More method, less madness

November 3, 2014 · 4 minute read

Personal trainers are just as confused as you are. Every day it seems, there is a new blog post about “functional” something, or a Youtube video featuring that “insane workout.” Workshops spring up across the county featuring, “the ultimate kettlebell/battle rope/nunchuck/bowling ball/dumbell/box jump workout for your Boot Camp.” DVD’s sell for $75 espousing the promised way to fix your clients, and foam tubes sell for $50. The fitness industry, though full of well-intentioned, passionate individuals, is often muddled with marketing ploys desperately attempting to rise above the noise.

This is the proper place for "insane" workout videos.

This is the proper place for “insane” workout videos.

It’s ok. We trainers with you. In this day and age, it’s difficult to sift through the junk and find the path. We chase the mysterious “Solution” only to find ourselves tumbling down the Rabbit Hole. At worst, we surrender to the noise, becoming our own Mad-Sanity Viking Sparta Training Camp, hoping that maybe one of you will hear us.

There is another way.

Coaches have begun to sweep away the chaos, nailing down a crisp, clean method that has proven true for athletes for centuries. The secret lies not in confusing muscles or pushing to the limits in every session. The secret lies in the steady, planned progressions of periodization.

You haven’t heard of periodization because it is a marketing snooze fest. Nothing says “unsexy” like incremental progressions over long periods of time. Given the choice between a poster conveying charts and graphs and a poster showing a sweaty hot-body throwing a sandbag, which would you want to see? However, if you look at some of the highest performing athletes in both endurance and strength events, you will see entire years of training planned through periodization.

Periodization is the method of systematically manipulating your intensity and volume over time in order to maximize performance for a given event or goal. By breaking apart your training — whether it be for weight loss, strength gain, or simple health — into cycles of progressive intensity, you can offer your body an opportunity to improve in a concise, sustainable way.

Kettlebells are great -- as long as they're part of a periodized workout regimen.

Kettlebells are great — as long as they’re part of a periodized workout regimen.

Take weight loss for example. The key to understanding weight loss is understanding that dropping pounds is not an actionable goal, but rather a result. The goal is to improve one’s nutritional habits as well as one’s ability to exercise, the outcome of which is almost inevitably change in body composition. What’s more, the actions taken need to be consistent and sustainable for a LONG time. Anything short of a year and you are likely going to see a quick fix followed by a yo-yo return to your old ways. For the exercise component, jumping into the deep end of high intensity intervals and heavy lifting is neither sustainable nor advisable. Instead, in the deeply un-exciting means of measured progressions, you begin at the beginning, find success, and constantly move forward. Forever.

Around here is when we, as coaches, begin to lose people. Telling someone about periodization is like discussing the finer points of tax law. You have to get through the mundane facts to get to the more interesting stuff (though I’m not sure that ever happens in tax law). You can still have a TON of fun while periodizing. No one ever said that you can’t use speed ladders, do box jumps, throw kettlebells, run through the woods, ride single track, or get muddy. Workouts can look like games and exercise can feel like play, the trick is in knowing when to play hard and when to play nice. The end result will not only be you at a higher level of performance, but also — ideally — at a much lower risk for injury.

Your body deserves respect, your goals deserve the opportunity to thrive. In a world of instant gratification, unlimited information, and the ceaseless opportunity to compare yourself to others, we all struggle to maintain a focused, systematic approach to our journeys. Allow yourself to enjoy the wildness of your adventures, but also give yourself permission to follow your own intentional path. Planning doesn’t need to be overwhelming or complex; start by knowing where you are now. What hurts? What is weak? Correct those issues, often with the help of a professional, then gradually progress your training, adding resistance, volume, and complexity. Every 3-5 weeks, give yourself an easy week (which more often than not falls perfectly with vacations and normal life interruptions). Always listen to your body and be ready to adjust your plan if your body needs it. This winter, instead of seeking crazier workouts, try periodization. More method, less madness.

Example goal: Spend the winter getting ready for next season’s trail races.

Month November December January February March April May
Strength Training 1-2 2-3 3 3-4 4-5 5/3 2


  Phase Goal Parameters EXAMPLE
1 Corrective Exercise Pain and dysfunction issues are addressed. Low intensity, high specificity. Professional guidance is highly advised. Foam rollingBird DogsBridgesBalance drills.
2 Stabilization Endurance Prepare the body for training. Use asymmetrical and unstable exercises.. Low to moderate intensity.1-4 sets x 12-20 reps PlanksSingle Leg ChopsSingle Arm Chest PressSingle Arm RowStep Ups 
3 Strength Transition into weight lifting. Progress from stability to max strength.Prep for Power phase. Progress from moderate to high resistance.1-4 sets x 12-3 reps. SquatsLungesPushupsDeadliftsPull Ups
4 Power Develop explosive strength and resiliency.Introduce agility training. High intensity.1-5 sets x8-10 reps. Speed LadderBox JumpsKettlebell SwingsMedicine Ball throws
5 Sport specific Maximize performance.Prepare the body for demands of the event. Moderate to high intensity.2-3 sets x 8-12 reps Bounding/skippingLateral agility drills.Hopping.