Periodization: The Fine Art of Fitness Timing

Are you going through the motions and settling for so-so results? Maybe you need a master plan – and a mesocycle.

We all know that repeating the same exercises day after day is counterproductive. Not only will you go batty from boredom, but your results will also suffer. You might think that the solution to this dilemma is to slide a few more pounds on the barbell and change the order of your routine. Or you might test yourself with Pilates, rock climbing or even a team sport you’ve never tried before. Unfortunately, most attempts at variation, however well intentioned, devolve into muddled disorder.

In order to achieve meaningful results, the path of physiological progress has to have a logical course and a clear destination. That’s why coaches and conditioning experts structure their clients’ routines around a clever workout cycle known as periodization.

Periodization is an amalgam of two important concepts: The progressive-overload principle and the general-adaptation syndrome. The progressive-overload principal recognizes that physical improvement occurs when the body is forced to adapt to increased stress. When you ratchet up the load on your barbell or the speed on the treadmill, you pump up the intensity of your exercise routine and thereby also improve your strength, power and endurance (and your good looks).

But that doesn’t mean that every workout you do needs to be more intense than the last. On the contrary, human progress is never linear. This is where the general-adaptation syndrome comes into play. The rule of general adaptation recognizes that after an initial growth phase, the body tends to become somewhat stale and inured to improvement. It also becomes more susceptible to injury. Periodization accommodates these down cycles by bringing an element of science and planning into exercise variation. It’s not just a matter of taking a break now and then. Rather, it’s a progressive regime that cycles through the various facets of conditioning in a deliberate sequence – one that’s calculated to maximize yearly gains and achieve peak performance at a predetermined time.

Seasonal Cycles

Periodization parcels training into several cycles, from pre-season practice to post-season recovery. The phases of training take place within a yearlong macrocycle (long-length cycle) that’s divided into two or more mesocycles (medium-length cycles), each of which last a few months. These mesocycles are then further broken down into multiple one-week microcycles (short-length cycles).

Those of us who divide our exercise week to focus on specific parts of the body already understand the concept of microcycles. It’s the bigger picture – the meso- and macrocycles – that most of us are missing.

For an athlete, the macrocycle is the overarching goal of his or her training. Its aim is to attain peak performance during the competition season. Putting meso- and microcycles into the training year provides the basis for changing the athlete’s routine.

For a noncompetitive athlete who doesn’t think of exercise in terms of yearly goals, the notion of an annual training cycle can seem bewildering. If that’s you, signing up for a 10K race or a volleyball league can provide you with a goal to plan your year around. Or you can think like a bodybuilder who trains to be at his or her peak for a specific competition; your big event can be that first June strut around the pool deck.

Regardless of your goal, you’ll divide the stages of any macrocycle into three or more mesocycles. The mesocycles start with a high-volume, low-intensity phase and progress gradually to lower-volume, higher-intensity training. Take weight training for example. During your first mesocycle (known as the preparatory phase) you begin with a high-volume, low-intensity workout such as five or six sets of eight to 12 repetitions using light to moderate weight (about 50 percent of your single repetition maximum). This is the hypertrophy phase because it follows the protocol for developing muscle mass.

The second mesocycle involves lower-volume, higher-intensity exercises that develop strength. This phase usually comes right before the competition season and involves fewer sets, heavier loads and three to six repetitions.

The next mesocycle represents the power phase, which characteristically involves very intense, low volume, skill-oriented workouts. This is the phase at which you might incorporate plyometric training, speed work and heavy, multi-joint, low repetition lifts such as power squats and heavy bench presses. Last of all is the recovery phase – also known as active rest. This is when you get to try out different forms of recreational exercise, such as racquetball or bicycle riding – that is unless you’re a racquetball player or a cyclist.

Plan Your Year

The possibilities for training cycles are by no means limited to the examples I’ve listed. The basic idea is to create an exercise calendar that plots out the entire year and divides it into logical phases. If you train for a sport, the goals and the seasons are predetermined. If you exercise for the love of it, then you might follow the calendar year.

I, like most people, prefer to start my training in January. From the first of the year until early March, I concentrate on hypertrophy and use a high-volume, low intensity routine. This includes multiple weight sets and long, slow runs. In March, I crank up the focus. I begin working with heavier weights and make my runs shorter and faster. In May I concentrate on interval training and skill-oriented workouts. I alternate plyometrics with multi-joint lifts. In July, I taper off and enjoy the great weather. I camp, swim and take long evening walks. In fall, it’s back to long runs and endurance work. When the winter holidays approach, I’m ready to take advantage of the good food with workouts geared toward building muscles. At this time of year I’m less concerned about my waistline. Why swim upstream?

I call this macrocycle the “family man plan.” It helps me make sense of my 12-month training routine and keeps the pounds off from year to year. With a little ingenuity (and some advice from a certified trainer), you can devise your own macro-, meso- and microcycles to keep your training fresh for a lifetime of fitness.

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is a regular contributor to EL. See his article on hypertrophy also found in the printed or online version of the July/August 2003 issue.

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