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How To Cycle Workouts For Better Results

How To Cycle Workouts For Better Results

I was browsing the internet recently when I came across an article entitled “A Simple Guide To Periodization For Strength Training”. However, what followed was anything but simple. Talk of marcocycles, mesocycles and microcyles and so on. Throw in a couple of confusing graphs where the variables of intensity volume and technique were wavy lines all over the place and you had an overly complex mess of an article.  I found myself reading it and being no better informed about periodization than I was before I began reading.

However, it did remind me that periodization is both an essential tool in managing exercise workload as well one of the most ignored tools when it comes to amateur sports people in nearly all sports.  It doesn’t matter what sport you do however, the ability to cycle your training is essential to maintain the greatest readiness to compete and avoiding injury.

When training isn’t cycled, we see declining performance rather than improving performance. For example players of football codes whose coaches run them through the same training routines week in week out throughout the year find that instead of the team getting fitter and fitter and excelling on the field, instead they fall into a hole and are flat throughout games. You can’t simply go hard at training all the time and make progress; the body simply doesn’t work that way.

Not only that, as an amateur sportsperson, a weekend warrior, you probably have a day job. Being permanently fatigued is not a good thing. Getting in shape is not just about training, it’s about recovery.

So let me explain what periodization is.. in simple terms. Put simply, it is interspersing lighter, easier workouts with heavier, more intense workouts.

This concept is almost completely foreign to the glossy pages of most magazines that the vast majority of gym goers get their training information. For body builders, the orthodoxy has been for years.. go in, work every muscle group to failure every single workout. It’s what I did for years. The cycle is.. go hard, go hard, go hard.. get injured.. come back from injury. The same approach is taken with crossfitters. If you’re not training so hard that you are close to throwing up, if you’re not trying to beat your personal best every day, you are lazy.

Once again, the “L” word gets invoked. It gets invoked a lot when people suggest that perhaps there is a better way than just going hard at it without intelligence. However, when it comes to powerlifting and Olympic lifting, two disciplines where the only thing that matters is results, periodization is ubiquitous.

So let’s get to how the average person who wants to improve the results they get from training goes about using periodization?

For the purpose of this discussion, we will use weight training to illustrate the points. I simply don’t have enough understanding how to cycle cardio training for peak benefit, so let’s stick with what I know.

When it comes to weight training, there are 3 variables that you can manipulate. Volume is the number of sets you do per workout. Frequency is how often you train. Intensity is how close to your 1 rep max (e.g what you can do with a given exercise – e.g. bench press – for a single rep).

Powerlifters vary intensity as one of their key periodization tools.  This is absolutely essential when you are working with weights so close to the maximum you can do. If you are a powerlifter and you can bench press 200 kgs in competition, you don’t go into the gym every time you train and press 200 kgs. You work at between 70 to 90% of your one rep max. When you do the maths you realise that 70% of 200 is 140 kgs, which is clearly quite comparatively light.

Anyway.. moving right along, there are two major ways I periodize. Firstly is the light day – heavy day routine. It’s simply however your workouts are split, you do one heavy day where you push yourself as far as the weight you use and the number of reps you perform. The weights are challenging. Then you do a  light day where you are lowering the weights and reps you do.

This works however you train. For example if you train four times a week, upper body one day and lower body the next, you can alternate light day heavy day (though why you would want to train four days a week with weights is beyond me – don’t you have better things to do?).

But why do the workout if you are not busting a gut? Doesn’t that make it pointless if you are not pushing yourself? Clearly you haven’t been listening. No it’s quite the opposite. What the light workout does is keep the nervous system used to the movements. It also helps the muscles recover from heavy workouts, so it’s a double win.

In addition to the heavy, light day alternatives, I also will cycle the intensity of the weights I use on heavy days. For example, I might use 75% of my one rep max the first week, 85% the second week, 90% the third week and then back down to 75% again in the third week. This is absolutely essential if you don’t want to blow yourself out of the water. It’s the old racing car in the red zone analogy. You just don’t want to spend too much time in that zone.

Finally, with this method, I will mix up the exercises I use. I never do the same workout twice in a row. This in itself keeps the body (and mind) fresh.

The second method I use is to cycle the volume of the workouts. You start off in week one do 3 sets per *body part* – I use that term advisedly because in my opinion, the old days of slicing and dicing your body according to specific parts only apply to bodybuilders. But anyway, in rough terms – you will do something like bench press – an exercise for you chest – for 3 sets in a work out, then do a couple of more exercises for the other body parts you are doing on that day, perhaps bent over rows for back and squats for legs.

The next week, each workout you do, you perform 4 sets per body  part, then the week after you do 5. The fourth week you drop back down to 3 sets. That’s it. a simple method, but very effective in keeping you fresh.

So that’s it. Two approaches that will make sure you don’t get stale. If you are a busy person like me, you can’t afford to be constantly tired from exercise all the time, yet you want results. By applying a little knowledge, you can have a sustainable exercise program that doesn’t dominate your life and make exercise feel like drudgery.

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About The Author


A guy obsessed with stripping down whatever field he studies to get the optimum return from effort expended. Sort of like Tim Ferriss, except with zero fame.

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