Periodization and Why You Should Use It

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Periodization has been around for a long time.   Athletes are the ones who mostly use it while training for a competition.  It has been known for ages that it works.  Research has backed it, results have backed it, and it makes common sense when you really think about the concepts.  Many textbooks have been devoted to periodization, which is both good and bad.  The good: much research takes place and it is time tested.  The bad:  over complication leads to the average gym rat not having access to it.

What periodization really means is this:

A plan must be made with a destination in mind, both short and long term.  This plan must include stops along the way, reassessing the path and checking for roadblocks.  Having a plan ensures that one does not travel in circles, wasting time and enthusiasm.  Here is the deal: most people who go to the gym do not have a plan.  Losing weight or gaining muscle is not a plan, it is a destination.

Top down approach:

You may have heard the terms macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle.  All this means is that you must look at the big picture (a year, perhaps), zoom in to the current month (or 2-3 months), and zoom in further to the current week and day.  Each timeframe must have a plan and a destination.  For example, you want to lose 40lbs by next year.  12 months from this date, as a whole, is your macro cycle, the big picture.  You decide that to accomplish this you must hit the weights 3 times a week, get cardio and interval training in 4 times a week, and clean up your diet (diet can and should be periodized as well depending on your goals, I will devote another article on this).  We are starting to have a plan.  Now, let’s focus on the first 3 months.  Let’s say the goal is to lose 15lbs in the 3 month period.  We will change out the exercises twice in this 3 months,  constantly monitor progress (weight, body fat),  and slowly increase the cardio each week.

The real value of periodization in your training comes at the micro level.  Let’s say 6 week blocks, broken down into weeks, and workouts within those weeks.  A proper plan keeps the body from getting used to a certain stimulus, helps prevent overuse injury, and keeps your interest.  Many people recognize the fact that you have to change things up, but I believe many go about this blindly.  Doing dumbbell bench press once in a while instead of bench press is not periodization, although it may be part of it.  Let’s look at the variables we can control.

  1. Exercises
  2. Tempo
  3. Rest Periods
  4. Resistance
  5. Repetitions

So, we have many other variables besides changing the exercises.  Too many people focus on the assistance exercises before mastering or at least becoming proficient in the big, multi-joint lifts.  Doing a cable fly when your bench press is 110lbs is just poor advice.  By manipulating other variables you can make gains in the bench press for months, even years without having to change up the actual exercise (or slight variations of that exercise, i.e. incline vs. flat).

So back to the point of the article:  Are you stuck in your workouts and/or bored?  Here are a few ways to shake it up and get pretty striking results in 6 week blocks.

6 week periodization plans:

I am using these exercises as examples.  Put in whatever you like, but beware.  You want to keep a balance (pushing horizontal, pulling horizontal, pulling vertical, pushing vertical, knee dominant leg exercise, hip dominant exercise, core front/back/side).  I suggest large body part exercises, keep it simple and effective.  We don’t need time wasters like curls and triceps extensions unless you are an elite bodybuilder in the finishing stages.  Also keep in mind I am doing this for resistance training.  Runners can periodize using mileage, etc.

Classic style:

Exercises:

  • Flat bench
  • Single leg deadlift
  • Lunge
  • Pull-up (or a regression from a pull-up like using band assistance)
  • Standing dumbbell shoulder press
  • Seated cable row

Split:

  • day 1: flat bench, single leg deadlift
  • day 2: pull-up, shoulder press
  • day 3: seated cable row, lunge

add core exercises and interval cardio at the end of workouts.  These are critical, but not part of this discussion.

Form must be perfect!  No exceptions.

Each week is 3 workouts; sets are done leaving a rep or two in the bank unless otherwise noted.

Week 1-intro, 8-12 reps (if not advanced in pull-up, just do what you can…if advanced look to add weight depending on the week)
Week 2-8-12 get heavier in weights, small increments=big gains, large increments=injury, be smart.
Week 3- 4-6, less reps=add more weight
Week 4- 8-12 reps, try to keep same as last week just add a few reps on
Week 5- 2-4 reps, set new highs, go for it all
Week 6- 8-12 reps, cut weight to 60% or so of last week’s max, taper week preparing for next 6 week cycle.

If you graphed this 6 week workout it would start low, creep up, hit a peak, and creep down again (kind of like a stock cycle).  If you made good gains on this, do another 6 week cycle of the same thing before thinking about switching exercise variations.

A second example is sometimes called undulating.  Same exercises and split as above, 3-4 work sets.

Week 1: 15-20 reps, fast tempo
Week 2:
 8-12 reps, medium tempo (2 sec down, pause, 2 sec up)
Week 3:
4-6 reps, medium tempo
Week 4:
8-12 reps, slow tempo (3 sec up, pause, 3 sec down), enjoy!
Week 5:
15-20 reps, medium tempo
Week 6:
4-6 reps, medium tempo

Obviously weights change according to reps needed, but try to improve each workout.  You can run this cycle as long as you keep seeing gains.  Change the exercises out but keep the other variables the same.  You can also play with the rest periods between sets.  I would give myself more time on the heavy days, less time on the lighter.  This undulating style can also be applied within a one week time frame.  This means that I can have 3 workouts each hitting all muscle groups (different exercises each workout), yet one workout can be high rep/fast, one can be medium rep/medium pace, and one can be lower rep/medium day.  Each week keep the same exercise splits but switch the other variables, if your Monday looks like pull-ups/lunges, Monday 1 would be 8-12, Monday 2 would be 15-20, Monday 3 would be 4-6, etc.

The point is, have a plan.  Plan for lighter days, plan for heavier days, and make sure to give your body enough rest to recover.  If you are doing something and not getting gains, at least you can look at your map and see where you possibly went wrong.  Without a map, you have no starting point to fix your route.