If you have reading about my series on periodization, you might get the impression that you must follow every single rule laid out in order to see any results at all. This is not the case. If you are just finding out about this series for the first time, this article should give you a good overview of where to start reading.
Ultimately, no program is perfect and neither are we perfectly able to stick to a program. I could write the best exercise program in the world for a client, but if they didn’t actually do the workouts, they wouldn’t see the results.
I've been lifting for over ten years now. During that time, I've experienced ups, downs, and everything between. I once worked out every day for a month. I once skipped an entire month because I came down with a cold that lasted two weeks and I just felt like rounding it out with two more weeks after that. I plan for four days of exercise per week, but sometimes I can only get in 3, or I push for more and do 5.
A “perfect” program - or a program at least as perfect as can be, given our current understanding of the human body - will also be highly individualized.
You might recover very differently from another person, and require a very different volume of training to progress. You might go from being a beginner to an advanced lifter, and need to greatly change your training in order to continue to improve. There is no one perfect program, but instead we must constantly be changing and adapting programs to suit our current needs and current strengths and weaknesses.
A good program also takes our external lives into account. It would be great if we were all professional athletes who were simply paid to spend all day lifting, but the reality is that very few of us are.
Our jobs, families, social needs, vacations, and so on may all take time away from our training or limit our ability to train in an ideal manner. Management of sleep or stress may also impact our training. Ignoring these factors leads to failure and burnout.
Good programming should take these factors into account and make allowances where possible. We should be using autoregulation to allow flexibility in our training for bad or good days. If we plan for a vacation, we should work that into a deload or taper in our training schedule. If we find that training five days per week isn’t currently doable due to a change in our job responsibilities during the day, maybe we can redistribute the same volume of training over three or four days instead.
It should also be clear that even within a flexible, properly adapted structure, perfect application of all principles of periodization are not necessary. Many with great genes have gotten away with relatively poorly constructed training programs, which leads to confusion when they sell their approach as a “one-size-fits-all” program. A perfect plan is not required for progress, and the focus should always be on progress over perfection.
The first and most important principle of all is one that has not even yet been discussed: adherence. As noted above, a perfect program that you don’t follow will have no effect. But a poor program, followed regularly, will still have some effect, even if that effect is less than optimal. The first and most important thing is to find a schedule that you can actually stick to with regularity.
If you are not consistently doing at least 3 days of training per week, chances are that you need to focus on that before worrying too much about everything else. 1 and 2 day a week programs are possible, but generally not doable due to the high load of volume per workout. 3 days a week becomes doable, 4 and 5 become optimal, and 6 or more likely just leads to overwork and burnout unless volume is carefully controlled. Worrying about perfect workouts, before you're even able to regularly work out, is just plain and simple ridiculous.
Once a base level of frequency is established, you are likely in decent shape, and are seeing most of the health benefits of exercise. However, you will plateau quickly in terms of progress without applying the first two principles of specificity and overload.
So long as these principles are applied, you will see progress, even if your progress is potentially disrupted by roadblocks. Understanding the importance of various rep ranges/intensities is also a necessary part of understanding the proper application of specificity.
After these are applied, the management of fatigue becomes a more important tactic. Planning for deloads, structuring your training week more carefully, and finding an ideal volume of training can all help you manage fatigue to find the right volume of training for you.
Likewise, the application of autoregulation can help build flexibility in your program to account for dips or jumps in your daily energy levels.
Lastly, the application of undulation, variety, and phase potentiation can help ensure consistent progress over the longer term. These principles involve the ordering of your training often with specific competitive dates in mind, but can still be useful for non-competitors if they simply wish to peak their abilities and test their own limits. Still, longer term planning is complicated and generally requires a level of dedication above and beyond the standard exerciser.
Each represents a progressive step upwards, but also a greater degree of complication. A program which applies only the principles of specificity, overload, and adherence would be pretty simple compared to one which applies all principles - and so, it would be much easier to stick to and much less complicated to form. Your training might look the same from week to week, and use simple linear periodization.
As you get closer to your natural limits, more and more of the principles must be applied to see continued progress, including a greater and greater degree of complexity. This complexity will make these programs harder to adhere to - so, it may be necessary to sacrifice some degree of complexity and precision in our programming in order to maximize adherence.
A program which is unnecessarily complex relative to your degree of need (a pro bodybuilder needs a highly specific program, but someone simply looking to build a bit of muscle doesn’t) or degree of adherence is likely to be suboptimal.
So throw it out! An unnecessarily complex program will be just as unhelpful as one which is too simple.
No, you don’t need to apply every principle of periodization in order to see progress. But as you progress and wish to push your limits even further, you must become tighter and more careful with your programming.
This involves not just the management of the program itself, but also the development of the right mindset and the regulation of the structure of your life outside the gym - this may be far harder than the program itself!
Always aim for progress before perfection. Improvement is always doable, but perfection is rarely doable. At all times, do your best, and aim to improve your best over time.
While the application of adherence is necessary at a bare minimum, it is not necessary to perfectly apply all principles of periodization in order to see improvement.
The first class of principles contains specificity and overload - these are necessary for progression. One aspect of specificity is proper intensity, which requires an understanding of how rep ranges work.
The second class of principles contains fatigue management, deloads, a proper weekly training structure, a proper weekly training volume, a proper split, a proper frequency, and some degree of autoregulation.
The third class of principles contains the principles of undulation and phase potentiation, which are necessary for structuring a training plan in the long term.
Each class contains greater precision (and thus leads to better results) than the one previous, but is also more complex and requires more precise structuring. A program which is too complex relative to your needs will be hard to follow and therefore likely to cause burnout.
Instead of aiming for perfection, focus on regular progress, which will lead to improvement. No one is perfect, but we can all improve.
- No, You Don't Need To Be A God**** Athlete To Get Out Of Bed
- Nobody's Perfect
- You Probably Care Too Much About Form
- Winners Always Quit, and Quitters Always Win
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