My previous article, A Case Against Percentage Based Programming, was a general overview of my philosophy behind more intuitive programming.
There were naturally a few questions which arose from this insight. In this article I aim to provide more detail into how I set up programming for individual lifts & I cover some of the methods I employ to ensure progression.
To put this into context, I refer back to how I personally began lifting and the lessons that I learned. This may come across as a treatise against the Hardgainer, that’s not my intention. Like any seasoned lifter you learn and evolve, and occasionally this may mean a full about turn from where you began.
Why the Hardgainer approach got it so wrong
A sensationalist title for sure, but starting out myself in the Hardgainer camp 16 years ago, and realising not long after just how wrong I was, has made me feel that I can justify the statement. For those who don’t know, The Hardgainer was born out of the need for appropriate training for those who could not recover and make gains as well as the majority of the population. Over time, it became a stand against the unrealistic expectations of the drug-using crowd. References to people who are ‘hard gainers’ can be traced back to as early as Randy Strossen. For the most part back then it was acknowledged that these people were those who could achieve great and large physiques but who would simply require a different training approach to the majority. Unfortunately, due to the demographic this catered for (people who perceived that they had it harder than everyone else), over time this morphed into lower and lower expectations from within the group itself. Which is a shame as that was not the original intention.
The mantra of The Hardgainer was ‘progressive poundages in good form’. A typical routine for a Hardgainer would involve a handful of basic exercises, a pre-defined sets/rep scheme usually something like 3×8 or 2×6 (although later on McRobert went on to recommend more adventurous schemes like 6×6), something along these lines:
Day 1 (Monday):
- Squat 2×6
- Bench 2×6
- Pulldown 2×8
Day 2 (Thursday):
- Deadlift 2×6
- Overhead Press 2×8
- Row 2×8
Add in some moderate work on smaller accessories like rotator cuff work and calves, and that was it. No variance in sets/reps over time, no variance in really anything except poundage which was to be added every week. The idea was that using those handful of exercises, you would simply add weight to the bar every week as you continually get stronger. Occasionally back-cycling to build momentum but basically the idea was that you could micro load to your genetic ceiling.
Sounds great right! Perfectly logical and sensible? Get better by doing less. Focus your efforts. Don’t overwork. Cut back and cut back again! However, does this ever work in reality past the very beginner stage? In what endeavour is this ever true? Does a footballer who wants to excel at his sport play less? Or a boxer who wants to excel in the ring box and practice less? What utter nonsense!
For the handful of people that I heard of who got moderately strong using this approach it was always accompanied by rapid weight and fat gain. It was obvious the weight/fat gain was responsible for their strength through increased leverages, the training was mostly incidental. Pictures of these folks seemed remarkably rare. Others may have said they got strong and stayed lean doing so, but their definition of strong is a very different one to mine!
Doing less never worked for me either. I got moderately strong sure, particularly in the Deadlift where I excelled simply by adding weight each week. My Bench was woefully low and Squat was horrendous in those early years. It was only when I began to incorporate some very simple methods of periodisation did my body finally get stronger.
So my alternate mantra is that if your plan is to simply add weight each week to mounds of glorious muscle and strength; that isn’t a plan, it’s wishful thinking.
If your plan is to simply add weight each week, that’s not a plan it’s wishful thinking.
At some stage lifting weights just isn’t that easy. While many would argue that we overcomplicate things, I prefer to think the problem defines the complexity. A beginner doesn’t need complex routines and loading patterns, as you advance the need for complexity to ensure continual progress arises.
The first forms of periodisation that I encountered were simply taking light weeks. I would work hard for two weeks and relax the third. This simple form of periodisation netted me some excellent gains. It suited my personality and the way the body responds to all-out stimulus. Later on I experimented with more formalised percentage based routines and my thoughts on that can be found in my previous article (A case against percentage based programming). Over the years I’ve settled on a more fluid approach, in this article I put in more detailed example of what I do.
When I set up a cycle for strength now I focus on four main areas:
Typically, I begin a cycle further out from a Meet or planned testing day using a close variation of the main lift. The criteria for choosing this lift is that it must:
- Be a close variation to the main lift
- Be less stressful to the body
- Be suitable for accumulating a lot of volume
If we consider the regular Conventional Deadlift, a very good candidate is the touch and go Stiff Leg Deadlift. This meets the criteria laid out. It is a close variation building the areas needed for a good Conventional Deadlift, it’s less stressful due to lower poundage being used, and when performed safely you can accumulate a lot of volume with it. Some other variations which I’ve found useful are the Deficit Deadlift and Deficit Stiff Leg Deadlift.
Modifications are designed to either:
- Allow the accumulation of more volume in the earlier phases. For example, we can use a touch and go style of Stiff Leg Deadlift to allow more reps to be done for more accumulation of volume. It is generally assumed that most people will be able to perform more reps at a higher percentage if they touch and go their reps. I am a big fan of touch and go reps to accumulate volume in the offseason. With the proviso that the lifter is disciplined enough to gently touch the ground and not bounce (opinion is split on this, and that would be the topic for another article if the interest is there). More volume accumulation in earlier phases allows the lifter to relieve some fatigue as the volume comes down in later phases and gives the lifter a boost.
- Give the lifter a boost in the next phase. For example, not using the belt in the earlier phases allows the lifter to add a belt and gain a little boost in later phases.
Generally, I begin a cycle with shorter rest periods. It’s normal to begin with rest periods as low as 1-2 minutes even for compound exercises.
The idea again is to move down progressively through the phases adding weight to the bar, each phase the lifter gets more rest between sets which sets the body up for continuous progress.
Generally, I begin a cycle with higher reps. It’s normal to begin with reps as high as 8-12, depending on the lifters history and gender. As we move through the phases the lifter is required to do less reps as the weight increases.
So in summary what we’re looking to do with these four factors is to set ourselves up for further gains down the line. Each phase should feel easier and this allows continual weight progression. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodisation and Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut refer to this as phase potentiation. See their articles for their take on this important concept. Each phase builds upon the last, as reps are lowered, rest periods are increased, belt and gear is added this allows us to keep up with poundage progression as we move to the competition lifts.
- Variation: SLDL
- Modifications: Touch and go, no belt
- Rest periods: 2 minute rest timer
- Reps: Sets of 8
Lengthen rest periods and lower reps.
- Variation: SLDL
- Modifications: Touch and go, no belt
- Rest periods: 3 minute rest timer
- Reps: Sets of 5
Switch to Competition Deadlift performed dead stop style, add a belt and lower reps to triples.
- Variation: Competition Deadlift
- Modifications: Dead stop, add belt
- Rest periods: 3-minute rest timer
- Reps: Sets of 3
Finally increase rest periods again, and lower reps right down to singles.
- Variation: Competition Deadlift
- Modifications: Dead stop, add belt
- Rest periods: 3+ minute rest timer
- Reps: Singles
This phase should err on the side of being shorter and will essentially involve a period of heavier and heavier singles each week at which point you should hit a PR.
For those familiar with my previous article you will know that each phase doesn’t have a predetermined length. If you are competing to a certain deadline this changes, however for the most part you can and should milk each phase for as long as you can, then de-load and move on to the next phase. So give yourself plenty of time if you’re doing this in the offseason, each phase could conceivably last 4-6 weeks. So there is up to 24 weeks of progression here.
A brief overview of de-loads
Most people who I train for strength will typically be training each lift multiple times a week, so in effect they will be doing full body routines multiple times a week. The goal here is to allow fatigue to dissipate while still maintaining a high degree of familiarity and performance on the lifts. My basic protocol for this would involve de-loading heavily at the beginning of the week to allow fatigue to taper off quickly. This would be a severe reduction in both volume and intensity. Then tapering intensity and/or volume upwards towards the end of the week. This tapering up is done instinctively and is based on perceived fatigue. So if we use this template as an example:
Squat, Bench, Deadlift 3 triples each @ 50%. This allows for the beginning of a drop off in fatigue.
Prior to Wednesday the decision is made regarding how much to increase volume and intensity. A decent starting point would be:
Squat, Bench, Deadlift 5 triples @ 60%. The number of triples and the intensity can be reduced if required.
Ideally by Friday the lifter should be feeling ready and raring to go assuming a good level of fitness prior to the deload. We can assume the following will happen.
Squat, Bench, Deadlift 7 triples @ 70%. Here ends the deload with the lifter ready to begin his proper training again on Monday.
What I have detailed in this article is just one interpretation of a strength cycle which would suit an intermediate lifter, who is performing each lift once or twice a week in this fashion. As I’ve alluded to in the past when you are more advanced each lift will get its own cycle which run independently of the others, and may even require multiple variations each with their own cycle. Generally speaking, advanced lifters require more specificity, so the modifications on the main lift are more tightly controlled and variations are introduced as standalone cycles which run alongside the main lift, but that would be the topic for another article.
So to summarise:
- Start far out from a Meet or Test day
- Pick a close variation, or even two
- Apply modifiers which can be progressed onwards through each phase, such as touch and go reps or no use of belt in the early stages
- Begin with shorter rest periods, and more to longer ones
- Begin with higher reps, and move to lower ones
- De-load as specified before moving to the next phase
I hope what I’ve accomplished here is to answer some of the questions which may have arisen from my previous article. The previous one being quite a general philosophy of training and this one practically fleshing out some of that approach. I believe I’ve also addressed the practical need for complexity in training. Give this an honest try and I’ll be very interested to know how you get on; I can be contacted through my social media listed below.
Over the last 16 years Faheem Chauhan has competed in over 25 Powerlifting Meets with the GBPF/BWLA and the BDFPA, across 3 weight categories, both equipped and unequipped. More recently he has dedicated himself to Physique and Bodybuilding and he aims to compete in 2018. He has been a strength and physique coach for several years, coaching clients online to make them bigger, leaner and stronger. He’s happy to connect with people on social media, and can be reached at the following: