To achieve best results in weight lifting, it is necessary to follow a program. Unless you are a beginner lifter (and will therefore be progressing more rapidly week to week, so can increase your weights based on feeling), you should really be following a periodised program if you are serious about getting stronger, more powerful and more athletic.
If you don’t periodise your training, you may find yourself doing the same routine using the same weights, week in and week out. We all know those curl bros in the gym who look exactly the same as they did a year ago, as they’re still following the same routine ripped from the pages of an old Muscle & Fitness magazine and curling the same 30lb dumbbells. Don’t be that guy.
So, what is periodisation?
Periodisation is the process of cycling your training in terms of specificity, intensity and volume over a certain period. A periodised program usually lasts anywhere between four and 12 weeks. The first few weeks should focus on speed and feel relatively easy. Volume will typically peak in the middle of the program and then back off slightly to help you reach a “peak” during the final week or two.
Often, the final peak coincides with a powerlifting meet or other strength competition. However, it does not necessarily involve testing your max. Instead, you may work up to heavy doubles (2RM sets) or triples (3RM sets).
Is periodisation realistic?
In theory, following a periodisation cycle sounds perfect. You follow the program, put in the work, and see results through regular PRs. But things rarely go to plan. We all have our down weeks where we feel less than stellar in the gym, meaning that it’s probably not the best time to push our bodies through a gruelling 5RM or shoot for a PR.
Aside from fluctuations in our daily strength levels, we also have illnesses, work events, vacations and family emergencies to deal with. It’s unrealistic to expect that someone can complete an entire training cycle (which may mean 32 workouts if they’re training four times a week for eight weeks, for example) without a single interruption, unless they are a professional athlete and their lives revolve around training.
How do I deal with an interruption?
Sometimes we have to deviate from our scheduled program for a few days, or even a few weeks. If you have to do so, should you abandon your progress up until that point and start right back at week one, or should you ignore the time you took off and pick up immediately where you left off?
Like many things involving training, it depends, but you should never have to restart a program from scratch.
First, consider how much time you took off:
- If you only missed a few days, you should be able to pick up right where you left off – provided that you weren’t sick and don’t feel weak. If the latter, you should just repeat the last full week you were successfully able to complete before falling ill.
- If you have to take a week or longer off, you may have to repeat a week or two to get back into the groove of things.
Secondly, consider where you are in your training cycle:
- If you are early on in your training cycle (week one, two or three, for example) and the weights are still relatively easy to shift, you should be able to pick up right where you left off.
- If you are taking a break in the middle or end of your training cycle, I recommend repeating a week once you get back into the gym. For example, if you are following an eight-week program and go on a 10-day vacation at the end of week six, simply repeat week six and then continue on with the rest of the program once you return home.
- If you are in the final week of a training cycle and have to take a couple of days off, don’t fret – you may not have to change anything at all! Taking time off right before the peak often makes you stronger, as you will feel fully recovered. This is why powerlifters generally don’t train in the entire week leading up to competition day.
Finally, consider the reason you had to take time off:
- If you were dealing with a serious illness or stressful situation, don’t expect to jump right back into full strength levels.
- If you took a week off to relax on vacation and enjoy all the carbs, you will probably feel stronger for it and may have no trouble resuming the program with no interruption.
What if I’m just having an off day?
Sometimes we are just not feeling our workout for whatever reason. This could be because our mind is elsewhere, we haven’t eaten enough that day, or we simply just feel like a weak kitten. It happens to all of us.
If you are scheduled to lift a certain weight, but your first set is a real grinder – or, worse, you can’t hit all the reps – scale the weight back slightly. I always tell people it’s better to hit the programmed number of reps and sets (which should feel like an exertion level of around 8 out of 10), rather than be chained to a specific weight.
The following week, you may find that you are able to pick up your regularly programmed numbers. However, it’s no big deal if you have to scale back all of the remaining weeks of your program. Sometimes we miscalculate percentages and sometimes our bodies just don’t want to progress as quickly as we’d hope.
Can I lift more than my program suggests?
Based on the preceding section, you may be thinking that it logically makes sense to bump your weights up on the days you feel strong. Unfortunately, you would be thinking wrong.
If your program is designed well, most weeks should feel easy. If we consider an eight-week cycle, for example, weeks one to three should feel easy – somewhere around a 6 out of 10 exertion level. Your workouts should feel progressively harder until you reach the peak but, even then, unless you’re standing on a platform in front of three judges, you should not be hitting a 10 out of 10 exertion level.
If you have made your calculations and your program feels easy, it means it’s working exactly as it should. You should be filled with a confidence that should remain as the weights get heavier. This is exactly how you will PR.
Don’t jump ahead and up your weights, thereby potentially sabotaging your progress later down the line. Attempt PRs only when you are supposed to, and you will save yourself a lot of heartache.
Do you periodise your programming? Do you find it difficult to stick to a program?