Workout Variety and Periodization

Today I want to touch on the concepts of workout variety and periodization.  Hefty text books have been written entirely about periodization, but it’s a safe bet most of you don’t have the time or desire to read them, so I’ll do my best to briefly explain the basics and how to apply them to improve your workouts.

Key Point #1:  If you repeat the same workout over and over, after a while your body will stop responding to it.  It’s been said that all exercise programs work but none work forever.  The bottom line is you need to vary your workouts in order to keep progressing.  As a rule of thumb you need to change something in your routine at a minimum every 6 weeks.

Key Point #2:  Your training intensity (i.e. amount of weight lifted or difficulty of the workout) needs to be varied in order to get the best results.  If your training intensity is always low, you’ll fail to stimulate gains, and if your training intensity is always high, there’s no way for your body to properly recover and improve.  So the way to maximize results it to train intensely for a period, then back off for a period to recover, then repeat.

How do you apply the above concepts to your workouts?  Hold on and I’ll tell you!  One approach is known as instinctive training, and the other more structured approach is periodization.

Instinctive Training

With instinctive training, you vary your workouts according to how you feel when you’re in the gym.  If you’re feeling good, you push yourself harder with more sets and/or more intensity, and if you’re feeling lousy you back off a bit and make it easier for your body to recover.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even wait until you start your session to pick the exercises or body parts to work out according to how you feel.  The great thing about instinctive training is the built flexibility to adjust your workouts to the natural rhythm of your body and to unplanned life events like stress or lack of sleep.  No rigid pre-planned workout can do that.  The drawback of instinctive training is that it requires an honest self-assessment and experience to know when to push and when to back off, so it’s generally not the best approach for beginners.


A more structured approach to incorporating variety in your workouts is periodization, which basically means emphasizing different aspects of fitness during different time periods.  Nearly all top athletes use periodization because it works.  For building muscle and strength, the simplest form is called linear periodization.  This approach calls for starting a workout program with fairly light weights and then adding some weight each week and lowering the reps as you go.  For example, you might start bench pressing week 1 with 200 pounds for an easy 3 sets of 10 reps and then add 10 pounds each week.  After a few weeks, you might not be able to complete 3 sets of 10, but you’d continue to add weight and let the reps drop to 8 and then 6 and so on, until by week 10 you might be doing 290 for 3 sets of 3.  Then take a week off from bench pressing and repeat the 10 week cycle, this time starting a little higher at 210 pounds.  Linear periodization is an effective time proven method for gaining muscular size and strength and works best on basic compound lifts.  If you do both compound and isolation exercises in your routine, I’d recommend using linear periodization on the compound exercises and sticking with higher reps on the isolation exercises.

Another effective form of periodization is known as undulating periodization, which basically amounts to varying your training over a shorter period of time in waves.  For example, week 1 you would bench press 205 for 3 sets of 10, week 2 do 225 for 4 sets of 8, week 3 do 245 for 5 sets of 5, then start over with 210 for 3 sets of 10, and so on.  Make sure you pick weights that allow you to complete the first wave without much difficulty so that you get a “running start” at the weight progression.  I personally prefer this approach to linear periodization because it gives your body more frequent breaks from heavy sets of 6 or fewer reps, but either approach can produce good results.

There are advanced forms of periodization tailored to specific sports where you emphasize things like conditioning, flexibility, muscular endurance, and power during different phases of the year, and each phase is broken down to have yet more variety within it.  Those programs take some planning and experience to put together, but they’re a great way to make long term progress while keeping your mind fresh and avoiding wear and tear on your body.  Details are beyond the scope of this post, but articles and books about them are widely available, or you can enlist the help of a personal trainer.

The important take away from this post is that variety is critical to making continued progress in the gym, and training intensity in particular needs to be varied to maximize results.  If you’ve been in a rut doing the same routine for a while, I definitely recommend changing things up and seeing if it doesn’t spur new gains.  Give me a shout if you have questions or comments.

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