In bodybuilding, powerlifting, and just about every other iron sport, following a predetermined “program” is all the rage. So much so that other lifters might look at you sideways if you don't have the next month's workouts planned out on a spreadsheet!
Periodized training – programming separated into different phases with different goals – has long been used by successful lifters, but now it's seen as a must, even for novices.
Is all of this planning and periodization really required? Is it necessary for you to achieve your strength and physique goals? Personally, I'd have to say no! Effort is the greatest determinant of your training success, and proper programming is the icing on the cake.
That said, why shouldn't you get the best of both worlds? A properly periodized program can help you avoid burnout, prevent injury and make greater gains in less time. Combine that with the effort you should be applying to any routine, and you'll get the greatest progress possible! You don't necessarily need to follow any one plan to the letter, but I do recommend the following guidelines for changing the way you train over time.
Intensity vs. Volume
To periodize your workouts on a weekly, monthly or even yearly basis, you've got to understand the two main sources of training stress: intensity and volume. The “true” definition of intensity – the one that powerlifters and other strength athletes usually use – is simply the percentage of your max that you're working with on a given lift. Say your best squat is 500 pounds and you're hitting 400 pounds for reps during a workout – your intensity would be 80 percent.
Still, when bodybuilders talk “intensity,” they're usually referring subjectively to the level of effort they're putting forth. Warm-up sets are done with pretty low intensity, while working sets taken to near failure are performed with high intensity. Drop-sets, supersets and other extended sets are even more “intense,” regardless of the weight or rep range.
Volume, on the other hand, refers to the total amount of work performed during a session, and there are a variety of ways to quantify it. Some lifters just look at the total number of work sets performed, others look at the number of reps done at a certain intensity, and others still will calculate the total tonnage lifted (Sets x Reps x Weight).
As you've probably found out on your own, intensity and volume tend to be inversely proportional. You're not going to be able to do as many sets if you're grinding them out to near-failure sets with super-heavy weights, and you're not going to be able to use those heavy weights if you want to do a marathon workout. Still, this is all relative! As you train more and improve your work capacity, you'll be able to do more of both during any given workout.
How Heavy Should You Lift?
In my opinion, intensity – how heavy or how hard you're lifting – should always be pretty high. You're not going to get much stronger lifting weights under 75 or 80 percent of your max, and you're not going to induce muscle growth without at least a few gut-busting sets per workout.
Still, you can't go balls-to-the-wall all the time, and you'll eventually need to take short breaks from the heavy weights and grueling sets. I also think it's damn near useless to lift weights above about 90 percent of your max, unless you're doing something like peaking for a powerlifting meet. When your goal is just to build size and strength, the 4-6 rep range and above is where it's at!
The other big consideration you'll need to make is how close you get to failure. If you're trying to get in a lot of volume (a lot of work sets), you can't afford to make every set an all-out effort. If you're just hitting one or two sets and calling it a day, however, give it all you've got!
Cycling Your Volume
Now we come to training volume – probably the most important factor for both results and recovery. Doing more work with heavy weights will make you bigger and stronger than doing less work, but the more you do, the harder it is to recover! This is the main reason you'll need periods of lower volume and relatively higher intensity.
If you're training generally for strength and size (you're not an advanced bodybuilder or strength athlete), most of your workouts should be the basic, compound exercises performed with weights between 70 and 90 percent of your max. Since volume is so important for long-term results, you'll also want to increase your workload with sets where you leave a rep or two in the tank! It's fine to get closer to failure on your final sets, but a greater overall workload is generally better than blowing a gasket on one or two grinders.
Still, high volume training will eventually take a toll on your muscles, nervous system and perhaps even your joints and connective tissues. When that happens, it's time to take two to three weeks to lower the volume. Unless you're really beat up, though, you don't have to lift light during this time! Get in, hit a couple of super-hard work sets, maybe do a few sets of some isolation work, and get out. You might even set some personal records during this time, and the lower volume will still be letting your body recover.