Many people have probably heard of the term periodization and quickly skimmed over the article. Periodization just sounds complicated, and it can be. I would like to describe a simple way to use this lifting philosophy to insure you don’t reach sticking points. We will look at gaining strength in particular, but this works well with any physical activity.
[Periodization was mastered by Tudor Bompa, Trainer of the Former Soviet Union Olympic Team. These techniques allowed the former Soviet Union to dominate the Olympics for close to 30 years. This legendary trainer laid out his life’s work in the book, Theory and Methodology of Training.]
Sometimes Lifting is Like Pushing a Brick Wall
You will reach a point after lifting for a couple of years where strength gains come to a halt. No matter what you do, you cannot get stronger in a certain lift. It feels even worse when you actually wind up losing a bit of strength. When this happens, it is time to learn periodization.
You Will Burn Out if You Push 100% Year Round
Your body will reach exhaustion if you push as hard as possible throughout the year. I don’t believe you should ever let yourself go, but it doesn’t hurt to have a period of time where you back off on training a little bit. If you normally train 5 times per week, then limit that to 3 times a week for 6-8 weeks. Instead of pushing hard on your lifts, back off on all the weight and cut the volume in half for a while. After this break, implement a strategy of periodization like I outine below.
When You Back off on Working Out, Tighten Up Your Diet
A strategy I like to use is to see how cut I can get with a strict diet and minimal exercise for short periods of time. This is a great time to master your diet. Once you re-introduce a higher volume of lifting, try to continue to eat strict for a while…this will allow you to get extra lean, because your diet is “dialed in”.
A Practical Explanation of Periodization and Action Plan
Think of periodization as taking “two steps back, in order to take 3-4 steps forward”. Let’s say you are stuck at benching 205 pounds for 5 reps. No matter what you do it is impossible to get 6 reps, or do 5 reps with 210 pounds.
The plan will be to back off on the weight a bit and then spend the next 6 weeks building back up to 205 pounds for 5 reps. Let’s assume that you work each muscle group twice per week, so in 6 weeks you will get 12 chest workouts in. If you are lucky your gym will have 2.5 pound plates, because then you can increase your bench press 5 pounds each week.
So if you want to use 12 workouts to build back to 205 pounds, then your starting point will be 60 pounds less than this (12 weeks times 5 pounds = 60 pounds).
Here’s What that Would Look Like…
- Workout 1: 145 pounds for 5 reps
- Workout 2: 150 pounds for 5 reps
- Workout 3: 155 pounds for 5 reps
- Workout 4: 160 pounds for 5 reps
- (You get the idea)
- Workout 12: 205 pounds for 4 reps
- Workout 13: 210 pounds for 3 reps
- Workout 14: 210 pounds for 4 reps
- Workout 15: 210 pounds for 5 reps
- Workout 16: 215 pounds for 3 reps
- Workout 17: 215 pounds for 4 reps
- Workout 18: 215 pounds for 5 reps
Note: See how once we passed 205 pounds we backed off on the reps a bit. This is a great way to get used to the new weight. Doing 210 pounds for 3 reps will feel easier than doing 205 pounds for six reps. Also…I am not really getting into how to implement this with multiple sets. I’m trying to teach the basic concept.
Long Buildup Phases = Long Strength Gain Phases
This isn’t an absolute, but the key to periodization is to take your time to re-build your strength foundation. If you rush the time to reach your previous best, you may wind up getting stuck at that same weight again. In the example above I used 6 weeks, but you may want to experiment with slightly longer or shorter periods of time.
Become Familiar with the 2.5 Pound Plates
Your body will adapt a lot better to small increments in weight than it will with big jumps in weight. Big jumps in weight will make your body “put the breaks” on strength gains. The biggest mistake I see young guys make is to avoid the small plates. You are just headed for frustration if you try to increase the weights by adding 25’s on each side of the bar. Small increases in weight add up to impressive weights over time.
Note: One last thing. I see a lot of people wasting time by trying to ‘upgrade’ to 45 pound plates whenever possible. I guess a 45 pound plate looks more impressive than a 25, a 10, and two 5’s on each side. Don’t get caught up in the weird “free-weight culture”. If you have enough 5’s and 10’s, no need to switch out every 45 pounds.
One Last Thing…Periodization doesn’t apply to just lifting. You can use a similar approach in any physical activity (running, swimming, HIIT, spinning, etc). Just back off the intensity and work your way back to your previous best over a drawn out period of time.
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