Bob Whelan, ‘Common Sense Periodization’, Hard Gainer, July-August (1999), 21-24.


Periodization means “to divide into periods,” when defined by most dictionaries. That’s also the way that I view this term as it applies to strength training. I’m a big believer that some form of change in a routine every three or four months or so is as good mentally as it is physically. In addition to this, as noted in some previous articles, I like to have a day or two each month when I mix things up a little bit. The change keeps enthusiasm high, helps you through sticking points, bolsters your motivation, and re- energizes your training.

I want to be very clear on one thing. When I use the word “periodization”—I actually call it “common sense periodization”—I’m not advocating the orthodox definition used by the NSCA and some other organizations. I find that definition illogical. I don’t believe in a “hypertrophy phase” as being separate from a “strength-building” phase. There are also other aspects of the orthodox definition that I don’t agree with, but rather than get into all of that I’d rather just focus on my definition.

If you love strength training, as I do, then “common sense” periodization is great. You can try many training methods and find what works best for you, or just what you enjoy best. You may find that several methods work well for you, as I have. Personally, I look forward to the change after about every four months. Even though many strength-training methods absolutely do work, at least for some people, what determines what works for you is often in your head—it’s the “enjoyment

This factor should be strongly considered when you choose a training mode or method. You should enjoy training. You will not stick with something, or do well at it, if you dislike it. Find a method that you like. There are many schools of thought in this field, and several of them are good. The problem is that many people, especially beginners, get confused and need to label the type of training they do. Forget the labels. There are also many dogmatic writers and organizations who think you’re scum unless you train exactly like they do. Ignore these people.

Many people label me as a “high- intensity training” (HIT) advocate; in fact, I’ve even used this description of myself, so I don’t mind the label. But I also do many things that are not standard “party line” HIT. I spend a good part of the year doing lower reps. In some articles I’ve even coined my training as “lower-rep HIT.” But this is just for part of the year. With my clients we still do the higher reps too, such as 20- and even 30-rep squats, fifties days, etc. I occasionally do singles (myself), but rarely with clients. The best way to describe my type of training is “natural, hard and progressive.”

An illustration

I sometimes do multiple work sets, but never more than 3. In fact, I’ve spent most of my training life doing 3 work sets per exercise, but my friendship with Drew Israel influenced me to try one-set-to-failure (for work sets). For the last few years I’ve used the one-set- to-failure approach a lot, and experienced great results.

I’ll be 45 this summer, and I’m at all- time personal best strength levels in most exercises. I recently got 360 for 9, followed by 390 for 5 and 410 for 3 on the Hammer Incline Press. (I usually do just one work set, but felt so strong that workout that I wanted to test myself.) About three years ago when I visited Drew in New York (“Training and Eating in The Big Apple,” in issue #45), I barely got a single rep with 400 pounds, and that was a PR at the time. Additionally, I recently got 255 for 10 on the Nautilus Power Plus Military Press, 300 for 9 on the Hammer Iso Row and 555 for 12 on the Hammer Iso Leg Press. All PR’s. I’m a lot stronger than I was a few years ago, and probably ever. Isn’t this stuff great? In fact, one-set-to-failure is so great, it can make you feel almost guilty because it takes so little time. I’m convinced that the one-set-to-failure training has helped me a lot.

If you use one-set-to-failure training you will burn fewer calories than you would with multiple-set work, so you must either make up for this by consuming fewer calories, or by doing more cardiovascular exercise. Keep this in mind if you notice your bodyfat creeping up when you switch to one-set training.

I still use 2 or 3 work sets for most of my clients on most exercises. One-set- to-failure works better for experienced trainees with a solid training foundation, who truly understand what it means to go to failure. Many newcomers don’t understand this, have no training base, and end their sets 1 or 2 reps prematurely.

You can experiment with your number of sets in the common sense periodization format. Do 2 or 3 work sets per exercise for four months, and then try just a single work set to failure per exercise for four months. Take good notes and trust your own instincts.

Machines or free weights?

I don’t consider machines to be superior to free weights. I spent most of my training life using free weights almost exclusively, but now it’s the opposite. I mainly use the fine machines from Hammer Strength and the “Tru-Line” from Southern Xercise, as do my clients. (There are, however, many poor and even dangerous machines on the market.) But with any piece of equipment, it’s how you use the device that counts. My heavy use of machines now is mainly a business decision. It makes my job a lot easier because I change plates and spot people all day. Machines also reduce my liability and the chance of injury for my clients, some of whom have little experience when they start.

If you’ve access to both the good machines and free weights, common sense periodization is a way to enable you to use both. For example, do the Hammer Incline Press for four months then do free-weights incline presses for four months.

Free weights are not “more manly,” and neither are machines “for wimps,” as some people have written. Anyone who has used the Tru-Squat can attest to that. Machines and free weights are both good. Dr. Ken, Drew Israel, Dan Riley, Ken Mannie and others are huge machine advocates. Use what you like, and ignore the critics.

Odd-object lifting

Odd objects are also something to consider using to add variety. I don’t do this type of training on a regular basis (at every training session) but as a change of pace every few weeks. My clients are usually hammered after the (regular equipment) workout, so the finishers would be like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, and lead to overtraining if done on a regular basis. We will, for example, do the sandbag carry or farmer’s walk as a “finisher” after all the barbell and machine work is done, but not to replace any of it.

I’m not an advocate of training exclusively with odd objects (to replace machines or barbells) for an entire periodization cycle, or even for just one entire workout. Everything old is not always good or better. A sandbag curl is not nearly as good as a barbell curl. You can’t hold onto a sandbag well, and even though it may toughen your hands, it will not work your biceps as well because you can’t hold onto enough weight. Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing major muscle groups in the name of “grip work.” It’s usually better to do the grip work separately.

There are many modern devices that are a definite improvement over what they had 50 or 60 years ago. Do you think that John Grimek would have done free-style leg presses with weights balancing on his shoes, like in the old Mark Berry poster, if he could have used a Hammer Leg Press instead? C’mon now! John wasn’t a fool.

Though odd object may be trendy in very limited circles, odd objects are inferior to a barbell or Hammer Strength/Southern Xercise type machines for use on an ongoing basis where progression is monitored. Additionally, if you’re only training yourself, that’s one thing, but when you’re responsible for the well-being of others—who are entrusting you with their bodies—you must use a safer mode than anvils and barrels, etc. The sandbag carry or farmer’s walk, however, as a finisher for the young or well conditioned trainee (or athlete) is a fine addition to a workout.

Rep speed

Even speed of motion can be experimented with. We use an 8-second rep speed workout once in a while as a change of pace, and it’s brutal. Dick Conner does the same thing at The Pit. Dick notes, and I agree, “Slow training is definitely not for wimps. Anyone who says it is, has never tried it as I use it.”

The problem I have with slow training is not the actual training, but the dogmatic individuals who represent this philosophy. Many in this camp also put no emphasis on progression, and are virtually nothing but glorified “toners.” Slow training can be a great change of pace and even a permanent way to train if you like, as long as you make progression a top priority, as Drew Israel does.


Don’t get caught up in the trends or the philosophical catfights. Many methods work. Life is too short, so enjoy your training and experiment (sensibly, of course). Consider changing your rep ranges, exercises and various modes and methods every four months or so, while sticking to the basic core HARDGAINER-type philosophy. The only definition or label you need is “natural, hard and progressive.”

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