Maybe you made a New Year's resolution. Perhaps you have a special event coming up. You may just have woken up one day and realized that you aren't at the place you want to be with your overall health and wellness. For whatever reason, you start a training plan. It's going great, and you begin losing weight and building muscle. You stick to what works for several months, and end up hitting a plateau. Now the weight stops melting off. Maybe you even gain a little back. Suddenly you're having trouble getting back to that state you were in at first, with the type of strength and endurance gains that you were seeing so quickly at first. This is a natural result of becoming fitter. Your body adapts to the demands placed on it, and it requires new stressors (new movement types, training intensities and styles) in order to yield fresh weight loss and muscle gain.
PERIODIZATION: WHAT IT IS AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT
Periodization is an organized approach to training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period of time.
Periodization is known to have been used in sports as far back 2nd century AD, when Galen and Philostratus developed training theories which laid the foundation for contemporary training periodization in order to excel at the Olympic games. Galen in particular implemented the idea of building strength without speed and speed without strength, and then using intense exercises to combine both elements after they had been trained individually.
In the 20th century, a couple of fresh faces offered up the bones which would eventually meld together to form modern periodization.
A factory supervisor named Frederick Winslow Taylor founded the Principles of Scientific Management which laid out a systematic method of organization and planning in order to achieve the best outcomes in the most efficient manner.
Hans Selye was an endocrinologist who studied non-specific responses of an organism to stressors. He identified two types of stress: eustress, which generates beneficial muscle strength and growth; and distress, which leads to tissue damage and disease.
Selye's General Adapatation Syndrome (GAS) model describes predictable way the body responds to stress, outlined in 3 phases: the alarm stage, where the body isn't sure of what's happening and provides a burst of energy (also known as "fight or flight"); the resistance stage, where the body attempts to fight back by adapting to the stressor (muscle growth and improvement); and the exhaustion stage, when the long-term stressor is not removed and the body has depleted all of its energy (over-training). Speaking in terms of the GAS model, the principle of periodization is used to prevent over-training (the exhaustion stage) and keep the body constantly adapting to new stressors (the resistance stage) in order to consistently achieve beneficial results.
Modern periodization combined the principles of Taylor and Selye with Soviet 5-year plans. It originated in Russia after the 1956 Olympic games and is credited to sports scientist Lev P. Matveyev. After its initial implementation, Romanian sports scientist Tudor Bompa further expanded its scope.
In more recent years, GAS has been criticized as a basis for periodization theory because it describes response to a general stressor and was not created specifically for fitness training. As a result, two new models were developed: the Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation (SFRA) model which states that training stress is dependent on many factors such as intensity and volume of training; and the Fitness-Fatigue model (also known as the Impulse-Response model), which suggests that fitness and fatigue are inversely related and thus strategies that maximize fitness and decrease fatigue are most optimal.
The SFRA model can be seen in the progressive overloads found in strength training and the implementation of rest days in order to give your body time to recover. A well-known example of the Fitness-Fatigue model is tapering, where training volume is dialed back in order to eliminate fatigue and express maximal strength, power and endurance leading up to a fitness event.
WHY YOU NEED PERIODIZATION
There are several proven benefits to utilizing a form of periodization in your workout cycles, as follows:
A study performed at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University has shown that a periodized strength traning program can produce better results than a non-periodized program. It was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2001 and its purpose was to determine the long-term adaptations associated with low-volume, circuit-type training vs. periodized, high-volume resistance training in women. These effects are also seen in periodized cardiovascular training as well, so regardless of the type of training you perform, periodization will accelerate your progress.
THE THREE CYCLES
There are 3 types of periodization cycles: a microcycle is a period up to 7 days; a mesocycle is anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months; and a macrocycle is the overall training period (usually a year).
Training programs placed on an indefinite loop (i.e., for general health and wellness not tied to a specific event) use 1 week for the microcycle, 1 month for the mesocycle, and 1 year for the macrocycle. If you have a hard deadline (such as an event), however, your cycles will change according to your needs.
Before discussing how to use periodization in your own workout cycles, it's critical to go over some of the fundamental concepts:
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) uses the Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model. Clients of a NASM trainer will work on different aspects of physical fitness according to their goals on a periodized cycle. These cycles focus on certain key elements of fitness as shown in the diagram below. As a client progresses through cycles of the OPT training phases, their training intensities and loads increase per the aforementioned concepts.
Stabilization endurance refers to your base fitness and works on improving your balance, coordination, endurance and core stabilizer strength. This is also where corrective exercise is performed in order to ameliorate muscle imbalances, posture and general stability and proprioception.
Strength endurance trains up muscle strength while still working on your core stabilizers and endurance.
Hypertrophy cycles focus on muscle growth using high volume with short rest periods.
Maximal strength increases the recruitment of more motor units, rate of force production and motor unit synchronization. This is more sport-specific and often a main focus for bodybuilders and powerlifters.
Power refers to explosive energy adaptation used in sprinting and powerlifting. This is another sport-specific focus that is not often implemented by those seeking general fitness benefits.
The above categories of training are employed in different periodization models according to preference, need, and how the body responds to each. The most common models are linear (traditional) periodization, block periodization and undulating periodization.
This refers to the system developed back in the 50s and 60s by Matveyev and later honed by Bompa. When using this form of periodization, the training volume decreases over time while training intensity and load increase over time with a taper at the end leading into the next cycle.
This is a training structure in which volume and intensity/load both go up and down repeatedly over time. There are two primary subcategories: weekly undulating periodization (WUP) and daily undulating periodization (DUP).
WUP fluctuates in volume and intensity each week. So if in a linear/traditional style you would lift 70% 1RM (one rep max) on week 1, 75% on week 2, 80% on week 3 and 85% on week 4, a weekly undulating approach may instead be 70% on week 1, 80% on week 2, 75% on week 3 and 85% on week 4. Rather than simply increasing each week, the intensity goes up, down, up, down.
A daily undulating periodization style would mean that if your weekly intensity is 75% 1RM, your first session that week might be 70% and your second session 80%. The overall intensity will equal the week's scheduled load, but how you reach that goal within the week is through a series of different intensities.
This style of programming was originally designed for sports that had more than one major competition or event per year. It is more generally described as having a block focused on strength endurance, followed by a block focused on hypertrophy, following by a block focused on maximal strength, followed by a block focused on power and velocity (followed by a competition block if a team sport athlete).
For years, periodization theorists (and enthusiasts) have argued about which model is the best (and why other models are inferior), which is why the research has treated them as separate concepts.
USING PERIODIZATION IN YOUR TRAINING
If you're working with a personal trainer or following a pre-made fitness program, you are already working within the periodization model. However, if your workouts are independent of this form of guidance, you can style your plan using periodization methods by considering the factors below:
Most sports utilize 12-week cycles, meaning that the training style and focus remains the same for 3 months and then changes using any number of the above-listed variables. If you have a particular event in mind, however, your cycle duration may change.
Depending on your starting fitness level, you may need to cycle between the first two phases of training (stabilization endurance and strength endurance, as described above) a a few times before progressing to the hypertrophy stage. For general weight loss and fitness, you will remain in phases 1 and 2 for most of your training. You may vary any of the aforementioned factors in order to provide variety within that scope, however. A few ideas for starting your own program design can be found here. There are all kinds of periodization samples and mock-ups online, with a variety of theories behind each. Take the time to find what works for you -- or seek out a personal trainer to assist in your personal programming.
WHEN LIFE HAPPENS
Every training plan and trainer says the same thing: consistency is key. The problem lies in the following: For professional athletes, their lives revolve around training. For everyone else, training revolves around their lives.
What I mean by this is simply that life happens and sometimes things come up which interrupts your perfect training schedule: work gets busy; you get sick; your kids get sick; vacation; family joys or crises happen; and so on. Unless you are a professional athlete, this means your training will drop back or be put on hold until things clear up again as working out is not your first priority. Here are a few important things to remember when things come up: