What are you planning to do for the next four weeks in the gym? Follow these 7 steps and you’ll have your most successful month ever.
In sport science circles, a month of training (give or take) is known as a mesocycle. Here are the tools you’ll need to construct your own training mesocycles that will reliably deliver maximum results.
In order to know which tools you’ll need to put together that IKEA filing cabinet, you’ll need to know if you’re dealing with screws, nuts and bolts, or maybe nails. Training works much the same way.
Are you trying to add mass? Or maybe you’re working toward the coveted “3-4-5” status – a 300 pound bench, 400 squat, and 500 deadlift. Your training objective dictates both your training methods (intensity and rep brackets) as well as things like exercise selection. Let’s break it down for both strength and size, which are the most common goals.
- Key Training Objective: High muscular tension
- Intensity: 85% to 100% 1RM
- Typical reps per set: 1-4
- Execution: Accelerative/explosive
- When push comes to shove: Prioritize bar weight over reps
- Exercise Menu: Mostly compound barbell movements that include and/or are similar to the lifts you’re trying to get stronger in.
Note: Since you’ll be using relatively high training intensities, you’ll need more warm-up sets and more rest between sets. This means you’ll perform fewer exercises per session than you’ll use for hypertrophy training.
- Key Training Objective: High training volume
- Intensity: 60% to 85% 1RM
- Execution: Slower, more deliberate tempos, especially on the eccentric or negative phase.
- When push comes to shove: Prioritize reps/volume over bar weight
- Typical reps per set: 6-25, with 8-12 being the “sweet spot” most of the time
- Exercise Menu: Barbell, dumbbell, cable, and/or bodyweight drills. Variety and novelty are key. Unfamiliar movements and execution methods should be prioritized.
Once you’ve picked a goal for your mesocycle, stay with that goal for the whole month. Avoid techniques and activities that don’t support – or even worse, that conflict with – this goal. This means no high-rep “finisher” sets during a strength cycle, and no 1RM testing during hypertrophy phases. There are two reasons for this:
- Your body will adapt faster and more successfully if you focus on one training goal at a time.
- You’ll have more contrast between cycles by training exclusively for one goal at a time. This contrast is a form of novelty that will re-ignite new gains over time.
How many days a week should you train? Should you do bro splits, push/pull, or whole-body? The answer to these questions comes down to how strong you are. If you haven’t yet reached the 3-4-5 level mentioned earlier, you’ll be better served with whole body workouts. That means using exercises for both upper and lower body every workout.
Train 3-4 times per week, using between 2-3 exercises for upper body, and 2-3 exercises for lower body each session. Here’s an example of what that might look like:
|High Bar Squat
|Flat Dumbbell Press
|Barbell Military Press
|Weighted Back Extension
|Low Cable Row
|Lying Triceps Extension
If, on the other hand, you have reached 3-4-5 status, it’s time to step up to an upper/lower split, meaning 4 sessions per week, where you train upper body twice and lower body twice each week. Example:
|High Bar Squat
|Incline Dumbbell Bench
|Low Cable Row
|Low Cable Curl
Finally, if you’re really strong, meaning you weigh well over 250 pounds, squat over 700, bench over 400, etc., you might be better off using the “bro-split.” There are actually a few different versions of this, but typically they all have you training each muscle group roughly once per week. Here’s an example:
This works great if you’re so big and strong that a back workout literally takes you 5-7 days to recover from because you’re doing stuff like bent-over rows with 405 for sets of 8. But the weaker you are, the faster you recover (yes, even if you’re working your nuts off), and therefore, the more frequently each muscle needs to be re-stimulated with a new training bout.
Now that you’ve picked a training goal and a good weekly split, it’s time to take this baby on the road. Specifically, here’s what the first week should look and feel like.
Since you’re (presumably) using a new exercise menu and perhaps a new training goal, the novelty of this new cycle by itself significantly contributes to the training effect. That means you don’t need to work super hard during week one.
Also, you’ll need some room to progress over weeks two and three. An analogy I like to use is the idea of bashing through a locked door. You’ll have more success if you take a few steps back and charge the door than if you position yourself right up against it and start pushing.
Another reason it’s not a great idea to go balls-out when you start a new mesocycle is that you’re probably using at least a few new or unfamiliar exercises or techniques, and you can’t be completely sure how your body might respond to them.
So as a rough guide, on week one, the last work set of each exercise should be 2-3 reps away from technical failure (on week 2, 1-2 reps away, and week 3, 0-1 rep away). If this feels too easy, good! Trust me, weeks 2 and 3 will more than make up for it.
On week one, you already tested the water. Now it’s time to jump in. You’ll likely be a bit sore from last week, and if so, that’s a great sign because it indicates that your body is responding to that first week with heightened homeostatic changes.
During this second week, your sole objective is to better your performances from the previous week. Here’s what I mean by “better”:
If you’ve been training for hypertrophy, you’re looking to add weight, reps, and/or sets, but the main thing you should be improving upon is the total number of fatiguing sets for each exercise, again, taken 1-2 reps away from failure for this week.
Sure, add weight if you can, but if your back’s against the wall, use the same weight but add an additional set or two. Volume is job number one when you’re training for mass.
When strength is the goal, you’re really looking for opportunities to increase bar weight wherever possible. Sure, add a rep where you can and maybe even add a set if possible, but not if it negatively impacts bar weight. When strength is the goal, intensity is your mantra, so don’t do anything to sacrifice that.
Week three is the “hell week” of each training mesocycle. During week three, you need to literally train as hard as possible. These will be long workouts, so don’t make any social plans.
If you’re training for hypertrophy, you’ll do as many fatiguing sets (meaning right up to failure) as you can tolerate for each exercise. There’s no way you can hit 225 for another set of 8? That’s fine, lower the weight to 205 and you should still manage 7 or 8 reps.
If strength is the goal, then you’re looking for new PR’s in the 1-3 rep range. These PR’s are extra-meaningful, because at this stage of the game they’ve been accomplished in the presence of high fatigue levels. Once you’re fully recovered, you’ll be even stronger.
If you never need to de-load, you’re not working as hard as you should be. That said, we often can’t (or won’t) work hard enough to benefit from a regular de-load week.
If you’re feeling totally messed up after three weeks of hard training, you’ve earned yourself a break, but that doesn’t mean a week off, nor does it mean you can lift super-light, either.
Instead, your reward comes in the form of less volume. In other words, between 20-30% of the volume you used during week three. This typically means to do fewer sets. Don’t get too excited though. I want you lifting just as heavy as you did in week three, or as close to that as you can manage.
By reducing volume, though, you’ll enhance recovery. By maintaining intensity, you’ll maintain the adaptations you stimulated over the previous three weeks. Win-win, baby!
As a final point about de-loading, you should selectively target your de-load strategy according to muscle groups and movements: De-load more aggressively on “big” muscles/movements (deads, squats, etc.), but don’t reduce your volume quite as much for exercises for arms, delts, and calves.
After you’ve completed this mesocycle, you’ll need to decide what to do for your next training cycle. The answers can be found by identifying your current weaknesses. Although I advocate training for both strength and hypertrophy in a sequential fashion, that doesn’t mean these two adaptations should be trained in a 1:1 ratio.
If you’re fairly strong but under-muscled, train strength and hypertrophy in a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio. If you’re well-developed but need more strength, reverse that strategy.
Note: If you do two successive mesocycles for the same goal, still try to change your loading parameters as much as you can. So if you follow one hypertrophy cycle with another one for that same purpose, create a new exercise menu and change your loading to some degree, perhaps sets of 12 if you did sets of 8 last time.