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Keep Your Workouts Productive with Periodization

Updated on December 23, 2011

Periodization...or "muscle confusion"

Periodization is a concept developed by the trainers in Russia during the height of the cold war. The Russian (and other eastern bloc countries) excelled in the weight lifting contests for quite a while. One has to note that their success was in large part due to performance enhancing drugs, but they did use cutting edge training methodologies as well. Periodization being one of them. What is periodization? It is simply changing reps, sets, loads, and volume over a period of time. They laid out a program over the course of a year consisting of macro-cycles, micro-cycles, and weekly-cycles. Nothing was left to chance or done willy nilly. The main reason for the development of periodization is to avoid over training and to make continued, steady progress toward the ultimate goal: to get as strong and conditioned for sport as possible.

Lately, periodization has been called something else..."muscle confusion". This term is popularized by Tony Horton, founder of the p90X program. He says, in essence, that you need to change up your training program to "confuse" your muscles, for they get too familiar with a set routine. I want to set the record straight. The muscles cannot get confused. They do not think. The get feedback from the nervous system regarding the amount of external resistance and recruit the amount of muscle fibers needed to overcome the load as best as they can. That's it. No "thinking" involved. For proof, we can look back to the strongmen from the late 1800s to early 1900s. They did a basic routine and trained every other day...and got strong. Real strong. So why do we need periodization or "muscle confusion"? Two reasons: One is because the mind does think, and we need to keep it off guard. If you know you are going to do the same routine every workout, you kind of "check out" mentally. You start dreading your workout, so you do not psyche up for the session. You will not push as hard, thus your progress will slow down or stop altogether. The second reason is because highly motivated trainees (mainly competitive athletes) tend to push too hard too often which leads to over training and diminished performance. Regimenting their training program forces them to cut back and recover in a structured way. Now that we are clear as to what periodization is and does, we will define intensity and examine how to apply it to both a multiple set, split training training program and a whole body, high intensity training program.

Our client doing a 500 lb leg press.
Our client doing a 500 lb leg press.

How to Guage Intensity

To use periodization effectively, the trainee must have an understanding of intensity. There are two definitions that I am aware of: The first one is simply a percentage of the trainee's one rep max. For example, if a trainee can do a bench press of 200 pounds for 1 rep, that represents 100% intensity. So if the trainee does a set of bench presses with160 pounds, this represents an intensity level of 80%, for 160 pounds is 80% of 200 pounds. The other definition that I am familiar with (and use as a base measurement for my training protocols) is simply how hard is a muscle working at a given point. For example, if a trainee does a set of bench presses with 200 pounds for ten reps and tries for an eleventh rep but fails, he has reached 100% intensity. On the other hand, if he does the same set and stops on the 8th rep (before he reaches momentary muscular failure), he reached about an 80% intensity level. The first definition has relevance for a multiple set approach, whereas the second one has more value with a high intensity, whole body routine.

Periodization and a multiple set routine

Let's start with a multiple set approach. Most trainees prefer to split up body parts and train 4 or 5 times a week. They can therefore add more total sets to their program. The reasoning for doing more total sets simply this: more sets=more muscle. This is not necessarily true. Intensity plays a larger role for muscle size and strength than volume, but this does not mean multiple set training cannot work. It can. Using a periodized approach will do it.

Volume to intensity

One way to change the routine is to start with more total sets, lighter weights and higher reps. Then over the course of three months slowly increase weights while lowering the total amount of sets and lower reps. Here is an example:

Month one.

  • 5 sets of ten reps at 60% intensity.
  • 2 minute rest intervals.

This to be done for the first month, gradually adding either one more rep per workout or decreasing the rest interval to 90 seconds, then 60 seconds keeping everything else the same.

Month two.

  • 4 sets of 8 at 80% intensity.
  • 2 minute rest intervals.

Over the course of the month work towards 90% intensity (adding weight or more reps) while keeping the rest intervals the same.

Month three.

  • 3 sets at 90% intensity.
  • 3 minute rest intervals.

During this month you may want to keep the intensity the same but shorten the rest intervals. That would finish one cycle. The next step would be to lighten the weights and start the first cycle over again, but with a higher starting weight (therotically one should be a little stronger at this point). For example, if a trainee started with 100 pounds the first cycle, he should work with 110 pounds to start the second cycle.

As you can see, over a long period of time this looks like a wave or step process. Each cycle goes a little higher, hence the trainee becomes stronger. By changing volume and intensity as such, a trainee has a much less likelihood of over training, for during the lighter workouts the body can recover more overall from the preceding hard workouts.

Other examples are: varying the tempo of the lift, such as taking 3 seconds to lift and 3 seconds to lower thus increasing the time under tension for a month, then switch to a 4 second lift and 4 second to lower tempo making the sets harder without changing any other variable; changing the order of exercises, changing exercises, and advanced techniques(these are high intensity methods I will discuss fully in another article). The point is there are endless possibilities.

Periodization and the High Intensity Approach

As all of my clients know, I use a whole body, lower volume and higher intensity approach to strength training. I find it much more efficient. One can see the same strength gains from high intensity training as a multiple set approach but with much less time spent in the gym. Even though high intensity is brief, it is very demanding and one can still over train if he is not careful. Here is how I incorporate periodization into this training style.

As mentioned above, I determine 100% intensity as the point where a trainee reaches momentary musular failure, not as a one rep max. For example, if a trainee does a set of bench with 150 pounds for 9 reps and attempts a 10th rep but cannot finish it, that is 100% intensity. Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? There is no question you gave it your all. So if the trainee stops his set with the same weight at 7 reps, that would equate to roughly 70% intensity. So here is how I periodize the approach. Below is an example of my program:

After 2 weeks of training to failure on all my sets, I will back off on both the weights and intensity by about about 25%. For example, if I was doing a pulldown with 200 pounds for 8 reps to failure, I would lower the weight down to 170 pounds and do 10 reps and not to failure. I would do this for about a week only adding one more rep each workout.

I would also take longer rest between sets. When I train hard and to failure, I also try to keep my rest intervals between sets to the minimum possible. I waist just long enough to catch my breath and I feel ready enough for another hard set. My heart rate is still elevated before I start my next set, usually between 130 to 135 beats a minute when I start another exercise. I do this because I want to not only get stronger, but to train my body to work for longer periods of time above the anaerobic threshold. After a few weeks I need to back off on that as well. Generally, I would take two to two and a half minutes between sets in my recovery phase. As per increasing weights and intensity over the next few weeks, I try to shorten my rest intervals as well.

I would also increase volume. Not much, but some. I typically do 10 to 12 total sets during my workout when I train 100%. I do between 13 to 15 total sets when I go lighter with longer rest intervals.

The "Feel Good" workout

If a trainee plans to strength train for his whole life (I highly recommend this), there are plenty of times where he will not have the motivation to exercise at all. There are also times when he is under a lot of stress or maybe feeling under the weather. These times are perfect for what I call the "feel good" workout. This is simple a workout where the trainee uses very light weights (roughly 40 to 50% of the amount of weight he normally uses), and he does 10 to 12 reps per set getting nowhere close to fatigue. Why? I find that this helps get the blood flowing throughout the body which is very rejuvenating. It feels good. It helps with motivation. It still gets the stress hormones worked out of the body, and it keeps a trainee consistent with his workouts. These are all positive benefits for long term commitment and health. I use this often. If I am under a lot of stress, I will do a feel good workout for one or two sessions. Sometimes even for a week or more. I always come back to hard training refreshed and ready to take it to the next level.


Periodization is an important tool for a trainee to have in his tool box if he wants to commit to a life long fitness program. It is too easy to over train, get injured, make little progress, and simply lose motivation without it. As described above, there are many variables and methods one can implement into his training regimen for optimal fitness gains. Learn the variables, master them, add them to your workouts, and enjoy the fitness journey.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Practical and useful guide for me as a trainer and as a client


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