How Periodization Can Help You Bust through Plateaus in the Gym

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

periodizationThere’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of exercise periodization before. For most weekend warriors, and even those who hit the gym multiple times a week to improve their strength and physique, the concept is unfamiliar. Yet, it might be the most important tool for achieving the results in the gym that you desire.

It’s easy to think that if you eat right, hit the gym, and keep working on your body, the changes will eventually come. You may look at the people around you with the lean physiques, muscle separation, or heavy weights in their hands and assume that they’ve been training a lot longer than you, starve themselves, or are taking some extracurricular (read: steroids) for their results. But it’s more likely because, along with a good diet, they take a structured, periodized approach to training.

Why You Should Update Your Favorite Workout Routine

Everyone took physical education in high school and may have learned a few basic movements. Your teacher may have given you a couple of workouts to use, or perhaps you went to the gym with a friend for a week and learned what they do. Maybe you even printed a workout off the internet. And all of that is great. But, if you’ve been doing the same workouts for a couple of months, years, or decades, then you’re no longer getting much benefit from your effort. Yes, you’re using the muscles, but they are not being challenged. Your body has adapted to doing the same exercises for three sets of 10 every workout, so it’s no longer responding. The less variety and structure in your training, the less improvements to strength, fat loss, and physique you’ll experience (depending on your goals.)

What Is Exercise Periodization?

Now, I don’t mean to say there is no room for doing a standard 3×10 rep scheme in workouts. It only becomes counterproductive—and leads to a plateau—if it’s done for weeks on end. Periodization means setting up a training program that manipulates variables to provide new challenges for you to respond to. Your body is very good at adapting, and it becomes increasingly efficient the more a task is performed—which is not so good if you’re trying to get leaner, stronger, or improve endurance.

You may remember a big-time, at-home exercise program released 15 or 20 years ago called P90X. It was a big hit, and it focused on “shocking” the body with different workouts. P90X was nothing new—it was a very well-marketed approach to periodized training principles. It went through different phases and applied different stimulants across phases and workouts to promote physical adaptations: basically the point of exercise.

Always State a Goal

One of the most important things you can do to maximize your results is write down a goal, whether that goal is to shed fat, build a more muscular body, “get ready for summer,” get stronger, improve your cardiovascular capacity, run longer, or run faster. Whatever it may be, you’ll have to train in the proper way to achieve it. The one constant for each is that a periodized approach is the best way to get there. Once you know what you want to do, it’s much easier to structure your plan.

Creating a Periodized Plan to Achieve Your Goal

So, let’s say you’re interested in strength training. A periodized approach means that in week one, you would work at 80% of your maximum capacity. You would perform the lifts you wished to focus on that day, working up to 80% of your max strength while only performing one or two reps. The next week you would work at 90% and then at 100% the following week. After the 100% week, you would go through a “deload” week, where you’d drop the loads down to 70%. Then, you’d start the cycle again. Over time, and with the right nutrition, you will notice that you’re getting stronger.

Another way to periodize a strength training program would be to work at 100% on Mondays, 90% on Wednesdays, and 80% on Fridays. You could include light hypertrophy (muscle growth) days in between.

Most people aren’t in the gym to move a lot of weight—let’s be real. Most are there to drop a few pounds and achieve a more aesthetic physique. Basically, they want to look better and get healthier. But periodization still applies, and it can make all the difference in the world.

A Sample Periodization Program

You can periodize your weights, rep schemes, exercises, and rest times. For example, if I’m designing a hypertrophy and fat loss program, I’m going to take myself or a client though five distinct cycles over a 12 to 16 week period based on their starting point.

  • Week One: Starts with 3×10 (sets x repetitions) for workouts
  • Week Two:  Four sets of 12 to 15
  • Week Three: Five sets of 10
  • Week Four:  Four sets of 20, with individual variation on particular movements and exercises

Around five weeks in, I might throw in a little bit of strength training to provide even more stimulus variation. I would increase rest times and maybe focus on sets/rep schemes in the 5×5 or 3×8 ranges for one to three weeks before getting back into higher volumes with sets and reps for the next three of four weeks. Then I’d do another cycle of strength followed by one more for hypertrophy.

By the end, the hypertrophy training intensity will have picked up with much shorter rest times between sets, higher rep ranges, and the appropriate variables to challenge the muscles, stimulate fat loss, and provide the desired adaptations.

A similar approach can be taken to distance running to increase cardiovascular capacity. Sometimes you’ll want to perform slower jogs, sprints, shorter runs at a higher pace, varied pace runs, other forms of cardio, and even some weight training to improve your jogs.

Now, you might not want to go through all the trouble of coming up with a periodized approach or hire someone to put one together for you. If that’s the case, it’s okay. All you have to do is pay attention to what you’re doing week in and week out. If it’s always the same, try and find new variables to tinker with that provide a different stimulus that varies on days or weeks. It could be as easy as adding a few sets or reps; increasing or decreasing weights; running a little slower, faster, or with resistance; or anything that will challenge the body to adapt. Doing the same thing for more than two to four weeks can limit progress.

Keeping Workouts Fresh Is Important

Have you ever heard the saying that repeating the same action and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity? Well, it’s kind of true. If you’ve plateaued and the workouts you’ve been doing for who knows how long aren’t bringing the results, it’s time to change things up.

Providing new stimulus to your body enhances muscle growth, fat loss, endurance, strength, speed, and can rev up your metabolism. The more ways you challenge your body, the better it becomes. Start changing up your approach to stay motivated and achieve the results you’re working so hard for!

Kraemer, W., et al., “Fundamentals of Resistance Training: Progression and Exercise Prescription,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, April 2004, 36(4):674-88; doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000121945.36635.61.
Haff, G. & Haff, E., NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, Second Edition (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012), pp. 369-375.