The Benefits Of Periodizing Your Strength Workouts
Despite knowing that consistency and progression are the keys to strength training success, many women fail to stick with a program long enough to see results simply because they become bored with performing the same exercises day after day.
The good news is, it’s possible to structure your workouts to get both consistency and variety within the same program.
‘Periodization' is the process of systematically altering your training variables (reps, sets, load and rest intervals) in order to counter the body's natural tendency to adapt to the 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.
There are many ways to periodize your workouts, the most common being:
- Linear 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 a competition. 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 taking a week off and starting a new, periodized program.
- Reverse periodization. Exactly the opposite progression of the classic linear periodization program, reverse periodization begins with very few reps (2-3 sets of 2-3 reps) performed with very high weights and ends with longer sets at a more moderate weight. 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 the amount of weight they lift 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. Undulating periodization is more complicated to set up; make sure you see a fitness professional to help you configure the workouts optimally for your training goals.
5 reasons to periodize your workouts
- Periodization requires planning and planning leads to 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. It also lets you plan your training schedule around holidays and special events.
- Periodization eliminates 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.
- Periodization changes 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.
- Periodization prevents 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.
- Periodization forces you to 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. Same exercise, heavier weight, fewer reps? Yep, you're definitely making progress.
Following a periodized strength training program allows you to track and visualize your progress. Being able to see the benefits of training is a strong motivator and may just inspire you to set more challenging goals during your next periodized cycle.