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More properly termed “periodization” in the realm of fitness, this “plan” is defined as a “training regimen whereby peak performance is brought about through logical, creative variation of training methods and volume loads.”
Because workouts are periodized to ensure goals are reached over an extended length of time - think Olympic athletes who have four years to train between competitions - there is quite a lot of planning that can go into it, and therefore, is best split into multiple phases. Within each phase there is a specific fitness goal to be trained in order to eventually realize the overarching goal.
For instance, if you are looking to put on muscle weight you may start in a hypertrophy phase wherein exercises, sets, repetitions, intensity (weight), tempos, rest periods, frequencies, and durations are all reflective of that goal and set up in a way that optimizes that progress.
After a period of about 8-12 weeks, you may switch into a different phase for another 6-10 weeks, and other phases subsequent to that, which continue to build on a different aspect of their overall goal for the program. The intent of this is to force adaptations to take place within the body in a structured and semi-predictable manner.
This entire premise is important, because periodization allows you the greatest chance to see the best results in as a little time as possible. Without a plan, progress can stagnant quickly, because the same or similar workouts will only force the body to adapt so much to meet the demands.
At a certain point, the body becomes well-equipped to deal with those same stresses and it no longer has to adapt. Therefore, without a plan, workouts are random, and with random workouts comes random results. That is not to say a lack of periodization is guaranteed to be ineffective, but certainly far from optimal, perhaps unsafe, and likely requiring a lot more time invested for the same result.
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How to Make It Work Even When the Going Gets Tough
Though the importance of attempting to periodize your workouts is evident, the practical considerations may not always allow for the proper periodization required to elicit the desired adaptations. Namely, you are human.
The whole point of periodization is to have a plan, but if there is a fluctuation from the plan, is there really a point? One deviation can, theoretically, alter much of the subsequent planning. Can it be said with certainty that you will always be in a great mood, well rested, and well nourished? Will you never be sore, stressed, sick, on vacation, busy with kids, homework, or your job?
Periodization assumes that all of these variables are consistent and leaning more towards optimal conditions, when in comparison, the reality of your life is potentially better described as “chaotic.” Committing to following a strict plan is exactly what some of you want and need. However, it can also be completely impractical because of the aforementioned variables that you must weigh and measure against your time and goals in the gym.
Regardless, periodization can be incredibly effective for everyone on paper, but truly there may only be a subset of the fitness population that periodization is necessary and practical for. Those populations being paid athletes or competitors, highly trained and highly self-motivated individuals, and those with extremely specific and complex physical goals.
Excluding outliers, these populations stand to gain the most from rigorous planning, because they have dedicated a lot of their life to honing their physical ability for various reasons which may include: money, aesthetics, performance, or just the simple challenge of competing against oneself.
Whether to use periodization is not always black and white. Fully utilizing strict periodization may overwhelm you and become ineffective if life gets in the way. Some elements of periodization, however, should always be implemented into your goals. Any amount of planning will provide you with some useful direction, allow you to have some sense of your overall progress, and provide peace of mind that the path to achieving your goals is not random.
Attempting to follow a periodized plan as close as possible is ideal, but if it has plenty of allowances built in for different life circumstances that may arise, it is sure to effective and yet easily adhered to.
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