Getting into a routine was tough for you, but worth it. Lifting weights every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and running a couple of times a week paid off in an increasingly slimmer profile and smaller waist size—until recently. During the past few weeks, you’ve seen your results start to fizzle no matter how hard you push yourself or how many “extra” reps and sets you add to each workout. Indeed, the same workouts that initially worked wonders have now become stale and ineffective.
There’s no way around it—you’ve hit a plateau. And here’s why: Your training program lacks periodization.
What Is Periodization?
Periodization is a strategy for varying a training program over time to achieve a desired result. The overall program is referred to as a macrocycle, which typically lasts from several months to one year (although it can extend up to four years if you’re an Olympian or Olympic hopeful following a “quadrennial plan”).
Within each macrocycle there are two or more training blocks or “mesocycles,” each of which lasts from a couple of weeks to several months and focuses on a specific goal (e.g., muscle growth, strength, power, etc.). Each mesocycle is further divided into microcycles that can span a single workout or last up to a couple of weeks.
The difference between periodization and simple variation (i.e., switching up your workout only when it needs refreshing or you get bored) is that the former is pre-planned, progressive, and strategic, shifting training goals and methods at specific intervals in a long-term training calendar.
In other words, periodization plays the long game while simple variation doesn’t.
Different Methods of Periodization
There are two primary kinds of periodization: linear and non-linear (also called undulating).
The more traditional of the two types, linear periodization follows a gradual increase in training intensity and volume. This means that you lift progressively heavier weights for progressively fewer reps during the course of the macrocycle.
The classic linear training plan involves four mesocycles (or phases). The first is the hypertrophy and endurance phase, which focuses on low-to-moderate weight and high volume (10 to 20 reps per set). The goal of this phase is to build lean mass and muscular endurance. The second phase is basic strength, which builds just that using heavy weights and moderate volume (four to eight reps per set). The power phase comes next, and involves very heavy loads and low volume (two to five reps per set). Finally, there is a transition period, which typically entails either cutting way back on training intensity and volume, or engaging in “active rest” (i.e., pursuing low-intensity sports or recreational activities) to allow the body to recover before beginning the next macrocycle.
“I generally keep every phase to four weeks,” says physiologist and certified personal trainer Tamara Grand, Ph.D. “That provides enough time to learn the exercises, improve performance, and increase the load before boredom sets in.”
The benefit of following a linear periodization program is that it allows your muscles to strengthen gradually, reducing the risk of overtraining and burnout. That’s why trainers often use linear periodization for beginners, but it’s effective for anyone interested in improving overall fitness.
Non-linear periodization is another option. This method typically changes the training load and volume on a daily basis (i.e., from workout to workout). That’s why it’s also called “undulating periodization.”
Here’s how a week of workouts might play out using undulating periodization:
Monday: Strength/power focus with heavy weight, low reps (four to six per set), and three to five sets per exercise. The workout is ideally built around a big compound movement like the squat or bench press.
Wednesday: Endurance focus with low weight, high reps (15 to 20 per set), and three to six sets per exercise. Total body moves like the dumbbell squat to press and bodyweight moves like the walking lunge are smart options for this workout.
Friday: Hypertrophy focus with moderate weight, moderate reps (eight to 12 per set), and three to five sets per exercise. A mix of compound movements and isolation exercises like the triceps extension and biceps curl belong in this workout.
In this example of non-linear periodization (provided by Grand), each training week is a microcycle. It’s repeated four times total to complete one mesocycle. Each mesocycle, you change the exercise selection and workout order (e.g., instead of doing strength, endurance, and hypertrophy, you might do hypertrophy, strength, and endurance). Complete four mesocycles to finish one macrocycle.
Which Periodization Method Is Best?
That depends on who you ask. Some research says that linear periodization is more effective for increasing strength, while undulating periodization is better for developing muscular endurance. Other research shows that both periodization strategies are equally effective for strength and muscle development—especially during the early phases of training.