Does Changing Workout Routines Prevent Plateaus?

June 11th, 2008 by Paul Johnson

The idea of a plateau is commonly misunderstood among weightlifter. The idea that gains will stop suddenly doesn’t make sense to people. Eventually all weightlifters will experience a halt in their muscle and strength gains after a few weeks. I've seen some people lift the same weights and excercises for months and wonder why their gains halt. You cannot expect to do the same exact workout and always gain. Eventually, your body overadapts and your gains halt. Your body does not like major change, so it was setup to only have short bursts of change at a time.

That is where the principles of periodization come in. The Periodization Method was actually developed for strength athletes by a Russian named Leo Matveyev. The purpose of periodization is to change your workout in phases after a specic amount of weeks, in order to prevent your body from adapting to workouts. The differences in phases are based on different types of training. For example, one phase is for muscle growth, the next is for power, then followed by a strength phase, and another for light weights. I personally believe besides keeping your body from plateauing, changing your workout also helps you in the long run because it gives your muscles a more well rounded development. By drastically changing your workout intensity you stimulate different fibers and stimulate them in a different manner, leading to different adaptions of the muscle. This well rounded development can only help you in the long run.

It may seem silly to work with light weights or on power, if your goal is muscle growth. The point of periodization, was to take 2 steps forward and one step back. By constantly changing the workout and how your muscles were stimulated you kept one step ahead of a permanent plateau. Another way to look at is, When you go up a hill you have to change to a lower gear on a clutch in order to eventually get over it, you don't simply try to hit the gas pedal and burn your engine trying to get up it. Likewise, simply trying to stack on more and more weight won't always work. You have to change your workout or you will stop getting stronger no matter how much weight you stack on.

Periodization controversy

Not everyone is at a consensus that Periodization is better than simply adding weights (progressive overload principle). There are some workout routines, such as HIT, and some bodybuilding gurus that don't believe in radically changing workout routines to avoid plateaus. I think the only reason why some have gained on HIT is because they were doing other workouts before HIT and it was just new gains to a new routine. Taking weeks off of training can also desensitize your body, and make it less likely to hit a plateau from the same routine. I consider taking a few weeks off every once in a while, a crude form of periodization. When you take a break and come back to weight training your body is going to gain muscle and possibly bust through your old plateau because you are shocking it after a long layoff. Studies have shown that those who followed periodization gained more strength and muscle than those who didn't. I've only been able to get past workout plateaus by either taking a break or changing my workout radically.

Do bodybuilders need to follow periodzation method?

Periodization is a developed routine method, but you don't have to follow it exactly. The point is you should understand it's principles, to help you understand how to change your workouts at specific phases. If you are always lifting heavy with slow negatives, it would help you to switch to a more endurance and less intense workout for a few weeks. For example higher reps, shorter rest time, and faster negatives to make it a more endurance type workout. Simply switching excercises or their order is not enough, you have to change at least 3 of some of the intensity parameters like rep speed, rest time, rep range, and set volume.