You started off training for a specific goal. Maybe you were trying to build muscle or prepare for a marathon. Initially, you saw some quick results but have hit a plateau. You’re showing up consistently. You work your ass off when training. But the needle won’t budge. Does this sound familiar?
Our bodies are built for adaptation. And that means what got you here won’t get you there. To keep seeing improvements, you need to shock or surprise your body regularly. Periodization is the key to consistent results.
What Is Periodization?
Periodization is changing your training program at regular intervals to continually challenge the body with new workouts. It’s a structured training plan built around a specific period (like one year). It can be used for strength and endurance training.
Each training phase has a specific goal (like endurance or power output). The aim of periodization is to be at your peak fitness by a specific date—e.g., race day or a bodybuilding competition. But it can, and should, also be used for non-competitive goals.
The Basis of Periodization
Periodization is based on the principles of the General Adaptation Syndrome, which explains how our body adapts to stress. There are three phases of the General Adaptation Syndrome:
When you periodize your training, you’re able to stay in the adaptation phase for as long as possible. It’s in this phase that you get faster, stronger, or more ninja-like. In contrast, when you do the same type of training for a long time, you’ll end up in the exhaustion phase. This is when results stall and you plateau.
Let’s look at how you would structure a periodized training plan.
Planning Training Cycles
There are three cycles used for planning periodized programs—macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle:
- The microcycle is usually up to seven days and can be thought of as your weekly training plan.
- The mesocycle is typically 2-6 weeks. Mesocycles are a phase of your program (e.g., hypertrophy or base endurance).
- The macrocycle is usually a year but could be up to four in the case of Olympic athletes.
Here’s a visual representation of a year’s worth of periodized training cycles:
There are a lot of different periodization models. Some are made out to be more complicated than quantum physics. So, in this post, we’ll only look at two of the main models—linear periodization and undulating periodization.
Linear periodization is the classic strength and power programming. It begins with high-volume, low-intensity training and progresses towards low-volume high-intensity training. For example, a strength athlete might use the following phases (mesocycles) if following a linear periodization model:
- Phase 1 - hypertrophy
- Phase 2 - strength
- Phase 3 - power
Undulating periodization changes the training variables of workouts on a daily or weekly basis. For example, a strength athlete might use a four-week phase that includes three different weekly workouts:
- Workout 1 - hypertrophy
- Workout 2 - strength
- Workout 3 - power
The undulating model allows you to work on different training goals within one phase. In contrast, if you were using a linear model, you would work on one specific goal for four or so weeks before moving on to the next.
Which Model Should You Use?
If you’re new to a sport or training program, I’d suggest using linear periodization. You won’t have as much variation in your training, but that’s a good thing when starting out. It allows you to practice form and technique.
Once you’ve established a solid training base, you should switch to an undulating model so that you’re training at varying intensities during each phase. Studies have shown this approach to be more effective than the linear model for building strength.
How to Put This Into Practice
If you want to try planning out your training, you can periodize your workouts by:
- Using a linear periodization model: pick one goal you want to work on like endurance or building muscle. Build a 4-6 week training phase (mesocycle) around that goal.
- Using the undulating periodization model: pick your top 3-4 goals you’re working on (e.g, power, VO2 max, strength, etc.). Design a training phase with 3-4 weekly workouts. Each workout should relate to one goal. So, Monday is a power workout, Wednesday is VO2 max training . . .
Once you get more comfortable with building single phases, try to string them together to build a few months’ worth of mesocycles.
Periodization can get complex. To make it practical, I’ve only provided the basics in this post. If you want to learn more, check out Periodization Training for Sports by Tudor Bompa. I’ll also be writing follow up posts that include examples of periodized training you can use.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) have a crack at designing a training phase. Start with a short four-week cycle. Don’t overcomplicate it. As Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
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