If you’ve already banked years of muscle gains, you know that changing your routine equals more improvements. What you don’t know is that you could be making mistakes that are stopping you from achieving even more.
Mistake 1: You’re Not Deloading
If the only deloading you do is to your car after a trip to the mall, you’re in trouble. This is the process of lowering the volume and intensity of your training for a week at a time, usually every 4-8 weeks, to break up otherwise hard training. As you perform sufficiently hard training to stimulate gains, that training necessarily comes with the side effect of fatigue, and fatigue accumulates over the weeks to eventually get to levels that interfere both with the results of training and with its safety. Deloading allows for that fatigue to decrease so that another phase of stimulation-based training can commence and produce gains. The problem is, many lifters seeking strength and size simply don’t deload. They might take a week off completely when they feel very burnt out, or they might take a few workouts easy, but they never do a full week of intentionally easier training. Such a full week seems likely to offer the advantages of as much or even more fatigue reduction as taking it completely off, but conserves more adaptations and therefore makes you better in the long run. Deloading is common practice in the most intelligently designed training programs, and you would be wise to incorporate it into yours as well.
Mistake 2: Strength Periodization to Hypertrophy
There is no one-size periodization to fit all outcomes. For example, the periodization required to maximize strength is not the same as that required to maximize muscle size. Specifically, strength periodization usually sees volumes decline as intensities rise over the course of multiple mesocycles, ending in a peak ability to lift the highest one rep max possible. Hypertrophy periodization, on the other hand, increases volume incrementally over the course of multiple mesocycles, with average intensity per unit of volume often declining during that time. Because strength periodization is better researched and historically practiced, many lifters primarily interested in hypertrophy will run it for their muscle growth training. This leads to suboptimal outcomes in muscle size over the long term compared to using a periodization model that actually fits the demands of optimizing hypertrophy.
Mistake 3: Too Frequent Exercise Rotation
What’s the benefit of doing different exercises for the same muscle groups every week? It prevents boredom! What are the costs? It makes training progress very difficult to track, disrupts the “directed adaptation” momentum of training gains, and makes choosing the appropriate volumes and intensities to create long-term progress very difficult. Once you have chosen the exercises for your muscle gain or strength training plan, you should probably stick to them for at least a single mesocycle (4-8 weeks), and often several mesocycles. Only if an exercise causes you pain (not normal pain from training, but pain indicating an injury) or you stop making progress on it entirely should you definitely rotate it out and rotate in another exercise to take its place. Otherwise, consistency is a good thing, and while you’re making slow and steady gains in reps and/or weight on a given exercise, keep it in and keep milking those gains for as long as you can.
Mistake 4: Avoiding Linearity
Periodization approaches like the conjugate method have been popularized enough, or rather, in such a way, as to make many lifters think that “periodization” means you don’t just add weight or reps or sets, but you do very non-linear things that essentially make your training plan look very complicated. For example, you might do different rep ranges every session, or different exercises, or both. Now, there is a time and a place for complication, but the underlying path from one week to the next, needs to be up. More weight, more sets, more reps, more something. There’s no amount of non-linear training manipulation that should take you away from the fundamental feature of training programming and periodization, which is, over time, that you must always aim to do more. Some lifters get so caught up in the small-scale manipulations that they forget to steer their programs into the direction of improvement. This, by the way, is the whole point of programming and periodization to begin with.
Mistake 5: Not Taking Low Volume Phases
Higher volume training sure as heck works to grow muscle. However, even with proper deload implementation, chronic high-volume training can make muscles incrementally more resistant to further muscle growth. It can also increase the chances of injury, by giving connective tissues insufficient time to catch their recovery up to the more rapidly recovering muscular tissues. On occasion, perhaps every 4-6 months or so, the advanced lifter is well served by taking either a two-week active rest phase or a one-month low-volume maintenance phase to heal all connective tissues and re-sensitize the muscles to hypertrophy training. An active rest phase is very easy in its demands on your body, essentially asking you to hit the gym perhaps only twice a week for 30 minutes at a time for very light, very low-volume training. The maintenance phase demands heavy training, but the total number of working sets per session is cut essentially to one third of your normal amount. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but either one works for most advanced lifters, and using such phases almost inoculates the lifter against plateaus, because it refreshes them to keep robustly adapting to the imposed demands of training instead of succumbing to staleness.
Mistake 6: Integrating Power Training
Most lifters don’t actually train for power. Power is the ability to produce force rapidly, like when you jump onto a high box, for example. Most lifters care either about strength, about muscle size, or some combination of the two. However, too many periodization and programming schemes integrate power and sometimes speed training. This detracts from the program’s muscle growth and strength enhancement benefits, and improves the quality of power, which is something most lifters don’t want anyway. Program authors may sell power training as a way to enhance muscle size and strength (it’s not), or don’t even need to sell it, because credulous lifters will want to try most anything that’s different out of sheer boredom or the allure of the new and unique. Instead of doing plyometric box push-ups, do more regular weighted push-ups, and you’ll get more of the muscle size and strength you actually care about, and spend less precious adaptive resources (and, let’s not forget, time) getting more of the power and speed you’re not overly excited about.
EXPERT: Dr. Mike Israetel is the Team USA Weightlifting Consultant co-founder and chief sport scientist at Renaissance Periodization (www.renaissanceperiodization.com)