For a lot of people, showing up at the gym and developing a training routine is all they can manage. Properly planning their training is beyond their knowledge and abilities. They do the same workouts year after year and never get any stronger.
This is unfortunate. Although there are benefits to going through the motions, you leave a lot on the table when it comes to muscle, strength, performance, and body composition.
You see, strength training is based on the scientific theory of progressive overload that says you must train in a way that your body is not accustomed to. For example, to get stronger you must overload the muscles, either with heavier weights that you are not used to lifting or by increasing your number of repetitions.
This knowledge led to the development of periodization models that will help you reach your goal. For example, programs are often periodized to produce body composition changes with a higher volume for the first 3- to 4-week training phase. Then, training variables (sets, reps, rest periods) are modified to focus on performance with a higher intensity for the second 3- to 4-week phase. The third phase may be followed by a return to higher volume training but heavier loads than during the first training phase. The key is to modify the training variables to ensure continued and gradual adaptations.
To better understand the benefits of planning your training, this article will discuss six benefits of periodization and provide a quick overview of research-backed training models.
Benefit #1: Avoid Stagnation
Lifting weights within the same intensity zone over time leads to stagnation. Your body adapts metabolically and neurologically to the weight and you don’t get any stronger. A periodized program ensures you continually overload the neuromuscular system with varying intensities. For example, if your program tells you to do 8 to 10 squats at 150 lbs but you can do 11, you are no longer effectively overloading your body and results will stagnate. You need to increase your weight so that you reach failure by the 10th rep.
Benefit #2: Prevent Overtraining
Always training with a high volume may lead to undue fatigue and overtraining. High volume workouts are great for packing on muscle and stimulating body composition benefits, but over the long run, they can lead to unbalanced stress hormones and poor results. Research clearly show that periodized plans that use tapering or deloading phases elicit greater strength and performance than simply pounding out the same high volume reps indefinitely.
Benefit #3: Avoid Injury
Lack of variation can lead to weaknesses and muscular imbalances that result in chronic pain or injury. There are countless ways to vary your training—you aren’t stuck with just mixing up reps, sets, and loads. Altering the loading angle, shifting your hand or foot position, and changing your training tempo are all simple but effective ways of shoring up your joints to avoid injury and overuse.
Benefit #4: Improve Strength, Muscle & Endurance
To get strong you need to lift heavy weights. For muscle, you want a fine balance between volume and loads. For endurance, you want to be able to go the distance, making lighter loads and repetitive training effective. Unfortunately, most people ignore the principle of specificity and assume that as long as they are working out they will get the results the desire. Avoid this pitfall by selecting exercises and training parameters that stimulate the movements and goals you want to improve. For example, you’re never going to be able to increase your vertical jump by running 5Ks. To jump higher on the basketball court, do front squats and power cleans.
Benefit #5: Train All Your Beautiful Muscle
Research shows that different training parameters lead to unique adaptations within the individual muscle fibers. Based on the Size Principle we know that muscle fibers are recruited in order with the higher threshold fibers only being recruited in response to near maximal loads. On the other hand, lighter load training increases the number of energy-producing mitochondria in muscle cells. To reap both benefits and maximize your health and performance you need to incorporate training phases that run the gamut of intensity and volume so that you target those high threshold motor units and fortify your muscles with more mitochondria power houses.
Benefit #6: Promote Longevity
On a related note to #5, we know that three factors that correlate with longevity and quality of life in the elderly are muscular strength, the amount of lean muscle, and the health of mitochondria. Clearly the best way to maximize all three is to plan your workouts in phases so that you alternate between building strength with heavy weights, increasing endurance with high volume and low loads, and stimulating muscle with moderate weights and high volume.
There are several periodization models that can be used to produce results. In our Foundations of Program Design course, we take a unique approach that maximizes outcomes based on training goals. The first step to developing a program is to identify the strength qualities you are aiming to improve.
Strength Qualities are divided into four categories:
1. Relative Strength is aimed at increasing maximal strength and power through enhanced neural drive. This is achieved with high intensity (loads in the 85-100 percent of maximum range) and lower volume (1-5 reps per set).
2. Functional Hypertrophy is aimed at increasing both strength and muscle mass, providing the optimal compromise of strength and muscle gains. This is achieved with moderately high intensity (loads in the 78-83 percent of maximum range) and low to moderate volume (6-8 reps per set).
3. Hypertrophy is aimed at increasing muscle mass with a slight increase in strength. This is achieved with moderate intensity (loads in the 70-76.5 percent of maximum range) and moderate volume (9-12 reps per set).
4. Strength Endurance is aimed at increasing strength endurance of muscles while minimizing hypertrophy gains. This is achieved with moderately low intensity (loads in the 60-68.8 percent of maximum range) and higher volume (13-20 reps per set).
This information combined with factors like training history and muscle fiber makeup will guide your programming.
At its most basic level, we use a Linear Periodization training strategy that starts with high volume and low intensity and then progresses to low volume and high intensity. It’s a logical progression that first leads to new muscle development and then stimulates those new muscle fibers for strength gains.
We apply an undulating model that varies between Accumulation, which is aimed at hypertrophy or strength endurance for higher volume and lower relative loads, and Intensification, which is aimed at Relative Strength or Functional hypertrophy with lower volume and higher loads. The duration of each Accumulation and Intensification phase will depend on your training background, but is typically four to six weeks for individuals in the general population. Athletes and advanced trainees may benefit from shorter phases lasting two to three weeks to avoid stagnation.