Hopping From One Program To The Next
Everyone needs some sort of program in their training. After all, without a program how do you know what you are doing, where you want to go or what you want to achieve? Without some sort of plan, structure and guidance go completely out the window. As a result, it just becomes difficult to make any kind of weightlifting progress.
For me, a program is important. Without one, I would have absolutely no idea what I would be doing one session from the next. Ok then, so programs are important. So what is the problem? The short answer is: program hopping. Yes, that’s right and it happens way too much in weightlifting. People are always on the look out for the next best thing. If something ceases to work or progress slows down, then it’s time to shop for a whole new program. At the end of this expensive and time-consuming shop, people usually end up following a completely new scheme. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Change is good after all.
I agree, but the crux is most people end up following a new routine with exactly the same drawbacks as their last one! People just don’t notice them. So, the problem starts again. In my experience, I have seen too many people constantly chop and change between different programs only to scratch their head and say: what the heck am I doing wrong? The only answer seems to be: get on a different program.
Fundamentals Are Key
Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of programs that people receive lack the most fundamental weightlifting concepts. This is why most programs don’t work long-term. If you are a weightlifter and you are in this for the long-term, then certain aspects of your program will be so important. I can’t stress this enough.
No matter how tailor-made your program is, how heavily marketed it is or how experienced the person writing it is, if it lacks certain key elements it’s never going to work for you in the long-term. After all, you want long-term gains in size and strength, right? Every program will definitely produce some results. I am not disputing that. After all, doing some work in the gym is better than no work at all. But, there will be a lot of times when you come across plateaus and few schemes will be able to help you optimally break through them. In fact, most schemes themselves will just make the problem even worse for you. I guess the question is: what are some of the things that most training schemes don’t do well in?
“Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of programs that people receive lack the most fundamental weightlifting concepts”.
Most of the time, people are using schemes that are far too linear in nature. Simply put, everything in the training plan is kept the same except one variable. That one variable (usually intensity) is the one you are trying to improve over time. If you are beginner this works, no doubt about it. If you are not and you are looking for long-term gains, it’s only going to cause you a major headache. There is simply no way around it. Yes, you can change the variable around for another variable (such as volume) and keep everything the same, but again, with a linear way of training you will run into the same head banging problems. You can make some results following a linear approach. It is work for your body at the end of the day. But honestly said, it’s only going to cause you more hassle than good. Trust me, it is not something you want in something you love doing so much!
- The potential for long-term size and strength gains is greater with a non linear periodised scheme than a linear periodised scheme.
Another problem that occurs is that people love using the same exercises over and over again. Heck, people perform certain exercises so much that they could perform them with their eyes closed. Really, I can sympathize with you on this one! There are some exercises I love doing and if I absolutely could, I would only ever perform those. The annoying reality is, our body gets accustomed to the same stuff quickly (law of accommodation) and the more you do it, the less effective it becomes over time. A lot of people ask: why have I stalled to a grinding halt on my bench, squat or deadlift? I have taken deloads, I have increased my frequency, increased my calories but the darn weight won’t budge! This is usually because it’s now time to do something else.
What I have found is that for instance, if your flat bench stalls, rotating with similar movements such as closed grip bench, bench with bands, and bench from different pin heights, can be a nice way of kick starting your progress when you return to the good old bench. Rotating exercises play two awesome roles in your routine: strengthening weak points and protecting you from plateaus. There are so many exercises out there with great transferable performance benefits, why would you not take advantage of this?
- The potential for long-term size and strength gains is greater with programs that utilise a high degree of exercise selection.
Size and strength is your goal and therefore you need train for this. Keeping the role of volume and intensity in your program in close check should be a top priority. Lot’s of people tend to work with routines that utilize the same rep ranges continuously. If people want size, they stick with the boring old typical 6-12 rep ranges for all exercises, for all time. The converse is the same, if people want strength they will become fixated and engrossed with the 1-5 rep range, only to never change. The fact is, whatever your goal is: size, strength or both, you need to be getting into the habit of working with both volume and intensity in your routine consistently. But not only this, you need to vary your rep ranges as you become more advanced. Don’t fall into the trap of sticking with the same old 1-5, 6-12 rep ranges. There is plenty of rep ranges to choose from and this should give you more than enough variety to play around with between your training sessions.
If you ask me, building up your strength and size foundation alongside each other really is the best way of preventing one from pulling the other down. Contrary to what most people will tell you, you can’t go indefinitely building up one while neglecting the other. Ok, not everyone want’s to be a super strong monster of a powerlifter, but you still need to build up your strength to get the size gains you want. Similarly, not everyone wants to be a huge jacked bodybuilder, but you still the strength capabilities if you want to optimize your ability to build new muscle tissue. When it comes to long-term size and strength gains, you need to go all in! There really is no such thing as only focusing on size or strength in the long-term. You need to make both your new best friends.
- The potential for long-term size and strength gains is greater when volume and intensity are both utilised in your training program.
Another overlooked area in program design relates to frequency and work capacity. Frequency is a hard one. It’s always difficult convincing some people they don’t need to be in the gym 5/6/7 days per week. This is especially true if they really want to be in the gym that much. When it comes to weightlifting the idea is usually: more is better. Up to a certain point this is definitely true, but eventually too much frequency causes your body to go over the edge. Simply put, you become fatigued, progress slows, motivation drains and injuries creep up. The honest answer is, if you are working hard enough in the gym, making good progress on both your volume and intensity then you shouldn’t have the capacity to go full out 5/6/7 days per week. If you do, let me know! I always wanted to be superman.
When I talk about frequency, I mean frequency in two ways: how many workouts per week and how many times you train each muscle group per week. The optimal training of each muscle group is 2/3 times per week. This allows for an optimal balance between protein synthesis elevation (growth) and recovery. The output being the best gains you can make naturally. If you are still doing a typical split (bodybuilding) routine training each muscle group one time per week, it’s really time for you to change. Full Body, Upper Lower and Push Pull Legs are all some of the routines you could follow to maximize this. They really are more optimal than splits!
- The “top graph” – the potential for long-term size and strength gains is greater when training and recovery in your program is balanced optimally – not too many training or too little training days.
- The “bottom graph” – the potential for long-term size and strength gains is greater when work capacity is high and doesn’t lag behind the work you are doing in the gym.
Also, don’t forget work capacity. Most programs don’t allow people to build up their aerobic endurance as well as they could. Yes, I am aware that you could add in extra cardio sessions (HIT for instance), but as a lifter you want to keep your training as specific as possible, that also applies for your work capacity. I heard a lot of people say: I can do 5 reps of squats. But at 10, I keel over. Other people report that as they increase the intensity, their rest times increase enormously. Other weightlifters after 30 minutes frequently feel like their dead to the ground! If this is the case, then you need to program your training to allow for improvements in your aerobic fitness (work capacity). No, this doesn’t mean extra recovery days; it means having a training day in the week (separate from your normal weightlifting work) where you dedicate to stressing and improving your aerobic fitness system.
I like to do ultra high volume days with VERY light weights (rather than cardio days) because I find the aerobic gains are better transferable to my weight training performance. I really wish more programs would cater for this, as people will always struggle to handle more as they progress if their work capacity is shot to shreds and unable to keep up.
The Better Alternatives?
It’s always important to remember that a program template is just that: a template. How you handle the actual variables will be up to you. The fact is no training template is effective if you can’t optimally handle the training variables. A lot of the time people tend to recommend Full Body, Push-Push-Legs or the Upper-Lower Body type training schemes if you are no longer a beginner and as a more optimal alternative to typical split routines. Full Body I think is the best, but I am still not convinced by Push-Pull-Legs or Upper-Lower Body routines. I am not saying they are worthless or you shouldn’t do them, but here are my observations.
A Typical Push-Pull-Legs Template:
When looking at this Push-Pull-Legs template, I immediately see a few problems. As you can see, with three training days per week, each muscle group is only trained once per week. It therefore suffers the same problems, as you would see in a typical bodybuilder split routine. Each muscle group trained once per week just doesn’t provide the most optimal growth stimulus. Yes, you could increase the frequency from 3 days per week to 4, 5 or 6 but then a few problems arise. In order to work each muscle group twice per week minimum (three would be better for most), you would need to train 6 times per week!
Now, for a new intermediate this might not be an acute problem, but what about when the volume and intensity really starts to increase? Your body is going to find it pretty difficult to recover sufficiently enough to allow this to continue into the long-term. Even if you were to reduce the frequency down to 4/5 training days per week, you still risk not training some muscle groups to the same extent as others. In the long-term this is likely to lead to imbalance and performance issues. While this scheme might seem ok for some weightlifters in the short term, I can see recovery becoming an issue as volume and intensity increases over time. The problem is, with this Push-Pull-Legs method, you would have to increase the frequency to insane levels if you wanted to work each muscle group 2/3 times per week. In comparison to a 3-day full body workout, your CNS here would just get hammered. In my eyes, it just doesn’t outcompete a periodized 3 days Full Body Routine for those post-beginner weightlifters.
- “A” shows a typical typical Push-Pull-Legs scheme above in balance (gains will come if recovery and training (growth) are balanced)
- “B” shows what would happen if the frequency was reduced in the Push-Pull-Legs scheme above. Yes, there would be more potential recovery, but you would no longer be optimally taxing the muscles (in this case now less than the optimal 2/3 times per week) thus growth potential significantly reduces
- “C” shows what would happen if you increase the frequency (say to 6 times per week) of the above Push-Pull-Legs scheme. Yes, you would be taxing each muscle group optimally (now at least 2 times per week), but the potential for recovery is now less (less days to recover from a 6 training day week!). As a result, recovery potential now significantly reduces.
A Typical Upper-Lower Template:
Monday + Wednesday
Tuesday + Friday
This is a typical Upper-Lower body scheme with most people performing it 4 times a week, with two upper body and two lower body sessions. Honestly if you ask me, it definitely is better than a push-pull-legs routine. With 4 sessions per week it’s easier to train each muscle group optimally (2 per week) without comprising your recovery too much. When I look at this template, 4 workouts per week (each muscle group 2x taxed) seems a much better idea than 6 sessions per week just to be able to train each muscle group 2x. Going on frequency alone, an upper/lower body scheme seems to approach this in a much more efficient manner than a push-pull-legs program.
The problem I still have however with this scheme, is that the structure itself is still going to be a considerable hindrance in time. That is, if you are looking for long-term gains. As your volume and intensity increases significantly over time, your recovery time is also going to be greater. This means you either reduce your number of weekly sessions or you replace some sessions with dedicated recovery days: flexibility and mobility sessions, light cardio days or work capacity days. For now, 4x per week is likely not a problem for a lot of new intermediate lifters. They can probably handle it without burning out too much. In the long-term though, is it maintainable? Probably not! If you need more recovery time then the chances are you will have to drop the frequency to 3 days (or maybe even two depending on your level).
The problem is if you do this, you end up only working each muscle group once per week, which is far from optimal for growth. A further problem is that say you drop the frequency from 4 to 3 training days per week. That is going to mean that either your upper or lower muscle groups loose out on a session. This can bring things out of balance and lead to possible performance issues in time. Again, after looking at this potential scheme, I believe that an upper/lower body scheme just cannot outrun a proper periodized 3-day full body scheme if you are looking for long-term size and strength gains.
- “A” shows the current balance of the above upper-lower body scheme. Recovery and growth potential are in balance. 4 training days offers optimal taxing of the muscles and sufficient recovery (assuming your an early intermediate)
- “B” shows what would happen if the frequency needs to be dropped (say from 4 to 3 or 2 training days per week). This would happen as you progress and start using more volume/intensity. The problem is, by reducing the frequency to increase recovery, the growth potential becomes smaller (as some muscle groups are no longer taxed the optimal 2 times per week). Thus growth potential becomes smaller.
- “C” represents what would happen if the frequency is further increased from 4 to 5/6 training days per week. Again, less time for recovery even though muscle taxation is increased (although in this state this would actually be sub-optimal!). As a result, recovery potential becomes smaller.
Full Body: It Wins Everytime
You might think I am little crazy about this whole full body periodization stuff, but that’s because it works. It really does! The advantage of full body schemes is that they seem to avoid most of the problems other routines suffer from. If you compare a 3-day Full Body scheme with that of Upper/Lower and Push-Pull Leg schemes, you can quickly see why full body is superior. With a 3 day Full Body scheme, you can better achieve an optimal balance between growth and recovery. It’s great that you can work each muscle group 3 times per week for optimal growth, but still have sufficient days in the week to recover.
“The advantage of full body schemes is that they seem to avoid most of the problems other routines suffer from”. Unlike Upper/Lower and Push-Push Leg schemes, you don’t have to increase the frequency to 4/5/6 day weekly training sessions in a full body scheme to achieve this optimal balance between muscle growth and recovery. What you also find is that as you progress through your weightlifting career and use more volume and intensity, your body will need more recovery time. In a 3-day full body workout, you can drop down the frequency to two days per week (if you need to) and still not jeopardize your gains for optimal growth. This is because you are still able to tax each muscle group 2 times per week. If you wanted, you could also replace this third session with a dedicated accessory work, flexibility and mobility or, work capacity day. This only serves to further enhance your dedicated volume and intensity days.
If someone asked me: what should I do for long-term gains, 3-day full body, upper/lower or push-pull-legs? I will always say, full body. Why? It simply puts you in the most optimal position to make gains over the long-term. With a periodized full body scheme, this whole program hopping becomes a thing of the past! Yes, you can do an upper/lower or push-pull-legs routine and in the short-term, it will work. You will get results. But, when it comes to managing recovery more carefully as you progress, you will quickly feel hindered by these schemes.
As you advance and start using more volume and higher intensities to push your progress even further, you will need more recovery time. On an upper/lower and push-pull-legs scheme, it’s always going to be difficult getting this extra recovery time in without changes in frequency negatively affecting your ability to optimally stimulate each muscle for maximum growth. Full body workouts are great because they offer plenty of room for adjustment without affecting your ability to optimize growth and recovery. It also means that you won’t need to keep hopping between short-term programs.
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below.How does your current scheme look like? Do you feel like you are missing some of the fundamental elements? Let me know!