If you’ve resistance trained for a while, you know there are lots of ways to change the training variables and the stimulus you place on your muscles when you train. You can change the amount of resistance you use for each set, change the number of reps, increase or decrease the number of sets, re-arrange the order of the exercises in your routine, alter the rep tempo or completely change the exercises you do.
Why is change so important? Whether you like it or not, your body and your muscles adapt to the stress you place on it by becoming bigger, stronger and more resilient. Once your muscles adapt, you won’t make further gains unless you give your muscles a new stimulus to adapt to. Your body changes when additional demands are placed on it, above and beyond what it’s accustomed to. Once your muscles have grown strong enough and large enough to handle “X” amount of weight, there’s no stimulus for them to grow or become stronger unless you challenge them with “X plus” amount of weight or a greater training volume.
Because of this principle of adaptation, you can’t keep things the same. Instead, you have to manipulate training variables at intervals to maximize your gains. Many people do this in the traditional way – by gradually increasing the weight they use. This works, but when you do this, you’ll eventually reach a point where increasing the weight further is challenging. Plus, if you use this approach consistently, you’re at risk for overtraining as you force your muscles to deal with more and more weight. Why not add some variability to your workouts by periodizing them.
What is periodization, anyway? Periodization training was developed by Dr. Thomas Delorme, a military doctor who used this type of training on physical therapy patients. It’s the process of altering training variables at pre-determined intervals to change the stimulus you place on your muscles. Training intervals can be divided into macrocycles and divided further into mesocycles. Plus, there are different types of periodization schedules, namely linear periodization, and undulating periodization, but the principle is the same – change the training variables and what you’re focusing on at set intervals.
Here’s an example of how you might periodize your strength training workouts. One week, optimize your training for strength. During this phase or cycle of training, use heavier weights (80-90% of your 1-rep max) and lower reps. (4 to 6). The next week, reduce the load and increase the number of reps with a focus on muscle endurance. For example, use a weight that’s 50% to 70% of your 1-rep max and do a high number of reps. In the third week, focus on muscle hypertrophy workout with a weight that’s 70% to 80% of your 1-rep max and do 8 to 12 reps. You can use any time period you like for cycle or phases – a week, a month or change the focus of your workout each time you work out. Each cycle can be a day, a week or a month, depending on what works for you.
What Are the Benefits of Periodizing Your Training?
When you periodize your training, you can maximize gains in strength, muscle endurance, and lean body mass and keep your muscles “guessing.” With periodization training, you change the stimulus on a regular basis so you’re less likely to plateau. Periodization also reduces your risk for overtraining and injury since you’re not “maxing out” every workout. High-intensity strength training is stressful on your body because it has to be. Your muscles need to be stressed to grow. Periodization maximally stresses your muscles during some cycles and then gives them time to recover while still keeping them active.
With periodization, you work your muscles at different intensities on a cyclical basis. Periodization is also more psychologically stimulating because you aren’t doing the same workout for weeks on end. Strength gains, muscle gains, less boredom, less risk of injury and overtraining? Those are all compelling reasons to periodize your strength workouts.
Is Periodization Training Supported By Research?
A study carried out at Ball State University involving 34 women showed periodized training yielded greater gains in lean body mass and more substantial decreases in body fat than non-periodized training. Plus, periodized training was superior, in this study, for strength gains as well. That sounds like a pretty good reason to do it, doesn’t it?
Periodized Training is Applicable to Many Forms of Training
We’ve focused mainly on the benefits of periodization for strength training, but you can periodize cardiovascular training as well. For example, some days or weeks, you might focus on high-intensity interval exercise where you exercise above your anaerobic threshold. Other days you might do a lower intensity cardiovascular workout to expose your body to a different stimulus, target a different energy system, and avoid overtraining. Periodization is just as applicable to cardio training as it is to strength workouts.
The Bottom Line
If you aren’t periodizing your workouts – why not? If you’ve been weight training for a while and your progress has stalled, periodization is a way to break out of a plateau and diversify your training. If you’re looking for a home periodizing workout program, try my STS Exercise Program which is still one of the only true periodization workout DVD programs available for home exercisers.
ACE Fitness. “Periodized Training and Why It Is Important”
Sports Health. 2010. Nov. 2(6): 509-518.
The University of New Mexico. “Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications”
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