Smart coaches say it all the time: Don’t exercise. Train.
What’s the difference? “Exercise” is coach-speak for haphazard, sporadic workouts without a goal in mind. There’s nothing wrong with this approach: “Exercising, even randomly, is better than doing nothing at all,” says Troy Jacobson, senior national director of Endurance Sports Training at Life Time. Simply moving and having fun is great for overall health and a sense of well-being.
But if you’re aiming at a specific target — getting stronger, leaner, or better at a particular sport, for instance — training is the consistent approach you want.
One tried-and-true principle sets exercise and training apart: periodization. It may sound technical, but a well-designed periodized program is anything but cumbersome.
Periodization is an approach to fitness programming based on the concept of nonlinear progression, explains Jacobson, meaning you make gradual progress by alternately increasing intensity and backing off to recover. Think of it as interval training — but instead of following work–rest intervals in a single workout, work and rest are plotted out deliberately across weeks and months.
Competitive athletes subscribe to this time-tested approach to make continuous progress, to buoy motivation, and to stave off injury. But anyone with a goal — even if you’re just seeking general fitness — can benefit from a personalized, intentional regimen.
If it sounds complex, never fear: We’ve got your back with the following guide to periodized training and the first installment of a six-month program, designed by Jacobson (see “Strong, Fast and Fit: Build Your Base“). Let’s get going.
How the Training Works
Periodization is based on two principles of exercise science: progressive overload and general adaptation.
The overload principle teaches us that “to achieve an athletic goal, you have to slowly increase the stress of training, causing the body to adapt and grow stronger,” explains elite endurance coach Joe Friel, author of Fast After 50.
In other words, you have to repeat an activity regularly to overload your system and build it up: Pole-vaulters have to pole-vault, marathoners have to run. To achieve your first pull-up, you actually have to practice doing pull-ups.
Eventually, however, the climb toward greater strength and fitness levels off, says Matt Dixon, CEO and founder of www.purplepatchfitness.com and author of The Well-Built Triathlete. “If it were as simple as adding more weight to a bar, anyone who exercises for more than a year or two should be setting world records. But the body isn’t a spreadsheet.”
Stick with the same workout for more than a couple of months, he says, and progress grinds to a halt. In extreme cases, the very activity you’re working to master may be what breaks you. Too much of anything — even a good thing — can be problematic.
This paradox is explained by general adaptation. In his classic 1956 book, The Stress of Life, endocrinologist Hans Selye, MD, explained that the body responds to stress of all kinds in three distinct phases:
Your first response to a new stressor is alarm. Try an intense new exercise, and fight-or-flight hormones flood your system, causing your heart to race, pupils to dilate, and palms to sweat.
After the initial alarm, your body adapts to the stressor. Keep doing the same exercise and you get fitter and stronger. Activities that were once out of reach become possible; difficult ones become easy.
If your adaptation phase does not include adequate rest and nutrition, you get exhausted. Your adaptation stalls, mental and physical resources diminish, your risk of injury increases, and long-term illness can result. Continue working out every day without rest, recovery, and refueling, and you stop getting stronger — and start getting weak and sick.
The goal is to stay in the adaptation phase, to keep your health and fitness trending upward as you overload it. Periodization achieves this by maximizing the effects of adaptation while minimizing or eliminating the burnout and plateaus that come with exhaustion.
The Phases of Periodization
A periodization program is based on three cycles: the macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle. These are not distinct phases, but rather parts of one another.
This is your overall program, the big-picture master plan leading toward your goal. The plan can range in duration from several months to several years, but most last one year.
Each macrocycle includes mesocycles that last about a month and focus on smaller goals that drive progress toward the larger goal. These could range from low-intensity, high-volume exercise for strength building to high-intensity, low-volume, sport-specific drills like plyometrics that boost your explosive power.
Every mesocycle is composed of microcycles, weekly variations that keep workouts fresh, responsive, and scalable to your individual progress. A well-plotted microcycle will ensure that an aspiring marathoner avoids back-to-back long runs, or that a weightlifter doesn’t practice heavy lifts-to-failure on a daily basis.
The first step in creating a periodized program, says Jacobson, is determining your overall goal, typically with a yearlong outlook. That’s your macrocycle. This might be running your first marathon or nailing your first pull-up. The mesocycles and microcycles build off this macro goal.
During these cycles, the program will coordinate strength, conditioning, skill building, and recovery. Each workout is part of a larger structure, integrating and building on the pieces that came before, and supporting everything that follows.
The magic of a periodized plan occurs in the mesocycles, each one intensifying your fitness over the last. “As fitness levels increase, you’ll be ready to push harder,” Jacobson says.
Alex Viada, CSCS, founder of Complete Human Performance in Durham, N.C., agrees: “You build endurance so you can recover from your strength workouts later in the season. Then you build strength so you can use it in your sport.”
You’ll gradually work to peaks within the macrocycle, and after each peak, you’ll back off. “Don’t skimp on the rest,” Jacobson insists.
At first glance, this may make periodization sound rigid and inflexible, but it has the opposite effect. “People are squishy, organic beings, not machines,” says Viada. “This approach allows you time to relax, recover, and set new goals, so you can have the satisfaction of achievement again.”
The Action Plan
Periodization is straightforward in theory: Set a goal, identify the building blocks that will help you reach it, and make sure you get adequate rest along the way. In reality, it is a complex system of moving parts. As a result, few people take a DIY approach. It is both common and preferable to hire a coach or personal trainer, or select a prefabricated training plan. Even coaches hire coaches.
Experience Life partnered with Jacobson — who designs programs for fitness neophytes, aspiring Ironman champions, Olympians, and everyone in between — to develop a six-month training plan for you. The beginner-friendly program will be rolled out from January to June. Find the first installment on page 24, and join EL’s Strong, Fast, and Fit group on Facebook (Facebook.com/groups/strongfastfit2017) for support and additional resources.
The big-picture macrocycle goal of this six-month plan is general fitness, which means you’ll gain muscle strength, burn fat, and improve your overall conditioning and mobility.
You can expect the program to progress as follows:
Mesocycle 1: Build Your Base
- The first month will get you moving, possibly in ways you’ve never moved (or haven’t moved in a long time).
Mesocycle 2: Turn Up the Heat (online and in-app only; live on Jan. 30, 2017)
- With your baseline established in Month 1, Month 2 will ramp up strength and conditioning without sacrificing recovery.
Mesocycle 3: Into the Fire (March 2017 issue)
- Month 3 is your first “peak” month and will feature tougher workouts. It will conclude with a test of your strength and endurance.
Mesocycle 4: Dial Back for Recovery (April 2017 issue)
- Month 4 will serve as a reset, giving your body a break to recover and rebuild.
Mesocycle 5: Optimize Strength and Endurance (May 2017 issue)
- Recovered and refueled following Month 4, you’ll jump back into your workouts feeling stronger than ever.
Mesocycle 6: Pump Up the Volume (June 2017 issue)
- The sixth and last month integrates gains of the preceding 20 weeks, and concludes with a final assessment and advice on how to use it.
Five Steps to Success
Our Strong, Fast, and Fit workout program is designed to help you get leaner, stronger, and healthier over the next six months. To adjust or tailor the program to your own fitness goals and get the most out of your training, consider these key points.
1. Define Your Big Goal
The first step is to decide what you want to accomplish, whether you’re looking to lose some body fat, end your back pain, or compete in a triathlon. Your goal may take up to a full year (or longer) to complete. Since you’ll be working toward it for a while, it should be something that truly fires you up.
If you want to shoot for two goals, make sure they’re related, experts say. For instance, achieving maximum strength and maximum leanness often require incongruent training and nutritional requirements. Doing a body-weight pull-up while also working to burn fat would be compatible goals.
While it’s advisable to limit the number of goals you set and temper expectations around how quickly you can achieve them, some people — especially beginners — might see big results quickly. This phenomenon is the body’s response to doing something new and the brain working hard to catch up. As a result, beginner-friendly workouts like the Strong, Fast, and Fit plan can help people achieve a wide variety of health and fitness goals — including some they didn’t know they had, says Jacobson.
2. Break It Down
Now zero in on the components of your goal and, specifically, what’s stopping you from getting there. You may find you need to reach smaller goals before you can achieve the one you came in with. If you want to do a pull-up, for example, you might first need to work on shoulder mobility, core stability, and grip strength; a progression might involve first hanging from the bar for a time, then nailing a controlled descent from the top of a pull-up.
Once you’ve identified your smaller goals, prioritize them. “Start with the low-hanging fruit,” Viada advises. “What are the attainable skills and attributes that you can start working on immediately and that are going to make everything else easier?”
Mobility, he says, is a common place to begin. Your form — in running, strength training, or cycling, for instance — may need improvement. Build new skills: If you want to learn to do a kettlebell snatch, it will be helpful to learn to swing first. Focusing on those initial skills will pay big dividends in the long run. Consult a coach for guidance or to refine your technique.
3. Keep It Realistic
Once the general picture of your master plan is in place, look at your calendar and make allowances for the holidays, seasonal rushes at work, and any other things that will likely detract from your training during the next several months. “There’s nothing worse than coming up with a year-long aspirational plan that doesn’t take into account the realities of life,” says Viada. Block off those times for recovery and down weeks.
Then determine when you may have more time and energy to commit to your workouts, and schedule more-intense training periods for those weeks. Is May a quiet month at work? Maybe that’s when you want to focus on endurance, which tends to require longer workouts. Is the fall quieter, when kids return to school? Work on building strength and power, which can require more sessions per week in the gym.
Finally, if your goals include competitions, schedule your training so you have at least a week to spend reaching your peak of fitness prior to the events.
4. Change It Up
“The body adapts quickly, but it also gets bored very quickly,” says Dixon. A month to six weeks is about the longest most people can focus on a single objective without becoming burned out, mentally and physically.
So, every four to six weeks, expect your workouts to change: shorter, faster runs; more reps of lighter lifts; longer, slower swims.
For dedicated gym-goers who may fear backsliding, this can take an act of will. “Periodization is cyclical, not linear,” he says. “Shift the focus of your workouts, and you may lose a little speed this month. But a year from now you’ll be the fastest you’ve ever been. Sometimes you have to take one step back to take three forward.”
If you’re seeking general fitness, spend a few weeks enhancing your endurance (by boosting your cardiovascular system while learning proper exercise form); then a few weeks on muscle building (by challenging yourself with heavier weights and more volume); and, finally, a month on strength and power (by lifting the heaviest weights in the most technically demanding movements).
After three months, you can start another cycle, either working to peak for a competition, or lowering the intensity and focusing on mobility and technique.
5. Have the Courage to Recover
You need to plan ahead to rest and recover, both on the micro and macro levels. Throughout the macrocycle, it’s essential to take two to four days per microcycle off from intense exercise.
In addition, people who are especially consistent in their efforts need to schedule longer down periods, too. “You’ll want to take two to three days off every two weeks or so,” says Dixon. “And every four to six weeks, take up to a week off.”
Downtime can be another sticking point for dedicated exercisers, who often think they’re getting worse if they aren’t working out strenuously. “I tell my clients, ‘It takes courage to recover,’” says Dixon.
“There are lots of places to channel your energy, willpower, and emotion,” Viada adds. “Sometimes you channel energy into how fast you’re running. Other times you’re focusing on resting. You’re just changing emphasis, always keeping the end goal in mind.”