How to Give Your Workouts the Structure You Need for Success

This is your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

As with relationships and careers, monotony is the silent killer of gym workouts. And it’s all too easy to succumb to it.

You find a few workouts you like, attack them with gusto every week, and at least for a while, they produce results. Your arms stretch your shirtsleeves, your butt becomes a source of pride, your belly shrinks, and in the right lighting, you can even see hints of the six-pack you’ve been striving for forever. And then your progress comes to a screeching halt, because, well, you’re doing the same damned workouts every week.

The opposite approach (constantly doing new workouts) is equally problematic, as it doesn’t give your muscles the chance to adapt to any particular training stimulus. But either way, the result is a plateau. And in both cases, the solution is the same: periodization.

I’ll spare you the textbook definition. The basic idea is to organize your long-term training plan into blocks (or periods) that each focus on a specific skill (e.g., endurance, strength, power), and that consequently vary in training volume and intensity. The classic approach—known as “ linear periodization”—entails reaching for heavier weights every few weeks, progressing from a high training volume at a low intensity (think: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps) to a low training volume at a high intensity (think: 5 sets of 3 reps) during the course of several months.

Many people take this approach instinctively in the gym, and if you’re a beginner, it’s a good place to start. But if you’ve been around the weight rack a few times, you’ll likely need to use a different method to continue to make progress.

Your move: Switch to “undulating periodization,” in which you vary your set and rep schemes on a weekly or even daily basis. This is usually limited “big” lifts, such as the deadlift, bench press, and squat, and works best if you base your workouts around them. Here’s how two weeks of undulating periodization might play out for those exercises.

Week 1

Week 2

Research shows that undulating periodization tends to elicit greater increases in strength and body composition than linear periodization. Just as important, it helps keep monotony to a minimum—and that should be a top priority regardless of what approach you take.

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