How Does Periodization Work?

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS

Some of you might have heard or are familiar with the term ‘periodization’. A periodized training program is basically a program that is planned and designed to improve performance by manipulating training variables such as intensity and volume. However, periodization goes beyond than just planning and numbers on your training program. Simply changing the training workload randomly will not make an effective program.

The science behind periodization

So what is the rationale behind periodization?

The concept of periodization is based on the scientific understanding of our body response to exercise stress. The way our body reacts to stress was first developed and described by Dr. Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) (8). There are 3 phases to how our body response to stress, 1) Alarm, 2) Resistance and 3) Exhaustion.

Later, Garhammer (4) applied the GAS concept to resistance training and exercise conditioning. Have you ever had the experience of muscle soreness whenever you learned a new exercise or when the exercise intensity/volume increased? Whenever the body experiences a new stress or a stress level that is more than the previous one applied, you’ll go into a shock (hence the soreness and stiffness) and this is what we called the ‘alarm’ phase. During this phase, which may last a few days or a few weeks, you might feel excessive muscle soreness and a reduction in your performance (temporary). This temporary dropped in performance is also called ‘overreaching(3,7). If you continue to push yourself with hard training along with inadequate recovery, your body will not be able to adapt to the training stimulus. Failing to adapt to the exercise stress would result in chronic fatigue and eventually lead to poor performance. The decline in performance for an extended period of time is known as overtraining (2). Unlike overreaching, which can be easily recovered in a few days, overtraining may take several weeks or months to recover from (3). This is the phase where any fitness professionals, coaches or trainees would do their best to avoid.

With proper recovery, you’ll notice that the exercise you were learning or doing gets easier. This happens when your body (muscle tissue) has adapted to the new stress level by making various adjustments at the biochemical, structural and mechanical levels, leading to an improvement in performance (7,9). This adaptation process is the ‘resistance’ phase and the peak performance response is known as the ‘supercompensation’ effect (5). This is the point where athletes will want to remain for as long as possible. Depending on your training program and condition (1), the supercompensation effect may last between 7 – 10 days (6). Any further attempt of pushing pass this point with hard training and without sufficient rest would result in extreme fatigue, leading to reduction in performance. This is known as the ‘exhaustion’ phase. During this phase, some of the symptoms (soreness, stiffness, fatigue, etc.) similar to the alarm phase would reappear. Likewise, resting too much with no training stimulus will also affect performance (detraining). Therefore, having a good recovery plan is just as important as a good training plan when it comes to performance.

If you ever wonder why sometimes your coach or trainer pushed you to the edge and sometimes they cut you some slack, it is most likely that they were trying to elicit a positive training response. Understanding how our body responses to exercise stress allows better exercise programming which makes a training program safe and effective.

#periodization #peakyourperformance


1) Bompa, T. O. (1999). Periodization training for sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

2) Callister, R., Callister, R. J., Fleck, S. J., & Dudley, G. A. (1990). Physiological and performance responses to overtraining in elite judo athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 22(6), 816-824.

3) Fry, A. C., & Kraemer, W. J. (1997). Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Sports Medicine, 23(2), 106-129.

4) Garhammer, J. (1979). Periodization of strength training for athletes. Track Tech, 73, 2398-2399.

5) MacDougall, J. D., Ward, G. R., Sale, D. G., & Sutton, J. R. (1977). Biochemical adaptation of human skeletal muscle to heavy resistance training and immobilization. Journal of Applied Physiology, 43(4), 700-703.

6) Ozolin, N. (1971). How to improve speed. Track Technique, 43, 1373-1375.

7) Ratamess, N. A., Kraemer, W. J., Volek, J. S., Rubin, M. R., Gómez, A. L., French, D. N., Dioguardi, F. (2003). The effects of amino acid supplementation on muscular performance during resistance training overreaching: Evidence of an effective overreaching protocol. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(2), 250-258.

8) Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

9) Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Garhammer, J., McMillan, J., & Rozenek, R. (1982). A theoretical model of strength training. National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal, 4(4), 36-40.

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