How to cycle your training for bodybuilding
I'd better admit up front that this week's topic isn't that sexy, but it is something you really need to understand in order to build your dream physique as quickly as possible, so make sure you do read this.
It's about how to cycle your routines for maximum success. Not getting this right is why most people fail in their quests to build their bodies up. I hear so many of my work colleagues talking about what they get up to in the gym, and if their level of knowledge is a guide to the general ignorance out there, it's a wonder that anyone ever makes any progress at all.
So what is cycling and why is it so important?
Essentially it's all about planning. So many people I've spoken to don't even know what they'll be doing right up until they reach the gym, which is crazy. (The excuse I often hear is "I don't know which machines will be free, so there's no point in planning anything.")
In theory, weight training is simple, if not easy. You choose the exercises you're going to do, then each workout you make small poundage increases on every lift. You rest and eat well, and you just get bigger and bigger and bigger.....
Of course, life isn't like that, but why isn't it?
For a start, most of us don't have the mental capacity to add weight to the bar week after week after week. It would be great if we could just keep training, but you've got to be mentally very tough to do this, because you'll be lifting personal bests every week. Eventually you'll get to a stage where you dread every workout.
Then there's the physical difficulty. You'll be pounding your joints into dust week in week out, and eventually you may well injure yourself. When you're at that stage weight training is no longer an enjoyable experience, which I believe it should be. Eventually you'll be mentally and physically wiped out, and you may give up the iron altogether, which would be a disaster.
We want to be able to train productively, without getting injured or pounding our joints into the ground, to make maximum muscle gains, while keeping physically and mentally fresh. This will set you up for years of productive training.
That's why we cycle our training. Here's how it's done.
Say your goal is to gain 10lb of muscle. You can probably gain one pound a week if you eat right, train hard and get enough rest, maybe two pounds.
You could do this in say twelve weeks. You have to be a bit flexible here, because it's hard to be totally precise about this. Also bear in mind that in order to gain ten pounds of muscle, you'll almost certainly have to gain some fat as well, unless you have unbelievable genetics. You might even gain as much as 4-5 lb of fat. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! So you may have to gain 14lb total bodyweight in order to gain 10lb muscle.
Your next cycle might be to strip off some of the fat that you added as you were gaining your 10lb muscle.
As you go through the cycle weigh yourself say once a 14 days, you don't want to get too obsessive here, but you need to check every so often, so you can keep on track. Then if your weight's the same from one week to the next, you can add a couple of hundred calories to your diet. The point is if you don't monitor your progress until the end of the cycle you won't be in a position to change anything as it'll be too late.
As regards training, don't be in a hurry to add weight to the bar - if you add too much weight and fail to complete the set, you can lose momentum in the cycle.
Now, say that you reach the end of the cycle, and that you gained your 10lb muscle. What do you do next? If your still feeling good, and still able to add weight to the bar, and still keeping your form tight, I'd suggest you keep going, and try to milk the cycle dry.
By now you'll be lifting right on your limits, and you might be able to prolong the cycle by cutting one or more smaller exercises out of the routine, this will give you more reserves to call on. You might also cut your cardio exercise back for the same reason.
If you're dreading workouts, and feeling tired during workouts, I'd stop the cycle and cut your losses, or you might start going backwards. Take a week or two off (not more than 2) and plan your next cycle.
Work out what went wrong, and what went right. Make any adjustments for your next cycle.
You'll also need to be able to work out your body mass, or fat percentage. The most accurate way to do this is with skin callipers, but these take practise to use accurately. Nowadays you can get scales that calculate your body fat levels, by passing an electric current through you. (Don't worry, it's quite safe unless you're wearing a pacemaker.)
When you weigh in make sure it's the always at the same time of day. Apparently you get the most accurate results between 5 - 7pm at night. Body weight and fat percentage can vary throughout the day, so the main thing here is to be consistent as to when you weigh yourself.
My suggestion is to focus on building muscle until your fat level goes above 15%. It's probably healthier as well. Say your goal is to add 10lb muscle. If you started the cycle at a weight of 170lb, with body fat percentage of 15, your lean body mass would be 144.5lb.
Imagine you gained 15lb weight, which would put you at 185lb, and imagine that you added 10lb muscle and 5lb is fat. Your lean body mass would now be 154.4lb, but your fat percentage would now be 16.5%, so you might then focus on losing some of the fat you gained while hanging onto the 10lb muscle.
This is why it's important to crunch the numbers. I hope this makes sense. The unfortunate name given to losing the fat is known as "cutting". About 10 years back I switched from training four times a week (and getting nowhere) to twice a week, and started making great gains. I was lifting heavier each week, and it felt good.
I didn't check my bodyweight or fat percentage at all during that time. After about 4 months, I checked my measurements, and I'd got bigger all over my body. I was certainly stronger, but I was also a lot bigger round the waist. When I checked my body fat level I was horrified to see it at 25%!
Learn from my mistakes. Keep an eye on your fat levels.
Another type of goal could be to add a certain amount to a lift. You might want to add 10lb to your best squat weight. Again, this might take say 12 weeks, depending on your conditioning when you start the new cycle. If you're coming off a long layoff (not recommended, but life gets in the way sometimes), it will take longer because you'll have to start off at much lower weights as you build your conditioning up.
Unfortunately you can't rush this, especially as you get older - I speak from experience. If you start trying to do too much too soon you'll wear yourself out, and worst of all you might even get injured, so don't do it.
Lets assume you're in good shape and starting a new cycle as above. You might start say 10lb below your best weight. You could add 5lb in the second week of the cycle, which would make you 5lb below your previous best. Week 3 you might equal your previous best. Week 4, try adding just one measly pound to the bar - yes, just one pound.
The beauty of this is it's very close to what you've experienced before, so you should make your target sets and reps. Week 4, add another measly pound. Keep adding one pound a week until you're 10lb past your previous best, and you've achieved your goal. The cycle length in this case would be 13 weeks.
I guarantee you that not that many people add 10lb to their best squat each year, but this is how it's done. If you just tool up at the gym, slap another 10lb on the bar and try and hit your previous best lift out of the park, you will fail.
Do you see how this works?
By adding small amounts to the bar your body finds it much easier to adapt to the heavier weight. You reduce the risk of injury as well, because your body's not surprised by the extra resistance it meets, and you'll be able to keep your form tight - a total win - win situation.
So that's a couple of examples of how to cycle your training. I'd suggest taking a week off after six weeks of a cycle, and then carrying on that cycle in week seven. I find cycles of about 12 weeks with a break in the middle works best for me. You may be different, the only way you'll find out is to try it and see.
Well that's me done for another week. I hope it's given you something to think about, and I'll see you next week.
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Bodybuilding Cycle Training