It’s one of the most used words in the fitness industry. Unfortunately, most lifters probably don’t know what it means. This is a problem, because the upsides to using it are HUGE. Beginners can save tons of wasted time, and intermediate and advanced lifters may NEED it just to see results. So what’s the magic?
Periodization refers to the intelligent structuring of your training program to see the best results - sounds great, right?
The problem is that it's an extremely complex topic. If we knew everything, we could make perfect programs that would make us all superhuman athletes. There’s still a great deal of art to the process - most coaches have their own unique approaches, and no one method is inherently superior.
The point of this article is not to delve into all the complex arguments underlying high level periodization. Instead, I’m here to teach you some of the basic principles that guide periodization. Use these as a way of “fact-checking” your programming - apply these rules to your own training to see what might be going wrong, or where you can improve.
Warning: there will not be any percentages in this article. Most people’s only exposure to periodization is to follow other coaches’ programs, and they place a great deal of importance on percentages and rep ranges. I think they’re not as important as you might think, once you understand the underlying principles. So if you’re looking for a discussion of the nuts and bolts application of percentages and rep range, this article isn’t for you. But I will write another article about it in the future - so sit tight.
Specificity is the single most important principle of periodization. Without specificity, no improvement is possible. So what does specificity mean?
Specificity is the principle that you get the greatest improvement in any ability by directly training that ability. This means that you get better at bench pressing by doing bench presses, and you get better at running by running. Clearly, if you tried to do a running program to increase your bench press, you’d be wasting your time, and you’d see no results - you’ve violated the principle of specificity.
However, it gets harder to understand when you have lifts that are similar but not identical. What about the bench press and the pushup? Well, if the goal is to improve your bench press, then the bench press is the best option to train, but pushups may still help. This is called carryover - similar lifts have some degree of carryover, meaning that they may still help build strength in the desired lift or muscle in the same area, but aren’t as good of a use of time as simply training using that lift. In this case, the pushup has some degree of carryover to the bench press, but clearly the bench press is the best training option if we’re looking to get better (stronger) with our bench press.
What about two extremely similar lifts, like the close grip bench press in comparison to the standard bench press? These two lifts are the same except for grip position. This subtly changes the force demands of the lift, the activation of various muscles, and other features of the lift. It may be more like the standard bench press than the pushup, but carryover still isn’t 100%.
In order to improve, some degree of specificity is required. While pushups may be your desired tool to build musculature in the chest, they won’t be ideal for building strength in the bench press. You should select your exercises carefully in order to achieve the desired results.
Here’s a spoiler: for most people, the most widely applicable lifts for building strength and muscle are the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, and some form of row, pullup, or pulldown. These lifts together cover every major muscle group and are highly specific since they’re generally the most easily scaled lifts and are most commonly used in strength-based competitions.
So, specificity often simply means including these lifts in your program, or including variants based on your own constraints. Maybe you don’t have access to a squat rack, barbell, and plates. Maybe you have previous injuries or nagging aches that make it hard to perform these lifts. Whatever the case, you may have to make variations to suit your circumstances. This isn’t a bad thing - it’s working with what you have. You can still ensure specificity by choosing variations of these lifts to focus on.
Of course, if we’re talking endurance, you’ve got more options. The run, row, and cycle are all valid cardiovascular methods, and ultimately you probably want to pick the one you focus on based on your endurance goals (if any). If you’re just looking to build a bit of general athleticism to support your lifting, anything will work. If your goal is to get good at running, then clearly you want to use running as your training method, and so on.
The next most important principle of periodization is overload. Overload refers to the systematic progression of a stimulus to achieve a desired response.
Your body adapts in response to the exercise stimulus. When a certain stimulus is introduced, the body adapts to become more resistant to that level of stimulus. This means that as you improve, a bigger and bigger stimulus is required in order to see continued improvement. You can’t just do the same thing over and over and expect to keep improving.
How do we provoke a greater stimulus? By increasing the volume of work. You do this by adding sets of an exercise, adding repetitions of an exercise, or by performing sets with a greater weight than previously. If training an endurance activity, you increase time, speed, or resistance. This provokes a greater stimulus on the body and leads to greater adaptation, aka more strength, muscle, and sexiness.
Most people follow exercise routines that violate this principle. They come in to the gym, fiddle around on weights or machines for a while, and then leave. Or maybe they do group classes where everything is constantly changing, and so there’s never a chance to progress these workouts. Whatever the case, this is a huge problem. Without any overload, there will be some minor level of improvement, but you will quickly plateau and stay at this baseline level forever. Obviously, you don’t want this - it’s better than nothing, but it’s not helping you achieve your fitness goals.
There are two important takeaways from the principle of overload. The first is that you should be performing a relatively stable set of workouts each week so that you can repeat them and improve, and the second is that you should be recording your workouts so that you can ensure steady progression.
If you’re doing different workouts each week, you simply can’t overload. Improvement is founded on repetition and practice. In order to keep it from getting too boring, I sometimes like to design programs for my clients that contain some unimportant “fun” stuff at the end of a workout - this way you can still focus on and improve on the important lifts, but still have some extra variability at the end. By repeating workouts, you progressively add work to ensure that the stimulus keeps growing, and thus your results keep improving.
Tracking your workouts is absolutely crucial. I can’t tell you how many people swear they’re doing everything right and don’t know why nothing is working, but aren’t writing down their workouts - so they don’t actually know what they’re doing. Take a notebook to the gym in your gym bag, or set up a note system on your phone. It takes just a few minutes each day to write down what you did. Then, the next time you complete that workout, chances are you’ve forgotten what you did the previous workout (“was it 205lbs that I bench pressed, or 215?”) so you should always refer back to those notes so you can add weight, reps, or sets.
Overload is the second most important aspect of periodization because it sets you up for continued long term growth. Specificity is necessary for adaptation, because you simply cannot see any results if you’re training the wrong things. With specificity but without variation, you’ll see some baseline level of improvement but you’ll plateau pretty quickly without proper overload. With both, you’re seeing good results long term and continuing to improve.
This is part 1 of a series on periodization. See here for part 2 - Intermediate Periodization.
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