Periodization and Strength

Novice trainees normally get a little bit stronger with each session.  They can simply use linear progression in their training–adding a little more weight each week.  This is one of the nice things about being new to the gym–you’ll usually see rapid strength gains due to neurological adaptations.*

But experienced trainees will usually reach a point where this strategy no longer works.  Your strength/size gains will eventually plateau, and it’s time to move on to more intermediate/advanced methods.  In other words, you can’t simply lift the same amount of weight week after week and expect to get stronger.

The central nervous system will eventually get “burned out” from maximum or near-maximum effort training.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I was in my 20’s.  I wanted to break the 300 lb mark with my bench press but I hadn’t made any progress.  I was so concerned that decided to go to my doctor and have my testosterone level checked.  It was normal, so I started looking elsewhere for the solution.

I started researching powerlifting and learning how these athletes train.  I quickly realized that I was doing everything wrong.  Powerlifters cycle their weight and intensity, moving from lower weight/higher reps to higher weight/lower reps over a period of weeks.  This kind of training is known as periodization.  It works with the body’s natural strength cycles.

There are several simple periodization routines in Jason Ferruggia’s Minimalist Training manual.  I’ll show you how it would look:

Phase 1: First 4-6 weeks: Work up to a set of 7 repetitions, rest, then do a set with 90% of the weight you just used.

Phase 2: Next 4-6 weeks: Work up to a set of 5 repetitions, rest, then do a set with 90% of the weight you just used.

Phase 2: Next 4-6 weeks: Work up to a set of 3 repetitions, rest, then do a set with 90% of the weight you just used.

You would follow this kind of pattern for your main lifts (squat, deadlift, etc).  But you’d just stick with higher rep ranges (8-12) for your assistance/isolation moves.  You can click here to read my full review (best 47$ you’ll ever spend).

The legendary powerlifter Ed Coan started his cycles with sets of ten repetitions and worked from there.

Ed Coan, Powerlifting Legend

You can check out this calculator to see Ed’s peaking cycle.

If you’d like to check out a complete training program based on periodization I’d recommend the DUP Method.

*Muscle Gaining Secrets includes a strategy called micro periodization–going from light to heavier weights within the same week.  This is an effective strategy for beginners.



Exercise Ball

I’ve previously mentioned the Ab Wheel, a dirt cheap but effective way to train the abdominal muscles.

There’s another cost effective piece of equipment you can buy and use at home: an exercise ball.  They are versatile, inexpensive and great for training the abs–you can lean back on it and get a great stretch.

I’ve included a link to one that is rated highly on (see below), but you may want to just go to your local retail store and look around. You may also want to check out size recommendations–the one I have linked below is 75cm, but a shorter person may do better with a 65cm (or smaller).

Note: Remember that visible abs come from low body fat, not abdominal training.

Strength Training and Neurology

I’d like to talk a little bit about the role of neurology in strength and strength training.  It’s something I didn’t understand very well when I first started lifting weights.

One component of strength, of course, is simply having more muscle mass.  But a very important aspect of strength is training the nervous system to “fire” more muscle fibers at once.

All of us have the hidden potential to perform amazing feats of strength.

I was watching, for example, a show on National Geographic called Superhuman.  There was an account of a middle-aged woman who saw her grown son trapped in the wheel well of his car after the jack fell out.  This non-athletic woman picked up the car (a dead lift type move) and held it up for several minutes until help arrived.  The incredible feat of strength saved her son’s life.

Let’s use lighting strike victims as another example.  It is common for these people to suffer broken or dislocated bones due to the incredibly severe muscle contractions caused by the strike.

Why don’t we lift cars or dislocate our joints all the time?  Well, the nervous system is designed to prevent all the muscle fibers from contracting at one time.  It’s kind of a “safety feature” of the human body.  It keeps our bones intact and it ensures we’ll have the needed muscular energy to do more than one thing.

In the case of the middle-aged mom, a powerful rush of adrenaline allowed most of her muscle fibers to exert maximum effort.  In the case of lightning, the electricity completely overrides the body’s nervous system.

Strength athletes train their nervous systems to utilize a large number of muscle fibers on command (without the before-mentioned extraordinary circumstances).  This is why powerlifters often use the 2-3 rep range—they are training their bodies to exert maximum effort on a single lift.

I’ll talk more about the practical application of this in future articles.