Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.
I’ve previously written on IronLife about the vital importance of following a progressive, periodised training plan. If you need a reminder – it’s here – and in that article I defined periodisation as the organisation of training over time, utilising an organised approach to encourage progression while minimising plateaus and avoiding injuries.
So what about implementation? There are practically infinite permutations of what this might look like, but let me give you a very simple template. First, we’ll take an approach in which we focus on seeing progress over an eight-week period. This would be our short-term macro cycle. Within this eight-week period, we’ll have three blocks (known as mesocycles), a three-week volume period, a three-week intensity period, and then a two-week period of tapering and evaluating progress.
As you can see already this is a linear approach – starting with higher volume, moving to higher intensity – within a block periodised plan. Now, within each of these blocks, you’ll have a different training focus on a day-to-day basis (it now becomes an undulating approach as well!). If you paid attention to my previous articles on volume, intensity and frequency, you’re hopefully training each muscle group more than once per week. If that’s the case, you can simply alternate between low-rep heavy-load training and higher-rep moderate-load training each time you train a muscle group within the week (AKA a microcycle).
During the volume block, perform 60% to 70% of your total sets per week in the higher-rep moderate-load ranges, and 30% to 40% of your total sets per week in the lower-rep higher-load ranges. Meaning, if you do 12 sets per week on chest, you might do eight sets in the eight to 15 rep range, and four sets in the three to eight rep range, spread across multiple days. When you get to the second block (your intensity period) you simply flip it, doing more volume with heavy loads and less with lighter loads (eight sets of three to eight reps, and four sets of eight to 15 reps, in this example). This will automatically reduce your total volume, and will increase your strength as more work is being done to acclimate you to heavy loading.
Taper and test
Finally, we move onto tapering and testing. For the first week of the tapering and testing, keep the format the same as the intensity phase, but simply reduce total sets per muscle group by one or two sets, and reduce load slightly to ensure you aren’t hitting failure at all. Then, on the final week, do what is called an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) on the main lifts that you used to train. Select a load that you think after the progress you’ve made you will hit failure on within four to six reps, meaning that your goal on each AMRAP is to set a new four- to six-rep max. Perform this for each of your main lifts for each muscle group (no more than six), spread out over the week.
Do only minimal accessory work to maintain muscle and performance on your isolation and assistive exercises to ensure you have adequate recovery between days so your AMRAP performances are representative of the progress you’ve made. This final week is your opportunity to gauge progress on the big lifts and see how successful your approach was.
My advice is to test a compound barbell movement with strict form for each muscle group, doing no more than two AMRAPs per day. For example, a squat variant for legs, a deadlift variant for legs and posterior chain, a strict row for back, an incline, decline or flat press for chest and pushing musculature, and an overhead press for deltoids and pushing musculature.
For natural bodybuilders past the beginner phases of growth being able to track visible progress in muscular gains is very difficult. So instead of futilely trying to spot grams of muscle growth in the mirror, see if you can make measurable progress in the weight room to ensure that progressive overload is occurring. Do that while you are consuming a reasonable caloric surplus – the emphasis on reasonable – and you’ll be ensuring that all the ingredients for growth are present.
1. Fleck, S.J., Periodized Strength Training: A Critical Review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 1999. 13(1): p. 82-89.