Once you get beyond the beginner stage of weight training—when you can do just about anything and see progress—you need to learn to “periodize” your workouts. Periodization is a general term for any plan that allows you to make long-term gains while avoiding plateaus and injury, but the concept itself doesn’t have to be as complicated as its name.
“You can add weight to your exercises,” says Jason Ferruggia, a strength coach and author in Los Angeles. “Basically, change the exercises, do more reps, sets, or rest less between sets.” Change everything, in turn, over time, and then change again as needed.
Of course, there are more sophisticated and organized systems of periodization out there aimed at strength, muscle size, and sports performance, but one approach isn’t necessarily better than another, provided it’s well thought out and goal-oriented.
Try gathering a bunch of trainers together, though, and most of them will argue till their protein shakes turn sour that one system trumps all others. Fortunately, research is showing otherwise.
This year, the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport compared two different programs and their effects on strength in rugby players. One was an old-fashioned linear periodization model, in which subjects started off using lighter weights and a high volume of sets and then progressed to heavy weights and low volume. The other used undulating periodization, in which the sets and reps change each workout. Ultimately, both groups made gains, and there was no significant difference between the groups.
Last year, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research pitted linear periodization against block periodization, another common approach in which trainees work toward one specific goal (size, strength, power) at a time in specified training blocks. At the end of 15 weeks, the block group saw better gains in bench press strength, but there were no differences in lower-body strength or body composition.
“I think [all types of periodization] work, and there isn’t a huge advantage in one over the other,” Ferruggia says. “This is especially true for guys at a novice to intermediate level—which is most of us.”
So if everything works, why are so few getting the results they want? “The guys who never get anywhere are the overanalyzers,” Ferruggia says. “They’re always searching for the perfect program, the best angle for their bench on incline curls.” They end up changing programs too often to give any one enough time to work. But if they (or you) knew the principles that make a good program, and follow them long term, they could make gains indefinitely.