In my post about rocking your strength training results using periodization, I talked about why this system of planning ahead and varying your workouts is the sure path to steady progress. Periodization simply means manipulating your training variables in a structured way to prevent over-training and maximize results.
The birds-eye view of a periodized program is your whole training year (the macrocycle). Don’t panic; you don’t need to plan out every workout a year in advance.
For our purposes of being weight room warriors, all you need to know are your overall goals: Do you want to be stronger? Have more muscle definition? Get leaner? Change your lean muscle mass to body fat ratio? Know this goal and burn it into your mind.
Your Own Custom Plan
So how would you create a periodized program if you wanted, for example, to build a curvy backside and defined delts? You certainly would not train for muscle building every week or every day. Instead, you want to train at varying intensities in a structured manner, ensuring that you stay ahead of your body’s adaptations and avoid plateaus and overtraining.
In the above butt/delt-building example, you also need to train for strength so that you can lift heavier and heavier. An endurance (or stabilization) stage is needed to properly prepare your tendons and ligaments for the heavier training to come and also to ensure recovery (also called the deload stage).
Breaking Down Your Goal Into Stages
Once you know your overall goal, it’s time to think in terms of 3 to 6 week stages (called mesocycles). You’ll say goodbye to jumping to a new workout every week or changing it at random every few weeks.
Instead, you’ll have a specific goal for each 3 to 6 week period – and you’ll stick with it. Then you’ll move to the next 3 to 6 week stage, and so on. For example, if your overall goal is to build muscle mass, weeks 1 through 26 might look like this:
The main difference between these stages isn’t nutrition, types of exercises, or frequency of training – it’s intensity. To keep it simple, think of intensity as how many reps you do. Your last rep should be very difficult, but if it’s at the right weight, you could still do about two more. Sure, it’s good to go to failure for some of your strength exercises, but don’t do it for all lest you over-train.
If you use this guideline for intensity, you’ll use the appropriate weight, making sure to increase the weight each time it becomes too easy to do the prescribed number of reps. You can also use the number of sets and rest intervals to differentiate each stage. To pull all these variables together in a simplified manner, by stage:
- Endurance Stage: 15-20 reps, 2-3 sets, 0 to 60 seconds rest (0 seconds if doing a circuit)
- Hypertrophy Stage: 6-12 reps, 3-5 sets, 60 to 120 seconds rest
- Strength Stage: 1-5 reps, 4-6 sets, 2 to 3 minutes rest
Varying Each Week: The Microcycle
So once you know your overall goal and have mapped out your 3 to 6 week stages, what next? The third piece of a periodized program is the individual weeks, or the microcycles. You can approach this piece in a variety of ways, but here are two:
- Create two or three workouts, depending on whether you train three full-body days or an upper/lower body split twice a week. For example, if you train your full body three times a week, create three different full-body workouts. You will rotate among these workouts throughout a given stage. What changes from workout to workout? A few variables, such as exercise order, a different exercise or version of an exercise, a different number of reps or sets (within proper range), tempo, or using a technique like pyramids. Don’t go changing it every time you work out – just rotate the same 2 or three workouts throughout the stage. When you start a new stage you’ll change the intensity.
- You can also do something a little more random (and some say more effective) called undulating periodization. This type of program has you rotating among different stages within a week. For example, you’d do a strength-focused workout on day one, a hypertrophy-focused workout on day two, and an endurance-focused workout on day three. The next week could be in a different order. Just be sure to rotate the same three workouts throughout the stage.
Of course, throughout each stage you should be getting stronger and lifting heavier weight, because you’re pushing yourself and varying your workouts. I highly recommend a training log to track your workouts.
There you have it – mesocycles and microcycles in a nutshell. Questions? Drop me a line in the Comment box below.