreased. The opposite design was used for the RLP group (see Figure 2 for weekly microcyle changes in exercise intensity and volume).

Each training session consisted of 3 sets until voluntary muscular fatigue, 2 with the number of repetitions dependent on the week of the training cycle. The women also completed 2 days per week of 30-minute treadmill cardiovascular training at a moderate intensity.

Resistance Training Exercise

Figure 2. Weekly Microcycle Changes In Intensity And Volume Of Linear And Reverse Linear Periodization Groups

Microcycle Changes Chart

Variables Measured and Results

All variables were evaluated after each mesocycle (4-week block of microcycles) and 1 week after the women completed the training program. In the LP group, the study found a statistically significant (17%) decrease in percent body fat, which fell from 23.05% at the outset to 19.2% after 12 weeks (measured by skinfold calipers). The LP group also had significant increases (7%) in fat-free muscle mass. The RLP group showed no statistically significant differences in either of these categories, but it did decrease percent body fat by 11% and increase muscle mass by 4%.

Exercises selected to assess strength were bench press, latissimus pull-down, biceps curl and leg extension. Both LP and RLP groups showed statistically significant strength increases in all four of these exercises.

A comparison of the periodization models found LP superior to RLP in the
latissimus pull-down and the biceps curl, but noted no differences in the bench press or leg extension. An evaluation of muscular endurance (doing as many repetitions as possible of a biceps curl and leg extension with 50% of the subject’s body mass) showed improvement for both groups, but no significant differences between them.

The researchers noted that after the 12th week, in which no exercise was per- formed, testing found no decrease in maximal strength and no negative alterations in body composition. To summarize, LP was the more effective strategy for improving strength and body composition.

Final Thoughts

Implementing a training regimen from research to practice can be a challenging task for any personal trainer, and the best periodization model for a female client will vary from person to person. Mullen and Whaley (2010) found that appearance-related goals are the main motivating factors for younger (aged 25–34) and middle-aged (aged 35–54) women.

In terms of improving body composition, linear periodization in the Prestes et al. (2009) study did the best job of simultaneously improving body fat and fat-free mass.

While implementing a resistance training program alone can preserve physical strength and maintain the body’s functional capacity, periodized programs appear to be the most effective (Kell 2011) means of achieving muscular fitness-related goals.

An important trend throughout the literature on periodization for women is that strength improvements can be achieved across the entire spectrum of age and training status, which should encourage exercise professionals to adapt periodization models into their resistance training programs. This may help ensure targeted results and encourage exercise adherence.

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