Is Periodization Necessary for Optimum Gains & Avoiding Plateaus?

August 3rd, 2010 by Paul Johnson

Periodization has been a technique used by powerlifters and bodybuilders for decades as a way to avoid plateaus in muscle and strength gains. The terminology and science behind periodization sort of scares off new bodybuilders, so sometimes other terms or phrases are used such as "shocking your body" or "switch up your routine to avoid a plateau".

What is Periodization and it's purpose in training

Periodization is basically where you radically change your training at certain times in a schedule. Periodization can help avoid overtraining and plateaus. The reason is because if you keep training a certain way week after week your body will start getting resistant to those changes. Its how our body is, it likes to stay in equilibrium. This is called the General Adaptive Syndrome. Our body will change its body hormonally and at different ways in the cellular level in order to resist those changes. It takes a lot of extra energy for our bodies to change, so its natural reaction is to not want to adapt to the same training for too much and for too long.

Periodization advocates radical changes to your training to keep your body guessing and to not do training to close to each other. For example the first few weeks you might do medium reps heavy weight high volume at short rests to gain muscle. Then the next phase for 2 weeks might be a powerlifting routine where you do very low volume, low amount of excercises, very heavy weight at low reps and long rests. Then you might do a endurance phase for a couple weeks where you do high reps, short rests light weight at very high volume. Then finally you go back to your main program for a few weeks again where you are doing medium reps at high volume.

As you can see each phase works different muscle fibers and it gives your body a chance to rest from working one type of way. It also makes it harder for your body to adapt because each phase is so different from the rest.

Different types of Periodization

Linear Periodization is where you do each workouts for weeks in special phases for weeks sequentially. There is another type called non-linear periodization where you alternate between each workout every week. For example you might hit chest 2 times a week. One workout is high reps lots of volume and short rests, the other workout is medium reps heavy weight and medium volume and rest.

Is Periodization Necessary for optimum gains?

I don't believe Periodization is necessary for optimum gains or even at all, for a couple reasons. People get so caught up into this idea of Periodization they lose sight of the big picture. Periodization won't even work effectively by itself if you don't gain weight simultaneously in order to build muscle and get stronger. When you increase calories you will gain weight and build muscle, regardless if you do periodization or not. Calories is extremely anabolic, which is why you won't gain substantial muscle without gaining weight. Increasing calories will break any plateau. Over time as your metabolism adjusts you need to slowly adjust calories up periodically to continue gaining weight and break a muscle building and strength plateau.

Even when you are gaining weight, your body will still wear down physically and mentally over time to resist those changes. However, this doesn't mean you need periodization to solve it. I believe taking a full week or 2 off from excercise at least every 3 months or less is enough to recuperate the body to avoid the overtraining from the General Adaption Syndrome. When you take a break you reset the body and allow hormones and other chemical reactions to return to normal. You are desensitizing and reversing the body from any adaptions it made under the General Adaption Syndrome. You can return to your old routine when you return. There is nothing wrong with using the same routine again.

The second reason I don't believe Periodization is necessary is because when you work your muscles a certain way, you wind up losing the adaptions on the other. You get a mediocre average between the results between the two. For example lets say you are doing high rep phase and are focusing on working your slow twitch muscle fibers, capillaries, and increasing glycogen retention. When you switch to lower reps your working fast twitch or medium twitch fiber groups and endurance fibers and capillaries and glycogen retention aren't getting hypertrophied much. The opposite happens when you train the other way. You are trying to have your cake and eat it too, but it doesn't work exactly like that. When you train one way it has a negative impact on the other side because it is getting neglected.

To make matters worse studies have also shown that high endurance training following lower rep training actually causes your muscle fibers to shrink.

(Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1990;61(1-2):37-41)

One group did high reps and the other did low rep strength training in 2 different phases sequentially. The results showed that for the first phase, both types of training increased the fiber size of I, IIA, and IIB. However, the group that did strength phase 2nd, showed a increase in size in the I and IIB fiber types, but the endurance group in the 2nd phase showed decreased size in all fiber types. This study suggests that both types of training increase all fiber type sizes, but switching to endurance training after strength training, will reverse the hypertrophy gains.

(Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60. Epub 2002 Aug 15.)

This study shows that in the high rep group not all fiber types hypertrophied, but in the low and medium rep group all fibers hypertrophy.

Even if you alternate between the training during the week like in non-linear periodization, you're only do half the volume for each side that you would normally do. Therefore, not really stimulating the muscles to the necessary optimum volume for optimal muscle gains. It also doesn't change the fact that working the endurance fibers with high reps light weight can reverse the gains from the other type of training you got in the week.

According to studies I have come across, Periodization has enhanced gains over those who didn't use periodization. I have a problem with the studies though. They don't say whether either group was gaining weight or not. If both groups are at the same weight and stay that way the whole time it doesn't disprove my theory that periodization isn't necessary and that there is an alternative that works just as well. If neither group isn't gaining weight in these studies, then it doesn't disprove my theory that you need to gain weight to break plateaus and build muscle. You can't grow significantly if your not gaining weight regardless if you are periodizing or not. However, if you are gaining weight simple calorie increases and periodic breaks from training will keep you growing and avoiding a plateau. If the group not using periodization was gaining weight, they would probably gain just as well if not better than the group gaining weight who was using periodization. At that point, Periodization is completely unnecessary because you are using calories to break the plateau and breaks to avoid overtraining.