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Using Periodization to Promote Optimal Recovery

Help clients recover from intense training without the need for expensive gadgets.

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Periodization for recovery

High-intensity interval training and variably challenging, high-intensity workout programs continue to be popular because they produce the results that clients want. High-intensity exercises can be effective, but they place a lot of stress on the physiological systems of the body. Proper recovery is therefore important.

The market offers all sorts of recovery tools for physically active adults: foam rollers, drinks, food, mobility sticks, cryogenic freeze chambers, compression clothing, massage therapy and more. The good news is that, as a fitness pro, you don’t need to invest in expensive tools or even pay a lot of money to learn new “recovery strategies.” Optimizing recovery—so that clients and group fitness participants get the greatest benefits from their workouts—is simply a matter of designing programs that allow for adequate rest. Read on to discover how periodization can help with that.

How Exercise Works

Exercise is physical stress applied to the body; after a workout, the body needs time to repair damage done to tissues and replace energy used by muscles. Allowing inadequate time for recovery prior to the next workout can lead to overtraining. Overtraining syndrome occurs when prolonged excessive training is combined with other stressors and insufficient recovery time. The result is diminished performance and chronic maladaptations (Meeusen & De Pauw 2013).

During recovery, people experience actual changes to their bodies, which explains why so many tools are being marketed to promote this process. Rest, however, is one of the most effective methods of recovery—and it can be achieved by applying the science of periodization to workout programs you design for your classes and clients.

Exercise and stress. In general, exercise causes two types of stress on muscle tissue: mechanical and metabolic. Mechanical stress refers to damage to protein structures of individual muscle fibers, while metabolic fatigue means depletion of available energy stores in muscle cells. Every workout applies different levels of mechanical damage or metabolic fatigue and requires appropriate time for the body to repair and adapt.

For example, if an exercise (say, goblet squat) is performed to a point of fatigue—meaning the exerciser cannot complete another full repetition—then both types of stress will have occurred. Exercising to a point of fatigue means that available energy stores in muscle cells have been depleted; simultaneously, muscle contractions can create microscopic tears on individual protein myofibrils, and these tears must be repaired by fibroblasts after exercise is over. In the recovery phase, the body expends energy to replace the energy spent during exercise, repair damaged tissues and remove metabolic byproducts. This phase can be identified by an increase in oxygen use, known as excess postexercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC (Bompa & Haff 2009).

Program Design as a Recovery Strategy

Periodization program design

Applying the science of periodization can enhance the value of your training services.

Periodization is a method of organizing the variables of program design to create metabolic fatigue, mechanical overload or a combination of the two during a workout, while also allowing for adequate rest between sessions in an effort to achieve desired adaptations. “Periodization is a theoretical and practical construct that allows for the systematic, sequential, and integrative programming of training interventions into mutually dependent periods of time in order to induce physiological adaptations that underpin performance objectives” (Haff & Triplett 2016).

The greatest benefit of periodization is that it uses rest to let the body adapt to the physically demanding work performed during exercise. This is why many elite performance coaches use periodization to help their athletes peak for competition. You may or may not work with athletes, but periodization should be able to help any of your clients reach their goals.

Applying the science of periodization can enhance the value of your training services because it gives clients a systematic way to achieve optimal recovery between workouts. As a result, your clients will be more likely to maintain a high level of physical preparedness while remaining injury-free, allowing you to retain their business for an extended period of time.

Applying Periodization

In a periodized program, the variables of exercise program design—exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, rest interval, sets and tempo—should be organized to provide an appropriate stimulus with every workout. Proceeding through the individual workouts in a program should lead to a specific outcome. Intensity refers to the specific amount of weight used for a particular exercise. Total work performed—expressed as the product of intensity, repetitions and sets completed—is called the volume of work.

Nonlinear, or undulating, periodization models may be ideally suited to general fitness clients because these models allow for frequent changes in intensity and volume. By contrast, linear models require a gradual accumulation of progressively challenging exercise over an extended period of time.

A program based on undulating periodization switches among high-, moderate- and low-intensity workouts over the course of a week. Some clients feel they must exercise every day, and this kind of program lets them do that—but at different intensity levels to ensure appropriate recovery.

For example, the variety of an undulating program might include (1) high-intensity strength or power training with external resistance to create mechanical overload, (2) cardiorespiratory exercise or fast-paced body-weight movements to induce metabolic fatigue, and (3) lower-intensity mobility programs that promote active recovery from more stressful workouts. Ideally, clients could complete two workouts of each modality each week, allowing 1 day for complete rest from exercise. When time is a factor, this model can allow for at least one strength, one cardio and one mobility-focused workout each week.

Weekly Workout Schedule: Undulating, Nonlinear Periodization

Periodization workout schedule

Robert Linkul, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of Be STRONGER Fitness in Sacramento, California, uses periodization in his group programming. “[We use] a modified periodization system that I created and that works really well for our older-adult population,” says Linkul. “The workouts progress over the course of 3 weeks, with a difficult ‘challenge’ week [in] the fourth week, followed by an easy ‘deloading’ week [in] the fifth week). My clients love it because it pushes them to work hard, which is the key to seeing results.”

Applying Periodization to a Group Workout Program

You can easily organize an ongoing class into monthlong periods. For instance, if you teach a circuit-based conditioning class twice a week, applying periodization to your workouts is simply a matter of changing the focus of the class each month. The following 3-month rotation lets you teach each format for a total of 4 months throughout the year as the pattern repeats. Your participants will appreciate the steady variation.

Periodization for Group Workout

Periodization Is a Winning Program

Many fitness enthusiasts and inexperienced trainers make mistakes that result in a plateau, where the body ceases to respond to the exercise it performs—and no one wants that!

Periodization allows you to design creative, fun and appropriately challenging workouts while giving clients enough time to recover after each exercise session and prepare for the next one. The periodization system lets you apply science to optimize recovery, making it an effective resource for helping clients achieve desired goals while creating long-term retention. Clients who don’t like to exercise will appreciate the fact that rest is an important part of their workout program, whereas clients who love to exercise may need to be coached on the benefits of rest to allow for optimal adaptations to the exercise stimulus.

Finally, steadily varying workout intensity and volume will keep clients exercising in different ways, leading to the purchase of more training as people feel and experience positive changes in their sessions.



Bompa, T.O., & Haff, G.G. 2009. Period­ization: Theory and Methodology of Training, (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Haff, G.G., & Triplett, T. 2016. Essen­tials of Strength Training and Con­ditioning, (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Meeusen, R., & De Pauw, K. 2013. Over­training syndrome. In C. Hausswirth & I. Mujika (Eds.), Recovery for Performance in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Pete McCall, MS

Pete McCall, MS, is the host of the All About Fitness podcast, and the author of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple as well as several articles and textbook chapters about exercise physiology. Pete holds a master’s degree in exercise science and has been educating fitness professionals since 2002. Currently, Pete lives in Carlsbad, California, where he is a consultant for Core Health & Fitness, Terra Core Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness and the American Council on Exercise, and a coach for the Coastal Dragons rugby club.

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