I think it’s safe to say that by this point it’s a well-known fact that fitness is important. Many have taken to the gym in recent years to regain control of their health, and as more evidence emerges regarding the impact regular exercise has on chronic conditions (obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer), it’s easy to imagine that more and more will take to the gym for the same reason.
The purpose behind getting in the gym is great, and for the first few weeks, most will notice changes that they’re happy with regardless of their level of fitness expertise (or even lack there-of). This is primarily due to the fact that the body becomes conditioned to a rather inactive lifestyle. This type of lifestyle will cause the body to lose muscle tissue simply due to the fact that it is not being used very much; since muscle tissue requires energy from the body to stay alive and healthy, why should the body prioritize putting energy towards it when you aren’t using it? By going from an inactive lifestyle to actively participating in cardio and (hopefully) resistance training, you’re signaling to the body that stresses will be introduced and strong muscles are needed.
Now for one of the most amazing features of the human body (although there are many): it wants to stay alive! Yup. If you go from lifting your television remote on a regular basis, to lifting a fifteen-pound dumbbell on a regular basis, your body will essentially say, “hmm, that’s a lot more difficult than what I’m used to doing” and a response is triggered that takes resources (nutrients from the food you eat) to build stronger muscle tissue… At least that’s the goal – Keep creating a change in the stimulus that the body has grown accustomed to!
By programming your workouts in a strategic manner you can keep creating that ‘remote to dumbbell’ difference which is a key component in prompting a significant response in the form of results. Below, I will provide the basic guidelines to 3 phases of periodization training, each of which should last for about 4 weeks (this is roughly how long it takes for the body to adapt to a repeated stimulus - at which point it's time to change). I will also provide a bit of detail regarding what adaptations are taking place, and why they’re important.
The muscular endurance phase is important because it essentially begins conditioning the muscle and connective tissue to be able to handle a greater capacity of work in a way that poses minimal risk. Here, exercisers want to use lighter weights that are somewhat easy to control. It is important to start in this phase, since during an inactive lifestyle the tissues that are now being stressed have deteriorated (atrophy) to some degree. Given the relatively fragile state of the muscles (and subsequently the joints they hold together), the lighter used during the muscular endurance phase is essential since it allows the muscles to be worked through a higher rep range without excessive resistance that might lead to injury. Still, we don’t want to just rush through these sets, despite the easy to handle weight. To properly benefit from increased muscular endurance, choose a weight where 15-25 reps are possible each set and make your breaks in-between sets last about 90 seconds. During the lifting, a tempo of 4/2/1 is recommended-> here’s what that means, using barbell bench press as an example.
With the barbell un-racked, slowly control the bar down using a 4 count, pause at the bottom of your range of motion for a 2 count, and then concentrate on pressing the bar up through the contraction of your chest using a 1 count.
Here, the majority of the work is done on the way down, creating quite a bit of ‘time under tension’. This slow, consistent, methodical - but long - working duration is what prompts the adaptations of improved muscular endurance and is what prepares the tissue to handle the increased stimulus of the next phase (which is my personal favorite): hypertrophy training!
Hypertrophy (pronounced hyper-truh-fee) is the phase where muscles are triggered to actually increase in size. Since muscles work by using proteins inside that link together ultimately causing them to shorten, the value of hypertrophy training is largely due to the fact that it causes more of these contractile proteins to form. These additional proteins cause the muscle to increase its diameter, making it bigger, and often times more visible, while also giving it the potential to produce more force than before. The adaptation of more contractile proteins and larger muscles is, much like the previous phase, a result of more ‘time under tension’, but more importantly these adaptations are also a result of the increased load demand of lifting heavier weights than previously, during muscular endurance. However, during hypertrophy training, the execution is a bit different from that of muscular endurance. Here, a heavier weight, one where only 8-12 reps can be accomplished is necessary for each set, with rest intervals in-between sets at about 60 seconds. Increasing to heavier weight when starting this phase is vital for prompting that ‘remote to dumbbell’ response, which I mentioned earlier, as you progress. Aside from heavier weight, hypertrophy training calls for a 2/0/2 tempo; still using bench press as an example, here’s what that means:
With the barbell un-racked, control the bar down using a 2 count and with no pause at the bottom (and no bouncing), press the bar back up methodically using a 2 count. Squeeze the muscle you’re working (chest) once at the top of the rep and immediately go into the next. Repeat 8-12 times.
For me, getting into a bit of a rhythm really helps me reap the benefits of this phase by keeping my working muscles under tension longer while helping me avoid any unnecessary pauses throughout. The heavier weight and the consistent tension cause a breakdown of the muscle tissue so significant that the body ultimately responds by enlarging the tissue… It’s part of that whole: The body wants to stay alive, thing.
By increasing the number of contractile proteins in a muscle, and it’s overall size, the potential for more force production is now there. To trigger this next very important adaptation, we move to the strength phase.
While muscular endurance and hypertrophy develop the working capacity and increased size of muscles, strength training works on developing the signaling system responsible for efficient muscle contraction. This is the phase where the hard work of muscular endurance and hypertrophy training comes together in the form of more effective muscle contraction, which translates to increased strength.
**Side note: it is important to understand that strength training requires force to be applied at a high rate. This can put excess stress on the connective tissue, joints and the core muscles, so it’s important to address these areas regularly throughout your development leading up to this phase.**
To truly reap the benefits of the strength phase, heavy weights are extremely important; weight where only 1-5 reps are possible. Along with heavy weight, this phase requires fast contractions. Essentially, you will want to try to lift the weight as quickly as you can while remaining in control and not sacrificing form. Despite the efforts to lift as quickly as possible, the amount of weight will typically (and should) prevent the movement from occurring fast. Since we’re working with a more exhausting weight and tempo, rest periods of 3-5 minutes are recommended. An example of strength training can be reviewed below:
With the barbell un-racked and core engaged, bring the bar down to your chest in a quick but controlled manner and immediately press it back up as quickly as possible while focusing on contracting through your chest. Repeat 1-5 times.
The demands that strength training places on the body fall primarily on the nervous system, as opposed to the previous two phases where the muscle tissue is the main target. For this reason, the fatigue that results from strength training might feel a bit different than other phases. I compared it to somewhat of a mental fatigue, which I’m sure most of you have already experienced at one point or another. Lastly, during strength training, some muscle growth is likely to continue happening since the phase requires heavy weights to be used, but this will be minimal compared to the previous phase due to shorter rep ranges (which, again, are necessary to create increases in strength).
After the strength phase is complete, by this point it will have been at least 8 weeks (remember, each phase should last at least 4 weeks) since the last time you’ve worked through 15-25 repetitions of slow controlled movement. The large gap between muscular endurance and strength training creates a nice opportunity to begin re-stressing the tissues through the same cyclical format, except this time during muscular endurance you should be able to start with a weight that’s greater than what you used your first time through, which will prepare you to lift heavier than your first time through hypertrophy and the same for strength... Get the picture?
There are many other variables you can throw in the mix when formatting your own workout routines. This article is intended to help provide a basic understanding of the age-old concept: “keep the body guessing” and why that’s so important to do. So, grab a notebook and pen, get in the gym and start scribbling your workouts down in a way that follows the guidelines above.