There are two extremes in the world of strength training: the serial repeater and the frequent changer.
At one end of the spectrum, you have people who perform the same exercises for the same number of reps and sets, using the same amount of weight, week after week. According to Lauren Pak, NASM-certified personal trainer and co-owner of Achieve Fitness in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s very common for beginners in particular to pull a basic workout program out of a magazine and follow it to the letter without ever making changes. “It will get you results in the beginning because you weren’t doing anything before,” she says, but after awhile, your results stall. This is because once your body adapts to an exercise stress, it needs a new challenge (i.e., more weight, sets, reps) in order to keep making progress.
At the other extreme, you have exercisers who constantly switch up their routines. One day they’re doing high-intensity interval training, the next they’re doing Pilates, and so on. This approach may be fine if you’re not working toward a specific fitness goal, but if you want to make gains in strength, muscle size and/or endurance, you need some consistency in your workouts so your body has time to adapt to the exercises you’re doing. Plus, you can’t gauge progress if you keep doing random exercises. “It’s really hard to see whether or not you’re getting stronger, because you’re not comparing it to anything you were doing before,” Pak says.
But no matter which camp you’re in — serial repeater or frequent changer — your strength-training routines are missing one key element for success: periodization. In fact, a review of 18 studies published in the Journal Sports Medicine reveals that periodized strength-training programs are more effective for boosting strength than non-periodized programs.
So, what is periodization? It’s a method of strategically varying training stimuli (i.e., reps, sets, weight, frequency, tempo) over time to manage fatigue while still allowing the body to adapt to training stressors. Typically, training phases in periodized strength programs last anywhere from 4–6 weeks and include a brief recovery period.
There are two main models of training periodization: traditional (also known as linear) and undulating. The traditional periodization model is pretty straightforward: the reps and sets stay the same week-by-week while only the weight increases. Meanwhile, undulating periodization entails changing weight, reps and sets day-by-day and week-by-week.
HOW TO USE PERIODIZATION
If you’re a beginner, start with the traditional model of periodization. You’ll adhere to the same set and rep schemes every week but increase the weight for every exercise as you feel able. Pak recommends increasing weight by 5–10 pounds for lower-body exercises and 2.5–5 pounds for upper-body exercises. For example, one week you might perform a goblet squat for 3 sets of 10 reps using 10 pounds, while the next week, you might repeat the same set and rep scheme using 15 pounds and so on.
But before you automatically add more weight, make sure you’re actually ready. If you go heavier before your body is strong enough, you’ll compromise your overall progress, Pak says. She recommends using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to help you determine when to add weight. On a scale from 1–10 — where 1 is sitting still and 10 is maximum effort — you want your sets to feel like a 7–8. “That means you should be able to continue to increase those weights the following week,” Pak says. If you start moving into the 9–10 range, lighten your load; don’t take your sets to absolute failure or the point at which your form begins to break down.
After a period of roughly 4–6 weeks, consider advancing the exercises, Pak says. For example, if you started with a goblet squat (holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest), you may be ready to try a kettlebell or dumbbell front squat (holding a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells against your body at shoulder-height). From there, you could advance to a split or back squat. By regularly switching the exercise, you introduce your body to new challenges while eliminating boredom.
Once you become more advanced, or you feel like the traditional periodization model isn’t working for you anymore, your best bet is to find a strength-training coach who can provide you with a more nuanced periodized program. In fact, lifters at any level of experience can benefit from working with a fitness professional at some point or another.