Late last year, I was languishing on a terrible fitness plateau. Although I had increased my overall amount of exercise, my strength and endurance remained stubbornly below average, and I hadn’t managed to shed any of the 20 pounds I’d gained between summer 2017 and summer 2018. Desperate for a solution, I asked my boxing coach Willard Ford, co-owner of Strong Sports Gym in Los Angeles, for a recommendation on how to break out of my rut. He recommended trying periodization training based on a metabolic assessment. My first thought was “What do those words mean?” but after completing 12 weeks of the easiest-to-adopt nutrition and fitness program I’ve ever attempted, I’m a convert.
Periodization training is the practice of cycling the intensity level of a training program over a period of time. Professional athletes and marathon runners use periodization to sync up their big games and big runs with their personal peak performance moments. For non-athletes like me, periodization training’s cycling from lower to higher intensities gave my body time to recover and heal, so that I could perform at a higher level overall.
To begin the journey, I had to have some testing done to assess my metabolic levels so that I could understand what peak fitness looked like for me and my body. I had a hands-on lesson in metabolic testing at a small gym and training center called Phase IV, based in Santa Monica, Calif. (Phase IV has only one location, but most other cities have at least one fitness center that performs metabolic tests — a quick web search for “metabolic testing” with your zip code should pull up a local gym.) At Phase IV, I met the kinesiologist assigned to my case, Shelby Stoner, who administered two standard metabolic tests. First, she tested my resting metabolic rate by putting one end of a tube in my mouth and the other end into a machine. She then asked me to lie still for 20 minutes — no phone, no breathing exercises, no sleeping. This was the most difficult part of the entire program and the longest 20 minutes of my life. The test determined that over the course of a normal day without exercise, I burn about 2,100 calories.
Next, Stoner strapped a heart-rate monitor on me and led me to a tricked-out treadmill for my VO2 test, to measure the amount of oxygen I was using at various intensities of exercise. This would help her to determine my overall capacity for aerobic fitness. After a quick warm-up, Stoner put a face mask on me that looked like the alien from Alien. Over the next 10 minutes, she increased the speed and incline on the treadmill until I hit the outer reaches of my cardiovascular capability, which is to say, I was heaving and frantically gesturing at the “END WORKOUT” button on the machine. Later in her office, Stoner explained my results: I have a fast metabolism, but as soon as I start exercising, I burn carbohydrates rather than fat. She reassured me that this is very common. My fitness level was rated as “Fair.”
Stoner explained that her tests and evaluations were key because the most effective way for me to meet my goals (increased stamina and weight loss) was to follow a highly individualized periodization program. “Everybody responds differently to exercise,” she later explained. “It’s like taking a medication — not everybody’s going to react the same way, so we have to make sure we’re prescribing what works for you.”
Guided by my tests, Stoner developed a 12-week individualized exercise program for me. The program recommended four days of cardio: three runs, and one day of cross-training. During each session, I was directed to stay within a certain heart-rate range. After my first few days of training, I was delighted to discover that the heart-rate ranges were actually rather low; that is, Stoner’s plan asked me to perform at a level that didn’t exhaust me or make me feel demoralized, unlike all the super-intense hot yoga and spinning classes that made me feel like an uncoordinated, un-athletic poser.
For me, this program fit easily into my lifestyle, because I already scheduled workouts five to six days a week. Even if I hadn’t been used to going to the gym so often, this would’ve been easy for me to adopt because the program set me up for success. The workouts were easy to perform, which made each trip to the gym feel like a victory, which in turn made me excited for the next day’s run.
Over the course of the program, the workouts ramped up in intensity, but slowly enough so that I rarely felt so exhausted after a workout that I dreaded the next one. After 12 weeks on the program, I certainly felt like I was off the plateau and had met my fitness goals: I felt stronger and more energetic during workouts, and my jeans hung loose around my hips. While that feeling was enough for me, Stoner invited me back to Phase IV’s gym to put numbers on the change. “I like data,” Stoner said. “I like to show you, this is how the training affected your metabolism and your overall aerobic capacity.” I survived another round of the resting metabolic and VO2 tests, and the numbers that Stoner loved were exciting for me to see as well: My fitness level had graduated from “Fair” to “Good,” I’d lost 10 pounds, and the “aerobic development zone” — that place where I burned mostly fat while exercising — had risen significantly.
Adopting periodization training taught me that I didn’t have to run myself ragged in expensive exercise classes to meet my fitness goals; I just had to find a program that would tailor the workouts to my own physiology.
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