“By Michael Scholtz, M.A., Best Life fitness expert
Sure, there’s comfort in the familiar, but doing the same exercises day in and day out can get a little stale. And boredom isn’t the only downside of sticking with a ho-hum routine: As soon as your body grows used to a workout plan, you fail to make any further improvements—both in strength and stamina. Not to mention, a tired, old fitness plan is likely to cause you slack off and skip it altogether.
You can keep things fresh and challenging—which will allow you to reap consistent rewards in the form of improved fitness and weight loss—by changing things up. One of the best ways to do this is to use what fitness experts refer to as periodization. In fact, it’s one of the key differences between an athlete’s training plan and someone who exercises for fitness and weight loss. The latter tends to stick with the same routine every day (say a workout DVD), which limits the fitness improvements they can make. Or maybe they do the same workout each day but try to add time or distance. This can work for a little while but you probably wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long because you’d risk getting fatigued or injured.
Athletes, on the other hand, discovered long ago that the body cannot simply go harder day after day. They found that a day of rest now and then allowed them to put in more effort when they performed a hard workout. They also learned that they could not work on two components of fitness at once; if they worked hard on endurance, they didn’t have the energy to work on getting stronger—and vice versa. However, if they focused on one component of fitness at a time, both improved. And that’s how periodization was born.
The technique actually dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and the main idea behind periodization is that you allow your body to adapt to progressively more strenuous training by focusing on one major training goal at a time. For instance, you spend a few weeks working on one goal, like improving endurance. Then, you move onto the next, like building strength. It can be a little complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it’s both easy and extremely effective. To do it, you break up your training into blocks of time during which you work your body in different ways with different goals in mind. Check out the sample workout plan below, designed for someone training for a 10-mile hike over three months, for an idea of how it works.
The First Step: See the Big Picture
When planning your exercise program, take a long-term look at where you’re headed. In our hiking example, the goal is to complete a 10-mile hike at the end of a three-month time period, referred to as a macrocycle.
The Next Step: Break down Your Goal into Smaller Pieces
Now, you’d break that goal into three smaller sections called mesocycles, each with a different goal in mind. The first mesocycle is endurance, and the goal is to increase cardiovascular endurance and muscular stamina. (Each mesocycle is made up of smaller training blocks called microcycles in which the pattern of workouts repeats every few days.) To complete the endurance section (or mesocycle) do four consecutive one-week blocks (or microcycles) that consist of:
Monday – Moderate duration walkWalk for 45 to 60 minutes on a treadmill or outdoors.Tuesday – Circuit weight trainingUse light weights to perform 15 to 20 repetitions of each move. The aimhere is to improve form, muscular endurance and strength of ligamentsand tendons to prepare for the heavier workouts to come. Focus on theFunctional Fitness Exercises and lower body exercises specific to hiking,such as squats and lunges.Wednesday – Moderate duration walkThursday – Circuit weight training
dd>Friday – Rest day
Saturday – Long outdoor walk on level terrain Start with 60 minutes and increase the time by 10 to 15 minutes eachweek until you reach one-and-a-half to two hours)Sunday – Rest day
After one month, you’d move to the next section (or mesocycle), which focuses on strength. Do four consecutive one-week blocks (or microcycles) that consist of:
Monday – Moderate duration walk and strength trainingWalk for 45 to 60 minutes on a treadmill or outdoors. Also, lift heavierweights for 12 repetitions. Include one exercise for each major body part;chest, back, shoulders and legs. Add a leg exercise like the leg pressusing more than just body weight. Continue doing the FunctionalFitness Exercises.Tuesday – Intense but steady stairclimber workoutStart with a five-minute warm-up, followed by 15 minutes of steady, hardclimbing and end with a five minute cool-down. Each week, increase thetime by 5 minutes until you hit a max of 30 minutes in week four.Wednesday – Strength trainingThursday – Intense but steady stairclimber workoutFriday – Strength trainingSaturday – Long outdoor walk on varied terrainContinue to do one-and-a-half to two hours.Sunday – Rest day
Finally, you would progress to the last four-week “specificity” section (or mesocycle). Each consecutive one-week training block (or microcycle) would consist of the following:
Monday – Intense stairclimber interval workout This consists of a five-minute warm-up followed by a 3-minute hardinterval and a one-minute rest period. Do this five times and then finishwith a five-minute cool-down. Increase the number of hard intervals byone per week up to eight to ten in week four.Tuesday – Strength trainingContinue the strength training from the previous block but now addanother move: Stepping up onto an 8- to 12-inch-high step holdingdumbbells. All of the exercises are done with heavier weights and thegoal is 8 to 12 repetitions.Wednesday – Intense stairclimber interval workoutThursday – Strength trainingFriday – Rest daySaturday – Hike outdoors on steep up and down terrain with a loaded backpackThe weight of the pack for the hike is gradually increased from 10 to 15pounds to the full weight of the pack for the actual hike. The length of thehike begins at 30 minutes and increases by 30 minutes each weekup to 2 hours in week four. Try to use as much of your equipment (likeshoes and clothing) for the actual hike as possible.Sunday – Rest day
When you finish this last training block, you’ll be prepared to tackle a long hike with a full backpack. Your body would have had the chance to adapt slowly to the increases in both aerobic and strength demands. And you would even have had a chance to test out your equipment on real hikes.
Following the hike, you would have a period of one week of active recovery that consists of short, easy workouts to let your body rest and recuperate. Try stationary cycling, pool exercise or restorative yoga. Then you’ll be ready to set your sights on your next goal—whether that’s a longer hike on a more rugged terrain, or an entirely different workout like a bike race. You can use the same training concept for any other event—following the same basic sequence: Build your stamina first, then work on strength by doing steady, hard aerobic workouts and lifting heavier weights. And finally, spend the last few weeks doing workouts that mirror the event for which you’re preparing.