As a wellness coach and fitness writer, I am often asked about how to keep progress moving forward. Our bodies were created with an amazing ability to adapt—which can be good in many situations. However, when it comes to building your best body, it can be frustrating! Perhaps the easiest way to prevent or overcome a plateau is to change your routine—often. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to plan out regular routine changes, through a process called periodization.
What is periodization?
Periodization training is nothing new, and has been used for years as a method of keeping athletes from over training. Simply put, periodization training involves regularly varying, or cycling, the intensity (amount of weight lifted) and volume (the number of repetitions per set) of your workout. A 2001 study in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise reported that women who trained using periodization—versus a typical weight machine circuit—had superior results over a six-month time frame in many areas, including a larger decrease in body fat (25 percent versus 10 percent), an increase in fat-free mass (8 percent versus 2 percent), and greater increases in tests for muscular strength, endurance and power.
Simply put, periodization deals with changing the intensity and volume of your workouts. You’ll want to vary the actual exercises you’re performing at regular intervals, as well, for maximum results. Typically, the intensity of the exercises is determined by finding your one repetition max (1RM)—the maximum amount of weight you can lift with one try on any given exercise—and then taking a percentage of that amount. To find this, choose a weight amount that allows you to do the given number of repetitions, with the last repetition being difficult to do. Your ultimate goal is muscular fatigue. A workout cycle can change weekly, biweekly or monthly, and can include any combination of intensities and volumes. The various levels include:
(A)High intensity, 3 to 5 reps (B)Moderate intensity, 8 to 10 reps (C)Light intensity, 12 to 15 reps
We’ve included several examples for combining these levels into workout cycles. You can choose how long you want a cycle to last, with the maximum length of a cycle being about a month long. After a month or so, the body begins that whole adaptation thing—the very thing you’re working to avoid! The letters in the examples refer to the intensity level (A, B or C), as shown. We’ve also included a sample workout, giving examples of how you can vary the intensity.
The following workout is designed to give you several options for varying your intensity level. The main exercise description is the (A) or highest intensity, (B) and (C), moderate and low respectively, follow. Pick one intensity option for each exercise. Depending on your time and goals, do one to three sets of each exercise.
(A) Stand holding barbell on shoulders. Step forward with the right foot; right foot is flat, left heel is lifted (starting position). Keep body lifted—head erect, shoulders back and relaxed, chest up, back tall. Bring body straight down toward floor. Knees should not go beyond the toes. Push back up to starting position. Repeat. Switch sides and repeat.
(B) Do above exercise holding a dumbbell in each hand.
(C) Do above exercise with no added resistance.
(A) Place a step (such as a Reebok Step) in the middle of a squatting rack. Holding the barbell on your shoulders, stand on the step so your heels are off the edge of it (starting position). Lower your heels then lift them up, squeezing the calf muscles. Slowly lower heels back to starting position. Repeat. Do one set of heel raises with toes forward, one set with toes outward, and one set with toes inward.
(B) Do above exercise without the barbell and squatting rack. Place the step near something immoveable to hold onto for balance, or use a stair step.
(C) Do above exercise while sitting. Place one dumbbell on each thigh near the knee. This can be done with or without a step (without a step further lowers the intensity).
(A) Get down onto hands and knees. Bring legs straight out behind you, on toes, legs together. Hands are about shoulder-width apart; do not lock elbows. Core should be tight, body straight. Do not allow your buttocks to stick up (starting position). Slowly lower your body down, bending your elbows, until your nose almost touches the floor. Push back to starting position. Repeat. Tip: for added resistance, an exercise band can be added. Place band around back, and hold ends, one in each hand. Placing your feet on a chair or a stability ball further adds more challenge.
(B) Do above exercise, but with legs at a wide stance, so the legs form a "V."
(C) Do above exercise on your knees instead of your toes.
Rows on incline bench
(A) Lean prone (on your front side) against an incline bench (set at about a 120-degree angle), allowing your upper body to rest on the bench, and holding a dumbbell in each hand (feet on the floor). Hold arms straight down, palms facing you, inside ends of dumbbells touching. Pull arms toward body, bending elbows (as if rowing a boat). Squeeze shoulder blades together and envision touching elbows together. Slowly release back to starting position. Repeat.
(B) Do seated rows on seated row machine. Action is the same as above.
(C) Do seated rows with exercise band or tubing. Sit on floor with legs straight out. Place band around bottom of feet; hold one end of band in each hand, arms out straight with elbows slightly bent, sitting up straight (starting position). In this position, the band should be taut, not slack. Follow the directions above for the row.
(A) Sit on end of bench. Hold dumbbells down by sides of legs (starting position). With slightly bent elbows, raise your arms until they are parallel with the floor. Keep shoulders down and relaxed (don’t hunch them up). Slowly release down to starting position. Repeat
(B) Do above exercise while standing.
(C) Do above exercise while standing and with an exercise band. Place band under feet and hold one end in each hand. Band should be taut. Proceed with exercise.
Overhead triceps extensions
(A) Stand or sit, holding a dumbbell in one hand. Raise arm straight up overhead, then lower dumbbell, bending only the elbow, until dumbbell is behind your head (starting position). Press the weight up, bending only at elbow, until the arm is straight. Slowly release it back down, bending only from elbow, to starting position. Repeat. Switch sides and repeat.
(B) Do above exercise holding one dumbbell in both hands—do both arms together.
(C) Do above exercise with an exercise band. Place band under feet and hold with either one hand or two. Proceed with exercise above.
(A) Sit on an incline bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, hands down by sides of legs, elbows slightly bent, palms facing up. "Glue" the elbows to your sides (starting position). Pull the dumbbell up toward the shoulder, bending only from the elbow. Slowly release back to starting position. Repeat.
(B) Do above exercise sitting upright or standing.
(C) Do above exercise standing using a curling bar instead of dumbbells.
(A) Position yourself on a back hyperextension bench. Hold a plate weight above your head (arms by ears) and allow your upper body to hang over the front of the bench (starting position). Pull your upper body back so the back is slightly arched; arms move with body, staying by the ears. Tighten the buttocks. Slowly return to starting position. Repeat.
(B) Do above exercise with arms extended but no weight.
(C) Do above exercise with arms behind back, hands resting on lower back. This can also be done over a stability ball if a hyperextension bench isn’t available.
(A) Lie supine (on back) on a decline bench, head at lower end, knees bent. Hold a weight plate behind your head. As you exhale, crunch up until shoulders are off the bench. Keep arms wide (do not pull elbows in). Push lower back into bench. Inhale and very slowly return to starting position. Repeat. (Option: hold plate on chest instead of behind head.)
(B) Do above exercise without the weight. Hands can be placed over chest, behind head, or up above head (arms by ears).
(C) Do above exercise on a flat surface. Hand options the same as (B).
Putting it all together: Ways to vary volume and intensity by week
Periodization methodology can also be applied to your cardio workout. Plan out cycles, alternating days, weeks or months of high-, moderate- and light-intensity work.