Periodization Training: Adding Variety, Increasing Challenge & Organizing Phases to Build Muscle

Periodization, in very simple terms, is a way to organize your training in phases, usually starting with Endurance and working up to Power. Athough the concept of periodization was borrowed from athletic training circles, bodybuilders have adapted it to suit the purpose of purely building muscle and enhancing their physique.

When it comes to lifting weights in the gym, periodization is another word for adding variety to your workouts and to organize your training in stages. Adding variety can keep things challenging and prevent you from getting bored. Both of these work hand in hand to prevent plateaus and ensure continued progress. Here are several ways to add variety:

Exercise Substitution

Many exercises that are similar can feel very different when you actually do them. For example, military presses feel a lot different than dumbbell presses, which force you to balance and coordinate at a higher level. On the other hand, the military press allows you to focus on pushing a heavier load. Switching between barbells and dumbbells provide a good change and stimulus for your muscles, as do machines and cables which can also be used at key junctions.

In addition, there are all types of variations within a particular exercise that can add even greater variety to your training. A bench can go from incline to decline, while the lat pulldown can be done with close, wide or underhand grip. Utilize angles and different variations of exercises to continue presenting new challenges to your muscles.

However, make sure not to change exercises TOO often, as this can be somewhat counterproductive to calculated progression. In other words, its a good idea to stick with the same exercise for a while so you can increase the weight or reps and know you're making progress.

Switching Order

Changing the order that you do your exercises in can have an impact on your training routine, especially if you change the order of the muscle groups. For example, lets say you typically start with Chest and then move on to Back, switching this order can make a difference in how you feel and perform. Or, lets say you usually start with flat bench press before doing incline dumbbell presses, reverse the order of these two to get a completely different feel from each exercise.

Pre-exhausting

By performing an isolation move before a compound movement, you effectively pre-exhaust the target muscle and possibly make it word harder during the compound exercise. For example, doing dumbbell flyes before the bench press to pre-exhaust the chest and make it push harder during the bench. However, keep in mind that with this example, by pre-exhausting the chest, your shoulder and triceps might be forced to compensate and work harder during the Bench.

Rep Tempo & Ranges

Experiment with different tempos to mix up your training and recruit the various type of muscle fibers. Broadly, muscle fibers are grouped into 3 categories, Type I, Type IIa and TypeIIb. The Type I fibers, also known as slow-twitch fibers, are mainly used for endurance activities since they are highly oxidative, using oxidative metabolic processes to generate ATP. Type IIa & IIb fibers, also known as fast twitch fibers, are mainly used for strength and explosive activities by being glycolytic, rapidly converting glucose for energy.

Compared to slow-twitch fibers, fast-twitch fibers are about 20% bigger and have a higher potential for growth. By lifting with heavier weights and/or faster, more explosive tempos, the fast-twitch fibers are activated to a greater degree. To maximize the effect on fast-twitch fibers, a good rule to follow is to lower the weight slowly, while lifting the weight as explosively as possible.

Training in slow tempos, where both the lifting and lowering portions are slow & controlled, has the advantage of increasing time-under-tension to produce a significant challenge for your muscles. Using a slower tempo also has the advantage of reinforcing proper form and creating good technique habits.

Varying your repetition ranges is another way to influence the different types of muscle fibers and metabolic pathways. Training with lower reps and a higher weight has the effect of rapidly recruiting more fast-twitch fibers, while higher reps and a lighter weight calls on the slow-twitch fibers to carry more of the burden.

Different muscle groups are composed of a different proportion of fast to slow twitch fibers, although most skeletal muscle has a combination of all the different fiber types. Therefore, its an excellent idea to vary the repetition ranges and rep tempos in your training to get the maximum benefit over a longer period of time.

Training Split

There are various ways in which volume, frequency and order of the muscle groups can be manipulated. Full-body workouts performed multiple times a week is an example of low volume, high frequency training. On the other hand, working only one muscle group per day in a given week is the complete opposite, high volume with low frequency. A middle approach would be to train 2-3 muscle groups per workout, for a total of 3-4 workouts per week. Changing how you split your muscle groups and thereby changing the volume & frequency can prevent plateaus and keep you progressing.

Periodization Training Cycles

A common approach to periodizing is to start with lighter weights and higher reps, incrementally progressing to heavier weights and lower reps as the months go on. Generally, when working with lighter weight, rest periods are the shortest and they gradually get longer as the weights get heavier.

Dedicating a few weeks to each type of weight class, light, medium and heavy, while manipulating rest times during these cycles can really help you organize your training routine and ensure continued progress over a much longer period of time, effectively minimizing plateaus.