How Periodization Training Can Help You Reach Your Goals Faster
For the unfamiliar, periodization training may sound like a workout program that takes your menstrual cycle into account, but periodization training is actually a method that involves structuring your training to simultaneously maximize gains and minimize risk. Win-win!
People who take their sweat sessions very seriously (marathons, triathletes, CrossFitters, Olympians, etc.) commonly use periodization training, but that doesn't mean you can't utilize it for your everyday workouts. In fact, periodization training is a fitness approach anyone who has a specific goal can use to reach that finish line faster, safely, according to exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast.
McCall recommends the method for anyone who enjoys a variety of movement modalities, as well as those with a specific strength, aesthetic, or speed goal. "Periodization training is for anyone who wants to get better at something: strength, endurance, speed, you name it," agrees Melody Schoenfeld, C.S.C.S., founder of Flawless Fitness in Pasadena, CA.
The only people who may not benefit from periodization training are those who have a history of exercise addiction. Or, anyone who feels overwhelmed by the thought of walking into the gym with a checklist-like plan. A periodization training program may also not be best for someone with a chaotic, unreliable schedule (new parents, for example).
Got goals? Ahead, fitness experts break down everything you need to know about implementing periodization training into your life.
Periodization Training, Defined
Periodization training is a way to program workouts that intentionally breaks your long-term training plan into shorter-term blocks, explains exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. "Essentially, it's training with a roadmap," she says.
Each of these blocks — which are referred to as phases or cycles — has a specific focus. Common focuses include goals to put on muscle (aka "bulk"), build intensity (aka "peak"), or prepare for a competition or test. "Each block systematically prioritizes slightly different variables," explains Gam. That variable could be the specific exercises you do, the weights you use, the number of sets and reps you do, or your rest time between sets, to name just a few. (Related: Here's What a Perfectly Balanced Weekly Workout Schedule Looks Like)
The goal of using periodization in training, ultimately, is to help you reach your fitness goals while also keeping you injury-free. "It's a training plan that gives you a chance to push really hard, while also reducing the risk of overtraining and exercise burn-out," says Gam.
Periodization Training Cycles
How long a periodization program lasts as well as the focus blocks it consists of will vary from person to person, and will depend on their injury history, sport or modality of choice, and their specific fitness goals. Regardless of modality, though, a periodized training plan is usually broken up into three cycles — essentially the nesting dolls of a periodization training plan.
- Microcycles: the shortest cycle of a periodization training plan; usually lasting a week and designed to make your longer-term goal feel more manageable
- Mesocycles: medium-length phases generally four to six weeks long
- Macrocycles: long-term cycles that last a year or more
"Each of these cycles fit within each other," explains Gam. "So there might be four microcycles in each mesocycle and 12 mesocycles in each macrocycle, for instance," she says.
The Benefits of Periodization Training
The benefit of periodization training, in a nutshell, is that it gives you the tools to get stronger as efficiently as possible while reducing the risk of injury and overtraining along the way.
To understand exactly how the periodization of training accomplishes such a tall order, you have to understand a little bit about muscle growth. "In order to get stronger, you need to work hard enough to damage the muscle fibers," explains McCall. Following your workout, your body begins a muscle repair process, calling on something known as "satellite cells" to come in and repair the shorn muscle fibers, he explains. After these cells have done their job, your muscle fibers (and therefore muscles as a whole) are stronger and more resilient than they were before, he explains.
Prevents a Fitness Plateau
To continue this process of damage > repair > get stronger — and avoid hitting a plateau — you need to continuously challenge your muscles by moving faster, lifting heavier, and going at higher intensities, says Gam. Why? Because your body adapts to what you throw at it. Failure to make your workouts increasingly harder through some variable (intensity, weight, etc.), will result in less micro-damage, and therefore decreased gains. "Periodization helps you [avoid plateau] by strategically altering different aspects of your workouts to push you to do a little more over time and improve different aspects of your fitness," says Gam.
One 2017 review on periodization training published in the journal Sports Medicine found that periodization training builds strength more effectively compared to non-periodized, more-sporadic programming models.
Prioritizes Smart Recovery
"It also includes strategic recovery periods to make sure your body adapts properly," notes Gam. What these recovery periods look like will vary, but many plans feature intentional "deloading" weeks, which are light on volume, intensity, and overall strain, she says. These deloading weeks are designed to allow you to safely maximize intensity when you're hitting it hard, without overdoing it.
Prevents Workout Boredom
Another benefit of training periodization is that it prevents boredom. "Most periodization programs include a lot of variety, so training never gets dull," says Gam. "But these programs build in variety in a structured way, rather than just doing random workouts that won't help you achieve your goals." (Related: Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners)
How to Incorporate Periodization Training
Think a periodization training framework might be helpful? Follow these steps to create a periodization training model that works for you.
1. Come up with a goal.
Periodization training is all about inching closer toward your goal(s) with intentional stepping stones, says Gam. Your move: Figure out what the heck you want to accomplish — and get specific. Ask yourself the following questions to get started:
- Are there any fitness events (Spartan Races, CrossFit Comps, run races, etc.) that I want to compete in this year? How about next year?
- Are there specific skills I want to learn?
- What would "gym success" or fitness accomplishment look like to me?
2. Commit to a workout schedule.
"For periodization to be effective, you have to be training consistently," says Gam. Think, at least three times a week.
To set yourself up for success, carve out time in your daily schedule for movement. Then, treat your gym time as if it were as non-negotiable as a meeting with your boss. Heck, put 'Meeting with my muscles' right into your Google calendar.
"If you're struggling to show up for your workouts, don't get too hung up on creating the perfect periodized program," advises Gam. "Instead focus on getting in some simple exercise habits…because there are still benefits to just showing up."
3. Build your periodization program.
Next, you'll use periodization to create a plan, but TBH this step is difficult to break down without having a paper calendar on tap. However, hypotheticals may make this whole thing easier to grasp.
Say that after watching the Boston Marathon, you decided that you want to participate. First, you'd need to set a (realistic) timeline of when you'd like to accomplish that goal — i.e. next year's race or the following. "You need to know where you want to go before you can draw the map, so you need to have a long-term goal in mind and a timeline for when you want to get there," says Gam. "That's your macrocycle."
Next, you (and your coach!) sit down and plan out smaller blocks (mesocycles), each of which focuses on a specific short-term goal that would help contribute to your long-term goal, explains Gam.
Finally, you'll break your mesocycles up into microcycles. If long-distance running paces are one of your weaknesses, you might design a series of microcycles around that concern. One week you might work exclusively on understanding your base pace, for example, while the next you might work on your running form as it tends to wane with distance. Meanwhile, if there's a hill on the course, you might design a hill training mesocycle, made up of microcycles each with a different focus (power, strength, gait).
Yes, a strategic periodization training plan can get very complicated and intricate. That's exactly why exercise experts recommend hiring a trainer or exercise physiologist to help you. At the very least, McCall recommends that you hire a trainer for one to two months. If you don't have the funds to work with an expert for more sessions than that, "tell the trainer that you are hoping to learn how to write your own programming (if you are)," he suggests.
4. Don't ignore the built-in rest.
Periodization training programs have built-in lower-intensity days and lower-intensity weeks (known as taper weeks). Don't glaze over these parts of the programming.
"Rest is not just a meaningless four-letter word," says McCall. "It is an essential part of the process of getting stronger and faster." Without rest, your muscles, joints, and other supportive structures will not have time to rebuild, he says. Instead, they'll just continuously keep breaking down. The result? Your progress plateaus. In extreme cases, you might actually inch further and further from your goals as you're plagued by injury, overtraining syndrome, and immune system wreckage.
How much rest is built into your program will vary based on the amount of time you're able to commit to training. But typically, you'll have two rest or recovery days per week and a rest (taper) week once every few months, according to McCall. And when they pop up? Adhere to them. (Related: How to Taper for Any Race — and Why You Should)
"You can still move on those days, but that movement should be a walk or hike, not a HIIT workout," says McCall.
Ultimately, periodization is a workout structure than can benefit nearly any fitness enthusiast with a goal. If you think you're a good candidate, hire a fitness professional you trust, and you'll be on your way to safe, effective #gains in no time.