If you read any kind of bodybuilding or fitness magazine, you should have heard of something called "periodization" or "cycling" by now. The summary of what this means to YOU, usually ends up being: "You should, like, change your routine once in while, or else you might not get any, y'know, results?" And guess what? That isn't a bad start at all - only that you need an overall structure to make something really productive out of it. It's only when you put a long-term plan into the equation that you get optimum results.
Why Should I Change My Routine?
Why is this? Well, let's back up to a quick recap of the basic physiological facts behind muscular growth. Muscle growth is not something that comes by itself - your body prefers to stay the same unless forced else wise. This is done by training overload, such as using heavier weights in combination with proper nutrition and adequate rest.
Break Your Plateau
Voilà the three cornerstones of muscular growth! However, at one point your progress will start flattening out - hitting the plateau, or the wall if you so prefer. Assuming that you keep eating and resting enough, the cause must lie in the first variable - you're training (but by all means, do not forget to consider the possibility of overtraining - read the signs in previously published article: "Overtraining: What To Do To Prevent It!").
Remember the first few months when you started training? Right - your body virtually exploded, no matter what form and crazy training schedule you followed. Then it started slowing down, and now it's mainly a long period of nothing, then you get a little progress for a while, like a month or two, followed by another 6 months of nothing. Recognize the pattern? Well, most of us have been there. And the good news is that there's a way out!
In fact, there are two ways to break out of this; one good and one bad. One will last for many years, help you live a long and healthy life, and one will make you burn out, turn you into a physical wreck in the long run and possibly get you behind bars for a year or two if being caught. Needless to say, I'm talking about Periodization vs. Illegal drugs.
In the initial phase, the latter may be a little ahead of the first, but boy! Five years in the future, when you've either lost your hair and wife (thanks to temper outbursts or crashed sexlife) or learned how to work WITH your body than against it, I can assure you the roles are the opposite.
The Basics Of Periodization
The basic principle behind Periodization is very, very simple. It's called S.A.I.D. - Specific Adaption to Imposed Demand. Want to get strong? Lift progressively heavier weights! Want to get faster? Run and make every time a race against the clock! And so on... The bottom line is that your body will adapt itself to handle the demands you put on it.
This is what you experienced when you started out - the neuro-muscular pathways getting more efficient in combination with an initial muscle growth, simply because you were shocking your muscles every week! The bad news is that the more the body adapts, the better it gets at anticipating your next move.
Then there's the fact that we have two different types of muscle fiber. They're slow-twitch and fast-twitch, where the slow-twitch handles the endurance stuff, such as a marathon. They're not all that powerful, but they're virtual Energizer-bunnies. The fast-twitch fibers are powerful, explosive - and get exhausted really fast. It's like a light that burns dimly, but lasts long, compared to a sudden flash that lights up the entire room but goes out shortly afterwards. When you're grinding out heavy 4-rep sets of benching, which type of fiber is mainly involved?
Fast-twitch, of course. And if you've done this for the past 6 months, what does this say if you take the bodily adaption into consideration? By now I believe you're starting to see where I'm getting at. The key to success is to alternate type of muscle fiber in functional cycles, so that you keep the muscles guessing while still avoiding injury.
The S.A.I.D. principle dictates that our bodies will handle workloads and overcompensate - as long as we're pushing ourselves a little bit over the previous max. But if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, our bodies quickly learn to anticipate our next move. The body prefers not to be forced to change shape, so it'll use this to its advantage - as in being prepared. The cliché ¯f "Keep'em guessing to grow!" is actually 100% accurate!
The trick for breaking out of a plateau is to add another dimension. That means, stimulating the muscle in another way, yet maintaining intensity! Now, bear with me for a second.
Intensity = Actual stress on a muscle.
The intensity, or the stress also depends on the time factor. How is it to do 3 sets / 10 reps of squats with 30 seconds break in between sets - as opposed to doing the SAME amount of sets with the SAME amount of weight, when you're resting 5 min between the sets? It's not even the same ballgame! And why is this? Well, to put it simple: With the shorter rest, you got yourself a higher intensity.
So, if you do 3 sets / 4 reps with a heavy weight, can we agree on that we end up with roughly the same intensity when we do 3 sets / 12 reps, with a lighter weight but cutting the rest-time in half? But what's the nature of the work? Is it the explosive fast-twitch fibers taking the hit, or the else wise spared slow-twitch?
Rhetoric questions. Boring. So let's get to the point: While maintaining intensity, we're able to not only shock the body with something it's not used to - we also allow the often-overworked fast-twitch fibers to REST, while putting the under-stimulated slow-twitch fibers at WORK. The reason for this being a nice bonus is that if a muscle contained 40% slow-twitch fibers, that means that 40% of that muscle has not received maximum stimulation before! Go ahead, roll up your sleeve and have a look. Think about what those percents could do for you.
Ok, now raise a hand, everyone who still insists that always doing heavy training is the best way to build muscle.
For the rest of you, it's time to get down to business. Step one is to drop the fancy names and labels on things you might stumble over if you read a book or an article about this. Step two is to draw a simple chart for, say the next 12 months. Mark up 52 weeks and use these simple measures.
Heavy period - 4-6 weeks
Transfer period - 1-2 weeks
Light period - 4-6 weeks
Transfer period - 1-2 weeks
Heavy = 4-8 reps, 2 min rest
Transfer = 6-10 reps, 1 min rest
Light = 10-15 reps, 40 sek rest
Needless to say, you'll have to experiment a little to see what works best for you. The one thing you can be sure about though, is that when the results start flattening out it's about time to do the opposite of what you're doing!
And what else? Well... As usual, the most effective things are pretty simple. This is it! Just keep cycling, fine-tuning to make sure it works for YOU, and you're there. However, remember that the short-term goals can vary - while strength increase is a natural milestone in the Heavy-period, simply pushing yourself rep by rep deeper into the pain zone (lactic acid!!) can be sufficient for the Light-period. Just make sure to always have a suitable goal for each gym session, regardless of period, and achieve it before going home.