Periodization is all about dividing up your training year into blocks

“I’ve been working out for about six months,” you say. “Four days a week, I do a weight circuit and 30 minutes of cardio, usually the rowing machine and the exercise bike. I saw a lot of improvement when I first started, but lately, I’ve been pretty bored. Is there some way to improve my workouts without spending any more time exercising?”

Some people do the exact same workout, day after day. Of course, this is not always a bad thing, since some people enjoy a predictable routine. They don’t mind the fitness plateau and are happy to maintain their good health and fitness with a comfortable exercise habit. But many people find that, after several months, they are ready for a change. Periodizing recreational athletes’ training programs can help them set new training goals and create a varied routine that relieves the monotony of the same-time/same-place fitness doldrums.

What is periodization?

Periodization refers to the division of an athlete’s competitive year into training periods. Periodization is based on the observation that athletes cannot possibly be in peak condition at all times; this would require too much training and, consequently, lead to staleness or injury. Therefore, the year is divided into three periods: fitness maintenance, preparing for competition and competition.

Within each of these periods are smaller periods, such as a week, in which training volume and intensity vary from day to day, depending upon training goals. Training is planned so that the athlete reaches peak condition during the most important competitions.

Periodization allows an athlete to reach peak condition without overtraining, since rest or maintenance periods (periods with lower training volume and intensity) are built into the plan, and at least one rest day is observed during each week. Periodized training is effective because of its systematic nature, which gears training to specific fitness or performance objectives. Because training procedures change during the course of the year, periodization relieves the monotony of performing the same workouts week after week.

Who can use it?

Not all clients are candidates for a periodized training program. If you are helping clients design exercise programs, be sure to match the complexity of your program design to the clients’ abilities and interests. Many clients want simple, minimal programs that take as little time as possible and don’t vary from day to day, week to week.

Consider simplified periodization for clients who have shown dedication to their programs and have a strong interest in improving their fitness levels. Periodization should also be considered for clients who are training for a special contest or event: a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro or a local 10K race.

Periodization, when prescribed at levels appropriate to clients’ fitness levels and interests, is somewhat similar to a behavior modification program. Behavior modification programs encourage clients to shape new behaviors by helping them set goals, make a plan and record progress. Periodization begins with setting performance goals, designing a plan to reach those goals, and then recording progress and refining the exercise program along the way. It provides clients with a larger context for their exercise behaviors, thus encouraging adherence to their exercise programs. Planning for fitness improvement may include recommendations for cross training, including some strength work. Clients who diversify their exercise programs often see new improvements in fitness.

Periodization in action

To see how simplified periodization might work in a personal training setting, consider the client in the opening paragraph. How could a personal trainer help her add variety to her program and increase her fitness, without asking her to work out more than her usual amount of time? Let’s assume she is 30-something, healthy and moderately fit.

First, have her set a training goal. Is there an event she would like to train for? What are some local fitness events coming up? Or would she like to create her own performance event, such as a day-long solo hike?

Suppose she would like to join a community group for a 50-mile bike ride six months from now. Given her current fitness level and dedication, you decide this is a reasonable goal, and the two of you make a plan. Since she just finished a period of fitness building, you decide to divide the coming six months into a two-month period of general preparation and a four-month period of pre-competition training.

She will still try to make it to the fitness center four days a week, but now her training will vary depending upon the goals of the training period. The first period will be for general preparation and fitness building, especially training the aerobic energy system and maintaining good musculoskeletal fitness to avoid injury. You would advise your client to spend her aerobic workout time on the bike, and to continue with her weight circuit, but only two or three days a week.

The goals for the second period will be to steadily increase training volume, but alternating easy and hard days to avoid injury. Your client should also go out for one long ride on weekends, beginning with a short distance, and gradually increasing the distance each week. At the fitness center, she would add more interval training on the exercise bike, again alternating hard and easy days, and hard and easy weeks. Advise your client to taper the week before the event, and rest three or four days before the ride.

Clients will find that “easy weeks” arise on their own schedules because of injury, illness, travel, etc. Build this flexibility into clients’ programs so that they do not get frustrated when life gets in the way of their training programs. A few slow weeks aid in fitness development, allowing time for adequate rest and recovery.


Bompa, T.O. Periodization of Strength. Veritas Publishing: Toronto, 1993.

Johnson, J.H., and T. Bacon. Periodization of Training: Critique and Recommendations. Presentation at the annual meeting of the New England Chapter American College of Sports Medicine, Providence, R.I., October 29, 1999.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

How to develop good teamwork.

Combining Aerobic And Resistance Training.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!