- Have a hard time sticking to a workout program long enough to see results?
- Confused as to how many sets and reps you should be doing?
- Think that adding more repetitions means you’re making progress?
- Unsure of when to increase the load or difficulty or an exercise?
- Need variety in your workouts to stay motivated?
Perhaps it’s time to periodize your workouts.
Periodization refers to the process of systematically altering your training variables (reps, sets, load and rest intervals; if you’re new to strength training, you’ll find a primer to these terms here) in order to counter the body’s natural tendency to adapt to your workout (and stop making progress).
Also called ‘cycling training’, it involves finding a balance between sticking with a program long enough to reap the benefits, but not so long that it stops working for you.
Common periodization schedules
There are many ways to periodize your workouts, the most common being:
- linear (or classic) periodization. Begin with higher repetitions (15 to 20) and lighter weights, to ensure the development of proper form and good mind-to-muscle connections before lowering the reps (down to 6-8 by the end of the final phase) and increasing the load. Professional athletes might move through three or four periodized phases in the months leading up to an event. The rest of us will benefit from sticking to a particular rep range/load combination for a week or two, aiming to change up our routine two or three times over a four to six week period, before ‘de-loading’ (taking a week off) and starting a new, periodized program.
- reverse periodization. Exactly the opposite progression of the classic periodization program, reverse periodization begins with very few reps (2-3 sets of 2-3 reps) performed under very high load and ends with longer sets of a more moderate load. This program works well for body builders, particularly if the final phase focuses on fatiguing the muscles within a classic hypertrophy range (8 to 12 repetitions). I don’t personally recommend reverse periodization for clients who are just beginning with strength training and/or who have weight loss and body composition change goals; both for safety reasons and because it may not be metabolic enough to aid in fat loss.
- undulating periodization. In an undulating periodization program, training variables typically change from workout to workout. Some people alternate high and low rep workouts (performing the same exercises in each workout but adjusting their load accordingly such that their muscles are close to fatigue by the end of every set). Others vary the format of the workout, performing straight sets of each exercise one day 1 and supersets of pairs of exercises on day 2. Another way to approach undulating periodization is to have two different programs, each with a different rep and set structure, that you alternate between from one workout to the next.
5 reasons to periodize your workouts
- plan for success. People who plan their workouts are significantly more likely to get them done. Periodization requires that you plan your workout for 4 to 6 weeks at a time.
- eliminate the guesswork. Walking into the gym without a plan is a recipe for failure. When you periodize your workouts, you’ll know exactly how many reps and sets of each exercise you need to do to stay on course. No more wandering aimlessly wondering what you should do next.
- proven strategy for changing body composition in women. A recent study on the benefits of periodized programming on strength gains and body composition change in women revealed that those who followed a classic, linearized program for just twelve weeks, reduced their body fat and gained more muscle mass than those following a reverse periodized program.
- prevent boredom. People often quit exercise because they’re tired of their program. Others jump from program to program (I call this ‘shiny new thing’ syndrome) before their bodies have time to respond. Periodization provides just enough variation, from one week to the next, to keep even the most restless exerciser from becoming bored 😉
- quantify progress. When you constantly change your program, it’s hard to know whether you’re making progress. If you did 12 toe pushups last week and bench pressed 50 lbs for 3 sets of 8 the next, are you getting stronger? Who knows. Following a periodized program allows you to visualize your progress. Same exercise, heavier weight, fewer reps? Yep, you’re definitely making progress. Being able to see the benefits of training is a strong motivator and may just inspire you to set more challenging goals next time around.