My biggest mistake in resistance training was following the golden rule of progressive overload too rigidly.
For a beginner lifter, progressive overload is like the gospel truth, and for good reason--the foundation of resistance training and improving any skill is reaching new heights. Beginners can handle constant progressive overload because their untrained bodies are as adaptable as Play-Doh. But for intermediates, rigid focus on progressive overload can dim another crucial aspect of training: rest. This is what happened to me.
For four years, I have tried to go harder every time I train--by adding weight, sets, or reps. But the body isn't meant to be stretched more every session like some abused rubber band. Recently, I have been paying for it by stagnating in the gym.
I knew there had to be a more sustainable way to train, so I did some research and found my answer: periodization.
Periodization is the systemic organizing and planning of your resistance training into cycles, which include microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles with distinct goals, training variables, and methodologies.
Most importantly, periodization has periods of rest.
Instead of progressively overloading each workout, I progressively overload over a mesocycle. Once enough of my muscles reach Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) and start stagnating workout to workout, I take a weeklong deload. After incorporating periodization into my resistance training, I'm seeing improvements again. Words can't describe how much this means to me; for the last two years, I have seen minimal improvement in the gym. Now, I'm reigniting my passion for resistance training.
In this article, I will give you a broad-level overview of how periodization works so you can learn to do the same. If you want an in-depth guide to how it works, I recommend Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training (Renaissance Periodization Book 1)
How To Do Periodization In Depth
Let's start by discussing what microcycles, mesosycles, and macrocycles are like.
To do so, I want you to think about how your work week is cadenced.
If you work a traditional job, you likely work throughout the week, have a weekend for rest, and take a more extended vacation for a week or two a few times throughout the year. Why should your resistance training be any different? Your microcycles are a single week of training in the gym--like a single work week for your job. Your mesocycles are a combination of 4-8 microcycles--or about a month or two of your job's. They include a weeklong deload at the end, which you can think of as a short vacation. You could take four days to play Balder's Gate 3 and cook with friends; my kind of grand time. Finally, your macrocycles are made up of 2-4 mesocycles--about a quarter or two of your job. And they end with a much longer 2-4 week period of extended rest, like the longer weeklong or more vacations you take throughout the year.
In essence, periodization works so well because it follows the same principles of work and rest you use in other areas of your life.
Now let's curl how to do a microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle more in-depth. I'm going to assume you are an intermediate lifter like I am (been consistently in the gym for 2-7 years) and not a beginner--because beginners don't have to worry as much about periodization--or an advanced lifter--because advanced lifters have to do more weird shit to keep gaining muscle.
Great, and AWWWwwwAAAaaaAYYyY we go!
Creating Your Resistance Training Plan For Periodization
To create your resistance training plan for periodization, you must first define your goal.
Why? Cause if your goal is to build your quads, and you're doing overhead press, you're in for disappointment. So, are you training for hypertrophy, strength, muscular endurance, power, or something else? How many days of the week and when can you train? If I tried to explain how to set up a training program for each of these, this article would be longer than the line at my gym in January. Instead, I'm assuming you're training mostly for hypertrophy like me so you can look like Jayce Tallice from Arcane (If you know you know).
Once you have answered these questions, you must choose or create a split to follow that works with your goals. The most common are full body, bro split, upper lower--my preferred split--and push, pull, legs. There are plenty of great articles online on how to do this like this one from AtleanX.
After you have fleshed out a split with exercises you enjoy and built muscle in the past, you're ready to start your first mesocycle. During the first microcycle of your mesocycle, your goal is to set a baseline weight, sets, and reps that you can do at around three reps in reserve (RER) for each exercise. I recommend recording your findings in a fitness app like JFIT for reference during each workout session.
Here's where the fun part begins.
Now that you have your baseline numbers, your goal is to overload for each subsequent workout session. Try to add weight, sets, or reps from workout to workout. The more weeks that go by, the closer you should go to failure on every lift. Start your mesocycles at around 3 RER and slowly progress to 2 and then 1 at the end of your mesocycle (You might consider going less to failure on compound lifts with high risk of injury like Deadlift).
At some point during this process, your fatigue will be crazy, and you won't be able to beat your prior performance on a lift. The solution is to do a recovery session for that specific muscle:
- Finish the session strong
- In the next session for that muscle, do 1/2 the planned sets, 1/2 the planned reps, and 1/2 the planned weight
- Resume the sessions in the next session at 2/3 the planned sets (but keep going up as you were in weight and/or reps)
- Add weight, reps, and sets from there as you normally would
You need recovery sessions for specific muscles because different muscles recover or fatigue faster than others depending on the person. For me, chest is my worst body part--you can cry for me now. After just 2-3 weeks in a mesocycle, my chest is already gasping for rest, so I have to give it a recovery session even while other muscle groups, like my back, are progressing like crazy.
However, at some point--usually 4-8 weeks--multiple muscles will need recovery sessions; it's time for a deload. At this point, for the whole week:
- First half of the week, do 1/2 planned sets, 1/2 planned reps, and 100% of last week's weight
- Last half of week at 1/2 sets, 1/2 reps, and 1/2 weight
Congratulations, once you do the deload, you've completed a full mesocycle!
Hopefully, you will make some great progress on your lifts, gain some muscle, and be 5% closer to looking like Jayce Tallice. Now, you're ready for another mesocycle.
Repeat the entire process of finding your baseline, slowly building up, and deloading again. Do this 2-4 times and you will reach such a high level of systemic fatigue you will be TOAST. You need a longer maintenance block to recover. You have two options for how to structure this block:
Option 1: Low-Volume Maintenance Phase:
- 3-4 weeks
- Only sets of 5-10
- Only 2x per muscle per week
- 1/3 total weekly sets vs. whatever you ended meso 2 of the last block on
- A deload at the end
Option 2: Active Rest Phase
- 2-3 weeks of almost no lifting
- Just having fun, sleeping a lot, eating, and enjoying life
- 2x session in the gym per week max, less than 50% normal weight, reps, sets, and 10 reps in reserve max
Once you have taken this maintenance block, you're ready for another macrocycle of progressive overloading!
Exercise rotation is the only other aspect you must consider in your resistance training periodization. Your body is an adaptation machine. Inevitably, there will come a point in which you don't progress on an exercise, even if the muscle it's targeting isn't that fatigued. Depending on the exercise, this might happen after a few weeks or even a few years. So how do you know when you should switch an exercise out for something new?
KEEP doing an exercise that:
- Gives you great tension, burn, pumps, and disruption
- Is easy on your joints, and is worth the systemic fatigue
- You are progressively overloading on month-to-month
Replace an exercise that:
- No longer gives you very good tension, burn, pumps, or disruption
- Is getting tough on your joints, zaps your strength for the rest of your program
- You aren't progressively overloading on month-to-month
There's one more aspect to periodization, the thing that everyone dreads but knows they must focus on--life--erh, no, nutrition.
How To Diet For Periodization
I have been between 155-165 pounds for the last four years.
This worked for me during my first two years of training because beginners can lift a pencil and gain muscle. But over the last two years I'm progressing much slower, and I think it's because I'm not giving my body the fuel it needs to grow.
So why haven't I tried gaining weight until now?*
The truth is, I've been scared, scared of gaining too much weight and looking fat.
At the start of COVID-19, I was 185 pounds and looked like a baby Puff The Marshmallow Man. So I searched YouTube for "how to lose weight fast." Yikes. There, I found fitness YouTuber Greg Doucette, who advocated the Anabolic Diet--a diet in which you eat as low calorie and high protein as possible to fill yourself up artificially. Greg promised if I stuck to this diet I would get dumb thick, so I ate massive salads, protein shakes, and so much chicken breast I started clucking myself. However, after 3 months and 30 pounds of weight loss, I was left tired, estranged from my most important relationships, and still dissatisfied with my body.
My anabolic dieting experience taught me something really important: you should never let one thing take over all of your other values.
It also taught me the terrors of going on a bad diet.
I lost so much weight so fast that a lot of it was muscle. I'm still recovering from the negative effects. Because of my anabolic dieting experience, I have been scared to try another diet of any sort, whether gaining weight or cutting. But after almost three years, I think I'm ready to take jump.
So, I started doing some research into diet for periodization and it led me to the question below:
Should You Bulk, Cut, Or Maintain?
To answer this question, we need to ask why we have to bulk, cut, and maintain in the first place.
To understand, we can use the analogy of learning an instrument. At first, we can learn an instrument with a basic music piece and not a great teacher. But once we've acclimated to the music and we've surpassed the teacher, we need harder pieces of music and a better teacher to grow again. The gym is no different.
Lifting at the same body weight without being hypercaloric, is like playing the same piece of music repeatedly with the same teacher.
Muscle is calorically expensive; why should our body put it on if we aren't in an energy surplus?
Bulking, gives us the extra energy--the new music and new teacher--we need to incentivize our body to put on more muscle. During maintenance, we allow our body to get used to our new weight and muscle, and offload the fatigue built up while training hard in our bulk--like solidifying our learning with the new music and new teacher. While cutting, we lose most of the excess fat we gained while bulking and maintain most of the muscle we gained by training hard--like playing old music to ensure we don't forget how to.
If done right, periodization gains you more muscle over the long term than staying at the same body weight the whole time.
The reason this works is because it's way easier to lose fat than it is to gain muscle. So when we enter the cutting phase, we lose most of the excess fat we gained while bulking, and if we're still training hard, we keep most of the muscle.
However, for this to work, you have to gain the right amount and lose the right amount.
Not following this principle accounts for most of the distaste in the resistance training community around bulking, maintaining, and cutting. Many use bulking as an excuse for eating way too much turning into Puff the Marshmallow Men. And many others lose way too fast, causing a lot of muscle loss--like I did during my anabolic dieting experience. The art is in finding the balance.
I'll dive more into how much and for how long you should gain, lose, and maintain in my dedicated sections for bulking, cutting, and maintaining, but first, we have to answer the question: what phase should you start with?
It's more intuitive than you think.
Look at yourself in the mirror. Do you look like Thor in Infinity War? Or do you look like a Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway? If you're heavier than you would like, you can cut and still gain muscle because you can use the energy from your excess fat loss to gain muscle. And if you're skinnier than you would like, you can bulk and use the extra energy to gain muscle. If you're right where you would like to be, I recommend doing smaller bulks and cuts--perhaps only around 5 pounds--so you don't change appearance too drastically.
Let's start with how to do a bulk.
Each phase in your periodization should be between 1 and 4 months and bulking is no different (rarely go shorter than a month because that's not enough time to see the real effects).
As a general marker, you don't want to lose or gain more than .25-.5% of your body weight per week. This is where most people make their greatest error in dieting; they gain or lose way more than this percentage. Common advice for bulking is you should add 500 calories to your diet.
Let's do the math to see why a 500 calorie surplus is idiotic.
There are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat. 500 extra calories per day equals around a pound of weight gain per week. Over three months of bulking, that's 12 pounds of weight gain. As an intermediate lifter, you're lucky if you can gain 6-8 pounds of muscle in a year. That means, at best, your 3 months of bulking might give you 3-4 pounds of muscle and a whopping 8-9 pounds of fat! Not good. Instead, if you gain around .25%-.5% of your body weight per week, your ratio should be 1:1 muscle to fat. Much better. Since I'm about 167 pounds right now, if I'm bulking, I should aim for a weight gain of around .5-.75 pounds a week, a far cry from 1 pound a week.
So you know how much you should gain per week on a bulk, but how do you measure your weight, iterate, and what should you eat?
Measuring simply comes down to weighing yourself at least 3-4 times a week at the same time and averaging to get a weekly weight. It's essential you take the average because your weight can fluctuate 0-4 pounds a day depending on various factors like how much salt you had, water you drank, and foods you ate. Also, when starting a bulk or cut, you should ignore your first week of weight gain or loss because it will be all water weight. I remember when I first started bulking unaware of this advice. I stepped on the weight scale three days in and almost fainted when I saw a three-pound weight gain.
How do you iterate based on your weight week to week?
Every two weeks, you should look at the trend line of your weight gain or loss and iterate your diet depending on whether you're gaining or losing too slowly or fast. For example, if you're gaining too slowly--perhaps you're staying at the same weight after two weeks--up your calories by 10%. For a 2,500 calorie diet that would mean 250 more calories. You might have to do this a few times throughout your bulk or cut as you adapt. Keep going until you reach your weight goal.
The last question to answer, what should you eat on a bulk?
The answer is simple: eat what you normally eat, but a little more carbs and fats. If you're bulking, there is almost zero danger of you not getting enough protein because your eating in a surplus. Protein is usually more expensive and filling than fats and carbs. So it's cheaper, tastier, and easier on the stomach to add more carbs and fats.
However, this comes with the caveat you are already eating quiet "healthily."
What counts as healthy or not is often overcomplicated in the fitness space. Come on, people, you know a pizza from Domino's is unhealthy, and a dish of overnight oats, peanut butter, and banana is healthy. Let's not dive into the weeds. In most cases, I advocate clean bulking, which just means continuing to eat healthily while bulking, but adding some more carbs and fats. Dirty bulking, however, involves eating more processed foods for your extra calories.
Why do I generally advocate clean bulking?
Because clean bulking is:
- Makes you feel better
- Harder to overeat on
However, this doesn't mean clean bulking and dirty bulking are mutually exclusive.
I think it's healthy to sometimes dirty bulk for a weekend--maybe you're at grandma's for Thanksgiving. Dirty bulking has it's advantages:
- Easier to stick to on the road
- More fun
- Near zero chance you won't gain weight--especially useful if you struggle to eat enough food
- Great psych break from too much clean food
So there you have it. Bulk for 1-4 months, depending on your target weight goal. Gain between .25-.5% of your body weight a week. Iterate every two weeks by looking at your average weight trend line. And stick mostly to clean bulking with some dirty bulking every now and then.
After a bulking or cutting phase, your body needs a maintenance period to adjust to your new weight and release fatigue.
It's like taking a longer vacation amidst all your work weeks, as we discussed earlier. How do you do a maintenance phase?
If you were bulking, reduce your calories by around 10%, and if you were cutting, increase them by around 10%. Then, continue to weigh yourself and iterate every two weeks to keep around the same weight. In addition, reduce the volume of your resistance training. Continue to train hard, but consider reducing every exercise by a set so you can give your body time to offload the fatigue you have built up. Do this for 1-4 months, and you set for another bulking or cutting phase.
What should you eat?
Eat whatever you normally eat but in enough quantity to maintain your weight. You should be slightly more concerned about eating enough protein because you're not in a calorie surplus, but you don't have to worry too much.
It's really simple, you essentially do what you do on a bulk, but the opposite. Instead of gaining .25-.5% of your body weight per week, you want to lose that much. So reduce your calories by around 10%, weigh yourself, and iterate based on your trend line every two weeks. Remember, ignore the first week of weight loss because most of it will be water weight.
What should you eat?
Instead of increasing the amount of fats of fat and carbs you are eating at every meal like in a bulk, increase the amount of protein you eat, and reduce the amount of carbs and fats. Protein keeps you full and is necessary for building and maintaining muscle. This is good because when you cut, hunger can be a problem, and you are at higher risk of not getting enough protein.
And finally, how should you train?
No differently compared to if you were on a bulk. While cutting, you are much less likely to gain muscle than during a bulk--especially if you have been lifting for a while--so your goal is to maintain what you have while losing fat. This means you should continue to train hard. Eating less isn't an excuse for getting complacent.
Following periodization in my resistance training and in my diet, I'm finally seeing improvements again. But I have learned an even more important lesson: the value of rest. In the words of John Gray, "Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness". He adds, "How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?" In such an era, it is virtually guaranteed that truly stopping to rest — as opposed to training for a 10K or heading off on a meditation retreat to attain spiritual enlightenment — will initially provoke serious feelings of discomfort rather than delight. However, this discomfort isn't a sign you should stop doing it. It's a sign that you definitely should.