Practical Periodization

Practical Periodization

Reading Time: 19 minutes 4 seconds

By: James Wilson

Date: 2018-12-05T00:00:00-05:00

Periodization is one of the most important parts of a fitness programs ultimate success, yet few trainers and gym-goers truly understand how to employ the concepts and principles behind it. The lack of a bridge between these theories and their practical, everyday application is partly to blame. As you can probably tell from the title, this article attempts to bring periodization down to a practical and usable level. While it is written with trainers in mind, anyone who works out can use and benefit from the following advice...

When designing a client's program, it is very important to have a long-term plan. While day to day workouts are what most people think of when picturing their personal trainer, the real results do not come overnight, nor as the result of a single workout, nor even after months of workouts. The cumulative effects of months and years of workouts produce the dramatic results.

Getting started on the road to a fitness lifestyle will be easy at first for your client. That's why there are so many weight loss "gurus" in the fitness world. Anyone can take an over-weight person who has never exercised, instruct them to do 20 jumping jacks and walk around the block while curling soup cans and they will lose weight. Getting them to actually accomplish their fitness goals and live the fitness lifestyle takes a whole lot more, namely a periodized plan.

Periodization is the practice of splitting a program into distinct time periods, with each period building on the former periods' progress.

The three parts of a periodized plan are the macrocycle (the entire program, usually a training year), mesocycle (3-6 week periods within the macrocycle), and microcycle (the actual training week within the mesocycle). Periodization is too complex a subject to be fully explained here, so I strongly encourage you to pick up a book devoted to the subject of periodization and develop a full understanding of how to use this concept. Recommended books include: Periodization Training: Theory and Methodology by Tudor Bompa, Ph.D., as well as Periodization Breakthrough by Steven Fleck, Ph.D. and William Kramer, Ph.D. Both books are excellent sources of in-depth information on this subject.

What will be covered here are a few basic premises of periodization. Once you have a basic understanding of periodization, you will learn a simple yet highly effective system to initially assess your client's fitness level and get them started on a periodized program.

The reason a periodized plan works so well is that it never allows the body to fully adapt to the imposed stresses being placed on it. However, it is not as simple as taping a bunch of your favorite training programs to the dartboard every 4-6 weeks and tossing a dart at them, using the program that it hits for the next couple of weeks. You should have a logical progression to your program design; otherwise you are leaving your clients training fate up to blind luck. They deserve better than that, and you will be able to give it to them once you understand how.

It is very important that you understand what will be meant by "intensity" before I go any further. Despite being a word tossed around loosely by the fitness media today, intensity does have a concrete definition. It simply refers to the percentage being lifted of your one repetition maximum (1RM). The higher the percentage, the higher the intensity level.

While intensity is defined as a percentage of 1RM this does not mean you need to know someone's 1RM to successfully develop a program. It would be negligent to take a beginning trainee and perform 1RM tests on them. You can simply find a weight that allows your client to complete the number of reps usually associated with the desired intensity levels. Finding a client's 1RM should only be attempted with those clients who have an outstanding level of fitness and no medical conditions, such as hypertension, that would preclude them from such an attempt. Many charts exist that allow you to estimate 1RMs from higher repetition maximums and those should be used when necessary. Since some degree of error exists in these estimation charts, it is advisable to get 2 or more and use their average for a more accurate prediction.

A periodization model typically begins by laying a fitness foundation first. The foundation involves basic exercises and movements to strengthen tendons and ligaments and preparing the body for the training stress ahead while reversing the effects of disuse in your beginning clients. This phase usually employs a relatively higher number of reps (10-15) and moderate/high volume (2-4 sets, 8-12 exercises). This is usually referred to as an "anatomical adaptation" phase and lasts anywhere from 1-12 weeks, depending on the beginning fitness level of the client. The higher the beginning fitness level, the shorter the AA phase will be. A workout utilizing one exercise per body part in a circuit training fashion (using both free weights and machines) is a great example of such a program. This stage works perfectly as the "Guided Discovery" for your beginning clients.

Once the foundation has been laid, it is time to increase the training stress. At this point the program should be employing some sort of training split (literally splitting muscle groups up and training them on different days). Whatever split you choose for a client has to be tailored to their schedule. While you may be convinced that training biceps once every three days is best for maximum results, if it does not fit into your client's schedule it does not matter. You have to be realistic when designing a client's program, especially about training days and what training split is used. An example of a very popular and effective 3-day split over the course of a week is:

Periodization 1 embedded image
  • Note: Days listed are suggestions only. This type of split can be tailored to a variety of schedules as long as all three days are not done in a row.

The next intensity level is comparable to a bodybuilder's routine. During this phase there will be an increase in volume and intensity, but that will be offset by the use of a training split which allows for the longer recovery periods for each body part. This type of program generally has 4-8 sets in a workout per large muscle group and 1-3 sets for smaller muscle groups.

Do not make the mistake a lot of trainers do and place equal emphasis on all body parts. Smaller muscle groups do not need anywhere near the volume that larger muscle groups do. Regardless of what muscle group is being worked, you should use an intensity that allows for the completion of 6-12 reps in each set. Moderate rest periods of 1-2 minutes between sets are also typical of this type of routine. Training in this way, using moderate volume and moderate intensity, is great for inducing muscular hypertrophy, which is why most "bodybuilder" routines fall into this category.

The third level of intensity is the highest. This phase will concentrate on absolute strength levels, often using 5 reps or less per set. This type of program is typified by using 5-10 sets for larger muscle groups and 2-4 sets for smaller muscle groups. Longer rest periods of 2-5 minutes are also used to ensure that you have regenerated enough ATP to continue with the same workload. Not all clients will progress to the point of safely being able to use such high intensity levels. However, for those clients who have achieved a good level of fitness and do not have any medical reasons that they should not participate in such high intensity programs, such as high blood pressure, working on absolute strength from time to time is vital to a periodized program's success.

This type of training improves absolute strength by increasing the amount of muscle fibers being recruited to lift the weight, the coordination of the different muscle groups being used, and decreases how much the antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups contract and interfere with the movement.

Training in this manner will allow for large increases in strength without large increases in muscle mass, allowing for a trainee to achieve both better absolute and relative strength. Relative strength is how much weight can be lifted for an exercise in relation to a person's bodyweight. For example, someone who can squat 250 pounds at a bodyweight of 160 pounds has a higher relative strength than someone who can squat 250 pounds at a bodyweight of 200 pounds does. Relative strength is very important in most sports and any athlete, from weekend to professional, would be wise to work on this quality.

There is a simple logic to this type of intensity progression. Since intense weight training builds up muscle strength faster than tendon and ligament strength it only makes sense to spend some time doing a lower intensity, higher rep phase, especially at the beginning of a program, to correct this imbalance. After the foundation has been laid and any imbalances have been corrected, then it is safe to start working at higher intensity levels.

The goal of any strength-training program is obviously to increase strength, but more specifically it should improve absolute strength. Absolute strength is the basis for all other types of anaerobic strength, and since most of your clients' daily activities are anaerobic by nature, this is a crucial component of fitness to improve.

How much absolute strength a muscle can produce is related to its cross-sectional area, essentially meaning that bigger muscles have more strength potential than smaller muscles. This is why a periodized program will typically work on hypertrophy first and then absolute strength. An ideal periodized program alternates between the two until it is time to back off and then spends time on a lower intensity program for reasons discussed above.

The System

Now that you have an understanding of periodization and why it follows the progressions that it does, I will show you a system for assessing a client's beginning fitness level and how to get them started on a periodized program based on that initial assessment. However, do not rely on this as all you need to know about periodization. Very few clients will fit perfectly into these models and only by continually educating yourself can you tailor a periodized program to a client's individual needs. This is simply meant as a way to demonstrate some of what was discussed earlier about periodization and to give those who need it a place to start today in designing a periodized program for a client.

First let's establish the four general categories of clients: deconditioned, beginner, intermediate and advanced. Now let's look at who falls into which category.

  • Deconditioned: No exercise history AND any medical conditions/red flags (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, arthritis, ect.). Remember that, for both legal and professional reasons, these conditions MUST be under control in order for you to undertake being their trainer.

  • Beginner: Less than 2 years strength training experience and no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags.

  • Intermediate: 2+ years of continual strength training experience and no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags. Your average fitness buff.

  • Advanced: 5+ years of continual strength training experience and no uncontrolled medical conditions or red flags. Serious fitness buffs and athletes fall into this category.

  • Note: These are not set in stone. Some clients who have trained for 10 years may still need to be treated as intermediates or even beginners while some intermediates may be serious enough to be considered advanced. The trainer must use some personal judgment when assessing the fitness level of a client. If any doubt exists, err on the side of caution and pick up the intensity level later if necessary.

The beginning fitness level classification will be used to figure out how long will be spent laying the fitness foundation and how fast the client will progress to the higher intensity levels. First let's review the different stages (mesocycles) and then I will show you a possible way to arrange them based on your clients beginning fitness level.

Stage 1-
Type of program suggested: Circuit Training
Intensity level: Low (30-60% of 1RM)
Repetitions: 10-15
Total sets per muscle group: 1-3 per exercise
Number of exercises per muscle group: 1
Rest between sets: 0-60 seconds
Duration: Deconditioned- 6-9 weeks
Beginner- 3-6 weeks
Intermediate- 3-6 weeks
Advanced- 1-3 weeks

Periodization 2 embedded image

Exercises to be performed in a circuit fashion. Repeat this workout three times a week allowing at least a days rest between weight training days.

Stage 1a (for Deconditioned and Beginner clients only)-
Type of program suggested: Upper Body/ Lower Body Split
Intensity level: Low (30- 60% of 1RM)
Repetitions: 10- 15
Total sets per muscle group: 2- 6
Number of exercises per muscle group: 1- 2
Rest between sets: 0- 60 seconds
Duration: Deconditioned: 3-6 weeks
Beginner: 3-6 weeks

Periodization 3 embedded image

Repeat this split pattern as many times as needed.

Periodization 4 & 5 embedded image

PeriNote: Although abs and lower back are technically part of the upper body for practicality, they are included in the lower body program.

Stage 2 (muscle mass)-
Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to your client's schedule
Intensity level: Moderate (60-80% of 1RM)
Repetitions: 6-12
Total sets per muscle group: Large Muscle Groups: 4-8
Small Muscle Groups- 1- 3
Number of exercises per muscle group: 1-4
Rest between sets: 60-120 seconds
Duration: 3-9 weeks

For this stage we will use the following split:

Periodization 6 embedded image

Note: Allow at least a days rest between weight training days.

Periodization 7 embedded image

Note: a1 and a2 designate two exercises that are to be done in a superset fashion. Do one set of the a1 exercises and while you are resting perform one set of the a2 exercise. Repeat until you have completed all prescribed sets for those exercises before moving on to the next exercise(s).

Periodization 8 & 9 embedded image

Stage 3 (absolute strength)-
Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to your client's schedule
Intensity level: High (80-100+% of 1RM)
Repetitions: 1-5
Total sets per muscle group: Large Muscle Groups: 5-10
Small Muscle Groups: 2-4
Number of exercises per muscle group: 1-2

Rest between sets: 120-240 seconds
Duration: 3-6 weeks

For this stage we will use the following split:

Periodization 10 embedded image

Note: Allow at least one days rest between weight training days.

Periodization 11 embedded image

Periodization Models

These periodization models are presented as examples only. While they can be used with success, do not rely on them for every client. Continually educate yourself in the fitness and strength-training field so you can design your own models and tailor them to each individual client. Remember, however, that above all a good periodization model is flexible. Do not be afraid to make adjustments mid-program if necessary.

periodization 12 embedded image

Tailoring a Periodized Model to a Client's Goals

As noted earlier very few clients will fit perfectly into the above periodization model examples. Most clients will have some sort of specific goal that they are working towards, making it necessary for you to personalize their program. This is not as hard as it may seem, though. With a few minor adjustments you can quickly tailor a periodized program to any client.

You must first establish what the client's goal is. If you are dealing with a beginner, then their goals will usually be vague, most often revolving around "losing weight and toning up". More advanced clients will have more concrete goals, such as gaining 5 pounds of muscle or adding 25 pounds to their bench press. The more concrete the goal, the easier it will be for you to design a plan. Try to help those clients who do not already have them to form specific goals.

While we are on the subject of client goals, it must also be said that it is your responsibility to make sure that their goals are realistic and that the client is not putting their health at risk trying to achieve them. A great example is women who want to emulate the look popularized on the cover of Cosmo. Most women do not possess the body structure or body type to achieve this look, yet many have dieted and exercised themselves to exhaustion trying to achieve it.

The same can be said for young men trying to emulate their professional bodybuilding heroes. Once again this is an unachievable look by most, especially without chemical enhancement, yet many people let this quest consume their entire existence, sometimes leading them to experiment with dangerous methods.

It is your job as a fitness professional to guide these clients towards realistic goals and safe exercise and dietary practices. Although a last resort, it may be necessary to drop a client if they absolutely refuse to follow a sound, safe exercise program. You could be held liable if something happens to them while they are working with you, so not only are they putting themselves in danger, but your career as well.

With that said, let's look at how to tailor a program for different goals. Simply put, spend more time in the stage that emphasizes the client's goal. If they want more muscle mass, then double up on the time spent in Stage 2. If they are trying to get stronger, then spend more time in Stage 3. If they are trying to improve aerobic capacity, then add a stage where aerobics are more emphasized than strength training. If they are an athlete and trying to improve relative strength, then do not spend as much time in Stage 2 and spend more time in Stage 3. Once you get a feel for what each stage does for a client you will know what stage(s) to emphasize for their goals.

A Word About Training For Fat Loss

Fat loss is kind of a tricky subject as far as working out is concerned. A trainer can have everything about a workout program dialed in with the client following it religiously, yet, if that same client is not also following a sound diet and taking in less calories than they expend, the fat will not come off. In a diet and exercise program, we have found that diet is usually the limiting factor. Most clients just fail to understand how important diet really is to fat loss.

Workout progression for someone looking to lose fat would be similar to those clients wanting to add lean muscle tissue. By adding lean muscle mass, you will increase your metabolism and make it easier to burn fat. Lean muscle tissue will also give you that lean, muscular look that people desire but most do not know how to get. The reason that you see so many people at the gym who look thin with clothes on but have unsightly flab upon closer inspection is because they spend countless hours doing cardio and lifting light weight for a very high number of reps. Thus they fail to add lean muscle mass.

Weight loss is not the goal of an exercise and diet program, fat loss is. Failure to offset the diet and cardio portions of your program with muscle maintenance/gains through weightlifting will result in a less than desirable physique and endless frustration.

I would also like to dispel a couple of strength training myths concerning fat loss that persist. The first is the myth of low reps for size, high reps for cuts. This is absolutely not true. As I stated earlier, low reps actually produce strength with little weight gain, mid-range reps are best for muscle growth, and high reps in the 15-20 range are good for strengthening tendons and ligaments. Very high reps are good for increasing the aerobic strength of the local muscle groups being exercised and is beneficial for specific sports training, but usually has no place in an average fitness program.

Your diet is what gets you cut up and defined, not doing 20+ reps for an exercise.

The next myth is tied to the previous one and is perhaps the most persistent one of all. How many of you have heard that to see your abs you have to do countless sit ups? Or how about you ladies and those machines that hit your "trouble spots" of the inner thigh and side of your glutes? The myth of spot reducing is an absolute fallacy. Your body is genetically predetermined where it will lose fat first and in what order it will go away. Again, diet is the major factor here.

Doing all the sit ups in the world will not get your six pack to show any faster.

So what does all this mean? Fat loss is not simply achieved only through aerobics, or only through weightlifting, or only through diet. It takes an integrated approach to help your clients realize their fat loss potential. If your client is not losing weight and you know that your training program is dialed in, then, barring a medical condition, the client is simply eating too many calories.

There is no impossible scenario. Every overweight man, woman and child CAN lose weight and achieve their goals, and with a properly designed periodized program and with your guidance and support, along with the occasional reality check, your clients will succeed.

Wrapping it all up

So, there you have a practical example of how to use periodization. While it is a rather simplistic example, it is highly effective and a great place to start your quest for more knowledge on the subject. Just remember that you can never know enough about it, so read everything you can get your hands on regarding this or any of the other fitness science subjects. If you haven't been using a logical progression in your training programs as outlined above, you're probably selling the results they produce short. Stop making this mistake and apply what you've just learned today.

To learn more about becoming a certified personal trainer, check out the ISSA's certification program.

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