It’s never good to stereotype, but it seems a fair bet to say, in general, women are much more meticulous in their planning than men. That’s why we rely on you when it comes to the details — making sure there are enough drink doilies at Aunt Rita’s 65th birthday party, sending out all the Christmas cards well before Dec. 25 and finalizing dog-sitting arrangements so Fido doesn’t get left home alone during the trip to Jamaica.

But for all that planning, one area of a woman’s life is often neglected. Ask yourself this: Do you know what you’ll be doing in your next workout? How about a week from now, or a month? And just what are your ultimate physique goals, anyway?

Knowing exactly what you want out of working out — and when — is the first step to drastically improving your body. With those parameters in mind, you can use something exercise scientists call periodization to give you optimal results and allow you to specifically time your physical peak for a wedding, vacation, class reunion…anything you wish.

The term periodization sounds complex, but the concept is relatively simple: It refers to grouping your workouts into phases, aimed at a particular goal and reaching it on a certain date by cycling through various phases that work your muscles differently. This keeps them from adapting to training and is why physique athletes such as competitive bodybuilders and fitness and figure athletes employ it when preparing for a contest.

“When using periodization, you go one or two weeks — sometimes four — doing the same workout,” explains William Kraemer, PhD, a noted authority on the subject who works in the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine (Storrs). “[One example of a periodization workout] is going from light workouts (where rep ranges are on the high side, 15–20 for 1–4 weeks) to moderate workouts (rep ranges are about 8–12 for 1–4 weeks) to heavy workouts (rep ranges are 3–6 for 1–4 weeks). You rest for about a week or two [enough for a vacation] after those three cycles and then go through them again.”

That’s a linear cycle, explains Kraemer. Another variation is nonlinear periodization, where you alternate workouts of different types — light, moderate, heavy and even power (using plyometrics and powerlifting moves) — from session to session. “You change things up every time you work out each week, with the workouts touching on different components of fitness,” Kraemer adds.

This allows you to hit all areas of the muscles, which is extremely beneficial. It not only prompts adaptations by your body (getting stronger and leaner, etc.) but ensures that you tax your entire neuromuscular system to benefit your health over the long haul.

“A common problem among women today is that they don’t lift heavy weights, and by not doing that, they don’t train all of their [muscle] tissue,” Kraemer explains. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing women entering nursing homes at an age when they aren’t other­wise unhealthy but have lost so much tissue mass that they can’t [function]. We have studies of women in their 70s who can’t pick up a 10-pound weight plate off the floor.”

Why this happens is simple: If you don’t use it, you lose it. “It happens to all of us with age, but it seems to be particularly predominant in women because they have less tissue than men to begin with; they don’t have the reserve of muscle that men generally do,” Kraemer says.

SEE ALSO: How to Change Your Diet and Strength Routine to Reach Your Goals

Now we know that using a periodization program incorporating at least three different phases of training will provide for a more well-rounded routine. But how do you apply this information to your own training system?

The first step is deciding what your goal is. Let’s say you want to be ready for a mid-winter vacation on a beach somewhere by February 1. November 1 is right around the corner, giving you three months to prepare. You’ll want to start on a diet, of course, while training to increase your overall muscle tissue (since additional muscle mass improves metabolism), improve your strength and gear your cardiovascular system for fat-burning.

A common mistake people make is to think, “I need to get leaner, so I should do tons of cardio and increase my reps per set while dropping my rest periods from now until February 1.” Yet that will more than likely lead to overtraining and a plateau, halting your results.

Instead, let’s take a traditional linear periodization approach toward losing bodyfat, with the help of Tudor Bompa, PhD, professor emeritus at York University at Toronto and author of Periodization Training for Sports (Human Kinetics, 1999). “The first phase [about four weeks] is adaptation [or light], which really means you’re going to the gym to get used to training, assuming that you didn’t do much before [or you’ve taken a long hiatus],” he says. “Your ligaments, tendons and muscles are getting used to exercising; when they adapt, you’re ready for another phase.

“We can call the next phase [again, about four weeks] simple strength,” Bompa continues. During this phase, the goal is to increase muscle strength. The loads you’ll lift are higher, up to 85%–90% of your one-rep maximum, which equates to a weight you can lift for 4–6 reps per set on each exercise. “As you gain strength, you increase lean muscle mass and [burn excess calories]. Also, when the load is high, the muscle contracts with more force and more fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited. This causes an adaptation at the cellular level, increasing lean muscle mass and protein content of the muscle,” he says.

Phase three involves high-rep training for muscle endurance (for example, 15–25 reps per set) with very little rest taken between sets. With traditional sets and reps with decent rest intervals, the muscles rely on glycogen stored in the muscles for fuel. That doesn’t apply to endurance sets.

“During activity that’s performed nonstop or with very short intervals of rest, body fat is converted into free fatty acids for fuel to produce energy,” says Bompa. “During this time the cardiovascular system is working consistently, which isn’t the case with the other weight-training methods [mentioned earlier].” So in these sets, you burn more body fat and improve your cardiovascular health.

In Bompa’s three-month linear periodization example, each phase can run one month. However, if you want a bit more freedom, you can adopt a nonlinear periodization plan, using the phase principles throughout your weekly workouts. “Whereas linear follows the same training style for 1–4 weeks, on a nonlinear program, you can insert a light day or rest day and pick right back up on a heavier day next time around,” says Kraemer.

At your endpoint, Bompa suggests a transition period before going back into a new three-month cycle. “Take it easy for one or two weeks, which means you may train 2–3 times per week with lighter loads and shorter sessions,” he says. “For a few months you increased the work progressively; now it’s time to relax, rest and remove the [physical and mental] fatigue. But don’t do that too long, or the benefits from your three months’ worth of work will start disappearing.”

Are you ready to attack your workout plan with the same tenacity with which you focus on the other details of your life? Hopefully, the answer is yes. If so, you can create your own periodized approach in your workouts by manipulating sets, reps and weight selection every few weeks, or workout to workout, as described above.

Increased workout variety. Faster results. And you can get in shape on your timetable. It’s so great, it’s almost too bad the concept can’t be extended to other areas of our lives.

Vacation-Ready Abs
Still trying to imagine what a periodized program looks like? In general, training abs involves a slightly higher rep scheme than most body parts, but this sample workout utilizes a common periodized program that runs from muscle adaptation to strength to endurance.