What’s the best form of long-term training periodization? For the vast majority of weight trainees, alternating accumulation and intensification phases is the way to go!
Continue reading below to find out why!
- Part 1: What Is Periodization?
- Part 2: The Drawbacks Of Linear Periodization
- Part 3: An Overview Of Accumulation And Intensification Phases
- Part 4: The Principles Of Effective Accumulation Phases
- Part 5: The Principles Of Effective Intensification Phases
- Part 6: Planned Overreaching
- Part 7: Neurotransmitter Based Program Design
- Part 8: Planning A Complete Training Cycle
- Part 9: Other Sample Routines
- Part 10: Conclusion
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about how to use the accumulation and intensification periodization model to build muscle mass and strength.
The bottom line is that you must use some form of periodization if you want to maximize your results in the gym. Periodization simply refers to a long-term strategy for how you organize your workouts and plan out your progress.
There are many different periodization models that you could use. The linear periodization model has been around forever. Powerlifters such as Ed Coan and Josh Bryant have used it with a lot of success.
However, in my opinion one of the most effective periodization models of all time is the accumulation / intensification model.
The accumulation / intensification model of periodization involves alternating back and forth between higher-rep accumulation phases and lower-rep intensification phases. Accumulation phases are used to build muscle mass and work capacity while intensification phases are used for all-out strength gains.
By alternating back and forth between higher-rep and lower-rep blocks of training you trick your body into becoming bigger and stronger as quickly as humanly possible.
Note: If you have any trouble reading the training routines in this article then go ahead and check out this article.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: What Is Periodization?
Before we dive into the accumulation and intensification model of training periodization we first have to answer this simple question: what is periodization?
Periodization is nothing more than using long-term planning to design your workouts in such a way that you reach your goals as quickly as possible. To make things even simpler periodization helps us answer two critical training questions:
- What is my goal?
- How do I go from point A (where I am) to point B (my goal) as fast as possible?
First of all you must have a clearly defined goal that you are training for. As Arnold Schwarzenegger has so famously said, “you can have the best ship in the world. You can have the best cruise liner. But if the captain doesn’t know where to go, you are just going to drift around at sea and you are never going to end up anywhere.”
I highly recommend you pick one goal related to building muscle, increasing your strength, or losing body fat. Make it as specific as possible with a clear deadline. Once you define your goal the next step is to make a clear plan for how to achieve it. This is where strength training periodization comes into play.
Periodization involves manipulating all of the key training variables over the long-run to maximize training-related adaptations and minimize the risk of overtraining or regression.
The training variables that you must manipulate in your routines include the following:
- Training frequency
- The choice of exercises
- The order of exercises
- The number of sets
- The number of reps
- The precise tempo for each exercise
- The length of all rest intervals
I talk about the art and science of manipulating these training variables in my article,
One thing is clear: using some form of periodization in your training is absolutely critical.
Trying to reach your goals as quickly as possible without using some form of periodization is akin to trying to become a millionaire in ten years without tracking your monthly income and living expenses. It’s never going to happen!
Now that you know the importance of training periodization we have to cover why one of the most popular forms of periodization in the world just doesn’t make the cut.
Part 2: Drawbacks Of Linear Periodization
Linear periodization is exactly as it sounds: you increase the weights in a “linear” or straightforward fashion from one week to the next over the course of a training cycle. Linear periodization is based on the concept of single-factor training theory. Single-factor training theory suggests the adaptation process works something like this:
Step 1: You perform a strength training workout. This workout causes inroads in your recovery ability by damaging muscle fibers and taxing your central nervous system, among other things.
Step 2: For a few days following the initial workout you are weaker or smaller than you originally were.
Step 3: After a few days your body has returned to baseline. You are just as big and strong as you were before the initial workout.
Step 4: Your body “super compensates.” This means your body has continued adapting above and beyond your original level of strength and size from before the first workout. You are now bigger and stronger than you were before the first workout!
Step 5: Before your body starts to regress you perform another training session.
This step is similar to step 1, and the whole cycle repeats itself indefinitely.
One of the attractive things about this model of periodization is that it is really simple to understand and to implement.
I’m not bashing linear periodization. On the contrary, I think it is great for rank beginners and it can even work well for the occasional genetic freak of nature.
For example, it worked unbelievably well for Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter the world has ever seen. Ed Coan admits that he reached a 500 pound squat very quickly simply by maxing out on the squat twice per week!
Ed didn’t need any fancy programming to reach a squat that most mortals can only dream of achieving! He continued to use a relatively simple form of linear periodization throughout his career and it clearly served him well.
However, there are some serious drawbacks to linear periodization. Most mortal trainees (I’m convinced Ed Coan is beyond a mere mortal!) need a lot more variety and variation in their programming in order to make optimal progress. After all, a routine is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it.
Once you fully adapt to a routine your gains are finished until you change some or all of the loading parameters around!
In my experience most trainees adapt to a given routine in about 3-6 workouts (more on this below). After that it’s time to switch things up to keep the gains coming.
So if simple linear periodization isn’t the answer, then what is?
In my experience training literally hundreds of trainees including many competitive bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strongmen, the accumulation / intensification model of periodization tends to produce the best results.
I’ve kept you waiting long enough. Now let’s dive into the heart of this article.
Part 3: An Overview Of Accumulation And Intensification Phases
The accumulation and intensification model of periodization has been around sense at least the mid-1900s.
It was popularized by German sport scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher in the 1980s.
Several world-class strength coaches including Charles Poliquin, Charlie Francis, Jason Ferruggia, and Danny Brabham (trainer of Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson) also helped to popularize this superior periodization model.
The idea is simple: you alternate back and forth between short training blocks that typically last about 2-4 weeks in length.
The first training block is an accumulation training block.
These training blocks are characterized by an extremely high volume of training. Volume is defined with the following simple equation:
(The number of sets) x (the number of reps)
In other words, during an accumulation block you are performing a significantly higher number of sets and reps per body part or per workout. These types of workouts tend to tax the muscular system very hard and cause a lot of muscular damage.
The expected outcome of a typical accumulation phase is an increase in the size and cross-sectional area of your muscles while also giving your central nervous system a bit of a break.
Intensification phases are almost the complete opposite of accumulation phases. They revolve around a much smaller number of reps per set and a moderate number of sets per workout or per body part.
The weight lifted on each exercise is usually much higher in intensification phases and the main goal is to improve your strength while giving your muscular system a bit of a holiday.
In many ways accumulation and intensification phases are polar opposites of each other. One focuses on training the muscular system to boost muscular size, while the other focuses on training the nervous system to boost strength.
One of the key reasons this model works so well is that it prevents your body from adapting to any one particular type of stimulus. For example, here’s why this model would be great for a bodybuilder seeking hypertrophy:
After a few weeks of using higher-volume training your muscles will get “bored” and stop responding / growing. What could be better than giving your muscles a break at this exact time and switching to a strength-focused routine?
After 2-4 weeks your muscles will be ready to respond to a higher-volume training routine again and you will even be a little stronger thanks to the preceding intensification phase! A powerlifter or strength athlete will also find this model effective, but for slightly different reasons.
Now that we’ve covered the absolute basics of this periodization model it’s time we plunge head-first into the deep end and learn its essential details.
Part 4: The Principles Of Effective Accumulation Phases
Accumulation phases really revolve around giving your central nervous system a break from the heavy slag iron and instead focusing on creating a powerful stimulus for muscular hypertrophy.
Accumulation phase workouts tend to include the following characteristics:
- Higher average rep ranges (5-20 reps per set, although it can be much higher in some cases)
- Greater time under tension per set (typically 30-70 seconds pet set)
- A low-moderate number of sets per exercise (typically 3-5 sets per exercise)
- Many different exercises per body part (often 2-5 exercises per body part)
- Lower average training intensities (less than 80% of your 1 rep max)
- Shorter rest intervals between exercises (often as little as 10 seconds rest between exercises!)
Many accumulation-style workouts tend to look pretty similar to your typical bodybuilding-style hypertrophy workout.
For example, you will see some tri-set and giant set training routines in my sample accumulation routines section below. These types of routines are pure gold for the intermediate or advanced bodybuilder seeking hypertrophy at all costs!
Of course all accumulation routines are not identical. The way they are structured varies depending on whether your primary long-term goal is muscular size or muscular strength.
For example, most competitive powerlifters and strongmen compete in very specific weight classes. Adding muscle mass is extremely important for these guys as it boosts their long-term strength potential.
However, these guys need to make sure the hypertrophy they build is the right type of hypertrophy. Specifically, they are after functional hypertrophy, or hypertrophy of the fast-twitch type IIX and IIA muscle fibers.
An accumulation phase for these strength athletes may focus on sets in the 5-8 rep range with 20-40 seconds of time under tension per set.
Accumulation phases, more so that intensification phases, have to be specifically tailored to each individual’s unique genetics and training goals. Failure to do this will result in severely sub-optimal training progress.
Part 5: The Principles Of Effective Intensification Phases
Intensification phases are pretty much the total opposite of accumulation phases.
These phases revolve around giving your muscular system a much-needed break and simultaneously creating a powerful stimulus for strength gains!
Intensification phases are reasonably hard on your central nervous system and your connective tissue.
Anyone who has ever “maxed out” a few times in a given workout will know what I mean!
Here are some common characteristics of intensification phases:
- Lower average rep ranges (1-8 reps per set)
- Lower average time under tension per set (typically 1-40 seconds per set)
- A moderate-high number of sets per exercise (typically 3-10 sets per exercise)
- Fewer total exercises per body part (Typically 1-2 exercises per body part in a given workout)
- Higher average training intensities (greater than 80% of your 1 rep max)
- longer rest intervals between exercises (often as much as 2-4 minutes between sets!)
As I mentioned previously, intensification phases are all about eeking out adaptations in the central nervous system.
Here are some of the benefits you can expect from a typical intensification workout:
- Benefit #1: Increased motor unit recruitment
- Benefit #2: Increased inter- and intra-muscular coordination
- Benefit #3: Increased firing rate of individual motor units
Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.
Benefit #1: Increased Motor Unit Recruitment
This is especially true for the high-threshold motor units, or the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
We’ve all heard stories about the untrained mother who was able to summon the strength to lift up a large vehicle to save her children who were trapped underneath.
These stories are very real. The untrained person lacks the ability to recruit most of the motor units in their body. When this person begins weight lifting their nervous system “learns” how to recruit these dormant fibers and activate them during various activities.
Intensification phases are perfect for “teaching” the body to recruit these dormant muscle fibers, even in highly trained and experienced athletes!
Benefit #2: Increased Inter- And Intra-Muscular Coordination.
This refers to the ability of your brain to effectively coordinate the various motor units within the body together to perform a specific exercise.
For example, when you do a set of bench presses, you are primarily recruiting muscle fibers in the pecs, anterior delts, and triceps, although there are other muscle groups helping of course.
Your body has to learn how to coordinate all the muscle fibers located within the chest to lift the weight. This is known as intra-muscular coordination.
However, the body also has to teach these entirely separate muscle groups (chest, anterior delts, triceps) to work together to lift the weight. This is inter-muscular coordination.
Benefit #3: Increased Firing Rate Of Individual Motor Units
Imagine a boxer training with a reflex ball. They are not only striking the object with a ton of force, they are striking the object at an extremely rapid pace with very little time in between each strike.
Your body can accomplish something very similar to this by teaching the various muscle fibers to “fire” at a faster rate. When this happens, you can lift more weight than you could before.
As you can see, there are many benefits to including intensification phases in your long-term training plan. They make you stronger and “prime” your body for future hypertrophy gains.
A bodybuilder would generally perform 4-8 reps per set and would focus on sets lasting 20-40 seconds each during these strength phases.
A strength athlete, on the other hand, would probably perform 1-5 reps per set and focus on sets lasting 1-20 seconds each during an intensification phase.
Part 6: Planned Overreaching
One of the more interesting but complicated aspects of the accumulation and intensification model of periodization is that it allows you to incorporate planned overreaching phases.
Overreaching is just a fancy way of saying planned, temporary overtraining.
When you are training with a lot of volume for several weeks and your body is starting to feel run-down you are essentially starting to over-reach, even if you never called it this.
Overtraining, on the other hand, can be thought of as a form of excessive, long-term overreaching where you actually lose progress. Overtraining should generally be avoided entirely, but short-term periods of overreaching can work extremely well if you know what you are doing.
As a general rule of thumb it is best to work with an experienced coach when implementing overreaching phases as it is easy to over-do it and regress.
However, I know many of you reading this article are probably curious about this topic so I will indulge you.
Let’s say a bodybuilder by the name of Joe Average wants to use a short-term overreaching phase to help him build more muscular hypertrophy. Here is how Joe might set up their training:
- Week 1: High-volume accumulation workouts
- Week 2: High-volume accumulation workouts
- Week 3: High-volume accumulation workouts
- Week 4: Low-volume intensification workouts
- Week 5: Low-volume intensification workouts
Joe uses a 5-week short-term overreaching cycle. The first three weeks featured some very high-volume accumulation workouts. Joe might be performing 20+ sets per body part per week during this phase.
By the end of week 2 Joe was starting to feel the effects of the high-volume workouts. By the end of week 3 he was completely exhausted, slightly depressed, and taking naps on the weekend just to survive.
At this time Joe immediately switches to a very low-volume intensification routine for 2 weeks featuring only 6-8 sets per body part per workout.
After 2 weeks on the reduced workload Joe feels like a million bucks. Not only this, but he continued to get bigger and bigger during the super low-volume intensification phase!
What happened is Joe experienced delayed adaptations to all the hypertrophy training performed in the first 3 weeks. Joe continued to super compensate in weeks 4-5 even though he wasn’t doing anything training wise that should create a hypertrophy response!
Not only that, but Joe’s body is once again primed for another killer accumulation phase as his muscles are not bored of high-volume workouts.
On the contrary, his muscles will respond incredibly fast once again!
A strength athlete may also plan periods of overreaching into his training, but some of the details differ. You can always work with me directly if you want to learn more.
Part 7: Neurotransmitter Based Program Design
This is perhaps the single most overlooked aspect of the accumulation / intensification model of periodization. We are all different and we all respond differently to a given training stimulus.
Some of us can build slabs of muscle with the typical high-volume bodybuilding workouts focusing on 8-20 reps per set. Others grow like frickin’ weeds on functional hypertrophy protocols where the loading parameters are changed as frequently as every 2 weeks!
If you want to design optimal accumulation and intensification workouts for yourself then one of the most important things you can do is to learn the fundamentals of neurotransmitter based program design.
There are 4 major neurotransmitters in the body: dopamine, acetyl-choline, GABA and serotonin. Everyone has a unique ratio of these different neurotransmitters in their brain.
Your neurotransmitter is the single most important factor in figuring out the types of training routines that you will respond best to. It will also tell you the most effective strategies for structuring your accumulation and intensification phases.
For example, if you are an acetyl-choline dominant lifter then you will probably get your best results by performing some sort of deload every few workouts.
If you have never heard the term before a “deload” typically involves reducing your training volume, frequency, duration, intensity, or some other variable to give your body a chance to fully recover from the last few weeks of training.
One of my favourite ways to deload my acetyl-choline dominant lifters is to dramatically reduce their volume every third workout. This would be true for both accumulation and intensification style workouts. For example:
- Workout 1: 100% volume
- Workout 2: 80% volume
- Workout 3: 20% volume
If this trainee was a bodybuilder looking to build muscle then I might have them do 12 sets per body part in their first accumulation workout, 10 sets per body part in their second accumulation workout and only 4 sets per body part in their third accumulation workout.
After the third workout I may have them switch to an intensification-style workout using the same volume-reduction strategy. Basically the trainee is temporarily overreaching in the first 2 workouts, only to finally be able to fully recover in the third workout.
The end-result is the trainee massively super compensates after the third workout and comes back for the 4th workout MUCH bigger and stronger and feeling like a million bucks!
Dopamine-dominant lifters and lifters with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile also respond best to specific tweaks to their accumulation and intensification phases.
If you understand your neurotransmitter profile and how to write your routines specifically for the “type” of trainee that you are then you will be able to design routines that deliver results you wouldn’t even believe!
Part 8: Planning A Complete Training Cycle
Now that we have covered the theory behind alternating accumulation phases and intensification phases we can now dive right into the practical application of this training model.
One of the more effective ways to design a training cycle is to rotate through 2 accumulation phases and 2 intensification phases where you are lifting your heaviest weights at the end of the 4th phase.
- Accumulation phase #1 – high reps
- Intensification phase #1 – moderately low reps
- Accumulation phase #2 – moderately high reps
- Intensification phase #2 – low reps
Here is how a bodybuilder might organize their phases:
- Accumulation phase #1 – 12-20 reps per set
- Intensification phase #1 – 6-8 reps per set
- Accumulation phase #2 – 10-15 reps per set
- Intensification phase #2 – 4-6 reps per set
At the end of the four phases the bodybuilder is lifting weights in the 4-6 rep range, which is in fact quite heavy for the typical bodybuilder.
At the end of the 2nd intensification phase the bodybuilder could set up a similar 4-phase progression using slightly different rep ranges, exercises etc.
Remember, variety is the spice of strength training program design!
Here is how a strength athlete (powerlifter, strongman etc.) might organize their phases:
- Accumulation phase #1 – 6-8 reps per set
- Intensification phase #1 – 3-4 reps per set
- Accumulation phase #2 – 5-6 reps per set
- Intensification phase #2 – 1-2 reps per set
Our strength athlete is able to peak by the end of the 2nd intensification phase and is lifting loads in the 1-2 rep range, which is sufficient for his goal.
Let’s look at a full training cycle for a strength athlete looking to improve their conventional deadlift.
I recommend our strength athlete (let’s call him Joe Average) to train his lower body once every 5-7 days.
These are very demanding workouts so we don’t want to overtrain Joe’s lumbar spine by training his lower body more frequently.
Accumulation Workout #1 (perform this workout 4 total times)
- A1: Deficit snatch grip deadlift, 3-5 x 6-8, 4/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 3-5 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 3 minutes rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3-5 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Front step up (holding DBs), 3-5 x 10-12, 1/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This is an absolutely brutal accumulation-style workout. You are going to perform a superset consisting of snatch grip deadlifts and 90 degree back extensions.
The deficit snatch grip deadlift was chosen for a specific reason here. This longer range of motion exercise is great to perform first in our training cycle, when training specificity is less critical. This move is the single greatest exercise you can do for boosting hypertrophy so it is very appropriate in this phase.
In the subsequent workouts Joe Average will focus more on the conventional deadlift as boosting this lift is his main priority.
Yes, the lactic acid buildup in your lower back will be absolutely horrible. Don’t worry, there is a method to the madness. This workout will condition your lower back and your entire posterior chain like nothing else. If you bust your ass in this workout then you will be setting yourself up for a huge deadlift PR down the road.
Intensification Workout #1 (perform for 4 workouts total)
- A1: Back squat (feet narrow / flat), 6 x 2-4, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Lying leg curl (Poliquin Method / ankles neutral)**, 6 x 2-4, 3/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Deficit conventional deadlift w/ chains, 6 x 2-4, 3/1/X/0, 4 minutes rest
**Dorsiflex your ankles (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankles (point your ankles away from your shins) on the eccentric range.
This workout utilizes the patient lifter’s method. You are going to perform 6 sets of 2 reps on each exercise in your first workout. Then on every subsequent workout you are going to try and increase the number of reps that you can do.
Your goal is to eventually work up to doing 6 sets of 4 reps on each exercise. This is a very effective way to train for strength. No, it is not flashy like wave loading or cluster sets. However it is still an extremely effective way to train for all-out strength gains.
Accumulation Workout #2 (perform 4 workouts total)
- A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3-5 x 5-6, 2/0/X/0, no rest (not a typo, NO REST)
- A2: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat)**, 3-5 x AMRAP****, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Romanian snatch grip deadlift, 3-5 x 5-7, 5/1/1/0, 10 sec rest
- B2: 45 degree back extension (DB held at chest), 3-5 x 5-7, 3/0/1/2, 3 minutes rest
**Do not change the weight you used from front squats! This is a mechanical advantage drop set on squats. So do a set of front squats for 5-7 total reps, rack the weight, immediately duck under the bar and walk it out, then perform a set of back squats.
****AMRAP stands for as many reps as possible. Just rep the weight out, you should be able to get 1-5 reps on each set of back squats after just front squatting.
Intensification Workout #2 (perform 4 workouts total)
- A1: Conventional deadlift, 1 x 1**, 2/0/X/0, 3 min rest
- B1: Conventional deadlift isometric at sticking point (have bar loaded w/ 135 → pull into pins for six seconds), 3 x 1, 1/0/1/6, 3 min rest
- B2: Conventional deadlift, 3 x 2****, 2/0/X/0, 3 min rest
- C1: Walking lunges, 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- C2: 90 degree back extensions (barbell on back), 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Conventional deadlift performed with your competition stance.
****These are “compensatory acceleration” sets. Use a weight that is approximately 80% of the weight you lifted on exercise A1 and accelerate as hard and fast as you possibly can through the entire movement. You should feel the bar absolutely exploding into your hips at the top position!
This second intensification phase utilizes deadlift isometrics as popularized by Josh Bryant. For the deadlift isometrics you are going to pull a barbell loaded with 135 pounds into a pair of safety pins.
You want to pull as hard as you possibly can on these sets. Your goal is to literally break the pins in half! Just as importantly you are going to alternate sets of deadlift isometrics with sets of speed deadlifts.
The deadlift isometrics will teach your body to recruit additional motor units. Then when you perform your speed sets your body will learn how to recruit these additional motor units on the competition lift. In other words these will be some of the fastest, most explosive speed sets of your life!
This routine will surely set you up for a huge deadlift PR.
Part 9: Other Sample Routines
By now you should understand how to plan a full training macro cycle utilizing the accumulation / intensification model of periodization to achieve any possible training goal.
However, I realize that many of you are hungry for even more sample routines.
I can’t cover every possible accumulation or intensification routine that I use with my clients in this one article (that would require several books!).
Instead, I will give you links to 5 awesome accumulation workouts and 5 incredible intensification workouts that you may want to try.
5 Sample Accumulation Workouts:
5 Sample Intensification Workouts:
I am quite confident that each and every one of you reading this will find at least a couple of routines from these lists that will work for you.
In fact, I would venture to say that most of these routines will work for you if you do your due diligence and set up the routine correctly!
Learning how to successfully alternate accumulation / intensification phases in your own training is a very difficult but highly rewarding task.
Far too many trainees fall into the trap of doing the same-old, same-old workout week after week with very little results to show for their effort. Don’t let this be you!
You now have all the information you need to start using the accumulation / intensification model of periodization today to get superior training results!
If you want more help with alternating accumulation and intensification phases then check out my online coaching program. I regularly use this periodization model with my clients.
Of course it is not the only way I train my clients. As Josh Bryant likes to say, “you have to be a whore for results.” At the end of the day results are the only thing that matters.
“For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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