The Long Cycle

Simple Periodization for the Beginner to Intermediate Trainee

The program / philosophy presented in this article is one of the absolute best ways for a beginner to intermediate trainee to dramatically increase their strength and size in a relatively short period of time. Now, when I say “short period of time” I’m referring to the real world not fantasyland. “Short” in the real world is at least one year of training time. In fantasyland, where most of the steroid users, clever marketers and arm-chair theoreticians hang-out, you’ll get promised 20 pounds of ‘rock solid’ muscle in a week – what a joke! Using what is presented below I’ve transformed trainees within a couple of years to the point where it is routine for them to be accused of steroid use.

Periodization Defined

So, what is periodization anyway? By definition it is a process of structuring training into phases. I know that to most trainees it seems like some mystical formula shrouded in the language of the old Soviet Union; that it is pretty complicated stuff. But, in actuality, it is quite simple. And that’s what I’m going to do in this article – explain how to make it simple.

The essence of periodization, also known as ‘cycling’ is to build up the workouts so that a trainee is training hard for a period of time and then to purposely ‘back-off’ by training relatively easier, so that the trainee can recover and supercompensate from the previous period of hard training. After the back-off period the body is fully recovered, stronger, and ready to start another period of building up, training hard, and then backing off again. This cycling of training has been proven over and over again to be superior to just training as hard as you can all the time.

There are a multitude of interpretations of periodization – most of which would make a mathematics PhD shudder. Now, there may come a time when a trainee may need to get more sophisticated, but only when they’ve achieved an advanced level of strength and development. Also, I believe that having ‘preset’ dates for the ‘back-off’ (regeneration) training period(s); as is the case in the standard periodization model, aren’t as productive for the beginner to intermediate level trainee as letting the body dictate when it’s time to back-off. Now, you may be thinking that such an instinctive type of setup would be reserved for the advanced trainee – but it is just the opposite. And it’s not so much ‘instinctive’ as it is simply letting the body dictate when these periods are to occur. Yeah, you can start a beginner trainee out on a routine that has preset back-off weeks but I feel you’ll be cutting the results short verses letting the body dictate when this is necessary.

For instance one method of periodization has the trainee hitting it hard for three weeks with the fourth week designated as the back-off week. But, what if the trainee is still going strong at the end of week three? And what if the trainee keeps going strong for 12 weeks? If you’d have followed the typical formula presented above (where you back-off in week four), you would have lost three weeks of progress in that 12 week period. Now extrapolate this over a one year period, and it becomes very evident of the time ‘lost’ to backing-off essentially one week every month. Understand that I am not against backing-off; I’m for it, but only when it is necessary.

My plan has the trainee going hard until the body dictates that it has plateaued. Experience gained through over 60,000 hours of hands-on instruction has taught me that a beginner to intermediate trainee can go at least six months before a back-off and rebuild is necessary.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about beginner to intermediate trainees here – not advanced trainees. The beginner to intermediate – especially if substantial muscle mass gain is a goal, and the necessary caloric intake to accomplish this goal is being met – can ‘go’ a lot longer then an advanced trainee before hitting a plateau. The main reason for this is that the nervous system of a beginner isn’t as developed as an advanced trainee. Therefore, it doesn’t adapt and then plateau as fast. Also, the beginner has much more room for improvement versus an advanced trainee who is pushing his genetic limits and may not want to gain substantial bodyweight.

The Plan

Here’s how I do it. The trainees experience and goals will dictate the rep goal that I’ll start them out at. But for this example let’s say that I’ll start a trainee out using 3 sets of 12 reps on all the big movements (squats, deadlifts, bench pressing, overhead pressing, rowing or chins or pulldowns, barbell curls, close grip bench or dips etc). Within about four to six weeks the training gets to the proper level of effort (with one rep left before failure) and I start Micro-loading (see chart below) as the means of progression to allow the trainee to ‘ride’ this rep target as long as possible. If the trainee is eating properly, progression will continue for three to six months using a rep target of 12 reps.

Exercise Rate of Progression

Squat 2 ½ lbs per week

Deadlift (bent-knee) 2 ½ lbs per week

Power Clean 2 ½ lbs per week

Stiff-leg deadlift 1 to 2 ½ lb per week

Bench press (all forms), Dips 1 to 2 lb per week

Row, Pulldown, Chin 1 to 2 lb per week

Shoulder press ½ to 1 lb per week

Barbell curl ½ to 1 lb per week

Pushdown ½ to 1 lb per week

Close grip bench press ½ to 1 lb per week

Grip, Forearm work ½ to 1 lb per week

Crunch, Sit-up, Leg raises ½ to 1 lb per week

Rotator cuff work ¼ lb every four weeks

Neck flexion and extension (neck strap) ½ lb per week

Standing calf work (barbell, machine) 1 to 2 lbs per week

Single leg calf work (dumbell held in one hand) ½ to 1 lb per week

Back extension (45 degree, horizontal) ½ to 1 lb per week

Sidebend 1 lb per week

On this type of training program these increments provide the ‘right’ loading – or stating it another way – the right ‘dose’ of iron. This will allow the trainee to continue to make their rep target from workout to workout for a LONG period of time, especially when the rep target is reduced to 6 reps and below and especially when the trainee is gaining weight.

When the trainee fails to make the rep target (12 in the example above) I’ll have him repeat the weight for a couple of workouts. If he still can’t complete the 3 sets of 12 then it’s time to back-off and rebuild. Now, the way that I do this is different than what is normally prescribed in traditional periodization models. Traditional periodization has the trainee reduce that top weight substantially (by up to 20%) for a week and then either jump right back to using their top weights again the following week, or taking an additional week to ‘climb’ back up to their previous top weights. Then, hopefully the trainee will go beyond the top weight that they were handling for the 12 reps during the next two weeks. This process does work, but as I said for beginner to intermediate level trainees I feel there is a better way. Now for you periodization aficionados don’t get your underwear all twisted by the explanation I just gave. I KNOW that what I presented is an oversimplification, but it is way beyond the purpose of this piece (which is to make things simple) to break down every nuance of the various loading parameters (wave, step, linear, non-linear, conjugated, yada, yada, yada) that are used in various periodization formats. So…………………..

Instead of dropping the weight what I’ll do is have the trainee actually increase the weight by the prescribed dose (say 2 ½ lb. on the squat) BUT drop the rep target to 8 reps. This will give the trainee a couple of weeks of less intense training and then the training will climb to the proper level again. What is different, and great, about this is that the trainee continues to ‘feel’ the weight that had become a maximum effort to make the 12 reps - but now only does 8 reps. Without going into scientific detail I feel the nervous system doesn’t get ‘detrained’ as much using this method as when following other periodization models that have the trainee drop the weight. Here’s the other thing that’s great -- the trainee gets quite a confidence boost because what was a weight that was very difficult for 12 reps is now performed for a strong 8 reps, and with additional weight on the bar. This confidence continues to grow as the weight mounts on the bar over the next several months till it starts to become very difficult again. Then I’ll have the trainee ‘ride’ this rep target by continuing to Micro-load for as long as possible, and then I’ll drop the rep target again – in this case to 5 reps, and the entire process is repeated. The 5’s are a magical number (actually a weight that is roughly 80 – 85% of a one rep max) – I’ll explain what I mean by ‘magical’ sometime in a future article. For now just understand that working at 5 reps builds the maximum amount of functional muscle mass. I’ve had trainees utilize 5 reps as the rep target for up to a year before they’ll need to make the next drop to 3 reps. Once the 3’s ‘dry-up’ there are several ways I recommend the trainee to go dependant on their goals. I may go to program based on using sets of single reps followed by a backoff-set of 8 reps. Or, I may have the trainee go back to the 5’s again. It just depends of the particular circumstances of the individual. This entire process takes anywhere from two to three years. Not very fancy, but boy it sure brings home the bacon, literally transforming the trainee into someone who is not recognized by family and friends.

After the above process has been completed, the trainee has gained so much muscle and increased their strength to a level that puts them in the intermediate to advanced trainee category. From here I’ll generally (once again depending on the trainee’s new goals) start ‘cycling’ the rep goal over a three to six week macrocycle. Using the example of a three week macrocycle; in week one the trainee will perform 3 sets of 8 reps, week two it’ll be 3 sets of 5 reps, week three the trainee will perform 3 to 5 sets of 3 reps. Then the entire process will be repeated with the addition of a small dose of iron to each weeks’ load. This process can go on for another year. Using the process that I’ve just explained, trainees under my guidance have put on up to 80 pounds of solid bodyweight and achieved national rankings in drug-free, ‘raw’ powerlifting.