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Block vs. Weekly Undulating Periodized Resistance Training Programs in Women

Bartolomei, Sandro; Stout, Jeffrey R.; Fukuda, David H.; Hoffman, Jay R.; Merni, Franco

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 10 - p 2679–2687
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000948
Original Research
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Bartolomei, S, Stout, JR, Fukuda, DH, Hoffman, JR, and Merni, F. Block vs. weekly undulating periodized resistance training programs in women. J Strength Cond Res 29(10): 2679–2687, 2015—The aim of this study was to compare the effects of resistance training using block periodization (BP) and weekly undulating (WUD) model on maximal strength and hypertrophy in recreationally strength trained women. Seventeen recreationally trained women were randomly assigned to either a BP group (n = 9; age = 24.7 ± 4.2 years; body mass = 62.1 ± 5.3 kg; height = 166.4 ± 6.0 cm) or a WUD group (n = 8; age = 23.2 ± 2.2 years; body mass = 59.8 ± 11.9 kg; height = 160.1 ± 4.1 cm). Participants of both groups trained 3 days a week for 10 weeks. The BP and WUD programs used the same exercises, and the difference between the 2 programs was in the distribution of the training volume within each training phase. Anthropometric measures and strength testing were performed before (PRE) and after 10 weeks (POST) of training. The results revealed that both BP and WUD groups made significant increases in strength and power, but improvements in lower-body strength were significantly (p = 0.039) greater in the WUD group (+27.7%) compared with the BP group (+15.2%). Both groups significantly increased arm muscle hypertrophy (p < 0.001), whereas improvements in thigh muscle size were significant in the WUD group only (+5.8%, p = 0.001). Results of this study indicate that the WUD model is more effective than the BP model for increasing maximal strength and muscle size in the lower body in women.

1Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Science, Alma Mater Studiorum, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy; and

2Sport and Exercise Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida

Address correspondence to Sandro Bartolomei, sandro.bartolomei@unibo.it.

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Introduction

The 2000 Sydney Summer Games were the first modern Olympic Games in which women were allowed to compete in a number of strength and power events including weightlifting and hammer throw. This opportunity for female athletes was long overdue as some countries had a long tradition in strength training for women athletes (29) and numerous investigations have demonstrated improvement in strength performance in women after resistance training (7,23,35,36). Furthermore, studies have reported similar percent increases in arm muscle cross-sectional area and maximal strength for men and women after strength training programs (8,9).

In the last 20 years, both block and undulating periodization models have been widely used for strength training prescription of female athletes (20). Weekly undulating (WUD) model is characterized by a “wave-like” workload distribution over time achieved by frequent variation of the training contents within each mesocycle (2) (usually represented by several weeks of training). In this model, each week presented a specific training goal and each mesocycle is often characterized by a gradual transition from a period of high volume and low intensity to a period of low volume and high intensity. Regarding this aspect, the WUD model seems to be similar to the model characterized and further developed by Matveev in the early 1960s (24–26).

Block periodization (BP) was first proposed by Verkhoshansky at the end of the 1970s after having used this model for several years with Soviet jumpers (38,39). In this periodization model, the macrocycle is divided into several phases, called blocks, each with a unique goal and a duration of 2–6 weeks (3,20,27). Each block is focused on developing a few selected abilities using concentrated training stimuli. The blocks should be planned in a logical sequence to achieve a cumulative effect of the training workloads (5,20). The first block or phase of the resistance training program is usually focused on muscle hypertrophy, whereas the subsequent phases are dedicated to maximal strength and power. This periodization model was first introduced in North America in 1981 by Stone et al. (37) and was soon adopted by many American strength and power athletes.

Only a few experimental studies have reported the effects of training programs with different workload distribution on female participants (6,22,28) and none of them compared a WUD with a block periodized strength training program. Kraemer et al. (22) found that periodized multiple-set resistance training protocols were superior to low-volume single-set resistance training to enhance maximal strength, fat-free mass, and serve velocity in competitive collegiate women tennis players. In a comparison of linear periodization to daily/WUD models, Buford et al. (6) found significant maximal strength increases in participants of both genders and greater improvements after WUD and linear periodization models compared with a daily undulating periodized program. These seem to be the only studies that are known to have compared different periodization paradigms in women. Thus, the purpose of this study was to compare the effects of the block vs. weekly undulating programs on upper- and lower-body maximal strength and in recreationally trained women.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

Seventeen recreationally trained women served as subjects. Nine women were assigned to a BP group and the remaining eight comprised the WUD group. The first group performed a 10-week BP training program with a relative constant training volume throughout each mesocycle. The second group followed a 10-week WUD composed of varied training volume and intensity within each mesocycle.

Participants were assessed for upper- and lower-body strength and power before and after the training program. Anthropometric data were also collected at the beginning and at the end of the training period. Subjects were not permitted to perform any additional training or participate in any sport event during the duration of the study.

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Subjects

Participants were recreationally resistance trained women who had participated regularly in resistance training (minimum 1 times a week during the last 2 years) and completed at least 1 bout of squat each week in the last year. Participants had previous strength training experience using free weight and machine resistance before this study but have never been involved in periodized strength training of any type. All women, aged over 20 years old, were recruited from university weight-training classes and were not competitive strength athletes. To be included in the study, participants had to lift at least 1.3 times their body weight in a 1-repetition maximum (RM) squat.

Participants were randomly assigned to a training group, and each group participated in a 10-week training program. Group 1 (mean ± SD, n = 9; age = 24.7 ± 4.2 years; body mass = 62.1 ± 5.3 kg; height = 166.4 ± 6.0 cm) used the BP program, whereas group 2 (n = 8; age = 23.2 ± 2.2 years; body mass = 59.8 ± 11.9 kg; height = 160.1 ± 4.1 cm) used the WUD program. Subjects signed an informed consent docuement after having the risks and beneftis of the study explained to them and the study was approved by the University of Bologna bioethics committee.

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Resistance Training Protocols

Training was carried out 3 times a week for 10 weeks. Exercises used were the same for both groups (Table 1). Training values for BP and WUD programs are reported in Tables 2 and 3, respectively.

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2

Table 2

Table 3

Table 3

The BP program consisted of two 5-week mesocycles, the first was focused on muscle hypertrophy and was characterized by a high training volume and low relative training intensity. During the first mesocycle, participants used loads between 70 and 75% (5 series of 8–10 repetitions) of their 1RM strength with 1-minute recovery time between sets. The second mesocycle focused on maximal strength; subjects used 88–93% of 1RM (5 series of –3–4 repetitions) loads with 3-minute recovery time between sets. Workload distribution of BP program can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The WUD program also consisted of two 5-week mesocycles. During each mesocycle, training load progressed from a high volume and low intensity toward a low volume and high intensity. The first week of each mesocycle focused on muscle hypertrophy. During the second week of training, the total training volume was slightly reduced. The third and the fourth weeks of each mesocycle focused on maximal strength, and participants performed a low number of repetitions using heavy loads. The last week of each mesocycle for both groups was dedicated to recovery and only 3 light load workouts, consisting of 3 sets of 6 repetitions at 65% of 1RM, were performed. Figure 2 shows the “wave-like” pattern of workload distribution characterizing the WUD model.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Jumps were included in both BP and WUD programs after the squat exercise. Participants performed 4 sets of 6 body weight countermovement jumps (CMJs) with maximum explosive intent.

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Performance Assessments

Before initiating the 10-week training programs, participants followed a 2-week familiarization program in which the same exercises depicted in Table 1 were organized in circuits and performed with light loads. Subjects were assessed before (PRE) and after (POST) the 10-week training. Anthropometric assessments were performed at the beginning of each testing session and all power tests preceded strength assessments.

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Strength and Power Measures

Strength testing consisted of 1RM in the squat, deadlift, and bench press exercises. A maximal isometric midthigh pull strength test was also performed using an isometric dynamometer (Globus Iso Control; Globus, Inc., Treviso, Italy). The bar height was adjusted in 2-cm increments so that the knee angle was 120°; hand grip width was also measured to ensure that the body position was the same in all the testing sessions. Using the same strength gauge connected to a personal computer, the force-time curve was visualized and the peak rate of force development (PRFD) was calculated. The same procedure used by Haff et al. (13) to analyze data collected by a force plate has been adapted to analyze data collected by the strength gauge. Intraclass coefficients were 0.99 (SEM: 19.3 N) for maximal isometric strength and 0.82 (SEM: 505.2 N·s−1) for PRFD in the pull exercise.

The 1RM bench press test was performed using an incremental method beginning from a baseline of 20 kg and continued until failure in 5-kg increments. The participants were required to press the bar with explosive intent until arms were fully extended. A single repetition was required for each load. During all repetitions, an optical encoder (Globus Real Power; Globus, Inc.) measured the power expressed by the subject, and the area under the curve (AUC) was calculated using a standard trapezoidal technique. Intraclass coefficient for AUC was 0.86 (SEM: 695.19 a.u.).

The 1RM deadlift assessment was performed using an Olympic bar and plates (Pallini Sport Inc., Malaquis, France), whereas the 1RM squat test was conducted using a Smith machine. During the 1RM squat test, subjects began the movement from a knee flexion angle of 90° and lifted the weight until the knees were completely extended. The squat and deadlift tests began from a baseline of 40 kg. The load was increased by 10 kg for each attempt until failure. Intraclass coefficients were 0.91 (SEM: 3.0 kg), 0.87 (SEM: 10.0 kg), and 0.77 (SEM: 5.43 kg) for the 1RM test on bench press, squat, and deadlift, respectively.

All subjects completed 3 CMJ with hands on hips to assess lower-body power. Jumping time was measured using a contact mat (Globus Ergo Jump; Globus, Inc.) and jump height was calculated by the computer. Intraclass coefficient for CMJ was 0.87 (SEM: 2.19 cm). Each testing session was performed at the same time of the day and followed the same number of rest days from the last training workout.

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Anthropometry

Anthropometric assessments consisted of body composition testing using skinfold calipers (Lange; Cambridge Scientific Industries, Cambridge, MD, USA) and thigh and arm circumference measurements using a standard anthropometric measuring tape. Body fat percentage was calculated using the methods of Jackson and Pollock (21). Arm muscle area (AMA) was estimated by the arm circumference and skinfolds using the following equation (15):

Middle-arm circumference was measured midway between the acromion and olecranon process of the left arm. Middle-arm skinfold was taken on the posterior aspect of the arm at the same level as circumference. To predict total thigh muscle cross-sectional area (TCSA), the following equation was used (18):

The midthigh circumference and the anterior skinfold were measured midway between the inguinal crease and proximal border of patella of the left leg. All the anthropometric measures were performed by the same investigators. Intraclass coefficients were 0.98 (SEM: 0.53 kg) for lean body mass (LBM) and 0.88 (SEM: 2.19 cm2) and 0.93 (SEM: 3.91 cm2) for AMA and TCSA, respectively.

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Statistical Analyses

A Shapiro-Wilk test was used to test the normal distribution of the data. Two-way (group [WUD vs. BP] × time [PRE vs. POST]) mixed-factorial analysis of variance with Bonferroni post hoc was used to examine interactions and main effects. If significant interaction between groups was found, then repeated dependent T-test was used as post hoc analysis. Significance was set at p ≤ 0.05. In a separate analysis, mean percentage change values ([POST mean − PRE mean]/[PRE mean] × 100) was evaluated with 95% confidence intervals. Relationships between changes in the performances and anthropometric measures were calculated using Pearson's correlation coefficients. All data are reported as mean ± SD. For effect size (ES), the partial eta squared (

) statistic was reported, and according to Green et al. (12), 0.01, 0.06, and 0.14 represent small, medium, and large ESs, respectively.

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Results

Performance Assessments

Results for strength and power assessments are outlined in Table 4. A significant main effect of time was found for deadlift 1RM (F1,15 = 52.22; p = 0.000;

= 0.78), squat 1RM (F1,15 = 31.99; p = 0.000;

= 0.69), CMJ (F1,15 = 7.90; p = 0.013;

= 0.34), and PRFD (F1,10 = 7.45; p = 0.021;

= 0.43). No significant main effects of time were found for bench press 1RM (F1,15 = 2.18; p = 0.161;

= 0.13), maximal isometric strength expressed on midthigh pull (F1,10 = 4.46; p = 0.061;

= 0.308), or for bench press power AUC (F1,15 = 4.21; p = 0.058;

= 0.22). A significant interaction between the 2 groups was found for 1RM squat (F1,15 = 5.208; p = 0.039;

= 0.271). Post hoc analysis indicated that the 1RM increase in the WUD group was significantly higher than in the BP group (27.7%; p = 0.001 and 15.2%; p = 0.038, respectively). All percentage differences in strength and power expressed by the 2 groups are represented in Figure 3.

Table 4

Table 4

Figure 3

Figure 3

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Anthropometry

Anthropometric data of both BP and WUD group are depicted in Table 5. There was a significant main effect of time on LBM (F1,15 = 9.49; p = 0.008;

= 0.39), fat mass (FM; F1,15 = 14.55; p = 0.002;

= 0.49), AMA (F1,15 = 47.77; p = 0.000;

= 0.76), and TCSA (F1,15 = 13.16; p = 0.002;

= 0.47). Gains in AMA were 15.1 and 11.2% for the BP group and WUD group, respectively. No main effect of time was found on the body weight in both WUD and BP groups (F1,15 = 0.08; p = 0.774;

= 0.00). A significant interaction between WUD and BP groups was detected for TCSA only (p = 0.042). These data indicate that the WUD group increased in the TCSA significantly more than the BP group (5.8%; p = 0.001 and 1.6%; p = 0.403, respectively). All percentage differences in strength and expressed by the 2 groups are represented in Figure 4.

Table 5

Table 5

Figure 4

Figure 4

A significant correlation was found for the gains in TCSA and the gains in squat 1RM (r = 0.57; p = 0.021). No significant correlation was found between increases in AMA and gains in bench press 1RM (r = −0.17; p = 0.499). Gains in AMA were not correlated with increases in TCSA (r = 0.07; p = 0.779).

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Discussion

Results of this study indicated that both WUD and BP strength training programs were effective in stimulating performance improvements in recreationally resistance trained female participants. Significant increases were seen in both groups on 1RM deadlift and squat, LBM, and AMA. However, lower-body maximal strength and hypertrophy increases were significantly greater in the WUD group. Specifically, the WUD group increased 1RM squat by an average of 27.7% after the training program, whereas the BP group increased 1RM by an average of 15.2%. In addition, the WUD group showed greater increases in lower-body muscle area by an average of 5.8% compared with an average of 1.6% in the BP group.

During the WUD program, participants performed several high-volume training sessions in each of the mesocycles distributed throughout the intervention. The BP group performed the same training sessions focused on hypertrophy as the WUD, but they were concentrated within the first 4-week mesocycle. The different distribution of high volume training may have elicited greater improvements on lower-body strength and hypertrophy in the WUD group compared with the BP group. The BP program may have increased muscle mass and decreased FM in the first high-volume mesocycle, but a portion of these adaptations may have been lost in the subsequent lower volume mesocycle. Training volume and intensity influence the energy expenditure during resistance training workouts (19). However, the training sessions that focused on muscle hypertrophy have a higher energy cost compared with low-volume training sessions that focused on maximal strength (30,33). Metabolic factors may have been influenced by the different workload distribution between WUD and BP.

Increases in estimated AMA (+15.1 and +11.2% in the WUD group and BP group, respectively) were more substantial than the changes observed in lower-body muscle area (+5.8 and +1.6% in the WUD and BP groups, respectively). Greater percent increases in female arm vs. leg muscle hypertrophy were previously reported in several studies (1,7,8). The differences between legs and arms with respect to the changes in lean mass may be related to the level of complexity of the exercises used. With complex exercises, a considerable learning phase needs to occur to ensure proper technique. As a result of this learning curve, hypertrophy may be delayed in the first several weeks of training (31). However, participants in this study were familiar with all exercises used in the training program. Another potential reason for the varying degrees of adaptation may have stemmed from a different training status between upper and lower body at the beginning of the training program.

Although significant increases in arm hypertrophy were observed, there were no significant increases in upper-body maximal strength. Sale et al. (32) reported similar results when maximal strength was measured with an isometric test and participants used concentric contractions during workouts. In this study, the same exercises used in the training programs were performed as maximal strength tests, but the main effects of time on 1RM bench press and maximal power were not significant (p = 0.161 and 0.058, respectively). A possible explanation could be the low correlation observed between the AMA and 1RM bench press in untrained women (34). In addition, the 1RM bench press may also be affected by the pectoralis major cross-sectional area, which was not assessed in this study.

Countermovement jump performance and PRFD showed significant gains only in the group that followed WUD. Previous studies comparing BP programs to undulating models in male subjects have reported greater gains in strength and power after the block model (4,17), whereas others were not able to demonstrate a significant difference between training methods (11,14,16).

The use of multiple goal mesocycles with women may prevent the decreases in muscle hypertrophy that can occur during low volume and high-intensity phases of block periodized programs. Conversely, BP may be more beneficial for male athletes who can maintain the gains in muscle size obtained in concentrated hypertrophy blocks in the subsequent training phases. This may be related to a different anabolic/catabolic ratio reported in men and women primarily because of the anabolic effects of testosterone (10).

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Practical Applications

Our data suggest that the WUD model may be more advantageous than the BP model during a 10-week resistance training program for stimulating maximal strength and muscle hypertrophy in women. Strength and conditioning coaches designing resistance training programs for optimal gains in maximal strength and muscle size in recreationally trained women, therefore, should consider using the WUD method.

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Keywords:

program design; strength training; female; hypertrophy

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