Importance of workout variation: Periodization

First, I would like to make a bold statement: most gym-goers out there are on plateau of some short. Why is that? The simple reason is, there’s not enough variation in their training; variation in terms of training intensity, volume, frequency, lifting tempo, exercise selection and so on.

Nothing works forever – enter plateau

Variation is all-important for continuous gains, both due to physiological and psychological reasons. Nothing works forever, and without enough variety, the body will hit the plateau sooner or later  – sooner in the case of intermediate and advanced trainees and a little later in the case of beginners. During plateau, your body is so accustomed to the current training load that necessary adaptation won’t happen. The weight in the bar stays the same, as does your muscle mass. You may even train like a maniac, but that just makes matters worse. So there might be a lot of pain, yet no gain.

When the plateau happens, it’s way too common to buy more and more supplements (or even banned substances), or to end up training even more without manipulation of correct training variables. This leads to frustration, and in the worst-case scenario, to burnout and giving up training altogether. But all this can change, because most of us are nowhere near our genetic limits when it comes to muscle and strength gains.

Periodization – a key to systematic and effective variation

When I have the first meeting with a new client, in most cases there’s an urgent need for a change in the program: same kind of splits or rep range have been used for months, sometimes even years. The most common means of variety in these cases are occasional supersets, forced reps and other strength endurance type special strength training techniques. Varying training intensity (expressed as % of 1RM), training volume and training frequency are way less common. This isn’t an optimal strategy. That’s why appropriate changes usually start a rapid progress. But let’s look at some research findings as well:

Without proper variation, strength training seems to cause a plateau even in four weeks. These kinds of programs are called non-periodized training. This means that the training intensity (and usually training volume) is kept the same, let’s say in 8–10 RM range. This seems to happen particularly in less complex lifts. In one interesting study, bench press training with a non-periodized program led to approximately 10% strength gain during 16 weeks, whereas periodized strength training, which has built-in variation in intensity, resulted in 24% gain. Non-periodized trainees hit the plateau after 4 weeks, but periodized trainees kept gaining during the whole study period. In a more complex lift like squat, this difference is not quite as big.

So it’s very obvious that variation through periodization is needed in training. But we humans are creatures of habits. It’s so easy to get stuck in the same old, familiar program. Have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking something like this: “This training style/method is best for me”, “I think 3 day split is optimal for me”, “10–12 reps does it for me, low reps won’t work”, “Whole body training is the thing, split training sucks!”. I bet we all have. Now it’s time to get this “c**p” out of your mind. Enter the world of periodization!

Periodization in layman’s terms

Planned variation of training, periodization, doesn’t need to mean percent based programs that can be figured out only by computer geeks and Russian sport science lab rats. Let’s forget too complex theories and go over the basics you’ll need to get started with your periodization. Moreover, let’s see how to utilize RecoApp in this process, so that you’ll make great gains during the following months:

Mesocycle – a time frame for more program variation

How often should I change the program? This is a very common question. Well, in most cases significant changes in rep range need to be done within one month, at the latest. However, changing exercises or even splits can be done every 8 weeks or so. All this can be done through Mesocycles. A mesocycle consists of approx. 2–8 weeks of training. This is an appropriate time for more radical changes. Again, every 2–4 weeks in terms of volume and intensity, 6–8 weeks in terms of program structure. Let’s take an example to go through this:

Mesocycle: Upper body (UB) / Lower body (LB) split, 3 workouts per week:
- 2 weeks, 3 sets of 12 reps
- 2 weeks, 4 sets of 12 reps
- 2 weeks, 3 sets of 6–8 reps
- 2 weeks, 4 sets of 6–8 reps

This above mesocycle has built-in variation for intensity and volume. After this cycle is done, RecoApp has a neat feature to alarm your for a change of the mesocycle. Next you can e.g. change into a 3 day split routine and do that for another 8 weeks. Or you can increase the training frequency, reset the intensity and continue with UB/LB spit. Variations are endless. But the main thing is that you DO this variation, in logical sequence. You can split e.g. a 6-month training period into 3–4 mesocycles with variations in training intensity, volume and frequency. This will skyrocket your gains, compared to 6 months of monotonic, 4-day splits in 8–12 rep range.

RecoApp provides a revolutionary opportunity to control mesocycles. The app gives you reminders (alarms) so that you won’t fall into the habit of doing the same thing over and over, going nowhere. It also displays best sets of your workout, as well as additional data about calories, weight, subjective quality of sleep and so on. You’ll see how well your mesocyle worked. Best set values from your favorite exercises are displayed in mesocycle summaries. You’ll be able to refine your future training into mescocycles, according to both historical training data and “outside-the-training” factors like sleeping quality, stress and nutrition. That’s pretty cool!

Microcycle – a weekly plan

Microsycle is a period of approx 4 to 10 days. During that time you go through the training elements in your current program. In the aforementioned UB/LB split, you can use e.g. 5–7 days’ microcycles.

RecoApp greatly enhances your ability to control your microcycles. Home screen and recent workout views display the status of your current microcycle. You can see the recovery status of your muscle, adjust recovery times when needed, and get all essential information of your previous few workouts, both in terms of your best sets and outside-training factors, such as sleep quality, nutrition and stress levels during that particular workout day. You can also plan ahead so that you’ll have the best possible chance to have as good a workout as possible. You can also make sure you make small changes in microcycle levels. A little more weight, perhaps more sets, perhaps an easier de-loading week in-between heavy microcycles.

Start variation – now!

Now you have the basics down. Start varying your training more today and bust through that plateau. Great microcycles turn into great mesocycles. Great mesocycles turn into the best training year of your life.


Data analysis for your smart clothing

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Learn to listen to your body - and discover your ideal supercompensation times with the help of RecoApp. The U.S Patent Pending. Global PCT Patent Pending.

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Willoughby, D.S. 1993. The effect of mesocycle length weight training programs involving periodization and partially equated volume on upper and lower body strength. Journal of Stregth and Conditioning Research. 7:2–8.



Timo Haikarainen, MSc, Finnish personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach.

Markus Mäntynen, the CEO and founder of RecoApp Oy.


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