Random Training=Random Results | The Benefits of Periodization

Random Training=Random Results | The Benefits of Periodization

There is an old saying that goes something like, "Variety is the spice of life." In many ways, this saying is 100% accurate for most life items. Much of our everyday life is made better by adding variety to it. For example: 

  • A variety of spices to choose from in food makes our palettes more mature and allows foods to have more uses.  
  • A wide array of music to play daily to meet our moods helps manage stress. 
  • Variety television shows have entertained millions of viewers for years with an unknowable combination of music, comedy, and talent week to week. 

Variety can bring a lot of joy to many parts of our lives; however, there is one place where variety can work against us, and that is in our workout programs. 

Workout programs lasting anywhere from 4 weeks to 52 weeks should follow some sort of periodization model. A program with too much variety can physiologically stunt progress, increase the risk of overtraining, and cause burnout. In this article, we will cover what a periodization model is, the types of periodization models, why periodization models are superior to randomized training, and how you can use periodization to chase your fitness goals. 

What is a Periodization Model? 

NSAC defines periodization as "a logical, systematic process of sequencing and integrating training interventions to achieve peak performance at appropriate time points." This systematic approach should reassure you of its effectiveness.

Periodization is about adjusting variables such as volume, intensity, and load in gym movements to match a specific adaptation in the human body. These smaller, progressive stages are ways for individuals to train toward one particular physiological goal. If your goal is to be physically fit, training should be specific to these goals. This focus on specific goals should motivate and guide your training. 

Periodization allows for periods focused on specific adaptations associated with these qualities. For example, suppose a client's goal is to get stronger. In that case, training should reflect sets, reps, time, and exercises that scientific evidence supports as those that will create the desired changes and adaptations in the body. This principle is known as the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). The SAID principle states that the human body adapts specifically to the demands placed on it. It's not enough to do something once to get the body to adjust. It must be done with frequency, regularity, and intensity to create the desired change. Periodization allows us to assign particular periods to chase these adaptations. 

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Why Do We Need Specific Periods to Chase Adaptations?

Evidence suggests that when an individual starts a new program, the first changes are always neurological. For instance, if the goal is increasing lower body strength, the program begins with back squats; the first physical internal adjustments to those back squats will be at the nervous system, building direct pathways to the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. Those adaptations take anywhere from 3-6 weeks, depending on many variables, such as the novelness of the exercise and the training age of the individual involved. 

Once the neurological adaptations occur, the body starts building the tissue associated with the intensity and volume of work. The adaptation of building muscle mass can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks, depending on various factors. So, what do these timetables tell us? It tells us that adaptation takes time, which is why periodization allows athletes to commit time and effort to their specific goals of that period. 

There Are a Variety of Ways We Can  Manipulate Periodization: 

  1. Number of repetitions per set
  2. Number of sets 
  3. Exercise intensity
  4. Training sessions per week
  5. Velocity of exercise 

Types of Periodization Models: Linear and Undulating

There are two main types of periodization models that all programming falls under linear and undulating periodization. 

Linear Periodization is characterized by a gradual increase in training intensity, which decreases the volume, with changes occurring every 4-6 weeks. Linear periodization models chase specific adaptations during specific time frames, as mentioned above, such as periods to focus on power, strength, endurance, and hypertrophy (muscle gain). Linear periodization is a common practice that aligns with most athletic seasons, allowing athletes to focus on lower volume, higher intensity exercises during the season and placing higher volume periods during the offseason when an athlete is the freshest. Linear periodization also works to allow individuals and athletes alike to "peak" for competitive seasons. 

Undulating periodization, while still allowing for focusing on specific goals, allows for more frequent changes in the same phase, allowing for greater frequency in fluctuations daily, weekly, or biweekly. These fluctuations cause greater stress on the nervous system, forcing more significant change more quickly. For instance, a 'training zone' could be a week where the focus is on strength, followed by a week of endurance training. These 'training zones' allow for greater perceived variety and work with athletes and individuals who do not have consistent schedules associated with their training. 

To explain the difference in an example, let's go back to the movement of the back squat to achieve greater strength in the lower body. 

Linear Periodization May Show in a Given Three-Month Program 

  • Weeks 1-4: 3 sets of 8 reps, 3 days per week. 
  • Weeks 5-8: 3 sets of 6 reps, 3 days per week. 
  • Weeks 8-12: 3 sets of 4 reps, 3 days per week. 

Undulating Periodization would reflect more variance for all 12 weeks. 

  • Mondays: 3 sets of 8 Reps. 
  • Wednesdays: 3 Sets of 6 reps. 
  • Fridays: 3 Sets of 4 reps. 

Note that both groups use the back squat to create change three days a week. The linear model uses the same set and rep scheme every four weeks, while the undulating periodization group would potentially vary it every other day for the 12 weeks. 

The variety you see here isn't in the movements, the exercises, or even the load variance but in the sets, reps, and intensity of the same movement, an important point to consider when looking at the variety that can be observed between the linear and undulating periodization models of training. The exciting thing about both periodization models is the fact that both models show increases in strength and muscle mass across all research, with no one model superseding the other; however, when compared to randomized training or no periodization model, it shows repeatedly that periodization creates more incredible more consistent changes than randomized training. 

Why is Periodization Superior to Randomized Training?

"If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail." -Benjamin Franklin

Periodization emphasizes a systematic, structured plan with a specific outcome and goal. Whether linear or undulating, periodization models break down specific periods (Macro or Microcycles) with different methods and goals. Periodization manages load and intensity, which prevents overtraining and injuries. 

Periodization allows for planned progressive overload and scientific concepts necessary to see improvements in endurance, strength, and power. Understanding that as someone trains, the body adapts to the stimulus placed on it. Something that might be hard in week one is easier in week 12 if it's been done consistently in that time period. Random training doesn't plan for this, allowing individuals to do what they want when they want, with no eye on planned overload and progression. Periodization plans out every bit of volume and progression, allowing individuals to see their progress over the program. 

Periodization also plans to help athletes peak, as we covered prior. For example, if you are planning to run a competitive obstacle course race with a group of friends, you would want the training that gets you ready for that race to help you be at your best come race day. Too much volume the day before or the week before can lead to a decrease in performance and increase the risk of injury. 

One of the greatest benefits of periodization is recovery planning. A great Muay Thai coach once told me, "You can't overtrain; you can only underrest." While not entirely accurate, there is some nugget of truth that rest and recovery are critical elements of any training program. Building them specifically to match when the body has had the most stress placed on it optimizes the desired adaptations and balances out reaching goals without overtraining (which you can do) or burnout. 

Even if someone's goals are just to be more fit, there are so many components to fitness that's impossible to hit all of the elements in one training session. A more comprehensive approach with periodization can help individuals spend seasons working on specific goals or outcomes to be a more well-rounded, "fit" person. Capable of both being strong, having endurance, and being mobile. 

Finally, periodization allows for better tracking of progress and the ability to make adjustments more accurately without based on performance and feedback. Training with the ability to measure progress enhances adherence (leading to a mindset of long-term chasing of goals), prevents boredom, and maintains engagement. 

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How to Incorporate Periodization 

I know what you are thinking. 

"Jesse, I am not an athlete. I just want to work out to feel better, look better, and be healthier." 

I get it. 

You are not a strength coach like me, with a decade of experience and a deep understanding of physiological changes and adaptations. You don't have the first clue where to start when it comes to putting together a program that uses periodization techniques. That doesn't mean I cannot give you a rudimentary way of outlining a program for yourself. 

Let's Start with a Goal

Goal #1: "I want to get a stronger upper body." 

  • Step 1: Assess where your upper body strength is at. Whether you want to use pushups, a bench press test, pull up test or strict overhead press, figure out where your strength is currently. To look at strength we typically use 1RM or 3RM but you can also use a 10RM. RM means "Rep Max" so a 1RepMax or 3 Rep Max or 10RepMax. If you only have bodyweight, figure out how many strict reps of something you can do to failure and right it down. 
  • Step 2: Figure out how long you want to take to get stronger at "X" For example, I want to spend the next three months increasing my 10RM dumbbell overhead press. 
  • Step 3: Break down that period to four-week cycles. 
  • Step 4: Assign different sets, reps and intensity to each cycle. If breaking it down to 12 weeks, then there will be three cycles. 
    • Cycle 1: Maybe you are completing three sets of the exercise three times a week, eight reps per set. What weight do you choose? Easy, whatever weight you can only do that exercise eight times of. Maybe that weight wait changes week to week. The only way to know is to track it. 
    • Cycle 2: pick a weight you can only do five reps of for three sets, three times a week, and complete that. 
    • Cycle 3: choose a weight you can only complete 2 times and do that for four sets, three times a week for four weeks. 

  • Step 5: Reassess the movement(s) you used to assess your strength and see your progress. If it's where you want it to be, maintain it with a volume of at least two days a week. If there isn't, assign more time to it. 

Voila, You Just Added Periodization to Your Training

  1. Specific goal setting
  2. Assessment
  3. Plan (Time Frame, Cycles, Sets and Reps)
  4. Train
  5. Reassess

The exact process occurs with endurance training, tweaking assessments to be time- or distance-based. 

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What Are the Results?

You will be trained to look better, feel better, and move better with a systematic goal in mind, and you will get healthier in the process. You will have something to show for it by achieving your goal. 

So, the next time you are looking at a workout program, wishing it had a different workout every day, realize that if you are looking to train to improve long term, then monotony, whether it's month to month or week to week, is the best way to achieve long-lasting, safe and effective results. Our programs at Living Fit are built with the specific intent to create an outcome at the end of the program. The four-week cycle of five workouts, for four weeks, allows you, the client, to see progress week to week, learn the skills associated with the workouts, and send a strong enough signal to the body to adapt and change. 

Constantly changing the exercises every week doesn't facilitate an environment for growth, instead delaying the progress you could achieve. Periodization is an essential component of resistance training. That is not our opinion. It's a scientific fact. So try to see your workouts through the lens of progress week to week, month to month, year to year. The only way to do that is to adhere to a training regimen to see constant progression, avoid plateaus in training, and reduce the occurrence and severity of injuries. Variety can be good in a lot of parts of our lives. Our training should be less focused on variety and more focused on progression.

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