Bodybuilders that take the time to see how many conventional powerlifters and “in the know” trainees cycle their training intensity often end up very confused about all the workouts that appear to be total wastes of time. After all, intensity cycling requires that many weeks be spent doing workouts at low intensity or volume levels. This leaves the uninitiated to believe that little is being accomplished—and they would be WRONG!!!
Before delving too deeply into the subject I will go over a couple of things that may already be on the minds of those reading this. And from experience these things are:
What exactly is intensity/load cycling?
Is it really needed?
How is it performed?
Intensity/load cycling is the use of various methods performed to modulate loading parameters in order to ensure CNS and overall metabolic overtraining does not occur, and to provide a “springboard” to additional size and strength gains. By allowing yourself periods with less than “all out” workloads you give the body time to recuperate from periods of extreme training stress while building momentum to reach and then beat all previous records.
Is intensity/load cycling really necessary? Depends who you talk to and what their training consists of. If you ALWAYS train within your ability to recover between sessions the answer is no. However few do this, and many find gains come most freely when they push the limits of their recovery ability. So yes, it is needed by many if not most trainees. It really is as simple as this; your body will not tolerate all-out high intensity or high volume training for long periods of time WHILE remaining progressive with size and strength gains. Something has to give, and most people will do well to plan the “give” time to be a part of their short and long-term training plan instead of constantly being “stuck” in terms of size and strength gains.
How intensity cycling is performed is an extremely large topic and I could no doubt write a complete book covering the varied ways it can be utilized. But instead of covering the many esoteric and sometimes complicated cycling schemes I’m going to cover some “meat and potatoes’ methods that are simple to implement, perform and keep track of. Fortified Iron is doing an essay on more intricate cycling methods in next month’s issue of Mind and Muscle, so I will let him discuss the techniques that require a bit more finesse, keeping my essay simple. Conventional (non-Westside) powerlifters have performed intensity cycling using a variety of loading schemes. One scheme involves keeping the rep count fairly constant and starting out at a predefined percentage of their maximal effort for that range and working up to it over a number of weeks. Another scheme entails starting out with higher reps at a lower intensity level and slowly dropping the rep range while increasing the poundage until max singles are done prior to the meet. Both methods are time proven and easily adaptable to bodybuilding.
Lets use an example of a trainee (I’ll use a “powerbuilding” trainee using 5s instead of a powerlifter working up to a single in this example) that has recently hit 300 for 5 in the bench press, and now wants to add another 5% to that number. From trial and experience he has found that the best way to increase his strength while getting at least reasonable size gains has been keeping the bulk of his training around the 5 rep range, with a week or two of 3 reps followed by a testing of his max. An upcoming 8-week cycle might look something like this:
Week 2: 255 x 5 (85%)
Week 3: 270 x 5 (90%)
Week 4: 285 x 5 (95%)
Week 5: 292 x 5 (97.5%)
Week 6: 300 x 5 (100%)
Week 7: 306 x 5 (102%)
Week 8: 315 x 5 (105%)
And again, I know many bodybuilders are looking at this and thinking “man that guy sure is wasting weeks 1-5.” And their solution is usually just to keep pounding away at 300 x 5 for weeks at a time until something gives. Usually all that gives is their patience and they switch EVERTHING up because they were so very “stuck” at the same poundage for so very long. Had they backed off and worked up using a method like the one posted above they probably would have hit the 315 x 5 in the 8 weeks (Although for an advanced lifter, a 5% gain in 8 weeks may be stretching things).
Another simple method to use—and by far one of my favorites—is called a “waved or ramped volume” approach. This method is performed by starting out with low (or at least lower) volume, which is slowly increased over the course of weeks or in some cases months. I use this approach frequently with personal training clients. There are endless ways to increase the volume, such as adding sets, adding lifts, adding sets and lifts, adding additional workouts and so on. You can vary how low the volume is when you start, how long you ramp it up, and how high and how long you hold it at the high(er) volume. The following is a simple linear ramp to give you an idea of the possibilities:
Weeks 3-4: 4 sets per bodypart doing 2 lifts for 2 sets each
Weeks 5-6: 6 sets per bodypart doing 3 lifts for 2 sets each
Weeks 7-8: 9 sets per bodypart doing 3 lifts for 3 sets each
Weeks 9-10: 12 sets per bodypart doing 3 lifts for 4 sets each
Most people will do fine holding the volume at 12 sets, while others may want to ramp it higher. The lower volume weeks add strength at a rapid pace. As the volume level goes up, many find the strength increases slow down, but size gains go up. This allows the trainee to bump strength up a fair bit and then convert the newfound strength into size gains. This is a very basic structure and many people will do well to keep the volume lower for longer periods, or keep volume in the middle-range for longer periods of time. As the volume level goes up, the intensity level must come down, and many do best keeping intensity levels in check even during the lower volume portion of the progression scheme. Without doing this to at least some degree the intensity cycling portion is basically negated and the trainee is just trading more volume for lower intensity.
For people that know they do not handle high volume workloads well, a good solution to giving the body more volume than a typical HIT/Hardgainer routine provides, but not so much as a waved volume routine offers, is a simple four week low to moderate volume wave. It can look something like this:
Week 3: 4 sets per bodypart; 2 sets of 2 lifts with only the last set to failure on each.
Week 4: 6 sets per bodypart; either 3 sets of 2 lifts, or 2 sets of 3 lifts with only the last set to failure on each.
Week 5: repeat sequence.
I would bet the majority of people reading this have at least a basic overview of another intensity loading system espoused by a fellow named DC (AKA Dogg, Dante). It is an extremely well thought out system using high intensity, low volume training, with all the bases covered in regards to training, dieting, supplementation, gear use (if desired) and intensity cycling. Dante uses an extremely simple method of intensity cycling. It’s so simple its brilliant and more importantly, it works!
The concept here is to do four weeks of all-out training, followed by two weeks of lower intensity training. Dante primarily uses single set rest-pause training during the all-out phase, and then switches to sets of straight failure during the lower intensity phase. Many people however can’t handle an all-out assault of rest-pause during the full-on phase so they are given straight sets to failure during the four week block. In this case the lower intensity weeks would be done without taking the sets to complete failure.
While this is an example of Dante’s take on intensity cycling, I highlight this as a specific model of a general principle that is easily applied in countless ways. The take home message here is that it’s incredibly beneficial to simply reduce either the volume or the intensity level for a couple of weeks to give your body (and mind) a break from the onslaught of all-out effort.
Again, the variations of this basic format can be endless. You don’t have to do a 4-2 week ratio; a 3-1, 5-2, 6-3, or any combo under the sun can work well depending on how you respond to training. Generally when first experimenting with intensity cycling, I recommend either a 4-2 or 3-1 week split because these two formats usually work quite well for the majority of trainees.
The biggest problem trainees encounter when starting on an intensity cycling format is probably what many would expect it to be—they just WON’T do the lower effort weeks as they originally planned out. Things are going well so they either always train harder than the plan calls for, or add sets or lifts. I can state from experience that of those that decide to implement one of the various cycling formats, about 75% of them just don’t stick with the plan because of their old training habits. And this is too bad, because in doing so they halt progress. Like any training system, intensity cycling only works if you stick to it!