Physique: Periodization Prevents Plateaus

If nothing changes, nothing changes… Truer words have never been spoken. I can honestly say that the best way for you to reach your fitness goals is to get into a regular training regiment. The worst thing for you to do is to stay in that regular training regiment.

Months ago, we briefly discussed how the body adapts to exercise when we explored modifying your joint position to achieve different muscle stimulation. Let’s revisit adaptation as it relates to plateaus. We exercise because we want to see some type of substantive change in our physical make up. Whether it’s increased strength or mass, or a reduction in body fat or dimension, we exercise with the expectation that there will be a reaction in our bodies that will consummate the challenge with which we present it. On the flip side of the coin, our bodies want us to be as successful as possible in whatever environment we’re in. Therefore, it will make the improvements necessary to better equip you to thrive under present conditions. Simply put, genetically we are highly adaptive beings.

To put this in perspective, think about the first time you ever did push ups and sit ups, or maybe jogged your first mile. Those things probably seem like child’s play relative to your current fitness level, even if you’ve been out of the game for a while. As you got stronger, you modified the degree of difficulty in your exercise program to match your fitness level. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the same would hold true today?

No matter how well conditioned you are, your body is programmed to elevate itself to the level of the demand you place on it. Once it can meet a certain demand, it no longer has a reason to change, unless the demand somehow changes. Besides keeping our workouts interesting, this is why we periodize (make scheduled modifications) to our workouts ─ to introduce opportunities for growth. Plus, using the periodization model, we can break down our long-term goals down into smaller components. This method allows us to partition our training into cycles that highlight certain deficiencies or objectives. What’s more, this concept encourages you to focus on accomplishing a single group of adaptations, which will in turn support the next group. Ultimately, over the course of completing these cycles or phases, all of your goals can be reached.

Now, many of you are fully aware of the need to periodize, and yet your results are stagnant. Most often, this is because your program modifications are primarily cosmetic. You’re changing the way your workouts look, but the content, for the most part, stays the same. Think of the bicycle analogy I introduced a few months ago. Most of us can ride a bicycle. No matter how long it’s been since you’ve last ridden, you can likely jump right back on and pick up where you left off. At this point, you would need to introduce a new challenge, like riding with one hand, or no hands, or maybe even learning acrobatic tricks if you’re skilled enough. However, instead of learning something different, many are guilty of simply changing the brand of bike they ride, or perhaps the color. The change is cosmetic, the experience (stimulation) is really no different. The same is true of exercises.

That’s not to say that you need to invent new exercises. I’ve seen my fair share of that silliness on the gym floor, but rather, you need to make a thorough evaluation of how you’re stimulating each muscle group and explore new ways of generating the feedback you want from your body. What exactly does that Unknownmean for you and your workout program? I don’t know. I hate throwing blanket statements out there without giving examples of how you can implement a strategy, but every one is different, and their needs at any given time are equally as different.

Some of you may be in the trap of doing the same standard exercises for each muscle group, and just need to venture outside of your comfort zone. Others may need to switch up their style of training altogether, even if just temporarily. For instance, those of you focused primarily on strength training may need to inject a period of pure hypertrophic training to add new muscle to your bodies. After that, you can return to strength training to realign the neurological pathways and bring the new muscle and mature muscle in sync for greater strength output. So too might the body sculptor need to take a break from hypertrophic training and engage in focused strength training, then return to hypertrophic workouts with a greater base of strength.

The hardest part about periodization, however may lie in straying away from your comfort zone. At the end of the day, we all want to walk away from a workout feeling successful. As such, we tend to gravitate toward things that are familiar. We know how much we can or should bench. We know which dumb bells we can successfully curl for 10. Even if we’re going for a one-rep max, we know roughly what that weight should be. If you take a step back and really look at why you train, wouldn’t you feel more successful moving closer toward your goal with an unfamiliar routine, than staying exactly where you are with a program you can do in your sleep?

Remember, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working if your program isn’t changing you…

Michael Anderson CPT NCSF, IFBB Physique Pro

Happy Lifting!

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