What Is Periodization?
You’ve likely seen the term in fitness magazines or heard it floating around the gym: Periodization.
Periodized training may sound scientific, like something that only elite personal trainers are able to use with their clients, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, periodization is a training tactic that anyone can use to get superior results over time. Let’s take a deeper look.
Periodization is a form of planning for training that has been around in one form or another since its inception in the 1950s. It was created by Leo Matveyev and Tudor Bompa for the Soviet Olympics team and is now used by coaches in almost every sport.
Originally, the goal was to help athletes peak for certain events. If a 100m sprinter is going to compete in the Olympic final, he wants to be at the absolute peak of physical fitness in that moment. Periodizing his training allows this to happen.
Essentially periodization is the division of a training year into smaller training blocks.
For some sports (particularly sports that concentrate on the Olympics, which occur every 4 years) training can be split into 4-year cycles known as Quadrennial cycles.
A great example of a team that uses Quadrennial cycles would be the British Olympic cycling team, who peak only for the Olympics and perform averagely throughout the intervening world championships.
After Quadrennial cycles there comes Macrocycles, which are typically yearly training plans. These are often used in sports that compete on the highest level once per year. If you were setting goals for a single specific annual event, then a Macrocycle would be the ideal period to start.
Macrocycles are made up of lots of small blocks known as Mesocycles. If, for example, you decided to follow a German Volume Training (GVT) program to gain mass or strength, then you would do so for one Mesocycle. These blocks can last anywhere between 2 weeks and 6 weeks depending on your goals.
The Mesocycle is further divided up into Microcycles, which last one week. Going back to your GVT program, one Mesocycle would be made up of 6 one-week long Microcycles.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of planning! And it is. But, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to reap the rewards of periodized training.
Just think about how purposeful your training will become when you have it planned out in a combination of Microcycles, Mesocycles, and Macrocycles. Every workout will serve a purpose, therefore every workout matters.
Let’s see how this could be used for achieving goals aside from top athletic competition.
Periodization For The Average Joe
You might be reading this and thinking, “I’m not planning on becoming a professional athlete…does this stuff apply to me?”
Well, the answer is YES!
Periodization can help anyone develop a training plan that WILL lead to goal achievement, regardless of what that physical goal may be.
Here’s just one example: If you’ve ever decided that you want a 6-pack in time for your upcoming tropical holiday, you’ve unknowingly applied periodization to your training.
This is because your aim is to ‘peak’ in time for an event (in this case a holiday). Taking this a step further, if you have ever ‘bulked’ or ‘cut’ for bodybuilding (or to just look good in everyday life) then you have also used a form of periodization. You were exercising for a set period in an effort to achieve a specific goal.
Most exercisers use elements of periodization, but they don’t apply the principles correctly enough to maximize their results. For many gym-goers, there is no long-term goal setting, no Macrocycles (let alone Quadrennial cycles). Most people follow the same 3-day per week program for months on end, and then ratchet up the intensity the moment they book that trip to Hawaii.
Goal Setting For Effective Periodization
First, you need to do is to create some realistic goals: Why is it that you joined the gym in the first place? What was it you wanted? And, is that achievable?
If you’re currently 5 foot 6 and 300lbs, then that target of becoming the next big thing in the NBA is not happening. What’s a goal that you could realistically see yourself achieving AND is worth working for?
Whatever your target is, write it down and then determine how you are going to get there. Let’s go back to our 6-pack abs example. If you want to have visible abs, you are going to need to reduce your body fat and build up your core muscles. You can do this!
Realistically however, you will not likely have visible abs year round (though it is possible), so ask yourself if there is an event or time of the year when having that six pack would be most desirable. Now you have a meaningful long-term target.
Second, it’s time to assess where you are currently:
- What’s your current body fat?
- How many days per week are you currently exercising?
- What types of exercise are you doing?
- What are your physical measurement?
Get a very clear picture of your starting point.
Next, you will want to reflect on your training history. In the past, what has happened when you started a new training program? Did you stick with it and reach your goal? Did you drop off after a few weeks? Analyse what has worked for you in the past and what has not.
Now that you have a good idea of your long-term goal, your starting place, and some realistic expectations based on your previous exercise experience, you can chunk your goal into smaller bit-sized pieces. Create a realistic set of targets (e.g. 12-month, 6-month, 3-month, and 1-month targets) that will help you build towards your over-arching goal.
Going straight from beer gut to 6-pack might seem like a stretch right now, so think about more manageable goals you’d like to hit along the way. For example, you could set a 1-month goal as, “I want to take 2 inches of my waistline.” This will move you towards your 6-pack goal, and will give you a target you can reach in the near future.
Creating Your Periodized Training Plan
To keep things simple we are going to focus solely on the training side of periodization, though your nutrition will mirror it closely (i.e. increasing calories if looking to build size/strength, lowering calories to lose body fat).
Your Macrocycle is the entire training year. It doesn’t matter if the event you’re training for is only 7 months away – you’re going to plan out the whole year. This may sound pointless, but the number one mistake made by gym rookies is not planning for the post-event. These people may reach their goal, but quickly backslide afterwards, and end up frustrated because all of their hard work only produced momentary success.
Let’s assume you want to have your 6-pack for a holiday that is 8 months from now. You currently train 3 times per week and want to lower your body fat percentage from 25% to a more respectable 17% by the end of the training year. But, for your holiday you want your body fat percentage to be 12% (that’s a reasonable target for 6-pack success).
You are now going to split the next 12 months into Mesocycles, which will include pre-competition, competition (holiday), and post-competition phases. You can see how this would also work very well for an athletic event.
Your pre-competition phase is 8 months, which, if anything, is too long! If you start lowering calories/body fat now you’re going to spend the following 8 months in a grouchy, low energy state. So let’s split this phase into 5 months of strength training, followed by 3 months of “cutting.”
During the first 5 months, you are looking to increase muscle mass for a faster metabolism and easier fat-loss in the subsequent “cutting” phase. You could divide this strength-training phase into 5 Mesocycles, each lasting 4 weeks.
In these cycles you can focus on improving your squats, bench press, deadlifts, and other compound exercises that will produce the hypertrophy you’re looking for. Every 4 weeks you can evaluate your progress (e.g. using 1RM, body measurements, body weight, etc.) and make adjustments to some exercises, your training volume, the tempo you lift with, etc.
After the five months are complete, you will shift gears and begin training specifically for fat-loss.
The specifics of a fat-loss program can be different for everyone, but typically this will involve more cardio training, as well as fewer breaks and shorter rest periods during your resistance training sessions. The goal is to keep moving, keep your heart pumping, and keep your calories burned to a maximum.
These last 3 months will also focus a lot on your nutrition as you slowly lower your calorie intake on a week-by-week basis until you have lost sufficient body fat. Again, the specifics may be different for each individual, but the process is the same. This phase focuses on high calories-burning and progressive calorie-restriction.
Soon you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I made it! Check out this 6-pack!”
Visually, here’s what this plan may look like if your trip was happening at the end of April as indicated by the red arrows:
Notice that your calorie intake remains relatively stable during the 5-month strength-training phase, but then is reduced significantly during the 3-month cutting phase.
Contrast this to your training volume (i.e. number of sets and reps), which peaks just before your holiday. In combination, these two variables result in a body fat percentage that decreases modestly during as you add muscle in your strength phase (due to an increased metabolism), and then sharply decreases as your training volume increases and your calorie intake decreases during the cutting phase.
Also note how the post-competition numbers even out. Your body fat increases slightly as your calorie intake and training volume return to sustainable levels.
Completing Your Post-Competition Phase
Once you have reached your deadline, and you have achieved your pinnacle of fitness, you briefly enter the competition phase. In this example you will have peaked in terms of physique (i.e. a visible 6-pack), but instead of having to run a marathon or go 12 rounds with the Heavyweight champ, you’ll be getting suntanned on the beach. Enjoy it!
Immediately after your event (i.e. vacation) you enter the post-competition phase. This is when you can re-assess your “off season” workout routine and diet plan with the goal of finding a manageable (and still awesome) physique. Being in “competition fitness” year-round is too taxing on your body. There is a time for it, and then you must move onto some more sustainable.
The post-competition phase should take you up to the end of your 12-month periodized plan, and if you’ve followed it properly, you will have successfully lowered your body fat percentage from 25% to 17% with a short spell at an even lower percentage.
Now you can re-evaluate your goals, and start preparing for your next periodized cycle.
Other Considerations For Periodization
So far we’ve focused on the goal of reducing body fat to reveal 6-pack abs. This is just one of many goals you may hope to achieve, therefore the specifics of each cycle within your periodized plan must be laid out according to your goal.
For example, if you were looking solely to increase your 1 rep max for deadlifts, or if you are preparing to compete in a powerlifting competition, then you may structure your plan using a protocol that’s designed with those goals in mind. There are 2 approaches you may consider:
Linear Periodization is where you start a macrocycle with high volume and low load (i.e. lots of sets and reps but light weight) and slowly decrease the volume as you increase the load. By your competition phase you are training in the very low rep range (2-4) with very heavy weights, which is exactly where you’d like to be when you compete.
Block Periodization separates a macrocycle into 3 mesocycles: Hypertrophy, Strength, and Power. In this training program you would start with Hypertrophy, training with higher reps and a medium weight. Then you would start a Strength block where you would lower the rep range/volume and increase the weights used. Finally, you would finish with the Power block, which would involve maximal weights lifted for 1-2 reps.
As you can see, there are different approaches to periodization, but the same underlying principle remains: Choose a goal with the next 12 months, then structure your exercise (and nutrition) in phases that lead to smaller milestones along the way to reaching your end goal.
Now it’s up to you.
What goal are you going to pursue this year?
About the Author
Dave Smith is a personal trainer who was chosen as “Canada’s Top Fitness Professional” in 2013. He is an active writer, teacher, and public speaker who specializes in efficient exercise programming and protocols. You can catch Dave’s weekly Q&A fitness podcast, or learn about all things health-related on his blog at makeyourbodywork.com.