Six Ways Your Workouts Can Benefit From Periodization

How switching up the intensity of your daily movement can lead to better results.

Doing the same thing repeatedly with the expectation of different results is one definition of insanity. And the fallacy of this type of thinking also applies to movement: After a period of time, the body adapts to the physical demands of a workout, and it will stop making changes. The longer you perform the same program, the greater the risk of hitting a plateau where the same workouts will fail to produce results. This is an important sign that it’s time to change the workout and give the body a different exercise stimulus.

In the field of exercise science, the term periodization refers to a structured workout program that alternates between periods of high-, moderate- and low-intensity exercise to maximize the benefits of rest and recovery. This is important because it’s actually the body’s ability to rest after exercise that can determine long-term success in adapting to the physical demands of the workout.

When creating exercise programs, it’s important to understand that it is not necessary to make every workout extremely challenging. A workout of low to moderate intensity can be essential for promoting the full active-recovery benefits from a high-intensity strength-training day. Think about a challenging workout: Is getting the outcome you want simply a function of working harder, or should you look to science for ways to work smarter? Top sports coaches around the world use periodization to help athletes peak for competition. Why not use the same science to help plan your workouts?

If you want results from your workouts, you have to be willing to challenge yourself physically, but you also must respect the roles that proper rest and recovery play in helping the body adapt to the effects of the challenging workouts. Yes, when you train, you have to be willing to push the limits. This doesn’t mean being dangerous. It does mean, however, that if you want change, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s where growth happens, when the body is given the opportunity to properly rest and recover.

Six ways you can use the science of periodization

  1. You need to push yourself when you train, but you also need periods of lower-intensity activity or rest to allow the body to make those changes, grow and become stronger. Periodization organizes the application of physical stress applied to the body by manipulating training volume, intensity and movement complexity. When training intensity is low, the volume (the number of reps and sets) can be high; as training intensity or movement complexity becomes more challenging, the volume can be reduced. The goal of periodization is to manipulate the training stimulus to focus on creating metabolic fatigue, mechanical overload or a combination of the two to allow optimal adaptations over an extended length of time.
  2. Exercise is a function of movement, and movement is a skill that must be developed over time. It is not necessary to change your exercises with every workout. For the best response to a workout program, there should be some consistency in the movements selected for your workouts. This can be a tough situation because you may feel like you want to work hard in every single workout, but it’s important to realize that the real changes can occur in the lower-intensity workouts to promote active recovery. Practicing the same technical moves, like the barbell dead lift, with proper technique for a period of time can help establish essential motor-learning and muscle-recruitment patterns leading to better long-term results. The basic movements can be consistent to provide for efficient learning; however, the acute variables of movement program design (exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, rest intervals, sets and tempo) can be applied in a progressively challenging manner to gradually increase the level of difficulty, which is essential for achieving results. It is well established that physical adaptations to exercise, including muscle growth and definition, depend on the systematic changing of the acute variables. If you learn how to apply some basic science like periodization, you will have the knowledge to achieve a number of different fitness goals.
  3. Resistance training causes two specific types of stress on muscle tissue: metabolic and mechanical, both of which can provide the necessary stimulus for muscle growth. However, the research is undecided on which type of stress provides the greater benefit. A properly periodized program can alternate between phases of heavy weight for low reps to create mechanical stress and phases of light to moderate weight for high reps to induce metabolic stress. The acute variables of exercise program design most closely related to creating metabolic or mechanical stress are exercise selection, intensity, repetitions and tempo. By creating both types of stress, properly designed and periodized training programs can stimulate muscle growth, improve definition and promote other long-term physical adaptations.
  4. In a linear periodization scheme, volume, intensity and movement complexity are inversely related; as the intensity or complexity of movement gradually increases over the course of the training cycle, the volume should decrease. A linear program can be organized into various components based on length of time for each training phase and should include occasional periods of off-loading or active rest for optimal adaptation to the training stimulus. In a linear periodization program, segments of time can be organized into short (microcycles), intermediate (mesocycles) and long-term (macrocycles) time frames.
  5. The nonlinear model organizes adjustments to the acute variables on either a week-to-week or a training-session-to-training-session basis. Nonlinear models apply varying levels of training stress, which can induce metabolic challenges while allowing for rapid neuroendocrine adaptations. Nonlinear periodization changes the intensity and volume of exercise on a more frequent basis. This allows you to complete two to three high-intensity training sessions per week, along with lower-intensity workouts on other days. This makes it possible to train really hard three days a week while performing the lower-intensity workouts on the other days to help the body recover and adapt to the more challenging high-intensity workouts.
  6. Linear models of program design are structured to peak for a single event or competitive season. Nonlinear models allow clients to train for multiple events or recreational activities throughout a year. For example, in a linear program, you may use the same weight for the same movements over the course of a two-week microcycle. In a nonlinear program, you can use the same movements with each workout but apply the acute variables to do a strength workout with heavy loads for four to six reps on Monday, followed by a metabolic conditioning workoutusing lighter loads for 10 to 12 reps on Thursday and then a power-based workout with moderate weights for six to eight reps on Saturday.

Understanding how to apply periodization for a systematic and progressive application of the variables of exercise program design gives you the ability to change the volume, intensity and complexity of a program at specific intervals to maximize performance while allowing appropriate levels of rest and recovery as a critical strategy. Even if you love to exercise, you will definitely appreciate making rest a part of your long-term fitness plan.

There is a difference between workouts that make you sore and those that make you uncomfortable. Soreness can cause muscle tightness, which changes how joints move. If a joint moves through a new motion because of muscle tightness, it could cause a long-term injury. Exercise should create discomfort; this means your body is being pushed to work at a higher capacity. Pain, however, means the body is being subjected to too much physical stress, so stop immediately if you feel pain.

Here is an effective way to think about exercise: You’re trying to become comfortable with being physically uncomfortable. That feeling of discomfort means your body is being pushed to new boundaries. But it’s important to note that this does not need to occur with every workout. In fact, periodization suggests that you need to do only a limited amount of high-intensity workouts to receive the greatest benefits. Periods of high-intensity exercise should be followed by periods of rest or lower-intensity exercise. During your higher-intensity workouts, feeling discomfort means you are experiencing physical changes, and that’s what you should strive for.

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