Mix Up and Maximize Your Workout with Periodization




If your workout today is the same as it was four months ago, you’re doing something wrong. Of course, exercising on a consistent basis is admirable and beneficial. But to follow the same routine weeks, months and years on end ignores certain basic principals of human physiology and psychology:

  • Progress in strength training (including that which occurs in cardiovascular exercises) necessarily requires placing stress on the musculoskeletal system. When you repeat an exercise again and again, repeating the path of motion and intensity, the stress is diminished because your muscles have “learned” how to handle that movement. No stress = no gain.
  • Mental involvement in an exercise is beneficial in many ways. Conversely, if you are exercising on autopilot – enough, perhaps, to read a book or watch TV while doing it – you are quite likely bored. You probably aren’t pushing yourself physically, and consequently you’re not progressing in results. No progression = greater likelihood of quitting.

It’s like the guy from your high school class who kept his hairstyle decades later. Hair loss or none, he has yet to realize that change is good – and no change, very bad.

Understanding periodization in your work out plans

A single word provides the solution to this fitness problem: “periodization.” To periodize is to plan a type or category of very specific exercises for a short duration (from two to eight weeks). By periodically moving on to a different form of exercise, you will more likely see and feel results, enough to re-energize and re-motivate yourself at about the juncture when boredom and dissatisfaction might otherwise settle in.

Periodization is routinely employed by professional athletes and performers, but the method stretches back to the time of the ancient Greeks. More recently, Russian sports scientist Leo Matveyev began to use it with his country’s athletes in the 1960s. Body builders almost universally use it as they cycle through the “gaining” and “cutting” periods that precede a competition.

Matveyev’s approach is appropriate for even the beginning fitness enthusiast. He urged establishing a base level of fitness: first, strengthen ligaments, tendons and other connective tissue along with muscles so each component is less likely to be injured with higher-level exercise intensity. After a month or more, Matveyev changed not only the exercises being performed but also the intensity: higher weights, fewer repetitions, longer rest periods.

Periodization assures your workout to remain challenging and fresh

Trainees who embrace periodization might try following that with lower weights, slower repetitions and shorter rest periods, hitting second and third sets of an exercise after only ten or fifteen seconds, before the sense of fatigue is fully dissipated.

For an amateur or casual exerciser, combinations of intensity and exercise modalities offer infinite variety. For example, start with two months of intense cardiovascular exercise combined with deep stretching, followed by a period of moderate-intensity weight training. Next up could be a period of higher-intensity weight training, followed by a month or more of yoga and Pilates, restoring flexibility and stability – before returning to a strength-emphasis period.

The fitness trainee who adopts these different modes on a focused, planned basis will be surprised at how much his or her body continues to be challenged and fatigued. Trainees should note that soreness is usually a good sign – you have successfully stressed the muscle in new ways.

And lest you worry that gains in one area are lost when you move on to another, fear not. A muscle that is developed in one way will have “memory,” rapidly resuming its size and strength when you return to the exercises that challenge it the most. Further, good exercise always recruits multiple muscles and muscle groups (example: a standing shoulder press engages arms as well as the shoulders, plus the core and leg muscles for basic stability).

From the standpoint of balance, variety and moderation – the trinity of health and fitness – periodization works. So if the workout you were planning for this evening is a little too familiar, try something entirely different.