How Periodizing Your Training Can Help Fuel Gains

Performance & Sport

You may have heard personal trainers or elite athletes talk about the term “periodization” in long-term programs. But what exactly does this mean? There’s a lot of detail involved with this system of training, but in simple terms it means dividing a long-term program into smaller, progressive cycles. And most importantly, there is an element of staggering the cycles which is vital to success. What this means is that after you complete one of these smaller cycles, instead of continuing a progression (such as increasing the resistance), you’ll actually take a strategic step backward and then progress again. 

By the time you complete the second cycle, you’ll still have progressed ahead of where you were at when you finished the first cycle. This will help to ensure that your gains are more sustainable. It may sound counterintuitive at first but consider that the goal you have in mind is the ultimate target, so you need to use a scientifically established principle to achieve it.

The best way to appreciate how periodizing works is to tell yourself that progress does not work in a straight line forever. Mull that over and let it sink in. Many athletes and serious lifters believe that training creates improvements and gains, therefore consistently training will yield consistent gains. However, it doesn’t always work this way.

When you first begin training, you will see the results quickly because you are going from inactive to extremely active and the gains will be great. However, after consistently training for some time, and as you transition from a beginner to intermediate, an inevitable pause in gains will occur. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) the human body has an incredible ability to adapt to the same form of physical stress if it’s repeated over and over, leading to a plateau or stagnation; and (2) your body simply needs periods of rest and recovery in order to plant a foundation of muscle or strength gains which do not disappear quickly, as is the case when one overtrains.

Each of these negative effects described so far can manifest whether your goal is to improve muscle building or gain strength. But let’s remain positive, for help is at hand; let’s in fact take a look at how periodizing your training can contribute to reliable gains in each of these two specific fitness goals.

Periodizing Muscle Building

If your primary fitness goal is to build muscle, then you can easily appreciate the importance of periodizing because we know that muscles take a long time to build. Unfortunately, a huge pump at the end of a workout from training high volume doesn’t necessarily mean that muscle is going to be built instantly. Rest, water, protein and BCAAs are essential to build back muscle that’s been stimulated from training. And there’s a reason we listed rest first – it’s the most important of all elements. But now that the training bug has taken hold of you, how do you incorporate rest when you want to further your gains?

Periodization is the perfect compromise. Instead of outright resting, what you do is peel back the intensity of your training (or go through a brief phase of “active rest”, which is a light form of cardio) at the beginning of a new “period” in your program.  Think of it as two steps forward and a very necessary half-step backward as your muscles acclimate to the training and recover efficiently. 

This process requires patience, but it’s important for you to trust the principle of periodization.  As we said before, gains do not come in a straight line, and if you continue to increase the resistance (or volume) of your training without periodizing, you’re setting yourself up for stagnation, catabolism (muscle breakdown) and even injury.

Plan a 16-week muscle-building program using a periodization of four cycles of four weeks long each. At the start of each new cycle, drop the intensity by around 25 per cent, but make sure that when you complete each cycle, you’re at least 10 per cent ahead of when you began.

Periodizing Strength Gains

If you’re an athlete who wishes to improve your performance, or simply someone who gets a buzz from being the strongest in the gym, then periodization can work wonders to increase your maximum strength output. In fact, if you take a look at virtually every Olympic and powerlifting athlete at the elite level, you’ll notice that every one of them uses periodization in some form or another.

What distinguishes strength periodization from muscle-building periodization is that at the end of each cycle, you will not have pushed yourself all the way to failure. Whereas muscle fibres respond well to training to failure as a catalyst for growth, you do not want to go all-out in a strength periodization program. That is, of course, until your day of competition, or your self-prescribed target date. Strength athletes know that repeated attempts to perform a one-rep max (even as infrequently as just once a cycle) can cause fast-twitch fibre burnout.

What you should do is plan a long-term program where you conclude the first cycle by doing no less than four reps per set. In the second cycle, you’ll progress toward higher resistance using three reps per set. In turn, you’ll complete the third cycle by doing no less than two reps per set. And ultimately, you’ll finish off the whole program by peaking at the right time – and you can be confident on competition day that you’ll be super strong and pull off a significantly higher one-rep max. All thanks to periodization.

In conclusion, periodization really is the way to go whenever there is resistance training involved, be it for muscle building or strength gains. Plan your programs strategically and carefully. Periodized programs can be developed for as brief as an eight-week course involving four two-week cycles; or they can be structured for as long as a full year, in which a dozen four-week cycles are planned. Be creative to a sensible extent, but most importantly understand the value of pushing hard to a point then dropping back briefly while your body recovers. Periodization is truly the most effective method for long-lasting, consistent gains.