Breaking Plateaus with Periodization Training


By Sammy Cusimano

“Variety is the spice of life” is a classic adage, which applies to all levels of human existence.  Fitness is definitely an important part of a healthy human experience and undoubtedly much more enjoyable and beneficial when workouts are diverse.  The freshness of a new exercise routine can quickly invigorate and energize the mind and body on the journey towards your fitness goals.

The body is a perfectly designed machine that is built to adapt.  This explains how competitive marathon runners are able to run at high speeds for 26.2 miles race after race throughout the course of a year.  Their bodies have been progressively trained to withstand the intensity of longer running distances each day.  Just as the body can physically adapt to endurance challenges such as marathons, it can also grow and become accustomed to seemingly impossible feats of strength such as in powerlifting competitions in which athletes lift hundreds of pounds (sometimes even 1000+ lbs.).

Training the body to be able to adapt and perform incredible athletic skills takes excellent planning and strategic development of the most effective workout routines.  Simply repeating the same workouts over and over will quickly become stagnant.  The human body is meant to be able to adapt to daily physical activity, so as to enable us as a species to have the strength and endurance to survive in the most primitive conditions.  The body’s survival skills can be challenging for athletes.  Embarking on a personal journey of fitness requires a constant flow of challenges so that the body and mind will continue to grow and develop in the face of demanding workouts.

There is a type of training that focuses on the progressive cycling of diverse training methods for specific periods of time.  It is called “periodization”.  The most basic example of periodization can be seen in the way that football players train.  There is an off-season “mass building” period followed by a “strength and power” period which then leads to a “conditioning” period, as preparations for the upcoming season of competition continue.  The basic principle is that each training phase has a specific purpose in preparing the body for the games ahead.  Football athletes do not train in the same method year-round.  Their training is diversified to produce the best results possible.
Whether you are a competitive athlete or a fitness enthusiast who just wants to enjoy the excitement of a fresh, new training regimen, periodization is a great “shot in the arm” to help you break through the plateaus that inevitably occur while going through the ups and downs of a workout program.  It is extremely beneficial to the body and the mind.  The changes in the training methods stimulate muscle growth and increase athletic performance ability while also revitalizing the mental edge needed to overcome new obstacles and achieve desired goals.

Periodization is so effective because it gives an objective timeline to your workout routine, which helps to increase motivation and intensity.  For example, you may begin a six-month workout program that is divided into three phases:
1) strength and powerlifting phase for eight weeks
2) toning and definition phase for eight weeks
3) endurance and stamina phase for eight weeks.

As the eight-week mark of each phase approaches, the body is on the verge of hitting a plateau and fully adapting to the workout routine; however, the training program is then drastically changed to a very different method which “shocks” the muscles into new growth and development. Each eight-week phase challenges the body in a different way, thus making the whole program incredibly effective and beneficial towards achieving results.

Anatomically, the advantage of periodization training is the stimulation of both fast twitch muscle fibers (explosive, heavy movements consisting of low repetitions) as well as slow twitch muscle fibers (endurance, stamina-based exercises consisting of high repetitions).  Each muscle of the body has a specific ratio of both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers.  Only stimulating one type of muscle fiber is an incomplete method of training.  Many times, athletes and fitness enthusiasts will train using the same workout method all year round, with very little variation.  For overall muscle development, it is very important to diversify workout programs regularly to avoid the pitfalls of exercise routine plateaus.

When implementing periodization training into a fitness program, advancing from one phase to the next can sometimes be very abrupt.  Moving from a heavy phase of low repetitions to a light phase of high repetitions can be a very extreme change for the body.  To alleviate this change in the workout program, it is helpful to utilize a transitional phase whereby only light to medium weight exercises are performed once per week.  The other workout days can be focused on core and cardio work.  This transitional phase is only necessary for one-two weeks.  The body will be recovered from the heavy/low rep phase of training and ready for the intense demands of the lighter/high rep phase.

Much like High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.), the foundation of periodization training lies in its limitless possibilities.  There is no one singular routine for this method.  The length of time that a phase lasts as well as the types of workouts within each phase are completely up to the person designing the program.  If you would like to map out a periodization workout program but you are not sure about the details, then consult with a fitness professional who can guide you on the safest and most effective training program that will suit your specific fitness needs and goals.

The benefits of periodization training are as diverse as the training method itself.  The increased recovery potential coupled with increasing muscle gains and raw power in a minimum amount of time are just the beginning of how this method can enhance a fitness lifestyle.  The constant battle of avoiding overtraining within a particular workout routine is no longer as prominent of an issue in periodization programs.  The necessary changes needed to keep the exercise routines fresh and challenging are built into the strategically designed workout programs from the start.  Psychologically the main benefit of periodization training is the elimination of boredom.  Workouts become fun again because the challenges are constantly changing.  In this training method, you can look back on how far you have come but still anticipate the fresh challenge of what lies ahead in the program.

Athletes and fitness lovers are reaping the benefits of periodization training now more than ever.  The current atmosphere of the fitness world is heavily influenced by the diversity of so many different types of exercise methods and programs that are available and so easily accessible.  Every day more fitness studios, usually each with their own specific niche, are opening and expanding the repertoire of workout programs for all walks of life.  Periodization training can be utilized in any type of fitness method to great avail.  Whether you are working out in a fitness club, yoga studio, Crossfit gym, boxing ring, etc. the infinite possibilities that periodization training creates will be able to keep up with the limitless love of life, wellness and fitness that grows in you every single day.

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