Periodization for Bodybuilders - Part III

Periodization for Bodybuilders – Part III

Okay, late as usual, it’s time to present part III of this series of articles on periodization for bodybuilders. If you haven’t already, go read Part I and Part II first so this will make more sense.

Training Zone Recap

I finished the second part of this article series by giving some volume recommendations for both improving and maintaining loads for the four different components of training: pure strength, intensive bodybuilding, extensive bodybuilding and really extensive bodybuilding. Without recapping that entire article, I’ll simply summarize the loading parameters for each below.

Type of training Reps (%1RM) Rest Tempo Set length Exercise
Strength training 1-5 (85%+) 3-5′ 2-3/0/X 20″ or less Compound
Int. bodybuilding 4-6 (80-85%) 2-3′ 3-4/0/1 20-30″ Compound
Ext. bodybuilding 6-8 (75-80%) 1-2′ 3/0/2 30-40″ Compound
10-15 (70-75%) 1-2′ 3/0/2 40-60″ Or Isolation
Really extensive N/A (60-65%) 1′ 2/0/2 60-120″ Isolation

Notes: Tempo reads X/Y/Z where X is the lowering speed, Y is the pause, Z is the lifting speed. Some coaches add fourth value for the pause at the top. Rest intervals are in minutes, set length is in seconds. The really extensive zone should be timed for 1 to 2 minutes (up to maybe 3 if you’re a masochist) without focusing so much on reps. If you must count reps, 15-30 reps on a 2/0/2 tempo works fine.

Volume recommendation recap

Along with training zone parameters I also gave some volume recommendations for both training and maintaining loads, recapped below. I should probably have noted that these numbers don’t necessarily reflect volume per exercise but rather total volume per bodypart. So if you want to do two exercises for chest in a pure strength training cycle, you could do 3-5 sets of flat bench press and incline bench press or what have you. This is the same for the other loading zones.

Type of training Training Load Maintaining load
Strength training 6-10 sets 2-3 sets
Intensive bodybuilding 2-8 sets 1-2 sets
Extensive bodybuilding 3-6 sets 1-2 sets
Really extensive 1-2 sets 1 set

One thing I didn’t mention is that, in general, within any given workout, you would work in the same order. So for any given bodypart, strength training comes first (if it’s being done at all), intensive bodybuilding second, extensive bodybuilding third, really extensive bodybuilding last. Additionally, if you’ve never worked in the pure strength training rep range, you should spend at least 6 weeks (if not longer) working in the intensive bodybuilding zone to prepare your connective tissues for the heavier loading.

So now I can finally give some sample routines, right? Well, not quite, I have a few more topics to cover first.

Another comment on rep range emphasis

Within any given cycle, unless you are specializing (see below), you’re probably best off picking a primary training emphasis, a secondary training emphasis and a maintenance training emphasis. Once again, this is simply to avoid having to try and hit everything at once. As you progress through a training year, obviously those training emphases will change (this is the whole point of periodizing in the first place).

So you might choose the intensive bodybuilding method as your primary emphasis, pure strength as a secondary emphasis and extensive bodybuilding (picking the higher end of the range since that overlaps with the really extensive range) for maintenance. This might mean warm-ups followed by 2-3 sets of 2-3 reps for maintenance of pure strength (which always goes first), then anywhere from 2-8 sets of intensive bodybuilding work (your primary emphasis which always goes second). Finally, finish up with 1-2 sets of 12-15 reps to cover extensive bodybuilding and really extensive bodybuilding zones. Alternately you could do 1-2 sets of 10-12 reps and 1 timed set to finish out the bodypart.

Bodypart Overlap

In part 2 I talked about the issue of rep range overlap, pointing out that the different training zones overlap with one another, allowing for consolidation of training (since it would be impossible to hit everything in a single workout).

In addition, I want to mention the issue of bodypart overlap, since this further allows bodybuilders to decrease how many sets are necessary per workout. For example, consider a workout where you’re training bench press quite heavily. You’ve done 6 sets of 2 reps for pure strength work, 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps for intensive bodybuilding work, and 1-2 sets of extensive work. Let’s also say that you’re training shoulders and triceps in the same workout, both of which are worked during the heavy chest work. Obviously it would be overkill to try and work either shoulders or triceps at full volume. It might even be overkill to do either in all repetition ranges. During heavy bench sets of 3 reps, the triceps and deltoids are both getting some work in that rep range.

As a result, you would really only need a few total sets for both triceps and deltoids to round out the workout. Basically, this allows you to use heavy compound exercises to get a lot of work done for the smaller muscle groups so that fewer sets are necessary in the first place. Frankly, outside of the occasional arm specialization routine, it’s rare for me to prescribe more than a couple of direct sets for biceps or triceps—I let heavy pushing and pulling take care of it.

The same goes for pulling exercises: if you’ve worked the hell out of your back, your biceps have already gotten a ton of work. Doing more than a few sets for biceps would be not only unnecessary but complete overkill.

Bodypart emphasis

This leads into my final comments on bodypart emphasis (which could and should be an article all in itself, I can expand in part IV if there is interest). I want to introduce this by saying that, for all but beginner and maybe intermediate bodybuilders, it’s usually impossible to bring up all bodyparts at once. Rather, focusing on one or two upper body muscles and one or two lower body muscles, while maintaining the others, works much much better. So in most of my sample workouts, at most two bodyparts are emphasized while the others are trained at maintenance levels.

On that note, the first bodypart (or two) that you work in a workout will generally receive the greatest training effect. So if you want to bring up your shoulders (strength or size), train them first in the workout, putting chest second and working it at maintenance levels. Will this hurt your chest poundages? Yes. But it’s better than the converse where chest training will limit how much emphasis you can put into your delts.

So when you’re focusing heavily on chest and back, plan on working delts and arms at maintenance. If you want to focus on delts, work chest and triceps at maintenance. If you want to focus on triceps, work on chest and delts at maintenance. The same goes for pulling exercises. Legs are a little more complicated because the amount of overlap isn’t necessarily as great. Hamstrings are certainly worked during compound leg stuff but it’s not quite the same as how hard delts or tris are worked during heavy benching. This means that you can use more volume for leg exercises (there are also fewer bodyparts to worry about: quads, hams/glutes and calves) and the sample workouts will be setup that way.

At the same time, my comments on bodypart emphasis still hold: if you always train quads (squats) first, this will limit how much energy you have left to train hamstrings. I think that’s a big part of why so many bodybuilders have terrible hamstrings. Putting hamstrings first and quads at maintenance is a way to avoid this common problem. Another approach (that can also be used for upper body) is to make one leg workout a quad emphasis workout and the other a hamstring emphasis workout with volume set accordingly. For upper body you might make one workout a push emphasis (with light pull meaning back/bis worked at maintenance) and the other a pull emphasis (with light push meaning chest/delts/tris worked at maintenance).

Training frequency, splits and volume

Although I could most assuredly write pages on this topic itself (I need to get off my ass and stop with the fat loss shit and write a training manual), I only want to make a couple of comments for the purposes of this article.

As I said in part II, I don’t think naturals should train a bodypart any less frequently than about once every 5th day (or twice a week on average). Of course, this isn’t an absolute, but I find it to be generally true. Train a bodypart any less than this and growth simply isn’t optimal. This gives a few workable possibilities for splits depending on recovery. One would be to use a Charles Poliquin split like:

Day 1: Chest/Back
Day 2: Legs/Abs
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Shoulders/Arms
Day 5: Off


I would personally put some maintenance chest/back work on day 4 but that type of split would be workable for folks who have a very flexible schedule during the week, overall good recovery or are using steroids or even some of the new prohormones. Arguably my favorite split is an upper/lower split (also workable for powerlifting). This is good for people who need to train on the same days each week or who don’t have the recovery to train as often as the above split.

Monday: Lower body (squat emphasis for powerlifting, or quad emphasis for bodybuilding)
Tuesday: Upper body (bench emphasis for powerlifting, or push emphasis for bodybuilding)
Thu: Lower body (deadlift emphasis for powerlifting, or hamstring emphasis for bodybuilding)
Fri: Upper body (light bench + back emphasis for powerlifting, pull emphasis for bodybuilding)

For folks with even poorer recovery ability, the above could be changed to a three day/week program alternating workouts. So each workout gets hit three times every two weeks.

Monday: Lower body
Wed: Upper body
Fri: Lower body
Mon: Upper body
Wed: Lower body
Fri: Upper body

In this scheme, I wouldn’t make any of the days a specific emphasis but volume could be cut back to allow everything to be hit.

On the topic of volume, you’ll note that I gave somewhat large set ranges for the different types of training. I wanted to comment on that for a second. I have found over the years that individual volume tolerance is, well, individual. Young males with high testosterone levels can adapt to higher training volume while your classic ‘hardgainer’ frequently does better with lower volume (but higher frequencies and avoiding failure). Women generally need less volume than men and older individuals can’t handle the same volume as younger folks.

So whereas a young male with high testosterone levels might do 8 sets of 6-8 reps (Intensive bodybuilding) for a given bodypart, a similarly aged male with low testosterone levels or a female or older male might only need/be able to handle 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps per bodypart. Just keep that in mind in the sample workouts; I’ll be using rather ‘average’ volume recommendations but you can adjust them up or down depending on your own personal recovery capacity.

Alternately, you could probably apply some of the autoregulatory concepts going around, training any exercise until a given percentage of strength is lost, if you don’t know how much volume you can handle. I’ll also note that volume tolerance can both be improved (by gradual volume increases over time) and detrained (by doing HIT/low volume shit all the time).

A Word on Progression

Bodybuilders make a shitpile of mistakes that prevent them from realizing their goals. That alone could be fodder for an entire book. Here I want to focus only on one thing: progression. Unless you’re drugged or genetically superior, your muscles only respond by getting bigger if you continue to challenge them. Within the context of this article series, progression means adding weight to the bar. Now, there are tons of different ways to progress weights and this is too long (and overdue) as it is. I’ll only make this comment: you should strive to add weight to the bar whenever you can do so in good form. So if you get to the high end of a rep range and feel like you have a rep left over, add weight at the next workout. This will probably drop you to the low end of the rep range and then build up again. For really extensive bodybuilding, you would increase weight when you got to the high end of the time range. Just remember that, in general, if you’re not getting stronger, you’re not getting bigger. And if you’re not getting bigger, you’re not getting stronger. So if you’re not adding weight to the bar over time, you’re just another bozo wasting his life in the gym with nothing to show for it.

And, finally, some workout examples.

I should mention that, for all workouts, exercises for multiple bodyparts can be alternated or supersetted to cut down on gym time. As well, exercise selection is somewhat arbitrary; don’t take it as holy writ. You can substitute one compound exercise for another and one isolation exercise for another depending on what you have available at your gym or to meet your preferences. Note also that proper warm-ups should be done prior to the first exercise for a given bodypart. So for the first chest, back or quad exercise do warm-up sets. For the second exercise, warm-ups usually aren’t going to be necessary unless you simply want to perform them.

Workout 1

The first workout is a leg workout with an emphasis on quads and hams; calves are at maintenance (or can be worked another day). No pure strength training is being done (this would be a training cycle for someone who wanted to prepare themselves for a strength training focus). The primary focus is on the intensive bodybuilding zone, secondary emphasis is on the extensive bodybuilding zone and maintenance work is in the really extensive bodybuilding zone.

Exercise SetsXReps Rest Tempo
Squat: 3-4X4-6 3′ 3/0/1
*Note: Can perform leg curl if SLDL is too much for low back 3-4X4-6 3′ 3/0/1
Front or hack squat*
*Note: Can also leg press 2-3X4-6 2-3′ 3/1/1
Lying leg curl 2-3X4-6 2-3′ 3/1/1
Leg press 1-3X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/2
Seated leg curl*
*Note: Can use standing leg curl 1-3X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/2
Leg extension 1X15-20 N/A Slow or Timed
Seated leg curl 1X15-20 N/A Slow or Timed
Standing calf raise*
*Note: Pause at bottom of each rep 3-4X6-8 2′ 3/1/2
Seated calf raise 2-3X12-15 1.5′ 2/0/2

Workout 2

This is a continuation of the previous workout. The focus is on quads with a pure strength training emphasis, secondary emphasis on intensive bodybuilding and maintenance for extensive/really extensive bodybuilding. Hamstrings and calves are being maintained across the board.

Exercise SetsXReps Rest Tempo
Squat *
*Note: Use a 4-5RM load, X means lift as fast as possible 3-5X3 4-5′ 3/0/X
Lying leg curl *
*Note: Can use SLDL 1-2X6-8 2-3′ 3/0/1
Front squat*
*Note: Alternately work 6-10 sets of 3 reps in the squat and skip this exercise 3-5X3 3-4′ 3/0/X
Standing leg curl *
*Note: Or use lying leg curl 1-2X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/2
Leg press 2-3X10-12
or 1-2X12-15 1-2′ 3/0/2
Seated leg curl 1X15-20 N/A Slow or timed (1-2′)
Standing calf raise*
*Note: Pause at bottom of each rep 2-3X6-8 2′ 3/1/2
Seated calf raise 1-2X12-15 1.5′ 2/0/2

For the second lower body workout of the week, the focus could be switched to hamstring dominant with a quad/calf maintenance. All I’m doing is switching out exercises here, putting hamstring exercises where quad exercises were in the previous workout and vice versa, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Exercise SetsXReps Rest Tempo
*Note: Use a 4-5RM load 3-5X3 4-5′ 3/0/1
Leg press 1-2X6-8 2-3′ 3/0/1
Lying leg curl*
*Notes: Alternately work 6-10 sets of 3 reps in the DL/SLDL and skip this exercise 3-5X3 3-4′ 3/0/X
Leg press*
*Note: Or use leg extension 1-2X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/2
Standing leg curl 2-3X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/2
or 1-2X12-15
Leg extension 1X15-20 N/A Slow or Timed (1-2′)
Standing calf raise*
*Note: Pause at bottom of each rep 2-3X6-8 2′ 3/1/2
Seated calf raise 1-2X12-15 1.5′ 2/0/2

Workout 3

Workout 3 represents a further continuation of the cycle. This is a move back to a quad/hamstring emphasis in each workout with pure strength at maintenance and the focus on extensive and really extensive bodybuilding methods (the extra strength from the strength cycle will mean heavier loads during the bodybuilding work). By picking a higher rep range for the strength work (meaning it overlaps with strength and intensive bodybuilding), the trainee can focus on extensive and really extensive bodybuilding methods.

Exercise SetsXReps Rest Tempo
*Notes: X means lift as fast as possible 2-3X5 2-3′ 3/0/X*
SLDL 2-3X5 2-3′ 3/0/1
Leg press 3-4X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/X
Leg curl 3-4X10-12 1-2′ 3/0/X
Leg extension 1-2X15-30 1′ Slow or Timed (1-2′)
Seated leg curl 1-2X15-30 1′ Slow or Timed (1-2′)
Standing calf raise*
*Note: Pause at bottom of each rep 3-4X6-8 2′ 3/1/2
Seated calf raise 2-3X12-15 1.5′ 2/0/2
Seated calf raise
(Expect to be screaming at the end of this) 1-2X15-30 1′ Slow or timed (1-2′)

Ok, as usual, I’m over deadline and since I have company coming into town I don’t have time to detail upper body workouts. So this will have to get folks started and I’ll do a part IV. Setting up upper body stuff is a bit more complicated (more bodyparts to take care of) but my initial comments about exercise and rep range overlap for upper body as well. So if you’re doing heavy 5’s and 12’s in the bench, you don’t need more than a couple of sets of triceps (maybe 1-2 sets of 12 and 1 15-30 rep set). This is the same for back and biceps. If you use a split where you work chest/back one day and delts/arms (light chest/back) another, it gets setup just like the lower body workouts.

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