Periodize Your Workouts

When it comes to training, change is good. Learn why manipulating your sets, reps and weight can give you results exactly when you want them.

Woman Kettlebell

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.”

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