Effective Training Techniques: Periodization

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on effective training techniques.

3 min readApr 25, 2018

Your body is really good at adapting to new situations. You rapidly improve the first few times you do something new, but if you keep doing the same thing over and over, progress slows down. An effective workout plan changes training variables like volume, intensity, rest, exercise selection, etc. to avoid hindering progress. Periodization is a program building strategy that guides how and when to change training variables by taking into account your body’s ability to adapt. Periodization amalgamates two important concepts.

Concept 1 — Progressive Overload

What happens if you always bench press 3 sets x 8 reps x 135 lbs with 90 seconds of rest between sets every week? Your body will adapt by first building the required muscle to bench press at that level. Once you’re proficient, your body will stop creating additional muscle and start optimizing. While optimizing, you will spend less energy (calories) bench pressing and even lose muscle mass as it becomes easier. This is called “plateauing” and is the result of an ineffective program.

To avoid plateauing, your body needs to be introduced to new, unfamiliar stresses. An effective way to introduce new stress on your muscles is to apply progressive overload to your program. Progressive overload gradually increases the stress placed on your muscles by systematically changing one or more of your training variables.

One way of applying progressive overload is to increase the volume you lift by manipulating your sets. Instead of only doing 3 sets x 8 reps x 135 lbs of Bench Press, you can increase the sets to 4 and eventually 5. Your body responds to this new stress by building more muscle and spending more energy to adapt to the change.

Concept 2 — General Adaptation Syndrome

Progressive overload results in greater strength gains, muscle growth, and prevents plateaus, but has limits. If you try to increase the difficulty of your workout every week (even just a little), you will eventually burn out.

The General Adaptation Syndrome describes the three stages of your body’s response to new stresses.

Stage 1 — Alarm

Continuing the above example, the first time you bench press 4 sets x 8 reps x 135 lbs, your body is not used to that much volume so it rings an internal alarm to release adrenaline and other chemicals to help you complete the lift.

Stage 2 — Resistance

For several days after bench pressing a new volume, you will have a temporary decrease in performance and muscle fatigue, and you may have muscle soreness. Your body is recovering and building muscle in anticipation of the next time you bench press that volume.

Stage 3 — Exhaustion

Your body can only react to so much new stress at once. If you increase your bench press volume every week, your body will become exhausted from trying to build resistance to the new stress. While exhausted, you become fatigued very easily, irritable, and performance is greatly decreased.

Ideally, you want to train so your body goes through the first two stages but not the exhaustion stage. In the above example, instead of increasing sets from 5 to 6, you should reset the set count to 3 and increase the weight. This will temporarily reduce the volume, giving your body time to recover before beginning to progressively overload your sets again — this time at a heavier weight.


Periodization systematically applies progressive overload to specific training variables until your body adapts to the stress. Once adapted, periodization tapers the focused training variables to prevent overtraining and exhaustion, while focusing on other training variables that have different, but similar, physiological effects.

Effective programs use periodization to create a plan that cycles through many different aspects of conditioning and strength training. You can easily recognize whether your program uses periodization by looking at how your training variables change and how often you change exercises.

Team CoachBot