You know the moment – the one where you look in the mirror and realize definitively that you want to “tone up.” Or if you’ve been strength training for a while, you notice that you’re not seeing new muscle definition anymore. Where do you turn?
The Problem of Plateaus and Overtraining
If you think you need a program to succeed, then you’re on the right track. Taking a more long-term view of your training instead of a day-to-day or week-by-week attack is crucial to delivering ongoing results.
If you’re a beginner, any exercise will build muscle and burn calories. But unless you change up your workout regularly, you will eventually plateau and stop seeing results.
Unfortunately, plateaus can confound – and defeat – even the best-intentioned people and often leads to giving up altogether. Not only that, but doing the same thing over and over can result in overtraining and repetitive use injuries.
It’s common to see people switching up their workouts every session or trying a different program every few weeks, looking for that magical formula to success. But a better approach is periodization: Splitting your exercise program into time periods, with each period building on the previous period’s progress.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds – athletes who specialize in particular sports such as cycling use periodization year round to increase performance and avoid overtraining, so why shouldn’t you use it to get buff?
Building Upon Your Progress
Whenever you put stress on your body by doing something different, it has to work harder while it tries to adapt to the new stimulus. But as soon as your body has done this new task a few times it learns how to do it more efficiently – that is, not work as hard. But in order to build muscle or burn calories, your body must work hard, as opposed to effortlessly humming along.
Sure, you can “mix up” your workouts with different repetitions, resistance, exercises, etc. This is all good and is part of periodization, but most people don’t think about how their workouts look from a high level; they’re a little too focused on the details of each session.
The result is that a year can go by and you’re still training for strength and not seeing progress. Following a long-term program lets you continuously improve upon the progress you just made – and that’s how you’ll get to your goals.
There are different, more complex models of periodization, but my goal is to keep it simple here. Please refer to the resources at the bottom for more detail.
Anatomy of a Periodized Workout
It’s time to start looking at your training in three distinct time periods: the entire year (macrocycle), 3 to 6 week periods (mesocycles), and individual weeks (microcycles). To avoid getting too complicated, start by breaking up the coming year into mesocycles, which for weight lifting might look something like this:
- Stage 1 (lasting 1 to 12 weeks, depending on your fitness level). This initial period lays the foundation for fitness and prepares your tendons, ligaments, and supporting muscles for the increasing muscle stress later. During this phase you’ll train at a low intensity (10-15 reps, 2 to 4 sets, 8-12 exercises total, with 0 to 60 seconds rest) in a full-body circuit fashion.
- Stage 2 (lasting 3 to 9 weeks, depending on your goals). After you’ve established a baseline of fitness, it’s time to increase the intensity of your workouts. During this period you’ll train at a moderate intensity (6-12 reps, 1 to 4 exercises per muscle group, with 60 to 120 seconds rest). This is when you’ll actually build muscle. You may want to begin using a training split and train your muscle groups on separate days, allowing for more volume and rest for each muscle group.
- Stage 3 (lasting 3 to 6 weeks, depending on your goals). The third stage of training is of high intensity (1 to 5 reps of much heavier weight, 1 to 2 exercises per muscle group, with 120 to 240 seconds rest). This stage is designed to build strength.
It might be the natural temptation, once you’ve completed Stage 3, to simply stay there; but then it wouldn’t be a periodization program. This is where you take the long-term view in your training, repeating the three stages (mesocycles) throughout the year (macrocycle).
You’ll want to make minor changes during the individual weeks (microcycle) as needed, such as increasing the resistance if it becomes too easy or changing the hand grip to hit a muscle differently. For me, these are the small changes that spice up my workouts each time, but you want to stick the same basic workout for the allotted time period.
Will you cycle through stages 1 through 3 in that order over and over again? No. You will cycle through the stages out of order and for different lengths of time, again to prevent adaptation and hone in on your goals.
The following is a 28-week example for someone of an intermediate level of fitness whose goal is to increase muscle mass . You’ll notice that more time is spent in Stage 2, during which muscle is being built:
Now that you have a basic understanding of periodization, check out these articles for a more in-depth look.