Dear Mark: Periodization Training, My Ideal Garden, and “Real” Strength

GardeningFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, we’ve got a quick three-parter. First, I briefly cover periodization training, explaining how and why I think everyone participates in it (even if they don’t know it yet). Next up is a question about my ideal garden. Now, I’m no gardener, but I do have some ideas about what kinds of food I’d like to grow. I give my personal list of calorie-dense and nutrient-dense produce (green thumbs, criticism is welcome). Finally, I discuss the difference – if any actually exists – between “real” and “neuromuscular” strength.

Let’s go, shall we?

Hey Mark,

I’ve searched around the blog but I found nothing. I was really interested in hearing your opinion, if any, on periodization training like so many athletes and fitness enthusiasts incorporate for better results?



I think it’s a very sound, very solid concept of training. At its most basic, periodization refers to alternating training intensity and training volume. If volume is high, intensity is low; if intensity is high, volume will be low. You don’t lift heavy weights for high reps, but rather heavy weights for low reps and lighter weights for more reps. Periodization training breaks up an athlete’s training schedule into periods of varying intensity and volume, usually depending on a number of factors including fatigue, markers of overtraining, timing of competition (intensity will often be reduced before competition in favor of technique work), and (most importantly) how the individual athlete responds to training. This guy might handle longer periods of high intensity better than that guy, who needs more frequent breaks from the intensity.

It’s usually applied to serious athletes who are going to be competing, whether at the elite or amateur level, but anyone who works out likely does a kind of periodization training – even subconsciously.

One easy example is dropping intensity after recovery from illness – I know whenever I’m coming back from feeling under the weather, I’ll keep the training real light for a few days until my body is good to go. I want to keep things moving, but pushing too hard will only extend my recovery.

Autoregulation training is a kind of intuitive “on the fly” periodization where the athlete increases and decreases intensity/volume at his or her own pace according to how they feel on a day to day basis. This is how I “periodize,” and some evidence suggests that with accomplished, experienced athletes, it’s even more effective than linear periodization, where the periods are predetermined. Note that these were experienced athletes with extensive lifting experience, not newbies with a brand new gym membership.

Anyone who trains and listens to their body is going to naturally fall into periodization. It’s the people who push, push, push without paying attention to their performance and how they feel doing all that pushing who will fail to shift toward a lighter period when necessary and hamper their training in the process. At the same time, if you always have a ton left in the tank but fail to push yourself, you’ll be relegated to suboptimal results.

Thus, even if you’re not formal about your periodization, modulating intensity and volume according to your needs and performance will generally elicit favorable results. I wholeheartedly approve.

Dear Mark,

I’m planning on putting together a garden. I want the most nutrient dense and calorie rich foods without resorting to beans and white potatoes. Basically, I want it to be the closest thing to primal that agriculture can be.

If you were to grow the perfect garden, what would you grow?



You want nutrients and calories?

Without worrying about soil health or interspecies relationships or seasonal congruency or climate or anything like that (in other words, real details that anyone growing a real-life garden would have to think about)…

I’d start with a variety of leafy greens: several types of kale, chard, lettuce, and spinach. These will provide phytonutrients, minerals, and bulk for Big Ass Salads. Plus, they are self regenerative. If you pluck a leaf of kale, it will regrow several times over. Almost no calories, though.

I’d do some squashes. Butternut, delicato, acorn, etc. These are nutritious, for sure, but they also provide calories in the form of healthy carbs. And nothing quite compares with some cinnamon-ginger-grass-fed butter slurry atop baked butternut squash.

Berries. If you can get them to take, they’ll spread like wildfire. Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, plus any of the other more obscure berries will provide high plant pigment-based polyphenols, soluble fiber, and a fine companion to fresh whipped cream, coconut milk, and/or Greek yogurt.

Sweet potatoes will get you calories in a major way. If you go for purple Okinawan potatoes, you’ll even get the benefits of polyphenol pigments (and great taste).

Other green things are good, too, so I’d probably have to grow broccoli, asparagus, and tatsoi.

Green beans are easy to grow, they stay out of the way by climbing up trellises, and they too go well as a side dish to just about everything.

Oh, and herbs. I’d be sure to grow tons of herbs. I want so many herbs that I could have a rosemary, basil, and sage salad if I wanted.

Round it out with some cabbage (purple and green), some carrots (purple and orange), heirloom tomatoes, garlic, and onions? I think you’ve got yourself a realistic, attainable, nutritious, calorically-dense garden.

What about you? What would you have in your garden?

Dear Mark,

How long does it really take to add strength? In coach Somers book, “Building the Gymnastic Body”, he states that it takes 6 weeks to add actual strength. He goes on to say that the gains in reps and weight experienced in the beginning are the product of neuromuscular facilitation. What’s your take on the subject?


That’s the widely accepted timeframe for actual structural strength – muscular hypertrophy, the physical growth of skeletal muscle. However, a recent review of the evidence found that “morphological” changes commence immediately upon initiation of strength training (PDF). Your muscles won’t grow right away, but the changes that eventually result in growth begin right away.

What is “actual strength” though? I think making a distinction between “real” and “imaginary” strength is confusing and unnecessary. Neuromuscular facilitation is just as legitimate and “physiological” a way to build strength as hypertrophy.

You’re learning how to synchronize and activate the motor units (a bundle of muscle fibers with a nerve cell) that make up a muscle cell, to utilize them as a cohesive group rather than a ragtag bunch of misfits. Groups of motor units contract (flex/move) the muscle, so the more synchronicity your motor groups have, the more effective (read: strong) your muscular contractions will be.

You’re learning how to selectively activate the agonist and synergist muscles of a movement while inhibiting the antagonists of the movement. In other words, you’re figuring out how to activate the right muscles for a given movement. Strength is a skill, and learning that skill is part of getting stronger.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading and keep the questions coming!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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