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In a previous article about resistance training I discussed the importance of progression (gradually increasing the resistance) to stimulate adaptation. What do you do when you simply are not getting any stronger, and you can’t increase the resistance? It’s time to periodise your training.
When you first start heavy resistance training there is a rapid response – you might notice that you are able to increase the resistance fairly consistently on an almost weekly basis for the first few months. In these early stages, much of the increase in “strength” is actually due to neurological adaptation. As the nervous system learns the movement pattern for each exercise, the execution of the movement becomes more efficient and fluid.
Following that initial rapid improvement phase, the rate of increase in strength between workouts decreases over time. Up until now, your strength training progression has been linear. At some point, your ability to increase the resistance used will reduce (both in magnitude and in frequency). Whatever the cause, the overall approach is the same – it’s time to periodise your training.
Break through your strength plateau by periodising your training.
Instead of increasing the intensity from each workout to the next (either by increasing the resistance or increasing the number of repetitions) – called linear periodisation or linear progression – you modulate the intensity from workout to workout. For example, a common example is to modulate training difficulty such that one session might be easy, the next one moderate, the next one hard, and back to easy again. You aim not only to modulate the difficulty of the workouts for a certain group of muscles over the course of a month, but also over the course of a week (among workouts for different muscle groups). For example, one week the shoulder session might be the most difficult, then next week, the chest, the next week the back, the next week the legs etc. You also modulate the easy and the moderate difficulty workouts for each group. Within this pattern, you keep the 1 repetition maximum (RM) the same, and you modulate the number of repetitions and the resistance accordingly over the weeks or months, until you think your muscles have adapted (and then you increase the 1 RM and repeat the pattern).
For example, in “Sport Physiology for Coaches” by Sharkey and Gaskill they use 3 levels of difficulty as follows:
Workout Difficulty Set Reps Weight
Medium 1 6 85% 1 RM
2 8 80% 1 RM
3 10 75% 1 RM
Easy 1 4 90% 1 RM
2 8 80% 1 RM
Hard 1 1 100% 1 RM
2 4 90% 1 RM
3 6 85% 1 RM
4 8 80% 1 RM
For more details about the rationale behind training periodization, read this article.
As always, don’t fight your body. Work with it. If your body is telling you that you can no longer progress linearly, then either periodise your workouts in other ways (such as the example by Gaskill and Sharkey above), or else stay at the same resistance for longer (e.g. 4 to 6 weeks if necessary). Add active recovery or deload weeks more frequently if required. Consider reducing your training frequency by one day a week.
Note that significant non-training stressors (e.g. grief, work/study assignments, illnesses etc.) can impact on your training progress. Be proactive and modulate your training accordingly – either by incorporating deload weeks around those times, changing training frequency, or substituting workouts for activities less intense (e.g. go for a walk instead of an intense gym session). At certain times in your life, “not progressing”, but also “not regressing”, is the best you can expect.
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Welcome. I am Dr Megan Chircop. I am a medical scientist and nutritionist with 20 years in medical research. As such, I have extensive knowledge and a thorough understanding of how the body works. I am able to simplify the science behind the way food fuels the body and mind to provide energy and nutrition needed to achieve optimal health and vitality. I am also a keen sportswoman, and have extensive knowledge of sports nutrition.
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