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PART I: PERIODIZING YOUR TRAINING FOR MAXIMUM HYPERTROPHY

Are you looking at the world through a straw?

I bet you are!

I guarantee that you jump from one sexy new training program to another in search of the ultimate workout for maximal gains.

I’m pretty confident you’ve googled terms like “Arnold’s chest routine”, “best back workout”, “massive arms program”. I’m right aren’t I?

If I am correct, you my friend, are looking at the world through a straw.

What do I mean by this? Well, its pretty simple. You are looking at what’s right in front of you with no regard for the bigger picture. You have a laser focus on the here and now. Only looking for the most badass training session to annihilate your muscles without thinking what comes next.

I admire your hardcore mindset. The problem is this won’t get you the results you want.

This world through a straw approach means you violate many of the underlying principles of training. You just trash a muscle group without knowing if you’ve provided an appropriate growth stimulus. Without an overarching training structure, each session just becomes an exercise in achieving fatigue. If you aren't providing your body with the signal to grow it won’t. So, it's vital to know when and how to make adjustments to maintain progress.

Don’t worry. You are not alone. Most guys in the gym do this. Hell, I am even guilty of having done this for far too long. There is a better way though. A way to guarantee that you continually and effectively provide a stimulus full of the key ingredients to cause muscle growth. All it takes is a little knowledge and a little planning and I’m going to lay out all the details here for you.

It starts with having a plan. In sports science they use the term Periodization. Periodization means the logical organization and sequencing of training with the purpose of causing maximal adaptation. For those of us purely interested in getting jacked it means, planning some sort of methodical adjustments to training to maximize muscle mass.

You see it isn’t the complicated, Eastern bloc, algorithm based training methodology you were scared of. Just a way to organize your training to amplify your gains.

Rather than looking for some one-hit wonder of a muscle building miracle workout, you should consistently and logically do the fundamentals of hypertrophy training. It is a case of gradual improvement, steadily done. In time this adds up to a substantial increase in muscle.

The Fundamentals of Muscle Growth

Before we worry about how to organize training variables into a periodized plan, let’s first cover the fundamental elements of training to build slabs of muscle.

The human body is an incredible mechanism. It can do some incredible things. Despite being capable of tremendous feats of strength, endurance and ingenuity the human body doesn’t like to do the extraordinary. It likes maintenance. More specifically, it likes homeostasis.

Homeostasis:

[ˌhɒmɪə(ʊ)ˈsteɪsɪs, ˌhəʊmɪə(ʊ)ˈsteɪsɪs]

Noun

  1. the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.

This is what makes building muscle so hard. To build muscle you must disrupt the equilibrium and force your body to adapt. You must challenge it by lifting weights sufficiently hard that it perceives them as a threat to its survival and adapts by growing bigger, stronger muscles.

Overload is the Overlord

Your body adapts to the training stimulus you expose it to. The weights you lift now won’t be enough to cause progress in the future. If training is not more demanding than what has been done before then it will not disrupt homeostasis sufficiently to cause adaptation. The stimulus must, on average, be greater than recent historical stimuli. In layman’s terms…training has got to get harder, over time for you to progress.

So, the training stimulus must increase over time, but knowing what elements required to stimulate hypertrophy is key. That way you know specifically what you are trying to do more of. Brad Schoenfeld’s research gives us an insight into the optimal training strategies for hypertrophy. He has identified the three key training parameters which drive muscle gain. They are:

  1. Mechanical tension: external forces put on the muscles by the weights, resulting in muscle contraction.
  2. Metabolic stress: the accumulation of metabolic byproducts, referred to as metabolites (e.g., lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphate) during and following resistance exercise, which indirectly mediate cell and muscle swelling.
  3. Muscle damage: referring to micro tears accrued from deliberately lifting weights, usually accompanied by DOMS.

In my opinion 75-80% of your results will come from mechanical tension. If you focus on progressively lifting more weight in the 6-10 rep range on the big lifts then a lot of your muscle gains will be taken care of. However, to maximize your potential it is wise to use isolation exercises and techniques aimed at metabolic stress and muscle damage.

Right, so we have the basics in place. You must consistently provide an overload to force your body to grow by lifting weights which cause high levels of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.

How do you fit these pieces of the muscle building puzzle together over the long haul though?

That’s where periodization comes in…

Periodization

The periodization literature breaks periods of training into Microcycles (typically a week), Mesocycles (a sequence of microcycles - usually about a month long) and Macrocycles (usually a yearlong).

Several Microcycles form a Mesocycle, and a collection of mesocycles make up a Macrocycle.

  • Microcycle – Usually a week of training
  • Mesocycle – Often a month long
  • Macrocycle – Generally a year

A mesocycle is usually broken down into two phases. Firstly, an accumulation phase and then a deload.

The accumulation phase generally lasts 3-5 weeks. The deload is most commonly a week long (for more info about deloads go here). The deload is designed to substantially lower fatigue through a reduction in volume and/or intensity from normal accumulation training. You can then get back to hard muscle building training for another 3-5 weeks. Think of the deload as one step back to take two, or even three big jumps forward.

So, a periodized plan for increased muscle mass, simply involves putting together weeks (approximately 3-5) of progressively harder training, before deloading, and then repeating the process. Each subsequent mesocycle should be layered on top of the previous one by getting slightly harder.

Pretty simple, right?

You bet. More training equals more muscle. Nice logic just not that simple in practice…you cannot indefinitely train harder, for longer, more frequently without burning out and ending up an injured, overtrained wreck.

To avoid the pitfalls of overtraining in your quest to increase your muscle mass you must be smart. You need to know how to adjust the following key training variables:

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Frequency

Intensity:

Training for hypertrophy has both a volume and intensity component. Intensity, in this instance, is defined by the percentage of 1 rep max used when performing an exercise. When training for size if you reach a sufficient intensity threshold (lifting weights >60%1RM) then volume is the key contributor to muscular size.

Volume:

Volume can be measured in various ways. Essentially volume is your total workload per exercise, session and week. A simple way to track it is the following equation:

Sets x Reps x Load

You can use this equation to track progress throughout a mesocycle. To compare volume from mesocycle to mesocycle where different exercises might be used (e.g., for chest using Bench Press in Meso 1 and Incline DB Bench in Meso 2) I suggest you track the number of work sets per body part.

Performing multiple sets which result in a greater total volume are superior to single sets. It has been found that multiple sets are associated with a 40% greater effect size than single sets.

Assuming the intensity threshold of >60% is met it appears that volume is the key determinant of success when it comes to gaining muscle mass. So, significant in fact that it has been found that performing equivalent volume with heavier weights and sets of 3 reps equate to the same growth as moderate weight used for sets of 10.

The one caveat to the above statement is that performing sets of 10 is a far more efficient way to achieve a high volume of work. Doing so resulted in trainees achieving the same amount of volume as those performing sets of 3 in a third of the time. The moderate weight group also reported less fatigue and a desire to train more while the 3 rep group were borderline over-trained.

So, from a practical standpoint finding the rep range that allows you to do the most hard (above 60% 1RM) volume per training session is a great idea.

Just because a high training volume is good doesn't mean you have to go crazy. Muscle gain is a slow process and you need to milk the gains you can make in the long run. Do too much now and you leave yourself with little scope for adding more volume (unless of course you are a pro athlete/bodybuilder who just Eats, Sleeps & Trains!). Make every extra set count...don't do junk volume!

So how do you set up a sensible and gradual increase in training volume?

  1. A practical approach to increasing your training volume:
  2. Start by selecting 1-3 exercises per body part (I’d suggest 1 for small body parts)
  3. Train each muscle group 2-3 times a week (generally twice a week for big body parts)
  4. Perform 2-3 sets per exercise (3 for big compound movements & 2 for isolation work)
  5. Do a total of 30-60 reps per muscle group each week @ >60% of 1RM (make most of it 75-85% 1RM). Start at the lower end of this range and gradually increase.
  6. Add 1 set per body part (not per exercise) every 1-2 weeks

Frequency:

The literature appears to indicate that splitting the same training volume into more frequent training sessions is superior for hypertrophy. This is likely because the hypertrophic stimuli are distributed more optimally over the course of the week in higher frequency training approaches.

Currently the weight of evidence appears to suggest that training a muscle group 2 times a week is better than once per week. The research is not clear whether training a muscle more often than twice per week is better for muscle growth. Thus, we can conclude (for now) that training a muscle twice a week is suitable for optimizing hypertrophy.

Frequency shouldn’t be set in stone. Like the other variables you will likely see the best results my manipulating it over time to optimize your training. For example, using moderate frequencies (1-3x per week) as the default setting for your program, with periods of more frequent training (i.e. 3-6x) used sparingly to achieve functional overreaching, to target a lagging body part or to bust through plateaus.

Putting the Pieces of the Muscle Building Jigsaw Together:

Now you know a little more about Intensity, Volume and Frequency and how they relate to hypertrophy you can begin to manipulate them to best suit your needs. The body only has so much ability to recover from hard training. If you push all three of these variables too hard you will exceed your capacity to recover and progress will stop dead in its tracks.

Instead you must use an approach that you enjoy, that fits your schedule and that you can adhere to. I suggest you focus on pushing two variables while keeping the third at a lower level. For example, if you have a hectic work and family life that means you can only make it to the gym three times per week, and you like going full beast mode then a lower frequency approach makes sense. On the other hand, if you can’t bare the thought of not being in the gym every day go with a high frequency approach and choose to lower either volume or intensity.

Finally, if you just want to get maximal results then you can play with all three of these variables over the course of a series of mesocycles. Below I have outlined one way to do just that.

An overview of a Hypertrophy Macrocycle:

Mesocycle 1: Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 6 to 10 rep range)

Mesocycle 2: Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 8 to 12 rep range)

Mesocycle 3: Traditional Hypertrophy plus special metabolite techniques like occlusion training, Myo-reps, tri-sets, giant sets etc.

Mesocycle 4: Primer Phase (focus on 4 to 6 rep range)

Mesocycle 5: Repeat process if wanting further mass gain or begin cut of want to drop body fat

The above is basically what Mike Israetel outlines. He’s one smart (and jacked) dude so who am I to argue?

To put some more meat on these theoretical bones let’s take a closer look at how each mesocycle could be set up.

Mesocycle 1: 4xweek following Upper/Lower Split, training each muscle 2xweek

Mesocycle 2: Increase total volume by transitioning to 5xweek using an Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs Split, training each muscle group 2xweek

Mesocycle 3: Increase frequency by switching to 6xweek using a Push/Pull split, training each muscle group 3xweek, lower intensity by doing your traditional hypertrophy training in the 10-15 rep range. To drive volume higher add occlusion training at the end of each session on the second rotation of the split. Then, on the final time through each body part utilize tri-sets. To make that a little clearer it would look like this in Meso 3:

Mon – Push (Quads, Calves, Pecs, Anterior Delts, & Triceps), 10-15 reps

Tues – Pull (Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, Rear Delts, & Biceps), 10-15 reps

Wed – Push, 10-15 reps + occlusion training for Quads and Triceps

Thurs – Pull, 10-15 reps + occlusion training for Hamstrings and Biceps

Fri – Push, Tri-sets

Sat – Pull, Tri-sets

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the average intensity (% of 1RM) actually goes down throughout the course of the three Mesocycles. This allows volume to be continually driven higher. It is, however, opposite to the most well know form of periodization.

Linear Periodization:

The most common form of periodization is Linear Periodization. This model starts with a high volume of low intensity training and gradually progresses to a lower volume of high intensity work. Often linear periodization will transition through the following mesocycles in this order:

  1. Hypertrophy
  2. Strength
  3. Power
  4. Peaking

A powerlifter following a linear model, for example, might gradually transition from sets of squats for 10 reps, to 8s, to 5s, then 3s and finally singles.  This works exceptionally well for peaking for sports performance in events like Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and Athletics.

Linear periodization is widely used in some bodybuilding programs. I think this is a mistake as following the initial hypertrophy phase, the muscle mass built is not adequately maintained by the heavier weight and lower volume of training.

For example, Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training follows this linear increase in intensity.

Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training:

Weeks 1&2 – 2 sets of 15

Weeks 3&4 – 2 sets of 10

Weeks 5&6 – 2 sets 8

Weeks 7&8 – 2 sets of 5

Weeks 9&10 – Negatives

Meanwhile, Eric Helms’ Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine follows a linear progression scheme within each mesocycle:

Week 1 100 x 8, 8 ,8 (total volume = 2,400)

Week 2 105 x 7, 7, 7 (total volume = 2,205)

Week 3 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)

Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD

Week 5 105 x 8, 8, 8 (total volume = 2520)

Note. Training volume calculated as follows: “Load x sets x reps.”

You will make strength and muscle gains with these programs. They are decent programs and any form of periodization is better than none. I am just not convinced they are optimal for building muscle.

Why? Well, week to week you have a reduction in volume. We have already established that as long as you train above 60% 1RM, volume is a primary stimulus for hypertrophy.

By following a traditional linear model you present the body with a given volume load in Week 1. By doing so you provide a signal of a given magnitude. Then reduce this signal for several weeks. Thus, the following training weeks violate the principle of overload for hypertrophy. They overloaded on intensity but, not on volume and as Helms states…

“Hypertrophy…is primarily related to the total work performed, and is less specific to the intensity”

Sure, in Helms’ progression scheme, the subsequent mesocycle starts with a higher volume than the preceding meso but, the question is, are weeks 2, 3 and 4 optimally productive for hypertrophy?

In my view, no because increased volume is fundamental to growth and these approaches decrease it week to week. Instead I would suggest you reverse Helms progression scheme to build this badass muscle building approach:

Week 1 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)

Week 2 110 x 7, 7, 7 (total volume = 2,310)

Week 3 110 x 8, 8 ,8 (total volume = 2,640)

Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD

Week 5 115 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 2,070)

Now, I realize that example is a bit of a pipe dream. If you have a reasonable training history, you cannot simply add reps to each set at a given weight week on week. A more realistic example might actually look like this:

Week 1 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)

Week 2 110 x 7, 7, 6 (total volume = 2,200)

Week 3 110 x 8, 7, 6 (total volume = 2,310)

Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD

Week 5 115 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 2,070)

A rate of progress as outlined above would provide an overload and an excellent hypertrophy stimulus. Another powerful strategy is to add sets week on week. Doing this in the following session is a great way to drive hypertrophy:

Week 1 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)

Week 2 110 x 7, 7, 6, 6 (total volume = 2,860)

Week 3 110 x 8, 7, 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 3,630)

Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD

Week 5 115 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 2,070)

So, in conclusion, if you are interested in long term muscle building results then you need a basic understanding of periodization. Any plan is better than no plan, but linear periodization is not optimal for hypertrophy. Instead you need to do more work at >60% 1RM over time to keep growing. As a result, you should set up a series of successive phases of training that allow you to do more overall training volume. To achieve this you should manipulate, intensity, volume and frequency to suit your schedule and training preferences. If you do that you will reap the rewards. So, put a little time and effort into planning your training. A little brain into your brawn if you will.  Then get to work following the plan, consistently making improvements and before you know it you’ll be much bigger and stronger than you ever would have been following your old program hopping tendencies.

In part 2 I will outline How to set up an entire year to maximize your gains including:

  • how to use periods of lower volume strength work to potentiate future hypertrophy
  • how to use mini cuts to keep body fat in check and create a more anabolic environment
  • how to periodize your nutrition to match your training

About The Author

Tom is a former skinny kid who was told he was too small to make it as a rugby player. Since then he has added over 40 pounds to his frame and helped hundreds of clients to build muscle and drop fat. More recently he founded Flat Whites Free Weights to provide a hub for his online clients and to share his thoughts on training, nutrition and the ultimate pre-workout supplement…COFFEE

You can contact him at -

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