Periodization training has nothing to do with menstrual cycles. It is, in fact, a type of training that has everything to do with how you organize and do physical activity.
What is periodization training? The 411
This fitness formula prescribes and plans periodic changes to your fitness regimen. The goal is to switch things up from time to time, which can help you optimize your training outcomes.
People usually approach periodized training in three parts:
- Microcycles. Often a week long, these are the smallest elements of the periodization program. Microcycles let you break your medium- and long-term fitness goals into manageable chunks.
- Mesocycles. These combine several microcycles for a medium-term view of approaching fitness or sports goals. There will be more variation in workout type and intensity within a mesocycle.
- Macrocycles. This is the extended and complete view of your goal — usually in terms of a 1- to 4-year buildup to a competition like the Olympics or World Cup.
Depending on the length of a cycle, you’ll spend a certain amount of time working through “phases,” or different levels of intensity. These include (from lowest intensity to highest):
- base phase
- build phase
- peak phase
- taper phase
- competition phase
Full periodization training is hard to stick to, but there are benefits everyone can carry over into their workout regimen.
Here’s everything you need to know about periodization training — without having to do too much heavy lifting or running laps around the internet.
Periodization training is an approach in which you plan out workouts and recovery intervals over an extended period (the clue’s in the name) with the intention of meeting defined, long-term training objectives.
To reach those targets, you’ll chunk the types and intensities of the exercises into meaningful time blocks called cycles, which often last several weeks or months. You or your trainer switches up one or more training variables for each period — like resistance, duration, or pace.
This helps keep the workout fresh and challenging for your body.
Each block aims to hit target milestones that, combined over time, help you achieve your wider training goals. Periodization training plans can even zoom in as far as mapping out the specific routines you’ll follow in each gym sesh. Yeah, it’s hella detailed.
The origin of periodization training
Periodization of training cycles originated in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. It evolved from the experiences of elite competitive athletes.
While little has changed in the periodization method since then, the fields of exercise physiology and sports science have advanced by leaps and bounds.
Coaches and trainers have loads more research and technology to support periodized training schemes for athletes at all levels.
Ever wonder how top pro athletes reach and stay in peak performance condition? They could be using periodization training.
Serious sportspeople use this method to work toward a wide range of fitness ambitions like:
- improving time and/or distance endurance
- increasing strength
- building speed
- gaining flexibility and range of motion
- enhancing coordination, agility, balance, and stability
- heightening mind-body engagement
- developing new skills
- facilitating recovery
- reducing fatigue
- bringing down injury risk
- preventing boredom
- breaking through performance plateaus
Maybe all those off-season yoga practices or pool laps are — almost literally — a slam dunk for your favorite basketballer.
Periodization in sports: Is it a winning proposition?
In theory, periodization training is structured yet flexible — like a great bra. But is it helpful in practice for all sportific endeavors? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
This is because:
- Every sport has its own demands.
- Trainers don’t implement all periodized training the same way.
- Different training plans can yield different results.
- Every person is unique.
The available research suggests that periodization training can help athletes prepare for competition in certain ways.
A 2019 review of periodization research found that this training approach could produce significantly better outcomes than nonperiodized training for athletes. Though most of the studies in the roundup were small and not necessarily uber-rigorous, they showed favorable changes in endurance and workload.
Regardless of which sport you’re crafting your bod for, periodization training may be worth exploring — particularly if any of those ambitions listed above hit close to home.
Trainers plan periodization in periods called cycles and levels of intensity known as phases.
- Microcycles are like a single game: short and quick.
- Mesocycles are like a full set: longer and with variation.
- Macrocycles are like the whole match: extended and complete.
They work like this:
- Weekish-long microcycles are the smallest building blocks.
- Microcycles combine to form mesocycles, which usually last weeks or months.
- Macrocycles — made up of all those mesocycles — encompass the total training program lifespan, often lasting 1 to 4 years and tied to some sort of big meet or competition (Olympics much?).
You may also see the terms “base phase,” “build phase,” “peak phase,” “taper phase,” and “competition phase.” These refer more to the level of intensity or effort you put into the training than to the length of the time block.
This means a microcycle may be just one phase, whereas a mesocycle might include many of these “effort” phases. On the flip side, a single “effort” phase may stretch across multiple micro- or mesocycles. By the time you reach the macrocycle finish line, you’ll have completed all these “effort” phases.
Typically, each successive period builds off those that come before to help you maintain your fitness momentum. This framework makes all the pieces part of a more manageable jigsaw.
Just because you aren’t ready, willing, or able to fully embrace periodization doesn’t mean you can’t adopt some of its essence for yourself. Latch on to the morsels that work, and don’t sweat the rest of it!
So, how can ordinary people leverage the good of periodization training in everyday workouts? Luckily, there are plenty of ways to apply the spirit of periodization to your fitness protocol:
- Think minimal. What’s the least amount of effort you can put in to get the most outcome? It might benefit you more to work smarter, not necessarily longer or harder.
- Be a strategic planner. Think about the specific outcomes you want to achieve. Then develop a regimen (built from macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles) of exercises that help you work toward your unique objectives. Try to make sure your goals are measurable — and actually track your progress.
- Get it on the schedule. Carving out time to exercise can be tough. But blocking the time in your schedule can help you commit. And consistent workouts will always trounce infrequent, high intensity workouts.
- Focus on only one or two goals at a time. Sometimes, less is more. Setting too many training targets can be distracting, demotivating, and counterproductive.
- Embrace variety. Try to engage in different kinds of exercises in a variety of workout environments. Fluctuate the loads your body is bearing.
- Keep it real. “Couch to 5K” in a day is aggressively ambitious. Start with a reasonable training volume and increase it over time. This can help you avoid burnout or injury.
- Don’t overdo it. Listen to your body. Be sure to balance exertion and recovery.
- Be holistic. Don’t forget to factor in sleep, nutrition, and stress management for a well-rounded fitness program that addresses every aspect of your health program.
Chris Carreiro, certified personal trainer and founder and head coach of Aum Training Center, is fond of telling folks, “If it isn’t sustainable, it’s not successful.”
More than a simple mantra, this is a key to developing and maintaining a winning fitness plan and overall wellness. These tips should (hopefully) make it just the tiniest bit easier for you.
You may still be wondering how to dovetail those basic tips into your workouts. See if these examples spark some ideas for you. Then — with your personal fitness needs in mind — brainstorm how you can inject some periodization training highlights into your exercise regimen.
Hypothetically, let’s say you want to be Push-Up Champion of the World and the competition is in a month. Using a liner periodization model, your training plan might look something like this:
- Microcycle = 1 day
- Mesocycle = 1 week
- Macrocycle = 1 month
- Base phase = 1 week
- Build phase = 2 weeks
- Peak phase = 5 days
- Taper phase = 2 days
- Competition phase = day of event
- Week 1 (base): Start building power and endurance through strength training and doing push-ups. Work on perfecting the structure of your push-ups. Tack on a few more push-ups each day.
- Weeks 2 and 3 (build): Continue building power and endurance through strength training and doing push-ups. But change one or more training variables every day — break the push-ups into more or fewer sets of more or fewer reps, do weighted push-ups, etc. Keep adding a few more push-ups to your regimen daily.
- Week 4 (peak and taper): For the first 5 days of the week, go gangbusters — do as many push-ups as you can, like it’s competition day. For the last 2 days, back off the push-ups a tad and get your mindset adjusted to smoke the other contestants.
- Competition day: Push up like the champ you are, baby!
- Recovery: Let your body rest. You can do light exercise, like moves that focus more on form and technique than on volume or intensity.
There are many potential perks to periodization training. For instance, it may:
- prompt you to work at various levels of effort instead of just one moderate level
- set in stone a restorative period, which gives your body a chance to properly recover
- reduce your risk of injury or overexertion
- help you avoid the dreaded plateau
- keep training interesting and engaging
Periodization training can incorporate tapering, a period at the end of the training phase that cranks up the specificity and intensity of exercise while decreasing the length and frequency of the workout.
And the upsides of periodization don’t have to stop with your physical self.
The U.S. Department of the Army notes that periodized training can positively impact mental, spiritual, and nutritional health and sleep hygiene and can help unify a group or team training for a shared event or goal.
So, how are periodized training plans actually organized? Coaches and trainers tend to stick to three main ways of arranging the training program:
- Linear or traditional periodization. This is the most commonly used model. You’ll typically progress from higher volumes at lower intensities to lower volumes at higher intensities over the course of a mesocycle. This would be like going from doing 100 unweighted squats to doing 20 squats with a 40-pound kettlebell.
- Reverse periodization. This is similar to the linear method but moves backward. It kicks off with lower volumes at higher intensities and works its way up to higher volumes at lower intensities. Reverse periodization may be especially well-suited for endurance athletes like rowers, runners, and swimmers.
- Nonlinear or undulating periodization. In this model, workouts change quite often in daily or weekly switch-ups. The trainer engineers workouts to increase and decrease both load and volume. This form of periodization could be preferable for those needing or wanting variety.
Research indicates that the effects of all three models are about the same.
But, depending upon your athletic needs, one style may reap better results. For example, there’s some evidence to suggest that reverse periodization may be more effective for muscle growth, while the linear technique might have the edge for increasing lean body mass.
You also don’t have to pick just one periodization training method. An overall training program may put different models to work at different times — like in the weeks leading up to a major competition. And phases can be cyclical, with workout structures looping back to ones you’ve already done.
Did you notice that we keep talking about periodization training in relation to pro athletes and competitive sportspeople? That’s because this training approach is possibly more appropriate for pro-sporties. Here’s why:
- It takes a lot of effort and forethought to create a training plan of the right intensity and length to achieve objectives without overtraining.
- While it’s adaptable to many kinds of training, it doesn’t really accommodate what daily life can throw at you.
- To get the most out of it, you have to adhere to the regimen pretty strictly. While the plan can vary, there’s not a *lot* of flexibility.
- It can require a lot of advanced knowledge or expertise in fitness, exercise physiology, and nutrition to craft a safe, effective training program.
Those who take on periodization training may face other challenges, though.
According to a 2010 review, it can be tough to reach multiple training peaks (or goals) in a given macrocycle. So, if an athlete needs to work on their speed and distance, periodization may not help them achieve both of those goals within the same training season.
Furthermore, many periodization routines focus solely on the physical dimensions of training. Without incorporating the mental and emotional aspects of competition, athletes might be at greater risk of injury.
According to Carreiro, “Periodization is better suited for the professional athlete whose full-time job year round is to prepare body and mind for optimal performance.”
“If athletics isn’t your main focus every day, you might have a lot of things to juggle (job, kids, chores, sleep or lack thereof, etc.) that creates physical and psychological stress,” he says. “This makes it more difficult to stick with a predetermined periodized plan. Most people need the ability to change course and adapt their workout plan based on each day’s need.”
In short, periodization training may not be practical or realistic for the average person. Most people don’t have the time, patience, discipline — whatever — to *truly* own a periodized training protocol. But that’s OK!
Periodization training is a framework for organizing workouts over an extended time to optimize training for maximum results and minimal injury or burnout. This approach requires a lot of time and dedication, so it’s most often serious athletes that take the periodization route.
But regular peeps can use many of the beneficial aspects of periodization training — like planning, goal setting, appropriate pacing, and varying workouts — for their own everyday fitness regimens. By leveraging some periodization training tenets, you might achieve better results from your exercise and for your overall wellness.