Today’s guest blog comes from Tom MacCormick. Take it away Tom …
Hey you, I know you. We haven’t met but, I definitely know you…
You see I was just like you. Don’t believe me? Read on and see if you recognise yourself…
You’ve always been skinny and you’re desperate to pack on some muscle. You follow the latest and greatest training programmes from the muscle mags. You bust your butt in the gym. You’ve tried every supplement under the sun.
You religiously chug down Weight Gainer 5000 XL in the hope that is the missing ingredient in your quest to be more muscular. Despite all that hard work you haven’t seen much muscle gain.
Despite all your efforts your progress is meagre at best. You think you are doing everything right but, there is obviously a piece of the puzzle you are missing. Let’s run a quick checklist to make sure you’re ticking all the muscle building boxes…
Many hear the word periodisation and are put off by it. They think it is some incredibly complex, Soviet training scheme reserved for elite level athletes. In fact, it simply means the logical organisation and sequencing of training with the purpose of causing maximal adaptation.
For those of us purely interested in getting jacked it means, planning some sort of methodical adjustments to training variables to maximise muscle mass. You have all sorts of variables to play with when it comes to periodising your training. For example, training volume, intensity, frequency, exercise selection, exercise variety, sets, reps, rest and tempo (more on these later).
The periodisation literature breaks periods of training into Microcycles (typically a week), Mesocycles (an organised sequence of microcycles – usually about a month long) and Macrocycles (usually a year long).
Several Microcycles form a Mesocycle, and a collection of Mesocycles make up a Macrocycle.
A Mesocycle is usually broken down into two phases. Firstly, an accumulation phase which is defined by Dr. Mike Israetel as…
…”series of sequential microcycles (weeks) during which training gets progressively harder, which occurs through an increase in either volume, intensity, or both.”
The accumulation phase generally lasts 3-5 weeks and is then followed by a deload. The deload is most commonly a week long (for more info about deloads go here). The deload is designed to substantially lower fatigue through a reduction of volume and/or intensity from normal accumulation training. By dropping this fatigue you can then get back to hard muscle building training for another 3-5 weeks. Think of the deload as one step back to take three big jumps forward.
So, a periodised plan for increased muscle mass, simply involves putting together weeks (approximately 3-5) of progressively harder training, before deloading, and then repeating the process. Each subsequent mesocycle should be layered on top of the previous one by getting slightly harder.
Pretty simple, right?
Before we worry about how to organise the training variables into a periodised plan let’s first cover the fundamental elements of training to maximise muscle.
The human body is an incredible mechanism. It can do some incredible things. Despite being capable of tremendous feats of strength, endurance and ingenuity the human body doesn’t like to do the extraordinary. It likes maintenance. More specifically, it likes homeostasis.
This is what makes building muscle so hard. To build muscle you have to disrupt the equilibrium and force your body to adapt. You must challenge it by lifting weights sufficiently hard that it perceives them as a threat to its survival. By doing so your body will adapt and build bigger stronger muscles.
Your body adapts to the training stimulus you expose it to. The weights you lift now won’t be enough to cause progress in a future. Instead you will need to create a greater disruption to elicit an adaptive response. This is where the principle of overload comes in.
Overload is critical to progress in training and pushing the body to make the positive adaptions we desire. Another key element is that the training stimulus must be progressive. If it is not more demanding than what has been done before then it will not disrupt homeostasis sufficiently to cause growth. Put simply the stimulus must, on average, be greater than recent historical stimuli.
Or as Eric Helms says…
…” The cardinal rule of progressive overload applies if your goal is muscle growth, meaning we need to lift weights that actually provide an overload.”
So, you have to disrupt homeostasis with a progressive overload to cause the body to adapt. You might be thinking to yourself…”What sort of training most efficiently does that when it comes to building muscle?” Well, Brad Schoenfeld’s research identified three key training parameters which drive muscle gain. These are:
So, to maximize your muscle building potential, you will need to incorporate all three of the above in your training. The best methods to achieve each of these are:
In my opinion 75-80% of your results will come from number 1 (mechanical tension). If you focus on progressively lifting more weight in the 6-10 rep range on the big lifts then a lot of your muscle gains will be taken care of.
However, to maximise your potential using isolation exercises and techniques aimed at metabolic stress and muscle damage are required.
Training for hypertrophy has both a volume and intensity component. Intensity, in this instance, is defined by the percentage of 1 rep max used when performing an exercise. When training for size if you reach a sufficient intensity threshold (lifting weights >60%1RM) then volume is the key contributor to muscular size.
For trained individuals performing multiple sets which result in a greater total volume are superior to single sets. It has been found that multiple sets are associated with a 40% greater effect size than single sets.
Indeed volume is a key determinant of long-term success when it comes to gaining significant muscle mass. So significant in fact that it has been found that performing equivalent volume with heavier weights and sets of 3 reps equate to the same growth as moderate weight used for sets of 10.
The one caveat to the above statement is that performing sets of 10 is a far more efficient way to achieve a high volume of work. Doing so resulted in trainees achieving the same amount of volume as those performing sets of 3 in a third of the time. The moderate weight group also reported less fatigue and a desire to train more while the 3 rep group were borderline over-trained.
So, from a practical standpoint finding the rep range that allows you to do the most hard (above 60% 1RM) volume per training session is a great idea.
Just because a high training volume is good doesn’t mean you have to go crazy. Muscle gain is a slow process and you need to milk the gains you can make in the long run. Do too much now and you leave yourself with little scope for adding more volume (unless of course you are a pro athlete/bodybuilder who just Eats, Sleeps & Trains!). Make every extra set count…don’t do junk volume!
So how do you set up a sensible and gradual increase in training volume?
The literature appears to indicate that splitting the same training volume into more frequent training sessions is superior for hypertrophy. This is likely because the hypertrophic stimuli are distributed more optimally over the course of the week in higher frequency training approaches. Currently the weight of evidence appears to suggest that training a muscle group 2 times a week is better than once per week. The research is not clear whether training a muscle more often than twice per week is better for muscle growth. As a result, we can conclude (for now) that training a muscle twice a week is suitable for optimising hypertrophy.
The research currently available is inconclusive but, it does indicate that using a moderate (6-12) rep range for the bulk of your training is best. This rep range is ideal for muscle growth as it allows you to effectively apply mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress to the working muscle(s). Given these have been established as the three key factors in muscle gain then spending the majority of your time training in a rep range which can achieve all three is optimal.
Just because 6-12 reps are ideal for hypertrophy it doesn’t mean you should never venture outside this rep range. Strength is the “mother quality” and is the foundation upon which maximal muscle growth is built. Training for strength is generally agreed to occur in the 1-5 rep range. Improving your lifts in this range will allow you to create greater levels of mechanical tension. Consequently, it would be a good idea to spend some of your time training for strength if maximal muscle gain is your goal.
In just the same way that training for strength can have a positive effect on muscular development, training in the higher rep ranges has its benefits. Training with sets of 15-20 reps (perhaps as high as 30 or even 50 with certain exercises) can create a huge amount of metabolic stress (one of the 3 key drivers of muscle growth). Doing training in these rep ranges will enhance your ability to buffer lactic acid. As a result, your lactate threshold will improve. This results in you being able to tolerate longer times under tension and do a higher volume of work. All great for helping to maximize hypertrophy!
(Practical tip: if doing super high rep sets I would suggest you focus on machine based exercises as injury risk is lower on these as fatigue sets in. High rep deadlifts, however, are a recipe for disaster for most people.)
So essentially, there is no single best rep range but, based on the evidence a sensible approach is to do most of your training between 6 and 12 reps. In addition to this, aim to have some training time spent focusing on strength and some devoted to muscular endurance, lactate inducing work.
To bring all the above info on training variables together to optimise muscle gain here are some basic principles. A good starting point when setting up your training for hypertrophy is to follow these guidelines established by Wernborn and expanded upon by Helms in his excellent Strength Training Pyramid book:
So we have clearly identified some of the key principles to follow when training to build size. Now let’s examine how phases of training can be structured to maximise your gains for the long haul.
The most common form of periodisation is Linear Periodisation. This model starts with a high volume of low intensity training and gradually progresses to a lower volume of high intensity work.
A weightlifter following a linear model, for example, might gradually transition from sets of squats for 10 reps, to 8s, to 5s, then 3s and finally singles. This works exceptionally well for sports performance in events like Olympic lifting, Athletics, and Powerlifting. It is also widely used in some bodybuilding programmes. For example, Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training follows this linear increase in intensity.
Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training:
Weeks 1&2 – 2 sets of 15
Weeks 3&4 – 2 sets of 10
Weeks 5&6 – 2 sets 8
Weeks 7&8 – 2 sets of 5
Weeks 9&10 – Negatives
Meanwhile, Eric Helms’ Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine follows a linear progression scheme within each mesocycle:
Week 1 – 100 x 8, 8 ,8 (total volume = 2,400)
Week 2 – 105 x 7, 7, 7 (total volume = 2,205)
Week 3 – 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)
Week 4 – 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD
Week 5 – 105 x 8, 8, 8 (total volume = 2520)
Note. Training volume can be calculated as follows: “Load x sets x reps.”
Now you will make strength and muscle gains with these programmes. They are solid programmes. I am just not convinced they are optimal.
Why? Well, week to week you have a reduction in volume. Volume is a primary stimulus for hypertrophy. In week 1 you present the body with a certain volume load. By doing so you provide a signal of a given magnitude. Then reduce this signal for several weeks.
Thus, the following training weeks violate the principle of overload for hypertrophy. They overloaded on intensity but, not on volume and as Helms states…
“Hypertrophy…is primarily related to the total work performed, and is less speciﬁc to the intensity”
Sure, in Helms’ progression scheme, the subsequent mesocycle starts with a higher volume than the preceding meso but, the question is, are weeks 2, 3 and 4 optimally productive for hypertrophy?
In my view…no because increased volume is fundamental to growth and these approaches decrease it week to week.
So more is better?
Let’s get another pearl of wisdom from Eric Helms to answer that…
…“Looking at studies with matched intensities and frequencies, we’ve found that strength and hypertrophy have a linear relationship with volume. However, this is only true to a point and past that point gains in both strength and hypertrophy start to plateau and can even decline.”
That final sentence is an important one. More isn’t better. Better is better.
You cannot indefinitely train harder and for longer. Eventually, the Law of Diminishing Returns, will kick in. This law states that the more you do something the less you get from it in subsequent exposures. To overcome this, other elements of periodisation come in.
For example, periods of time spent training for strength or at maintenance training should be incorporated to allow for full recovery and to set the scene for the next block of hard muscle building training. By reducing your training volume to maintenance levels for a month or so you can re-sensitive your body to volume again. Then ramp volume back up in your next mass gain phase.
Now, I realise maintenance isn’t a sexy word. Who wants to train at maintenance? We all want to constantly improve, right?
It’s all about full beast mode 24/7/365 dude!
But, you see this is missing the big picture. We know that you cannot constantly do more training but, we also know training with high volumes is a powerful driver of hypertrophy. So, how can you train at high volumes for long periods of time without burning out. By periodising your training to include lower volume, maintenance phases.
These maintenance phases allow your body to settle, refuel, and prime yourself to continue your muscle building journey. After a long mass gain phase you accumulate a lot of fatigue, your body becomes less insulin sensitive, it adapts to the high volumes and requires you to do even more to overload the system. This all sets you up for a higher chance of fat gain, overtraining and/or injury.
Properly timed deloads can help mitigate these risks for a period but, they cannot compensate for months of hard training. Instead a maintenance phase is just what the doctor ordered.
So you can see that phases of training and dieting at maintenance are a good idea. I bet the whole ‘maintenance’ thing is still bugging you though, right?
Oh, that is much better! Tell me more you say? Sure thing…
Now I have put your mind at rest and you are on board with the concept of Maintenance/Primer Phases let me outline how to set them up and when to incorporate them.
I suggest you use the Primer Phase at the end of your mass phase when calories and training volume are at their peak. During this phase you will attempt to maintain your bodyweight. This enables the body to find it’s ‘new normal’. As a result, it will hold onto the muscle you built during the mass gain phase.
A mistake I have made in the past and I have seen many others make is that they fight tooth and nail to pack on some muscle then immediately jump into a cut. Those last few lbs. of hard earned muscle you built at the end of your bulk…yep they fall off straight away. The body gives them up before it got a chance to get accustomed to them.
Almost like it didn’t recognise the new muscle tissue as its own. The body hadn’t adapted to its new more muscular set-point.
Don’t make this mistake!
Even if you want to get really lean to showcase all that new muscle you are best served showing some restraint and patience. Spend 3-5 weeks at maintenance. Find the ‘new normal’ and then get dieting. You stand a much better chance of holding the new muscle that way.
Now for those of you only interested in more mass gain Primer Phases are still a great idea for all the reasons I listed earlier. In this case we are more concerned with allowing your body a break from the grueling high volume sessions to re-sensitise to effects of volume and then slingshot past your previous most muscular self to future gains when the volume is turned back up.
Your training during primer phases should focus on lower rep ranges and lower overall volume. The main goals are to retain muscle and reduce fatigue built up from chronic high volume training. During this phase you should get stronger. Bonus!
Eat at maintenance. This means your weight shouldn’t change much through the primer phase. Plus or minus half a kg is a good goal to aim for over the course of the primer phase. This will require you to eat fewer calories than you were eating at the end of your bulk given training volume is lower. As a rule of thumb, reducing calories 250-500kcal from then end of your bulk is a good starting point. Monitor progress (or, ideally lack of!) on the scales and adjust if needed.
Reduce training volume and frequency. I suggest 3 whole body sessions per week or 4 sessions on an upper lower split. Now bear in mind the whole point is that this phase should promote recovery so I would err on the side of ‘only’ 3 sessions per week for most. Focus on getting stronger on big compound lifts in the 4-6 rep range. For example, in my last primer phase I trained 3 days per week with the following set-up:
A Deficit Deadlifts 3×6
B Bench Press 3×6
C Chin Ups 3×6
D EZ Bar Upright Rows 3×6
A Front Squats 3×6
B BB RDLs 3×6
C Military Press 3×6
D Pendlay Rows 3×6
A Front Squats 3×6
B Lying Leg Curls 3×6
C Close Grip Bench Press 3×6
D EZ Bar Supinated Bent Rows 3×6
So, there you have it, a quick how to on maintenance nutrition and training and the reasons why you should incorporate these into your training. Now you may be thinking this is all well and good, I need to periodise my training, hit high volumes and occasionally back off but, how do I put this all together into a coherent plan. Stop worrying I’ve got your back. Here is how I would suggest you do it:
Mesocycle 1: Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 6 to 10 rep range)
Mesocycle 2: Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 8 to 12 rep range)
Mesocycle 3: Traditional Hypertrophy plus special metabolite techniques like occlusion training, Myo-reps, tri-sets, giant sets etc.
Mesocycle 4: Primer Phase (focus on 4 to 6 rep range)
Mesocycle 5: Repeat process if wanting further mass gain or begin cut of want to drop body fat
The above is basically what Mike Israetel outlines. He’s one smart (and jacked) dude so who am I to argue?
To put some more meat on these theoretical bones let’s take a closer look at how each mesocycle could be set up.
Mesocycle 1: 4xweek following Upper/Lower Split, training each muscle 2xweek
Mesocycle 2: Increase total volume by transitioning to 5xweek using an Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs Split, training each muscle group 2xweek
Mesocycle 3: Increase total volume by switching to 6xweek using a Push/Pull/Legs split, training each muscle group 2xweek, do traditional hypertrophy training in the 10-15 rep range then add occlusion training at the end of each session on the first rotation of the split. Then, on the second time through the P/P/L of the week utilize tri-sets.
There you have it, an overview of the key principles of training for muscle gain, the importance of periodisation, how and why this differs from strength training periodisation, and a template to help you set up your own periodised plan.
If you want to build a tonne of muscle it takes time and you need to be in it for the long haul. To keep making progress month after month, year after year, you need to use a logical, well-structured, periodised plan. I believe the information provided above arms you with the info to do just that. Now the hard work is up to you…make a plan based on these principles, stick to it, and reap the muscular rewards for years to come.
Tom is a former skinny kid who was told he was too small to make it as a rugby player.
Since then he has added over 40 pounds to his frame and helped hundreds of clients to build muscle and drop fat.
More recently he founded Flat Whites Free Weights to provide a hub for his online clients and to share his thoughts on training, nutrition and the ultimate pre-workout supplement…COFFEE!”
While you’re here, why not check out The Intro to DUP as well?
bodybuilding, bulking, dup, hypertrophy, muscle gain, strength training, weight training
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