Okay, so let’s say you’ve got your plan. You’re applying specificity and overload, and you have a pretty good plan! Each week you’re repeating the same workouts and adding weight, or reps, or sets, and you’re seeing consistent progress from week to week. This is called linear periodization - linear, because your progress looks like a nice, gently upward-sloping line. Here’s a graph of what your progress would look like. Sweet, right?
But sooner or later, something happens. Everything is too hard. You struggle to add weight or reps from week to week, or sometimes find yourself going backwards. You’ve plateaued. This is the common crisis of every lifter going from a beginner to intermediate status: how do you deal with this?
The concept is demonstrated by the story of Milo of Croton and the bull. As the story goes, Milo took a young bull calf and carried it up a mountain every day. As the bull grew slowly, so did Milo’s strength - until the bull was fully grown, and Milo, now much stronger, killed and ate it.
This story gives us a nice understanding of linear periodization, but it isn’t the whole story. It leaves something out - that sooner or later, we’re going to hit that plateau.
Plateaus generally happen for two reasons: either your programming isn’t well designed (lack of specificity) or appropriately challenging (lack of overload), in which case more work is needed, or your programming is too challenging, and your body simply cannot recover and adapt quickly enough to keep up with the demands of exercise. If it’s the former, you need to be following the first two rules of periodization more carefully. The latter, unfortunately, isn’t adequately explained by the first two principles of periodization, so more principles are needed.
Progress also slows down naturally over time. Beginners see gains more easily than advanced lifters, who may work for long cycles just to put a small amount of weight onto a lift or to build a small amount of additional muscle mass. This results in a sort of natural plateau over time as you get closer and closer to your theoretical physical limits.
What happens to Milo if the bull continues to grow indefinitely? Sooner or later, Milo’s recovery abilities can no longer cope with the added challenge that the bull’s growth imposes, and he will fail. This happens on a smaller scale to anyone training with linear periodization. If you simply keep adding weight, sets, and reps indefinitely, you sooner or later hit an unsustainably high level of work. Either it’s too hard to complete or you’re spending way too much time in the gym.
For this reason, linear periodization is often criticized as having limited use outside of training as a beginner. However, I’ve written in the past about how I feel that linear periodization can still be useful even for advanced lifters - so long as you’re smart about it.
When you start to hit plateaus, you need to get smarter about your training. The most important principle of periodization to understand at this point is that of recovery.
Recovery refers to tactics and strategies used to manage your bodily recovery. This is an often overlooked aspect of training. We like to think that what we do in the gym is all that matters. But the reality is that the stuff that we do outside of the gym is often more important.
I talked about how your body sees the stimulus of exercise and adapts to it. Well, it only adapts to it in the right circumstances - given enough recovery. This means that sometimes, doing too much work can actually lead to a loss of results. Additionally, poor sleep or not getting enough calories can also compromise your recovery, leading to decreased results.
Recovery can refer to a lot of variables. Scheduling workouts too close to each other, for example, can compromise recovery since you’re training muscles in a not-fully-recovered state. Generally, you need at least 2-3 days before training the same muscle group again hard, though light work may be fine.
Then there’s diet. If you’re trying to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories, which makes it harder to build strength or muscle. If you’re building strength or muscle, it’s ideal to eat extra calories to maximize your body’s recovery capabilities, but then you’re also likely gaining a bit of fat. Balancing and alternating phases (“bulking” and “cutting”) can help ensure you take advantage of the positive aspects of both phases while minimizing the negative ones, if your goal is to gain muscle.
Then there’s the management of fatigue in the long run. Over a longer period of time, training will accumulate fatigue. You don’t fully recover from workout to workout, and this only gets worse as you increase your overload and the workouts get harder and harder. Eventually you plateau when this accumulated fatigue coupled with the increasing intensity of training leads you to hit a wall. How do we manage this?
Typically by taking strategic breaks, often known as deloads. If your training is suffering because you’re feeling like crap and you’ve hit a plateau, taking a deload allows you to fully recover and hit the weights hard again, helping you push past that plateau. Overload eventually leads to unsustainably high levels of training, so you can't keep at it forever. Occasionally, you need to reduce the volume of training in order to maximize recovery - this is the point of the deload. From there, building back up to a previous level of training can ensure continued progress.
Let’s say that you hit a plateau on a common lift: the bench press. You’ve been doing 3 sets of 12 for a long time, slowly adding weight. When you hit a point at which you can’t really add weight consistently, you start adding reps - 13 reps one week, 14 another, 15 another, and then you add weight and start back at 12. You can keep taking smaller and smaller progressions, but sooner or later you hit that plateau where you see yourself stagnating or going backwards - let’s say that it’s at 185lbs for 12 reps. Likely, other lifts in your training are in a similar position.
So you deload. You take an easy week, to ensure full recovery. The following week, you start off lighter than before - 155lbs for 3 sets of 12 reps, even though this is easy. Building back up a little more quickly than before, you now find you peak at 195lbs for 12 reps. This isn’t fast progress compared to what you might have seen initially, but it represents smart and well designed training that ultimately has the desired effect. Below is a chart that may give you an idea of this process, assuming you’re just training the lift once per week (this isn't likely to be true, but we're just using it for the purposes of example).
185 3x12 (stagnates)
190 or 195 3x12 (stagnates)
Fourth Month, etc.
200 or 205 3x12
As you can see, the program progresses linearly by adding ten pounds per week to the bench press, but stagnates in the end of the second month. At this point, a deload is taken to maximize recovery, and then the third month of training begins.
What happens when you plateau, but it comes out of nowhere? Let’s say, for example, that your training looks more like this:
185 3x12 (stagnates)
175 3x12 (feels rough)
175 3x12 (stagnates)
Sometimes we simply aren’t 100% prepared for a workout. We might have a bad week due to poor sleep, stress, job issues, lifestyle changes, a breakup with a romantic partner, a new video game that dropped, or some other thing that threw us off track. This can decrease preparedness, leading to a piss poor workout.
In the second table above, we can see that it looks mostly identical to the first table except that in week 2 of the third month, things start to go wrong. We have a rough workout in week 2 and stagnate in week 3, even though it’s a weight we’ve handled before and should easily be able to complete. What should we do in week 4? We can’t simply try for 195. Clearly we need to adjust our expectations downwards a bit.
In these instances, there’s lots of ways to approach it. If you know it’s a very temporary issue, you can probably just repeat the same workout the following week and then improve from there as usual - essentially just delaying your progress by one week. Sometimes, if a disruption happens at the wrong time, like in the fourth week of a month, it may be better to just take a deload and start the month over. This sucks because it means an entire month is partially lost, but it’s better than wasting time doubling down on a bad bet.
Fatigue management is an advanced tactic. It doesn’t mean jack squat if the bigger elements of specificity and overload aren't in place, because you’re not accumulating enough long-term fatigue for it to become an issue. With both specificity and overload, but without any degree of fatigue management, you can still see regular improvements so long as you grind away at it enough. However, managing fatigue can help iron out the natural accumulations of fatigue and drops in readiness that we see over time, leading to better and more consistent results.
This is part 2 of a series on periodization. If you're more of a beginner, check out Part 1. More on the way.
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