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Periodization: Avoid Overtraining and Build Muscle Faster

  Feb 16th, 2013

Periodization - ErkelAs a skinny maggot back in high school looking to bulk up, I hit the weights. And I hit them hard!


I didn’t know anything about periodization. All I knew was that I was tired of having the kind of body that made me look like a white Erkel and I was determined to do something about it.


I went from doing zero resistance training to pumping iron twice a day, virtually overnight.


I would wake up extra early before school and pump out as many sets of barbell curls, bench presses and sit-ups as I could before heading to the bus stop.


Before going to bed I’d run through the same routine, mixing in some forearm curls or skull crushers if I felt like it.


Yes, I was only training my upper body. I know that was stupid. I know that it hindered my ability to build muscle, and not just in my legs, but everywhere else.


But, like many rookies in the iron game, I didn’t care what my legs looked like. I just wanted arms and a chest like Arnold.


After all, once I had a herculean upper body I could always worry about building up my chicken legs later on, or so I thought.


I fought through the soreness and continued training twice a day – week after week – before I realized my body didn’t look much different, my energy was sapped and it had been weeks since I had been able to add weight to my lifts.


I kept at it for a few more weeks before giving up on lifting seriously altogether. I still continued to dabble with the weights in my basement on occasion, but it wouldn’t be until two years later that I would finally make weight training a regular part of my life again.

 Periodization - Arnold

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the more you train, the bigger you’ll get. But the human body has limits and it doesn’t like being stressed beyond them.


Using Periodization to Avoid Overtraining

Mental stress, CNS stress and muscular stress can all have adverse effects on the body when allowed to go unchecked.


In its grand design, the human body reacts to extreme stress in an attempt to mitigate the damage it can induce.


The body can only be trained with extreme intensity and high volume workloads for a short amount of time before you start to experience CNS fatigue, which will cause your motor neurons to start shutting down.


When this happens your ability to contract your muscles is compromised. In other words, your muscles aren’t able to function optimally and you’ll be unable to perform at your highest level in and outside of the gym.


If you allow this excess stress to run rampant for too long you may even see a decline in the amount of weight you’re able to lift.


As CNS fatigue begins to set in you’ll see your energy levels plummet, you’ll feel tired, unmotivated and will have a hard time pulling yourself out of bed in the morning. This is your body’s way of saying, “Give me a break, stupid!”


Other symptoms include irritability, anxiety and a loss of appetite. These are adverse conditions that regular training is supposed to alleviate, but overtraining causes the inverse effect.


This all happens gradually and it can easily sneak up on you until you have to drag yourself out of bed each morning and find yourself getting overly worked up at even the slightest annoyance.


So, how do you know how much of a workload your body can handle so you can train for maximum muscle gains without risking overtraining?


Unfortunately, there is no definitive method of determining your body’s maximum workload capacity.


And the truth is that your limits are always changing with your body. For example, someone who’s been training for fifteen years will have the capacity to handle greater training volume without entering an overtrained state than a newbie.


Nutrition also plays a factor. When you’re maintaining a caloric deficit, the symptoms of overtraining will set in faster than when eating an excess of calories.


You obviously want to get the most out of your training and certainly don’t want your muscles shutting down from CNS fatigue and ceasing to grow. But, how do you get around this?


The Answer is Periodization

Periodization - Big GainsPeriodized training implements, known as periodization, are used by competitive athletes in virtually all sports. It involves a cycling of work load that starts light and works up to a peak before ramping back down and starting over again.


The duration spent working up and maintaining peak workload will vary, depending on the sport, experience level or competition schedule.


Periodization, by cycling the workload placed on the muscles, will keep your CNS from becoming overstressed, prevent your body from becoming overtrained and prevent injuries by giving your tendons a break.


The stress weight lifting places on the body is intense, which is why overtraining is so common among lifters. The body can’t handle 30 sets performed to failure day after day for very long.


In my own experience, I’ve noticed feeling the symptoms of being overtrained in as little as 3 weeks when weight training 5 days each week, using 30 training sets and taking every set to failure. This was also after I had gotten ripped and had been regularly lifting with periodization for a few years.


I haven’t tested my limits since then and plan my periodization so that I’m only under max workload for 2 weeks before dropping the workload down by about 50% and slowly working back up again.


I have been doing this for years and have yet to become overtrained.


While it seems counter-intuitive to think that your muscle and strength gains would be greater when lifting less, this is exactly how it works. Not because less lifting overloads the muscles to a greater degree, but because strategically lifting less will prevent CNS fatigue, keep your motor neurons fresh and allow you to maintain optimal performance.


Jason Ferruggia told me back in April that muscle growth is 90% neural and he’s absolutely right. If you want to all but kill yourself with a high volume of sets performed to failure for weeks on end, be my guest.


Just know that you’re frying your neurons and that all of your efforts are actually proving to be counter-productive to the results you’re working so hard to produce.



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