Periodization Training – Bodybuilding Macro and Micro Cycles


Want to grow shapely muscles? Maybe you should consider periodization training? What is periodization training? It is really just a fancy term that means your training should be split up into phases, with each accomplishing distinct goals. There are more complex definitions that are used for Olympians and professional athletes but for our muscle building purposes we’ll stick with this simple definition.

When your body is subjected to any kind of stress there are three distinct phases:

  1. The shock phase – where the body responds poorly to the initial stress.
  2. The resistance phase – the body gradually adapts to the stress so that over time it will no longer be shocked by the same amount of stress.
  3. The overtraining phase – arises when you subject your body to more stress than it can adapt to or you do not allow enough time for recovery before increasing the level of stress. For optimal muscle building results you should avoid overtraining as much as possible. Train no more than 3-4 times a week and never for more than an hour at a time.

I use the term ‘stress’ in a broad sense. For our purposes, it is the stress your muscles undergo when subjected to weight training.

Periodization programs are divided up into three distinct cycles. These three cycles are the macrocyclemesocycle and the microcycle. Think of the macrocycle as the entire program itself which can cover several months to a year of training (depending on your goals and how you design the program). The macrocycle consists of multiple mesocycles which are divided into several weeks to a few months. Each mesocycle is divided into microcycles that usually range from one to four weeks. The microcyles include daily and weekly training variations.

The key to periodization training is to always “mix up” your routine so you force your muscles to be “shocked” and confused into growing stronger and bigger. A lot of people who weight train make the mistake of working out exactly the same week after week. They end up plateauing after a few months and they get frustrated. The reason they hit a plateau is because their muscles are getting the same stimulus every week (same exercises, same number of reps, same number of sets, etc). When you change up the elements in your routine, you keep your muscles guessing and guessing usually means growth.

Macrocyle Periodization
First off, the term “periodization” means the systematic process of planned variations in a resistance training program over a training cycle. A macrocycle is the largest division of a periodized program. It typically consists of an entire training year but may be a period of many months up to four years (for an Olympic athlete).

If you are a complete beginner to bodybuilding here is a form of macro-periodization you might use. For the first several months train heavy and only do compound exercises. Training heavy means keeping your repetitions low at around at 4-6 reps per set. Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that include a large number of muscles. Examples of compound exercises are deadlifts, squats, military press and bench press. In essence train like a weight lifter to build mass.

Once you have bulked up sufficiently go easy on the compound exercises and power lifts and do more isolation exercises with lighter weights. Isolation exercises are single-joint movements such as dumbbell flys (chest), concentration curls (biceps) and triceps pushdowns. During this next stage you can also do ‘weak point training’ for whatever muscles were not quite hit by the compound exercises and are lagging. Weak point training is when you focus on your weak body parts versus your stronger body parts and you train these weaker body parts with maximum intensity first in your workout rotation. An example would be if your legs are really lagging but your chest is growing like a weed. You would be training your legs (squats, etc) first in your workout rotation before working your chest. Most people like to train their stronger body parts because it’s more fun to train a muscle group that is growing and getting stronger versus training a weaker one. Don’t let your ego get in the way! Make sure to strive for overall physique symmetry and work hard to build up your body parts so they’re all equal in terms of strength and muscularity.

You may also do priority training of the weak areas in stage two. This simply means training the weak areas first when you get to the gym so that you may train them with the most intensity. It’s very similar to weak point training. Generally the further along you get in a given training session the less intensity you are able to apply.

Another form of priority training that can be done in stage two is devoting entire gym sessions just to the weak areas while ignoring the traditional body part splits. This stage would last several weeks to a few months.

The last stage would be to go even lighter on the isolation exercises and do more cardio to burn off the excess fat that will inevitably build up during the muscle building phase. Done properly this will give you a ‘ripped look’ where the veins bulge and it looks like you have no skin.

Microcycle Periodization
A microcycle can range from one to four weeks, which include daily and weekly training variations. For muscle building this is usually done at the weekly level (i.e. you structure the periodization using a calendar week). For example if you are training three times a week, you could use the first two days to build up to a third ‘heavy day’ when you’d really go all out and train as intensely as you can with the heaviest weights your body can bear.

During this ‘heavy day’ you would also use techniques such as drop sets and supersets to ensure maximal muscle stimulation. Drop sets are when you lower the weight after each set and really burn out the muscle group. For example, you do a set of bench press with 225 pounds for 6 reps. After your first set, immediately “drop” the weight down to 185 pounds for another 6 reps. This will really tax the muscle group you are working. Supersets are when you train different muscles groups back-to-back without a rest between the two exercises. An example of a superset would be a set of bench press immediately followed by a set of bent-over barbell rows. You’re training opposing muscles groups (chest & back) and each exercise is performed as one “superset”. Allow a much longer period of rest after the ‘heavy day’.

So now that you know how to use periodization, go build some serious muscle. And make sure to let me know when you are successful!

Example of a 3-Day Periodization Program

(Each week is 1 microcycle. The 4 weeks together consists of 1 mesocycle. You can combine multiple mesocycles to create a macrocycle which could last up to 1 year)

WeekSetsMonday (Light Day)Wednesday (Medium Day)Friday (Heavy Day)
13 to 412-15 Reps8-10 Reps4-6 Reps
22 to 415-18 Reps6-8 Reps3-5 Reps
33 to 412-15 Reps8-10 Reps4-6 Reps
42 to 415-18 Reps6-8 Reps3-5 Reps

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About Author

Don Demarco

Don is a fitness enthusiast and writer who is interested in helping people learn more about exercise, nutrition and wellness so they can live a healthier and happier life.


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    So if I want to combine my workouts with multiple mesocycles after 4 weeks, then the 5th week will again be repeating the same like week 1 and so on? I’m a little bit confused!

    • shapefit

      Syny – Yes, after you’re finished with a 4-week mesocycle you will then repeat the same process again starting on the 5th week. Combining multiple mesocycles like this will create a macrocycle.

      • Avatar

        Thank you. That helped me a lot…and i can’t wait to start this program from tomorrow! Hope I’m gonna build some serious mass with this training. Cheers!

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