Jason Dupree
October 27, 2022

How to periodize your bodyweight strength training program (and why you should do it)

What Is Periodization?

Periodization is how you structure your training program over the long term. Some important things to know:

  • Microcycle: A week of training
  • Mesocycle: A training phase, usually containing 4-6 microcycles or weeks. More or less is OK.
  • Macrocycle: All of your mesocycles put together over a long period, usually a year
  • Accumulation: The goal of increasing volume over the length of a mesocycle
  • Intensification: The goal of increasing intensity over the length of a mesocycle
  • Realization: The goal of peaking max strength and/or increasing skill over the length of a mesocycle
  • Deload: A microcycle at the end of each mesocycle where volume and/or intensity is decreased so the body can recover and manager accumulated fatigue.
  • MEV: Minimum Effective Volume. The smallest amount of volume you need to make gains.
  • MRV: Maximum Recoverable Volume. The point at which volume is so high that you can’t recover from it.
  • Potentiation: The concept that the order of training phases matters. Hypertrophy gains last longer and support strength building. Strength gains last a moderate amount of time and support skill work. So the order of Accumulation, Intensification, and Realization matters.

Why Is Periodization Important?

Many bodyweight strength training programs out there are pretty simple. You’ll see things like, do 3 sets of 5-8 reps, and when you can do 8 reps, go to the next progression. This is good for beginners as they can make quick progress and have an easy program to follow. However, this program will not last forever. Just like adding 5lbs to the bar every workout won’t last forever, sticking in a single rep range and cranking up progressions won’t work forever with bodyweight exercise.

Periodization is important because it allows us to focus on different goals so that they work together to achieve the best results. For example, if you want to do a front lever, you need to get stronger. To get stronger, you need to build bigger muscles. It’s hard to program all of that (hypertrophy, strength, and skill) in one training program.

Periodization works because it’s easier to maintain your gains than to gain them in the first place, and each phase supports the next. This is called potentiation. Hypertrophy gains last the longest, and they unlock a greater potenital for strength. So hypertrophy goes first. As you then work on strength, your muscle mass is maintained due to the intense training, but you are also getting stronger. This then supports your max strength, power, and skill training.

gains with periodization
gains without periodization

How To Periodize For Bodyweight Strength Training?

Mesocycle 1: Accumulation

The goal of the Accumulation Phase is hypertrophy (building as much muscle as possible). This muscle will then be used to get stronger in the next phase.

We can increase volume in 3 ways:

  1. Increase the number of working sets (a set between 5 and 30 reps, taken to within 0-4 reps of failure.
  2. Increase the number of reps (can be used for a smaller increase in volume)
  3. Increase the intensity (in bodyweight training, this is increasing the progression or scaling)

We want to rely on #1, then #2 when that becomes difficult. #3 is not as important here, and may be pretty difficult to do.

An accumulation phase should start at your MEV (Minimum Effective Volume), and gradually increase volume over the next few weeks, until you hit your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume). 4-6 weeks is the usual length of this phase, but it can be longer. It depends on you knowing your body and your training logs.

You’ll know when you reach your MRV when you can no longer match the previous weeks volume. This means you didn’t recover fully, and it’s time for a deload, where you cut the volume in half. If you were to run this cycle again, you’d start at your MEV, and build to your MRV, which should now be a little bit higher, either due to being able to do more reps and sets, OR being able to use a higher intensity.

Training in this way is effective for hypertrophy. Depending on your goals, you could repeat this training phase, or move on to the Intensification Phase.

Mesocycle 2: Intensification

The goal of the Intensification Phase is building strength. We are taking the new muscle we have built in the Accumulation Phase and using it to get even stronger.

The main way we will train for strength is gradually increasing the intensity (progression and/or scaling of an exercise). The volume for this phase will stay relatively constant, and will be less than the Accumulation Phase. We’ll use a lower rep range, and focus on harder exercises.

We still use MEV and MRV here to determine when we go into a deload. This time, our volume is determined more by our intensity than sets and reps. So, when you can no longer maintain the same volume or intensity as the previous week, it’s time for a deload week, where you cut the volume in half.

Training in this way is effective for building strength, but we need a base of muscle in order to make good gains. That is why Accumulation, or hypertrophy training, comes first.

Mesocycle 3: Realization

The goal of the Realization Phase is to either achieve new maxes in strength, apply your strength to skills, or increase power.

Generally, we’ll want to do even more intense exercises than in the Intensification Phase, but for much less volume. In addition, as we ramp up the intensity, we will decrease the volume even further. This will help achieve new maxes in strength. You can pair this with higher volume, but lower intensity skill and power work.

This phase is usually the shortest, about 4 weeks. Once you achieve your new 1 rep max, personal best, or can’t maintain volume or intensity, it’s time for a deload.

Putting It All Together

You can put together your periodized training plan depending on your goals.

  • You want to get bigger: You can do 1 or more cycles of Accumulation, each cycle being probably 4-6 weeks. After a few cycles, you do want to do at least one cycle of intensification before going back to accumulation.
  • You want to get stronger: You can cycle through Accumulation and Intensification at a 1:1 ratio. After all, you do need to build muscle to get stronger.
  • You want to get bigger, stronger, and achieve skills like front lever, handstand pushup, etc: cycle through all 3 phases in a 1:1:1 ratio. You can spend more time in a certain phase if you have a weakness. For example if you need bigger lats so you’re strong enough for front lever, you can spend longer in the accumulation phase.

As you can see, periodization is as much of an art as it is science. It’s best for a plan to be tailored to you, your goals, and your strengths and weaknesses to be most effective. It’s also best for you to understand how it works and to log your training so that you can adjust it as needed.