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.
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.