5 reasons to periodize your workouts

  • 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.

periodize your workouts

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 😉
  5. 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.

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  1. OH.
    thank you.
    next week 😉
    when I have time….
    Miz recently posted…The importance of mattering.My Profile

  2. Excellent discussion. Really helps clarify the concept. Given I mostly work out with exercise DVDs, I’m more in the “undulating periodization” category. I’m constantly mixing things up. But I’m content with maintaining my fitness and strength level at this point. If I wanted to ramp things up a bit, I’d probably try a linear periodization schedule.
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest: The Quarter-Finalists’ Excerpts Are UpMy Profile

  3. Great information here. I need to re-read to really absorb. I know that boredom is a huge factor for me.
    Elle recently posted…Trying Out the ToiletTree Professional Skin Care SystemMy Profile

  4. I have nothing to add.. 🙂 I love mixing it up as you know.. my own Jody way.. 😉
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Taking a Few Days Away; Happy EasterMy Profile

  5. This is one of the many reasons I love being part of your 40+ Fitness Grad Program. You take all the guesswork out and keep it interesting 🙂

  6. Great explanations. I prefer to do three sets of 12-15 reps of whatever I am doing. I do mix up the routines (circuits, supersets, different exercises) but I think I question my form if I go much heavier and doubt if it’s doing any good to go lighter. I’m sure I’ve got more room for variety than I think, though.
    Coco recently posted…Back In The SaddleMy Profile

  7. great post. I think I will give linear periodization a try with the new routine you just gave me. It also amazes me the difference it makes to my frame of mind when the workout is written out.

  8. Great info on why periodization is so important! I read that same study on how a linear periodization program was more effective than reverse for women – it was fascinating stuff, especially the effect on their body comp.
    Carly @ Fine Fit Day recently posted…The Best Exercises to Relieve Back Pain (psst: these work for pregnancy, too!)My Profile

    • It was a great study, wasn’t it?
      I must admit that I haven’t used reversed periodization with any of my clients; seems too risky to start with heavy load (and probably will underestimate the weights to use and not get the results they’d like?)

  9. This is a great article, and you’re absolutely right. There are very few effective workout programs that don’t incorporate a high level of periodization. Just look at the effectiveness of CrossFit. Can’t get much more random than that, and CrossFit certainly continues to build muscle and shred fat day in and day out.

  10. I’m all about the periodization, and suggest the same to my personal training clients as well. Though I have a friend who NEVER takes a deload week and is always lifting heavy, I’m like, girl you need to take a little break! But she’s afraid of losing strength/muscle and gaining weight.
    Patty @ Reach Your Peak recently posted…Health & Fitness Links To Get You Through The DayMy Profile


  1. […] Schedule your active rest days when you schedule your workouts, making it a regular part of your periodized plan. […]

  2. […] 5 reasons to periodize your workouts by Tamara – How often do you adjust your workouts? Are you doing the same workout now that you were 6 months ago? Tamara talks about what periodization is and why it is important to have a set plan for change. Biggest reason – our body learns to adapt so we need to keep it guessing. Do you have a workout plan that changes every month or so? […]

  3. […] the same weight, your body will get used to the routine and stop being stimulated to change by it. Try periodizing your workout, changing reps, sets and load in a linear and progressive fashion. Or alternate high rep/low load […]