Periodization & Variation in Weight Training

By Alan Frost, updated February, 2014

man rides mountain-bikeIn this article, I am going to talk about how to introduce variation into your training routines, so as to maximize your gains and avoid overtraining. Below I will briefly introduce two concepts, periodization and variation.


From the training principles discussed earlier, we know that training without variety leads to a plateau and that training at a high intensity for longer periods risks overtraining (an adverse condition that among other things leads to loss of muscle). Periodization refers to a way of organizing your weight training routine into blocks, so that you can get the most out of your workout without overtraining. It is particularly useful for athletes who have a target competition or season, e.g. a bodybuilder or powerlifter training for a competition or a soccer player training in the off-season. It also becomes particularly necessary once you progress and can no longer sustain for longer periods the stress levels required to maintain progress.

Much has been written about this. Originally, athletes used linear periodization where specific goals were training in blocks, e.g. within a 4-8 weeks. So you could have your core training & conditioning block, followed by your hypertrophy (muscle growth) block, followed by your strength development block, followed by your sport-specific block (if applicable). This model has gone out of style because in each phase you would begin to lose the gains you made in the others. So, these days it is more common to use non-linear periodization, where training blocks contain several (or all) of the different types of training in different proportions.



I use variation as a broader term, which includes periodization but also refers to smaller changes in your routine designed to keep your body from becoming accustomed to a certain way of doing things, and thus hopefully giving you better results. Example of variation includes:

  • Choice of exercises
  • The order in which you do your exercises
  • The rest period between exercises
  • The speed at which you perform your exercises
  • The choice of split in your routine

I am not saying that you need to include changes in every single session or even every week. However, it is good idea to mix things up every few weeks, sometimes with small changes and other times with bigger changes. For example, you might switch out many of the exercises that you perform every 8-12 weeks, e.g. doing sumo deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts, goodmornings instead of Romanian deadlifts, incline bench press instead of flat bench press, etc.

Is Periodization Really Necessary?

As a beginner, periodization may not be very important for your development unless you are training for a specific sport that has seasons. However, there are still some basic concepts that you can make use of. First, if you are new to training, you should go through a conditioning and core training phase (see Beginner Weight Lifting Routine). This can also be useful for more seasoned lifters and athletes, particularly if they are returning after a longer break. Secondly, you should aim to include training variations so as not to plateau – e.g. by changing up your routine every 8-12 weeks with new exercises. You should also incorporate active rest here and there depending upon the intensity of your routine.

So, the bottom line is that periodization is certainly useful in weight training once you progress past a certain level and your workouts become more specialized and intense. It is also always a useful tool for someone who has an event or season to train for. Variation on the other hand is useful for everyone so as to keep the routine fresh and to avoid adaptation. Short periods of active rest are also beneficial, either as single training days interspersed within your normal routine (e.g. once a week) or perhaps as a full training week (e.g. 2-4 sessions) every 1-3 months.

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