Putting yourself on a periodized, 12-month training plan could set you up for success all year long.
Most of us decide what our workouts are going to be on a daily and/or weekly basis, taking whatever classes sound interesting or squeezing in whatever solo sessions our schedules allow. But research shows that strategically plotting out your routine months in advance, and tackling one training goal at a time by varying the volume and intensity of your workouts—a technique called periodization—leads to better results (more lean muscle, improved strength and less body fat) than choosing your workouts on a whim. Case in point: Professional athletes, who spend months, even years, training to be in peak condition for a future event, like the Olympics.
“People are always trying to attack too many different goals at once—to tone up, lose weight, burn fat, run longer, get faster, etc.—and it waters down your ability to get results,” says Alex Zimmerman, an exercise physiologist and National Manager of Equinox’s Tier 4 Program. The solution: Create one main goal that you would like to achieve this year, and then work backwards from there.
“You’ve got to stay focused,” says Josh Stolz, a master trainer and Tier 4 coach in New York City. “Certain goals, like running a marathon and getting stronger, are on opposite sides of the spectrum. So if your main goal is to build muscle or power, you’re not going to run a marathon. If your main goal is to run a marathon, you’re not going to do a heavy strength program.”
Once you’ve decided on a main goal: “Block your training program out into four to six, 2- to 3-month segments, in which you focus on a single performance-oriented goal, such as gaining power, building speed or improving your endurance,” recommends Zimmerman. The idea is that each block (known as a mesocycle) will give you just enough time to make a significant physiological change that will help you attain your desired end result, without hitting a plateau or putting yourself at risk for overuse injuries.
For example, if your main goal is to get beach-ready by summer, here’s how you could periodize your training for the year, says Zimmerman:
Winter: Mesocycle 1 (1-2 Months): General Physical Preparedness (GPP) = In your first mesocycle, you want to ensure that you have attained a general base of fitness doing anywhere from 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps and about 60 seconds rest, especially if you’re a beginner.
Mesocycle 2 (2 Months): Hypertrophy = In the hypertrophy phase, your main goal is to build muscle and improve overall work capacity. You’ll need to lift as much weight as possible (about 70 percent of 1 rep max) to complete 10 to 12 reps max; if you have the ability to perform 15 reps at this weight, it’s too light. Perform 3-4 sets of 5-6 strength exercises, three or four days per week. (Typically, it's recommended to add an extra day in the hypertrophy phase; for the other phases, 3 days is the base recommendation.)
Spring: Mesocycle 3 (6 weeks): Strength = Strength is a natural progression from hypertrophy – just simply adding more weights and increasing rest. For example, as opposed to doing 6 exercises for 5 sets of 12, you would do 5 sets of 6 repetitions. The only objective during strength is to push as much weight as possible; barbell exercises are recommended for doing this.
Mesocycle 4 (6 weeks): Power Endurance = This is your bathing suit prep, but you can’t have bathing suit prep without a strong foundation of muscle and strength (via hypertrophy and strength). The power endurance phase is comprised of very high-intensity workouts (going all-out for 3 to 5 minutes; recover, and repeat 3 to 5 times) designed to burn a ton of calories. Rest should be at a minimum and can include a combination of strength and cardio exercise, for example, walking lunges followed by one all-out minute on the rower, followed by overhead ball slams for 15 reps.
Summer: Mesocycle 5 (8-12 weeks): Endurance/lifestyle = In the endurance/lifestyle phase, you should focus on doing different types of longer aerobic activities, like cycling, walking, swimming, tennis, rock climbing, etc. “Reduce the intensity of your training, but increase your activity,” says Zimmerman. Strength training can complement this with rep ranges of 15-20 reps or even timed sets of work for up to 1 minute.
Fall: Mesocycle 6 (8 weeks): Hypertrophy: Time to come back to basics and replenish all the potential lost muscle as a result of lots of endurance during the summer months.
*For best results, you should also place a one-week recovery phase (low volume, low intensity) between each. An individual’s mesocycles and daily workouts (microcycles) will vary, depending on his/her goals, so you’ll want to take measurements regularly to properly keep track of what works and what doesn’t, says Stolz.