Since I constantly talk about non-linear periodization in my articles, I thought I might as well write an article about it. Let me start off by saying that I was a HUGE HIT advocate for many, many years. I followed a Mike Mentzer “Heavy Duty” style of training religiously for a long time. I got great strength from that style of training, and a little mass gain as well. But NOTHING can compare to the unrelenting gains in size and strength I gained from non-linear periodization.
What is NLP?
I’m sure many of you have heard the concept of “periodizing” your training? Basically, it refers to going through various cycles of your training for a specific goal or goal(s), such as avoiding overtraining, or to meet s specific strength goals, or perhaps to master a given exercise. NLP is a style of training that allows you to cycle hypertrophy workouts with strength workouts from one week to the next to get the best “bang for your buck” out of your training.
I’m sure some of you are asking “OK Joe, I understand what NLP is, but WHY would I need to train this way?" The whole idea behind bodybuilding is to gain size and strength. The easiest way to measure your success is by progression. The easiest way to measure progression is by increases in strength via more weight, repetitions or both. Most lifters take compound movements very seriously and use them every week in their routines. When you pound away at compound exercises like this, you do a number on your muscles, joints and nervous system. But compound exercises are a bodybuilder's best friend right? Yes, of course. But if you think you can slam away at squats week after week trying to add weight forever ...think again! It’s more realistic and healing to your body to have a break every other week by inserting a totally new dynamic to the workout, and do more isolation exercises, or still do compound exercises but use them in a different manor.
How to do NLP?
When structuring a NLP style of training you have to think first of the big three: 1 - squats, 2 - deadlifts and 3 - bench press (I prefer dumbbells). I prefer to train one bodypart per day but you can literally mess around with this routine as much as you like to have it suite your needs. So for arguments sake, let's say you're going to do a Monday, Wednesday, Friday split. This is how you would structure it:
Monday - Chest, Shoulders and Triceps
For chest, I believe the ideal exercise is flat bench dumbbell bench presses. I believe dumbbells are far superior than barbells for most body parts/exercises for a variety of reasons. So if you did flat dumbbell press you would first do 3-4 progressively heavier warm up sets to get yourself “ready” for the onslaught ahead. Here is an example from my last power chest workout:
- 50’s x 12
- 75’s x 5
- 95’s x 4
- 105’s x 4
- 120’s x 5 - This is the first work set and should be tough but not failure.
- 130’s x 5 - Second work set and close to failure.
- 145’s x 5 - Try and make this failure.
- 150’s x 4 - Failure.
It should be 5, 5, 5, and on the last set 2. So what I will do next time is do two or three sets with the 150’s to induce failure at a lower rep range. Once you begin your work sets you want to rest 90-120 seconds between sets.
I always like to include a second movement where I’m hitting some hypertrophy rep ranges as well. Sometimes I’ll do incline flyes, 3 sets x 10 reps and failing on the last 1-2 sets.
For shoulders you want to do something like standing push press, Arnold presses or hammer strength presses. Again following the 5, 5, 5, 2 rep ranges. And I like to do a few failure sets of laterals and bent over laterals as secondary motions. For triceps, close grip e-z curl or dumbbell presses are a good choice, and I add in rope pressdowns as a secondary movement.
On Wednesday it's big back and biceps, and deadlifts are on the menu. You can choose between conventional, sumo, trap bar or rack deads. Because of the potential risk of injury on the uptake from the bottom position, I like to do singles or doubles on deads. A deadlift workout would look like this:
- 135 x 10
- 185 x 8
- 225 x 6
- 275 x 4
- 315 x 1
- 365 x 1
- 420 x 1
- 480 x 1
- 555 x 1 – Failure or close.
Yes, I have done this many sets before! It's crucial to warm up well! A good secondary motion would be seated cable rows, 3 sets x 5 failing on the last set, and finish up with 1-2 sets to failure on pull ups. For biceps, barbell curls or dumbbell curls with the 5, 5, 5, 2 range and finish with hammer curls as a secondary motion, 3 sets of 12-15 should do it.
On Friday its BIG LEGS and that means big bad squats. You feasibly could do front squats as your compound focus or even smith squats, but back squats is where you can pile on the weight. A squat focus for power may look like this:
- 45 x 20
- 95 x 20
- 135 x 10
- 185 x 8
- 225 x 6
- 275 x 4
- 315 x 5
- 365 x 5
- 405 x 5 - Failure or close.
- 455 x 2 - Failure or close.
Next, I would do Romanian deadlifts for hamstrings and finish with 3 sets x 5. Then do a few sets to failure on leg extensions and leg curls and finish with 3-4 sets of hack squats or leg presses. And for calves maybe 5 sets of toe presses on the leg press x 10.
That takes care of the power weeks. Now on week 2, the goal is INTENSITY. Without getting too specific, a good rule of thumb is to squeeze as many sets as possible into an hour without burning out too much. I try and keep the reps in the 10-15 range for upper body and 10-20 for legs. I utilize super sets, drop sets, static contraction and I even have been incorporating FST-7 into the mix for sick pumps! Hit the muscles from different angles, shorten your rest periods and focus on getting some deep failure sets and an insane pump but don’t allow the clock to go past an hour.
I’ve made the best gains of my life doing a NLP style of training; it will get you unbelievably strong if you stick to the underlined principles. And that strength will spill over into your intense week which makes you use more weight in the 10 rep range which will stimulate growth. Feel free to split these workouts into a 4 or 5 day split to really blast each body part, but try to space out deadlifts from squats as your legs and lower back may take too much of a beating! Good luck, and get ready for some serious gains!
Ask Joe the Pro
If you had to rate each body part on you, how would you do so? What are your strengths and weaknesses? – Tim S.
OK, this can be fun. Let's do it body part by body part. This is how I see it at least:
1 - Back. Hands down my best body part. I have a naturally wide shoulder girdle so this allows me to add more mass per square inch then someone who is naturally narrow. I have a wide back with full, thick lats. When I’m in contest shape, I have extreme detail back there with knots, striations and separation throughout my back. My xmas tree gets extremely detailed when I'm dialed in, and my traps from the rear and the side are very developed. I feel I could use more traps to the frontal view.
2 - Chest. A very close second is my chest. I learned at a very early training age to focus heavily on incline motions, and it’s helped me a lot with having a full chest from the front, especially up high under the neck. I have very wide pecs, so once I started to really fulfill their potential, they filled out; it showed how my wide structure played to my advantage. I have very full, detailed pecs when I'm contest ready. Because I have a long torso, I have to angle myself more towards the front when doing a side chest, otherwise it makes my pecs appear very short. My inner chest gets very striated once I get to about 8 percent body fat. I always look to increase the upper/inner portion of the chest, as I feel NOBODY ever fulfills their potential in that area.
3 - Shoulders. I feel I have a weird structure to my delts. I am naturally wide so that already helps with the appearance of my width to the front, but my front delts are so overwhelmingly overdeveloped that I am very hesitant to do direct work for them. On intense weeks I barely do any. But on the other hand, if you have a strength, EXPLOIT IT! In the last few years I have really focused on the medial and posterior delts with a fury. I am very pleased with how the caps on my delts have improved dramatically in front shots, and my rear delts always look very detailed and flow nicely with my traps and upper back area when I do rear double bicep.
4 - Abs. “Holy shit” is all I hear whenever I’m 4 to 5 weeks out, and I show someone my abs, lol. I have extremely thick rows of abs that get sickly separated in the middle. I do need to develop my lower abs better, as I feel the top two rows are very dominant. My serratus on the right side gets insanely detailed. The left side looks good but not as insane as the right, lol. Weird, right? I have a long torso which can detract from the aesthetic quality of a physique, but I don’t think it’s a huge hindrance.
5 - Arms. I’ve had to work pretty hard to get my arms to match my delts and chest, but my biceps are there now. I get very knotted biceps with a good “in between look” when I’m shredded. What I mean is, my biceps don’t look crazy peaked like - let's say - Ronnie Coleman’s biceps, nor do they run all the way down to my forearms like the “Myth” Sergio Olivia’s. But I get a decent in between look with good thickness and very nice separation in the lower head of the bi’s. My triceps look pretty thick when I do a side triceps pose, but I need more outer thickness and mass that show in a side chest shot or front double biceps.
6 - Legs. This is where I need the most work. I tore both of my quad tendons back in December of 2008, and It has been a long road back. But I’ve managed to rebuild them, and I’m still training like an animal to improve them more. My quads get very separated and even striated. I have good tear drop development and the overall sweeps in my quads are good. My upper thighs are very thick and if I can add even more overall mass to my lower body I will be VERY happy. My hamstrings have gotten a lot better. I now do hamstrings completely on their own day and I blast them from many different angles and rep ranges. I have never gotten my hams insanely stripped, but I am aiming for it this time around. My glutes are a very strong point for me when I’m shredded. Having shredded glutes is no easy task. But back in 2006 I had them! To see myself in a rear double biceps and having striations all over my glutes was an awesome feeling! I will have to kill the stepmill this pre-contest to dial them in! My calves are tiny, lol. Both of my parents have tiny little calves that are very high and we all have skinny ankles. I can say though when I’m shredded, my soleus gets extremely ripped up and my calves get a nice diamond hard shape to them.
Joe, I read you used to be a Mike Mentzer advocate. Is this true? What made you branch away from his teachings? - J Merrick, London, England
Ahhhh, the late great Mike Mentzer. Part madman, part scientist and part philosopher. Mike was a very eccentric character. I first started reading about Mike and his articles in Flex magazine back in the 90’s. Train hard and train brief was what he preached back then. It wasn’t until I worked at Musclemag International that I bought his first book: “Heavy Duty”. I was very impressed with how logically Mike broke down the simplicity of muscle growth. He usually compared triggering growth with turning on a light switch. “Once the switch is on you don’t have to keep flipping it”. That was one of many crazy analogies Mike made, lol. Basically, he was saying ...do one set to failure and then move on.
I made decent strength gains using Mike’s techniques, and I even took my new Heavy Duty philosophy a step further by getting Heavy Duty 2, a Mind and Body. I eventually moved to a one on, two off routine, using about 70% machines because - well - that’s what Mike said worked better, lol. I got big, fat and strong on that routine. Reading deeper into the book and then later into Mike's articles on his site, he was recommending CRAZY frequency like train ONCE EVERY TEN days. WTF?
One guy wrote in a letter stating that he loved Mike so much and his training philosophies that he “evolved” his training into once a month. LOL. IFBB Pros Dorian Yates and Mark Dugdale adopted their own version of Heavy Duty, and Mike still has a lot of followers even after he and his brother Ray passed away. Mike looked unbelievable at the 1980 Mr Olympia, and some say he was never the same after his controversial 5th place. My own training has evolved into what it is today because I realize that muscles need change in order for progress to remain linear. Sometimes it’s OK to do more then one set to failure on an exercise, and sometimes it’s OK to train 4 or 5 days in a row! Lol, sorry Mike.
Do you remember that show on ESPN called American Muscle? Did you use to watch it? - G. Delebate, NY
Watch it? LoL That show was one of the reasons why I got into bodybuilding. It was simply AMAZING if you were a bodybuilder or into working out and eating right. They had contest coverage that included the 1991 USA where Mike Matarazzo beat out Flex Wheeler for a pro card. They also had workouts with various pros. One of which that sticks in my mind was Dorian Yates doing back after he won his first title in 1992.
I also remember them showing the overall at the 1992 teenage nationals. The light heavyweight winner was a kid who was thickly built for someone under 20, his name was Branch Warren. The heavyweight winner had ENORMOUS legs and his name was Jay Cutler. It was the harder, more symmetrical Branch Warren that took home the Overall title on that faithful day. I also remember John Romano doing cooking shows giving the viewers high protein ideas for pre-contest dieting. They also had experts that would give supplement reviews on the latest and greatest product that was out at the time (back then 90% of it was TwinLab).
The show used to air at weird hours like one in the morning. So I would wake up, tape and watch it, and go back to bed on a Thursday night. Sometimes they also aired the best of American Muscle which was an hour long. I really wish I could get my hands on these shows, as it remains one of the most nostalgic times of my life.