Using Periodization to Overcome Plateaus and Propel Client Progress

It’s probably happened to you and it surely has happened with a client: the dreaded plateau, where results seem to come to a screeching halt. 

A training plateau happens when there is a noticeable stagnation in performance and physical development despite continued effort. A plateau can significantly impact motivation, leading to clients questioning the effectiveness of your program. It’s a common challenge for health coaches that highlights the need to reinvigorate progress and rekindle motivation (and retention). 

One such strategy is periodization, a methodical approach to strength training that involves varying exercise volume, intensity and types over specific periods. Periodization systematically challenges the body in different ways, ensuring that adaptation continues without leading to overtraining or injury.

By incorporating periodization into your training programs, you can help clients break through plateaus, advance their fitness, and maintain high levels of motivation. It’s not just a tool for elite athletes, but a fundamental principle that can benefit anyone. 

Reacquaint yourself with this valuable technique.

Understanding Training Plateaus

A training plateau is not just a hurdle; it’s a natural part of the body’s adaptation process. When the body becomes accustomed to a specific training stimulus, it requires new challenges to continue improving. The reasons for hitting a plateau can be multifaceted, involving both physiological and psychological factors.

Physiologically, the body’s adaptation to repetitive stress from similar workouts leads to a decrease in the effectiveness of those workouts over time. The principle of progressive overload indicates that for muscles to grow, strength to increase, or endurance to improve, the body must be challenged with more than it is accustomed to. 

Psychologically, plateaus can be equally challenging. They often lead to diminished enthusiasm for training. This mental aspect can sometimes be the tougher barrier to overcome, as it can affect effort levels and the consistency of training.

 Foundational Periodization

Periodization is the strategic planning of physical training, designed to continuously challenge the body in new and different ways, fostering ongoing improvement. The goal of periodization is to maximize performance while minimizing the risk of overtraining through varying the training stimuli over specific time periods. Periodization keeps the body guessing, encourages adaptation, and supports recovery. 

There are three main types of periodization models that are commonly used in training programs:

Linear Periodization: This model follows a progressive increase in intensity with a corresponding decrease in volume over time, making it particularly suitable for beginners or for preparing for a specific event. The predictable nature of linear periodization makes it easier to follow and implement, especially for those new to structured training.

Undulating Periodization: Unlike linear, undulating (or non-linear) periodization involves frequent changes in training variables. This could mean altering the intensity, volume, or type of exercise from session to session or week to week. This model is effective for intermediate to advanced athletes, as it continuously challenges the body and mind, preventing adaptation and boredom.

Block Periodization: Designed for advanced athletes or those with specific, high-level goals, block periodization divides training into distinct phases, each with a specific focus, such as building base endurance, strength or peaking for competition. Each block builds on the last, leading to peak performance while managing fatigue and recovery.

By incorporating these periodization strategies into your clients’ training programs, you provide a roadmap that helps avoid plateaus and keeps training engaging and progressive. 

Adding Periodization to Training Programs

Implementing periodization requires a strategic approach that begins with a comprehensive assessment (asses, don’t guess!). This step is crucial for tailoring the periodization model to fit the client’s needs and goals.

Practical Steps for Implementation:

  1. Assessment: Evaluate the client’s physical capabilities, training history and any potential limitations.
  2. Goal Setting: Work with the client to establish clear, measurable goals specific to their fitness aspirations, whether it’s increasing strength or improving body composition.
  3. Choosing a Periodization Model: Based on the assessment and goals, decide on the most appropriate periodization model. 
  4. Planning: Draft a detailed plan that outlines how each training phase will progress. For example:
    • Linear Periodization: Structure a month where the first week focuses on high volume and low intensity, gradually shifting to lower volume and higher intensity by the fourth week.
    • Undulating Periodization: Plan a week where Monday is high intensity, low volume, Wednesday is moderate in both, and Friday focuses on high volume and low intensity.
    • Block Periodization: Design a 3-month plan where each month focuses on a different aspect, such as endurance, strength, and then power, tailoring each block to progressively build upon the last. 
Periodization and Recovery

Incorporating recovery into the periodization strategy is essential. Recovery should be considered as important as the training itself!

Teach light activities on recovery days to promote circulation and aid in the recovery process. Schedule complete rest days to allow for physical and mental recovery, and make sure clients understand the value of rest, which may be more difficult that you realize.

Also, integrate deload weeks–periods of reduced volume and intensity–especially after a training block, to help with fatigue and prepare the body for the next phase.

Periodization is a dynamic and effective strategy for overcoming training plateaus and ensuring continuous progress. By systematically varying the training stimuli, you can keep clients engaged, motivated and on a path of constant improvement. The result: more client success stories to share!

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