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Is a Periodized Workout Too Weird for Your Gym?

By Russ Klettke

Being unorthodox in gay culture is not necessarily a fast track to popularity. But workouts such as the P90X program are challenging that assumption with “muscle confusion,” a marketing term for the time-proven principle of periodization, which is a systematic method to overcome fitness plateaus. 

The fundamental principle of periodization is to be unusual. It forces the exerciser to challenge muscles in new ways, ideally at new levels of intensity. But are the new exercises just too weird for your gym? 

Whether or not a periodized fitness approach fits the vibe of your club is pretty easy to figure out. Is it a place where bear walks, plyometric jumps and crazy stuff involving balls, bands and Bosus are perfectly acceptable behavior? Or do those things violate your gym’s "code of cool”?  

Muscle confusion works—when you do it correctly
Washington, DC-based trainer Vionna R. Jones says her trainees only feel comfortable with some exercise modalities when training with her. “They often feel weird because it includes things that other people in the gym just are not going to do when working out by themselves,” she says. But, “they like the cardio blast that these give them. They feel self-conscious, but do it anyway.” 

Fitness center consultant and retailer Jeff Thomsen, based in Hoboken, NJ, suggests it’s a matter of know-how and self-confidence. “The educated gym culture, especially men, always are trying new things to confuse the muscles with the hope of tear down and growth,” he says. But programs like P90X require close adherence to diet and proper exercise form. “Some of the individuals who perform it violate the cool rule by their terrible form,” he notes. 

Cool or not, strength and size gains can be achieved when you apply constantly changing stress to the neuromuscular system, as it happens with periodization. Your muscles have no time to develop muscle memory, which is the “cheating” your body does to find the easier way to exercise. By breaking away from standard paths of motion (think machines or other single-plane movements such as a preacher curl), you build a better-rounded, more balanced body.  

If you know what you’re doing and are unconcerned with what it looks like to others, count yourself lucky. You might just have a health club where unusual exercises are accepted, encouraged and facilitated with the right equipment.

  Periodized workouts
Ultimately, periodization should be mapped out in macrocycles, a period spanning six to 12 months. Within that, microcycles can involve a build of intensity over three weeks, with an intermediate light week, followed by another three weeks of intensity. Clearly, the full breadth of a program will require study beyond this article, but two sample workouts are provided here as a starting point. 

Note also that a weird, mixed-up workout has to take into account your exercise frequency. If you exercise four or more days per week, clearly you will have consecutive-day workouts and should be concerned about taxing the same muscles two days in a row (recovery typically requires 48 hours). The solutions are “push” and “pull” themes, as follows: 

Push day
Cycle two or three times through this series of eight modalities (warm up on a treadmill for 3-5 minutes followed by a good stretch).

Sample Push-day Exercises
Exercise Notes Reps/Time
Incline chest press Dumbbells held together at top, palms facing each other 12 - 15 reps
Jump rope 50 - 75 jumps
Tube Shoulder Press Loop band under feet, pause at extreme “out” point 10 - 20 reps
Quick cardio High speed, high resistance elliptical machine or stationary bike Three minutes
Angled bench dips Do tricep dips with torso and legs at a 45-degree horizontal angle to the bench supporting your upper body; shift position to the opposite side 10 per side
Burpees Add a jump between reps for more intensity 10 - 15 reps
Pushup-palooza Hands on a stability ball, on a medicine ball on the floor and on the medicine ball on a wall (such as brick, where friction will prevent slipping) 10 reps each (30 total) in rapid succession
Pulsing stationary lunges Hold weights in hands for added difficulty 20 reps per leg
Note: Minimize rest between sets to 30 seconds or less.

Pull day
Also cycle through this two or three times, after a treadmill-stretch warm-up.
Sample Pull-day Exercises
Exercise Notes Reps/Time
Three-path bicep pulls (dumbbells or kettlebells) Lift in hammer, curl and prone (palm down) wrist positions, cycling through all three 12 - 15 reps
Deep sit-stands Sit on a platform six to 12 inches high, rising to your feet with minimal or no hand assistance 20 reps
Overhead full-body band pull Start with feet planted in parallel with bent waist and arms outstretched with band wrapped around a pole or fixed point. Use core and shoulders to pull band backward and overhead (similar to a bent tree righting itself) 20 reps
Bosu hops Jump on and off five times from all four directions (front, back and both sides) Rest 10 seconds after 20 hops, then repeat
Heavy pants lifts Bend at waist with dumbbells on the floor, lift them to the chest 20 reps or until failure
Step ups On a box or step two to three feet high, step up with the left foot then right, drop the left then the right, then reverse the cycle (lead with the right foot) 10 per leg
Chin-up bar slow drops Use legs to boost the chin up, but drop slowly back to the floor (4 - 8 second count) 10 reps
Semi-squats with pause With or without weights, pulse from a deep squat to a ¾ rise, ten times, followed by a concentrated 10-second pause with hips held at knee level Repeat two to three times
Note: Again, minimize rest between sets to 30 seconds or less.

  While many of the exercises simply use your own bodyweight, some require specific (but inexpensive) equipment. Some clubs, unfortunately, segregate equipment such as balls, Bosus and bands to “trainer only” areas. If that’s the case, maybe your gym could use a little education on the value of muscle confusion for all members. 

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a business writer, an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and in more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see