Shaking Things Up: A Guide To Periodization (AKA Muscle Confusion)

If you do the same workout all the time, you shouldn’t expect to reach greater exercise outcomes.

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Today I wanted to go over workout periodization. This used to be known as muscle confusion, but I really hate that term. That’s because our muscles don’t have brains, and as research rock star Brad Schoenfeld puts it “Periodization is a concept, not a defined training model. It’s simply a way to manipulate training variables (load, volume, frequency, etc) over time to optimize a given fitness outcome while reducing the potential for plateau/overtraining. As such, there are an almost endless number of ways to structure a periodized routine to achieve individual goals.” This means if you do the same workout all the time, you shouldn’t expect to reach greater exercise outcomes. So let’s dive into how to shake things up!
Toolbox
One of the first steps that you can take is knowing different exercises. This means growing your toolbox of exercises! If you just go to the gym and hop on the same machines all the time, you can expect to only get better at what those machines offer. I have written about how to structure a basic exercise routine, and there are plenty of great resources online describing how to exercise. But the bottom line here is that you need to branch out and explore the gym for new ways to get strong.
Basic Breakdown
As mentioned before, shaking things up means changing the load (weight lifted), volume (weight x reps), and frequency (how often you target a muscle group). Whether you know it or not, your goal in shaking things up is to build more muscle. More muscle means more strength, more stability, greater sports performance, and general life performance. In the end this means by shaking things up through proper periodization you are enhancing your longevity. You won’t become huge by lifting weights (unless you put a LOT of effort in), but muscle growth is the ultimate goal for everyone in one way or another!
 
Perfecting Your Periodization
Depending on what your exact goals are, training experience, and current fitness levels, your periodization scheme will vary somewhat. However, here are some recommendations that everyone should follow (1):
All muscle groups should be worked out, including legs, back, abs, chest, shoulders and arms.
Do one set of 8-12 reps for each exercise.
2 hours and 30 minutes each week (total of 150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. That’s the 30 minutes a day Monday through Friday recommendation we’re all so familiar with.
Or, 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. That’s about 20 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week.
Or, a combination of the above that gives you an equivalent result. For example, you can walk briskly for 30 min twice during the week and then jog for 20 min on two other days.
Boring recommendations, but they are a minimum for a reason. If you really want to see improvements, you should try a few different strategies. One great way to see a performance boost is to change up your rep ranges. For instance, lift near-max weight for two to four reps on the first workout day, moderate weight for 8 to 12 reps on the second day, and lightweight for 20 to 30 reps on the third day. By training in this alternating fashion you can see greater strength and muscle growth benefits (2)! To make your workouts easier to track, you can also alternate weights on a weekly or even monthly basis to see similar benefits.
Timing Is Everything
Changing things up is necessary, but there is more to consider. Two big factors are when to change, and when to rest! Rest is important because there is a benefit to instituting regular deload period, where a week of reduced frequency, volume, and/or intensity every month or so to facilitate recuperation and regeneration. But we do know that training a minimum of 2 days a week is needed to maximize muscle growth (3). Check out the table below for a great example of how to schedule your workouts (4).
Inline image 1
Changing your sets, reps, and frequency schemes will bring you results. So if you haven’t figured it out yet, tracking your workouts is extremely important. None of this information will be very useful if you don’t know how much volume you’re lifting per muscle group. So get yourself an exercise journal, or create an Excel spreadsheet to see the gains and avoid injury. Because even though you may have the secret to the building big arms, you won’t be able to know if you’re doing it right unless you write it down!

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