We all have gotten to a point where we seem to be doing everything right (nutrition, training, sleep) yet, we stop seeing progress. We stop either getting stronger, gaining muscle mass, or improving overall performance. This is what is known as a plateau. Even though there are multiple reasons why you might have hit that plateau, such as recovery, nutrition, training frequency, and method, I am only going to get into the training portion. I will provide information that will help you: a. avoid a stall in progress, b. identify if your plateau is coming from lack of strategic training modifications and c. give you tools to get out of it.
First things first, why do we hit a plateau? Our bodies are designed to adapt in order to survive. Every time we expose our bodies to stressors, weight training, for example, it starts a series of physiological processes that aim to keep the body from going through that type of stress again. So in this case, the body will start growing muscle mass so that in the near future it can be better prepared to deal with that weight or resistance. So, over time that stressor will stop being perceived as a “threat”. Then, it won’t be necessary to keep adapting. The body won’t change or grow if you don’t give it a reason to do so. The same training program can only generate relevant progress for a certain amount of time. And so it would be safe to assume that the solution would be to just train harder or longer, right? Well, not really. That approach could actually sink you in even deeper on that plateau, it could lead to overtraining which is worse. The key is to carefully tweak your training program without making huge changes. Here is where periodization comes into play.
Periodization is defined as “a flexible method, and a systematic attempt to gain control of the adaptive response to training.” It consists of making changes in your training program for certain periods of time. There are different methods for periodization. The traditional method, for example, focuses on an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. This traditional method incorporates training specificity, which depends on individual goals and athletic status. There was a study done in 2009 by Monteiro and colleagues where they researched the effects of non-periodized and periodized strength training on 27 weight trained college males. The results of this study showed that periodized training was superior to non-periodized training. The researchers found that the subjects’ bench and leg press increased by 28%. Another group of researchers, Rhea and Alderman, did a meta-analysis of multiple studies that examined periodized and non-periodized training. They mainly compared studies that focused on strength gains. What they found was that both men and women will experience greater increases in strength when following a periodized training program.
Now that we are aware of the benefits of periodization, let’s get into how you can include it in your program. Sadly, there is not an answer I can give that will apply to everyone. I recommend communicating with your trainer so that he/she can better tweak it in a more personalized way. However, I will try to provide the general principle of periodization. Although the traditional method is the most common, there are other methods such as undulating, block, fractal, conjugate sequence, and reverse. Each method should be carefully chosen and applied based on (for athletes) training periods, sport, time of the season, date of the competition, etc.; for non-athletes, it’s based on physical capabilities and goals. Despite the multiple methods, they all share the same phases: general preparation, specific preparation, competition, and transition. However, when discussing the general population, these phases don’t apply the same way and don’t have to be as strict or complicated. Just the most basic changes in each phase will be enough to break a non-athlete plateau. So I will only talk about the traditional method, which is a linear periodization. This method consists of keeping an inverse relationship between intensity (weight) and volume (reps and sets). Depending on which phase you are on, the bigger or smaller the difference in a said relationship will be. So, for example, if you are in the first phase of your periodization when you are focusing on gaining muscle mass, you will work with high volume (5-8 sets, 10-15 reps) and low intensity (60-70% of your PR or 1RM). After a couple of weeks or months, you will change phases and will then start decreasing volume and increasing intensity. The phases will keep following this principle until we get to a relationship of high intensity and low volume. We also include a taper phase where we allow the body to recover and “rest” by reducing exercise stress while still training. So that’s the trick, changing up reps, sets, and weight in a planned and thoughtful manner. Sticking to the same type of workouts can only take your body so far. We must keep it on its toes if we want to see continuous progress. Periodized training has shown to not only increase strength but also to cause better physiological adaptations since it puts the body under stressors that are constantly changing. Periodizing a training routine offers the body the opportunity to get “shocked” effectively so that it can adapt faster and better.
I hope I did a decent job at explaining this concept, there is so much to it and more factors to consider if we are talking about athletes, so it is challenging to cover everything in just a few paragraphs. There are a lot of components that must be taken into account when programming an effective periodized training program, however, if you follow the main principle of this method you should be able to at least get on the right track to get you out of that plateau.
If you have any questions or want to learn more about the different types of periodization, just send me an email and I will be happy to answer.