Stress-Recovery-and-Work-Capacity-Sink-Analogy

If you have exhausted the gains from your beginner program and are looking for what to do to push your physique to the next level then this guest article by Greg Nuckols, one of the top drug-free powerlifters in the world, could be for you.

Friendly, smart, and humble we got along well when I first met him at a conference in May, and I became a fan of his blog, Strength and Science. When I asked him to write this I didn’t realise quite how special his gift of making difficult concepts appear simple was. It is our sincere hope that this article will help to teach you to be independent with your strength training programming for the intermediate phase.

Enter Greg Nuckols… 

Preface by Greg

I’ve made this conceptually simple purposefully. To this day, I sometimes feel my eyes starting to glaze over when I read periodization jargon like “preparedness” and “accommodation” – and besides, what’s the point of using proper terms if you’re going to either have to take 1000 words explaining them, or risk being thoroughly misunderstood?  I understand the need in an academic setting, but there doesn’t seem to be a good resource to lay the foundation for people to understand periodization and programming in the first place.  The discourse jumps directly from “do these sets and these reps and add weight to the bar?” to “mesocycles, specific physical preparedness, conjugate sequence system?” and the rest.  I hope this article will be a conceptual bridge between A and B.

I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a while.  People think programming is so mystical because they’re asking the wrong questions.  It’s less about “what sets and reps should I do?” or “do I need to try *insert complicated periodization paradigm here*?” and more about simply training your body to be able to handle and adapt to more stress so you can train harder and see better results.

Force your body to be able to handle more work, reap the benefits of higher training volume, then when you go back to doing less work for a time you’ll adapt with ease and get a ton stronger.  Then repeat the process.  Easy peasy.  But it took a long time of wading through jargon-laced programming articles before it actually became clear.

Is there more to it than that?  Sure.  But once you understand these basic concepts, the rest is easy enough to pick up without getting overwhelmed.


What To Do When You’re Done With Your Linear Progression Strength Training Program

Most people who initially get into picking up heavy things because of the internet seemingly start on one of three programs: Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, or Reverse Pyramid Training.

The standard advice for these programs – do them until you can no longer consistently add weight to the bar each session, and then find something else. There seems to be a pretty standard list of “something elses” that get suggested, such as 5/3/1, PHAT, Madcow, and Texas Method.

Rather than talk about any specific program in depth, I want to talk more generally about where you and your body are when you plateau on a beginner strength routine, what you need, and how to go from there. That way you’ll have a better conceptual understanding of what you need so you can make more informed choices about your training moving forward.

An aside before we dive in…

This article will not attempt to pin down strength standards concerning what you *should* be able to lift before you move on from beginner routines. Such conversations completely ignore the reality of genetic variability. Terms like “novice,” and “intermediate,” and “advanced,” when referring to training routines appropriate for a group of lifters, should refer to experience, knowledge, and time spent under the bar – not arbitrary strength attainments.

Why do I say that? From my own personal experience, I was sitting right on top of some of the “advanced” strength numbers *literally* the first time I touched a barbell. I could bench press 275 and deadlift 425 at a bodyweight under 170 because of a lucky genetic draw and a childhood of sports, manual labor, and lots and lots of pushups. That had absolutely nothing to do with my skill as a lifter or my knowledge about training. I was still a complete novice when it came to lifting, and certainly didn’t need any “advanced” training methods to get stronger.

Conversely, some of the most knowledgeable coaches, and some lifters who have spent their life under the bar never move beyond “intermediate” strength standards. Calling them an intermediate is bogus, though. They’ve almost certainly learned a lot more than a stronger, more naturally gifted lifter from having to scrap for every little PR their low genetic ceiling would allow. They also almost certainly don’t need a “novice” strength training routine.

I know people who have made linear progress straight to a 500+ squat, and others who have deloaded multiple times and still top out not much above their own bodyweight. Both are ready to move onto a different training program.

So, all of that’s to say, arbitrary strength standards certainly have something to say about how you’d stack up against other lifters in a powerlifting competition, but very little to say about how you need to train or how much you know about lifting.


Where You’re At

Low stress, sufficient recovery

Most beginner strength training routines have a few things in common: relatively low total volume, relatively high intensity (80%+ of 1rm), and very little variety.

Low Total Volume

This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with most beginner routines.

Briefly, when you train, you disrupt homeostasis. Your body perceives this disruption as a threat, and responds by making your muscles bigger and stronger to better handle this stressor the next time you face it. To elicit a similar adaptive response the next time you train, you have to increase the stressor – mainly by increasing weight or volume (for beginner routines, this is almost always “add 5 pounds to the bar.”). But, keep in mind, your body has to be able to recover from the stress it’s put under. Eventually, you reach a point where the amount of stress you put on your body each session to try to force adaptation is roughly equivalent to the amount of stress your body can recover from – at that point, if you increase the stress further, your body cannot respond adequately by getting bigger and stronger – it can merely return to baseline (or, if you push further yet, it will start regressing as fatigue accumulates). That’s the point when you plateau on most beginner routines.

The thing bottlenecking your progress is work capacity. Work capacity is, roughly, the amount of stress your body can recover from and adapt to each session. As your work capacity increases, your ability to handle more work and recover from harder workouts increases, so you can begin to increase the stress you’re putting on your body to the point that you once again start adapting and getting bigger and stronger. You can handle more work, so you can do more work, so you can reap the benefits (more size and strength) from more work. But it is all predicated on your body’s ability to actually handle more work. So, after you finish a beginner training program, your work capacity is probably your limiting factor, and it’s probably relatively low (due to the low training volume of most beginner programs). If you look around at how the top lifters are training, whether it be Eastern Bloc powerlifters with straight volume-driven programs (how does 400-500 heavy reps between squat, bench, and deadlift sound to you… in one training week?), top weightlifting teams training at least daily (usually 2-3 times per day), or the lifters at Westside Barbell doing 14+ high volume workouts per week, training volume is almost uniformly extremely high. And for good reason – training volume is the primary driver of strength and hypertrophy progress. But before you can benefit from insanely high volume, you have to have insanely high work capacity.

Here’s an illustration of this concept that I really like, comparing a sink to the process of adaptation to strength training; I think I heard it first from Mike Tuchscherer.

High stress, and insufficient recovery capacity due to low work capacity

The amount of stress you’re subjecting yourself to is like a running faucet. The amount of stress you can recover from is like the sink’s drain. To keep making progress, you have to turn the faucet up higher and higher. If that exceeds the drain’s ability to remove water from the sink, eventually the sink fills up and overflows – that’s when you stop making progress and start regressing. But by increasing work capacity, you’re increasing the size of the drain (how quickly you can respond and adapt to increased training stress) and you’re increasing the size of the sink (how much accumulated stress you can manage before overtraining).

So, how do you increase work capacity? Instead of trying to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting, try to increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session.

Let’s say your workout looks like this currently:

  • Squat 200 3×5
  • Bench 150 3×5
  • Deadlift 250 1×5

Total training volume by lift (weight x sets x reps):

  • Squat: 3000 pounds
  • Bench: 2250 pounds
  • Deadlift: 1250 pounds

Take a little weight off the bar, and try to increase your total training volume each week, taking a break from just pushing more weight up each session.

So maybe start here:

  • Squat 175 3×8 (4200 pounds)
  • Bench 135 3×8 (3240 pounds)
  • Deadlift 200 3×3 (1800 pounds)

Then, over the span of a couple months trying to increase volume (sets or reps) each training session, you may be doing something more like:

  • Squat 175 5×10 (8750 pounds)
  • Bench 135 5×10 (6750 pounds)
  • Deadlift 200 5×5 (5000 pounds)

At that point, you’ve dramatically increased your body’s ability to recover from a huge increase in workload – something that’s pretty easy to do with lower, moderately heavy loads (60-75% 1rm) but much more difficult with heavier loads (80%+: where you live on beginner routines).

Once you’ve increased your work capacity, you can start tapering volume and adding more weight to the bar. As you decrease volume, your body will have no problems recovering – even with heavier loads each week – because you’ve made it accustomed to recovering from a much higher total workload.

You’ll blow past your old plateaus and start making progress again. And once you hit a new plateau, just repeat the process. Drop back in weight, build your training volume up even higher than you did previously over the span of a few months, and then start adding weight to the bar again.

The focus of your training is still the same: making measureable progress each week. Only now, that measureable progress is split into two phases. In phase one you progress by increasing how many total reps you’re doing each week, and in phase two you progress by increasing weight on the bar, just like you’re used to.

Relatively High Intensity

This is a good thing. If you want to lift the heaviest weights possible, you need to have practice lifting weights that are heavy to you. With programs like SS, SL, and RPT, you’re constantly handling loads between 80-85% of your 1rm – certainly heavy enough to count it toward practice handling heavy weight.

Motor learning is typified by specificity. There’s a big difference between learning how to move your body through a given motor pattern unweighted (a bodyweight squat, for example) and learning how to move your body through that same pattern with a heavy weight in your hands or on your shoulders. After most beginner routines, you’ve had practice moving fairly heavy relative loads week in and week out, so heavier loads (90%+) will not be as big of a shock to you as they would be to someone who trained with lower relative intensity from the time they started lifting.

Now, when you drop back in weight and start increasing training volume, you will likely lose some efficiency with heavier weights. However, that’s why you don’t jump from 70% one week to a new 1rm attempt the next week. By building back up over the span of (depending on your strength level) 4-12 weeks, you re-acclimate your body to heavier loading, and that efficiency with heavier weights that you previously built will come back. It takes longer to build a specific motor pattern initially than it is to recover it when it gets a little bit rusty.

Very Little Variety

I understand the reasoning for this in beginner routines. Heavy compound lifts *should* be the bedrock of your program, they’ll give the most bang for your buck, and a lot of new lifters will take a mile if you give them an inch when it comes to isolation accessory work (“sure, do some curls at the end of your workout” turns into “well, I didn’t have time to get all my sets of squats in, but I DID try out 37 new curl variations, brah.”).

But doing the exact same variations of the exact same lifts all the time will almost inevitably cause some strength imbalances eventually. Once you’ve plateaued on your beginner routine, it’s time to start adding in some more variety rather than continuing to pound your head against the wall and exacerbating those imbalances.

Also, it’s worth noting, you don’t HAVE to do isolation work if it feels silly after continually lifting heavy week in and week out for the past several months. Some people love it and some hate it. If you’re one of the latter, then choose compound variations that will address your weaknesses by emphasizing your weak muscles. If your quads are weak, then switch to high bar squats or front squats rather than low bar squats. If your triceps are weak, then switch from regular bench to close grip bench. If your upper back is weak, switch from regular deadlifts to snatch grip deadlifts.

Of course, I just want to make it clear that while heavy compounds should be at the heart of your workout, there is no shame in doing more isolation-style accessories. Are your hips weak? Well, sumo deadlifts are great, but if you want to keep pulling conventional you could toss in some hip thrusts to address your deficiency. Weak quads but want to keep squatting low bar? There are quality compound, non-squat options like step ups, lunges, split squats, hack squats, and leg press, but keep in mind that many huge squatters of yesteryear liked plain old leg extensions.

There is a lot to be said about becoming efficient in the motor patterns you want to master, but at the end of the day, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, all other things being equal. Identify your weak muscles and hit them with accessories or variations of compounds that will target them.


Putting It All Together – One Example

High stress, but sufficient recovery because of improved work capacity

Someone stalled at the numbers in the prior example (Low bar squat 200 3×5, Bench 150 3×5, Deadlift 250 1×5)

Their squat is limited by weak quads (their butt instantly shoots up, shifting weight away from their quads and toward their stronger posterior musculature), their bench is limited by weak triceps (missing and lockout), and their deadlift is limited by a weak upper back (rounds coming off the floor, and can’t get it fully extended at lockout).

Week 1:

  • High bar squat 150 3×8
  • Close grip bench press 120 3×8
  • Snatch grip deadlift 175 3×3
  • Lunges and knee extensions
  • Bodyweight dips and triceps extensions
  • Yates rows
Week 2-5: increasing reps or sets each week, adding to total training volume. Week 6:
  • High bar squat 150 5×10
  • Close grip bench press 120 5×10
  • Snatch grip deadlift 175 5×5
  • Lunges and knee extensions
  • Bodyweight dips and triceps extensions
  • Yates rows
Switching back to primary variations of each lift to realize the strength gains you just got done laying the groundwork for. Week 7:
  • Low bar squat 180 5×10
  • Bench press 140 5×10
  • Deadlift 210 5×5
  • Leg press and hack squat
  • Weighted dips and cable pushdowns
  • Shrugs
(change in accessories, just for some variety) Weeks 8-11: adding weight to the bar each week, decreasing sets or reps so the body can easily adapt and recover. These workouts should be a challenge, but should stop short of grinding reps. Week 12:
  • Low bar squat 230 3×5
  • Bench press 170 3×5
  • Deadlift 300 3×3
  • Leg press and hack squat
  • Weighted dips and cable pushdowns
  • Shrugs
 

Beyond

Keep working up to a max over the next 2-3 weeks, or start back over increasing volume, and then working back to heavy weights.

Or, of course, you could just jump on one of the routines floating around on the interweb for people who have exhausted their gains on a beginner’s program. But, it’s my opinion that the sooner you can learn how to write your own programming, the better. None of the programs floating around out there were written specifically for you – they’re just cookie cutter routines that should work decent enough for a broad swath of people. You know you strengths and weaknesses, you know how well you’re recovering and how your body is feeling, and – most importantly – you’ll never reach your full strength potential without eventually either hiring a competent coach long-term or learning how to listen to your body and make the necessary adjustments to your training. If you want to see how far you can truly go, the sooner you start learning how to understand programming, the better.

This article should have equipped you with enough conceptual knowledge to start tinkering with your own training once you plateau on a beginner’s routine. You’ve been under the bar long enough to start being able to listen to your body, but you’re likely not closing in on your full potential or any long term goals. Now is the perfect time to start experimenting with your own training, applying some trial and error, learning how to troubleshoot, and getting the frustrations and setbacks of the inevitable learning curve out of the way. You’ll come out much more knowledgeable – and much stronger – on the other side.


Questions

Greg, how many days per week do you suggest people train?

The important thing is total weekly volume. If you were training 3 times per week, you can slowly add volume to those three sessions, and then increase weight and decrease volume over those same three sessions, just to take some of the guess work out of it. Or, if you find yourself spending too much time in the gym, you could split it into more sessions so each of them is a more manageable length. That’s not going to make a huge difference either way, as long as you’re managing total weekly training volume appropriately.

You say that people should target any weak muscles and hit them with accessories or variations of compounds that will target them. Can you explain how people would identify weak points or imbalances?

This is definitely another article for another time.

Understandably. I wanted to add the caveat that this style of training isn’t suited for those that are cutting (in a calorie deficit). Can you share your thoughts on that?

Sure. I’d say that it depends on the circumstances. A person that is of a higher body fat percentage, has a high quality diet, sleeps well, and lives/works in a low stress environment is far more suited than a leaner guy or someone without those key points in place.

However, I agree with your inclusion of that caveat at the end because someone could easily misapply that. Besides, you’re writing a follow up article on that right?

That’s right, “Which Training Routine is for Me?“. Greg, thank you for your time.

Questions on this guide? Greg’s got you covered in the comments.

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About the Author

Greg Nuckols

Greg has an excellent website, Strengtheory.com where he talks about the intersection between science and the practice of picking up heavy stuff. He’s one of the top drug-free powerlifters in the world with competition totals of 1714 @220 and 1885 @242, and PRs of 755 on the squat, 475 bench, and 725 deadlift. You can catch up with him on Facebook here (personal) and here (business)

101 Comments on “What To Do When You’re Done With Your Linear Progression Strength Training Program”

  1. David

    Excellent article, much appreciated! Are there books that either of you can recommend that deal with schemes/guidelines for increasing volume over time? The general idea is nicely presented in this article, but I would like to read more about the exact way(s) to accomplish this.

        1. Andy Morgan

          They’re among the best out there and are only going to get better. You’ll see that there are free updates forever for those that get the set and that’s something we take seriously.

  2. Dave

    I stalled @ 132 lbs for 4 on OHP doing RPT for a while. I’m sure my work capacity is what’s holding me back. I just switched today to 100 lbs and started at 6 sets of 5 reps. Now this was very easy and I was trying to stay completely away from failure. My question is how close to failure should I get? Should my last set of the day be somewhat of a struggle to finish the prescribed reps? Should I leave a couple reps in the tank? Should my last rep of the day be balls to the wall just barely get it and not be able to get one more rep?

    Being so used to training to failure on every set (RPT for 18 months) it’s hard for me to adjust to training this way. I’m afraid I’m not training hard enough. But if I know that I can give it my all on my last set and it will help and not hurt me in improving work capacity then I’m all for it. I did 6 sets of 5 today 100 lbs OHP and I could’ve easily gotten 2 more sets in my opinion but I’m afraid of pushing too close to failure now. Any advice on what to do when it comes to failure?

      1. Dave

        I am somewhat familiar with the concept. Do you recommend getting close to failure? 10 is 1 shy of failure?

      2. Dave

        I’m going to start trying any rep scheme where I can add more volume. Probably keep it 6 x 5 and make it so the last rep of my last set is challenging but leave around 2 reps left in the tank. Just have to judge that and don’t have to be perfect. Then from there just add one or two reps per session until I get to around 50 reps with that weight (10 x 5) and then either progress with adding 10 pounds and starting over or just going back to a lower volume RPT style of training reap the benefits and then back to increasing volume….just keep going back and forth between the two. Does this sound like a decent plan? I would probably get some decent hypertrophy from this. Of course my 1rm wouldn’t change but at least I’d get some decent hypertrophy and the most important thing would be the increase in work capacity for my long term strength success…

        I don’t want to stay away from lifting heavy and progressing with heavy weights for too long. I want to get the best of both worlds and progress with heavy weights until I start to stall and then get back on the high volume train and progress with my work capacity…So I’m thinking maybe 2 months of work capacity work followed by 2 months of low volume strength progression work where I go to failure on all 3 working sets….

        1. Andy Morgan

          I think you’d benefit greatly from getting a broader understanding of the theory behind all of this. A couple of options:
          1. Get my training book.
          2. Watch the free video lecture series that the book is based on. (You’ll see it in the menu.)

          I’m going to have to bow out of answering further. Honestly I find it too frustrating to continue, and when I find myself unable to respond in a professional manner publicly it’s just better to not respond. I asked a single question yesterday but woke up to 3 replies (one short, two long) each containing multiple further questions instead of the yes/no answer I needed to explain further, so I’m out.

          I hope however that the resources I have given prove to be useful for you.

  3. Dave

    Thank you for the reply Andy….one more quick question…

    Do you still go back to RPT when you are training higher intensity after a period of working on total volume or do you stay with straight sets and just add weight?

    My plan is to work these straight sets as long as I van continue to at least add a rep and then when I plateau I will drop the volume and ramp up the intensity again with RPT….

    on a side note after increasing my volume (I have been doing RPT for about 18 months) I slept like a baby….I think this is just exactly what my body needed…thank you for the brilliant website…

    1. Andy Morgan

      You could do that, but it might cripple your ability to keep up the higher volume which is necessity to drive progress. Try it and see how you go. If you’re interested in a much more thorough coverage of the different variables, check out he videos (or book) here:
      The Muscle and Strength Pyramids

  4. Dave

    If I’m used to handling a total workout volume of 2500 with RPT and I can’t progress than how can I expect to progress with a workout volume that is higher? Is it the fact that the intensity is lower?

    Not questioning this…I believe in this but just like to know the science behind that aspect of it….how can I expect to recover from 4000 total workout volume when I am plateau in 2500 total workout volume…I hope you understand my question…thank you

    1. Andy Morgan

      It’s likely that the intensity is so high right now that you’re struggling to recover from those sets.

      If you were to do 3 sets of bench with your 5 RM load, and on your first set you maxed out and went to failure, you would probably drop down to 3 and then possibly 2 reps on your next 2 sets depending on your rest period. This will be 10 reps total. However, if you were to stop and just do 4 reps on the first set, you may be able to maintain 4 reps for all 3 sets. This will be 12 reps total.

      In this way it’s easy to see that we can hurt the amount of volume that we can do by going to failure too frequently. Thinking even bigger picture, going past just the single exercise, and thinking about subsequent training sessions, there are further negative implications from training to failure all the time.

      As volume is a key driver of training progress, and training to failure can hurt the amount of volume we can perform, if you’re struggling to progress it’s sensible to cut down on the intensity and avoid training to failure.

      1. Dave

        so I can probably milk out some more strength gains by switching to straight sets with a challenging weight as I will be getting more volume in and not training to failure. Maybe 3×5 @ 80% 1rm and keep trying to improve that number until I get 3×6…keep mastering this weight until I can work up to say 3×8 with it…I will simultaneously be gaining strength and work capacity then I can dial back the volume a little but increase intensity again to maybe 10 pounds heavier weight and start over at 3×5?

        Or is this a pipe dream?

  5. Dave

    If I do 3 sets of 8 and feel like I can do another set for maybe 5 should I try to attempt it? Or is it better to leave all that in the tank, make a note for next workout that the total volume can be higher….in this case closer to around 29 reps vs 24 reps? And then proceed to try for 5 sets of 6?

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  7. Filip

    Thanks for the article. This is exactly what I was looking for. I have a two questions though (sorry, if they were already answeared).
    Let’s suppose I hit a plateau in OHP at 5x5x40kg. According to the article, I should deload and work on adding more reps now (doing more sets than 5 sounds like overkill to me). So my following workouts would be like this: 5x6x35, 5x7x35, 5x8x35, 5x9x35… Do I add the reps until I hit another plateau?
    So let’s suppose I hit 5x10x35 after a few weeks and want to go back to adding weight… From what I understand, my following workouts should be like this: 5x8x37,5, 5x6x40, 5x5x42,5, right? When should I consider reducing the number of sets to 3 if I was previously doing 5×5 and strugling with the fourth and fifth sets usually?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Filip, thanks for the question.
      Let’s be exceptionally clear with our terminology here:
      If you find that you’ve hit a plateau, it could be some residual fatigue masking progress, so a deload for a week (~10% reduction in weight lifted), followed by a resumption of the same weigh you were stuck on, is often sufficient.

      – When it is not, if you’re not well recovered, a lack of calories can be the issue, or too much volume could be the issue. So you increase calories or make a reduction to volume.

      – If you are well recovered, then work capacity could be the issue, in which case the load needs to be reduced, volume increased and built up over time, to increase work capacity. In the case of the latter, you’ll decrease load (weight on the bar) and but increase the number of sets and reps so that their combination results in an increase in volume over time.

      Volume = sets x reps x load.

      Remember, you don’t have to do the same number of reps for each set in a session. Four of your sets could have 5 reps, one set could have 4. The key is to gradually increase the volume to build up the work capacity.

      1. Filip

        Hi Andy. Thanks for the answear. I’ll try deloading and going back to the weight I plateaued at previously, before tampering with the number of reps. I suspect the problem might be in not eating enough, since I’m returning from a cut and adding calories gradually.

  8. Sergio TL

    Hi Greg and Andy! Excellent stuff, just what I was needing. I know the important thing with this article is not the sets/resp schemes and examples but the underlying concepts. The thing is I am trying to dessign a new program and I’d like to know your opinion about it, if it’s not too muck asking. This is the template:

    Accumulation:
    WEEK 1 70%-80% Total volume: 60 reps – Example: 2 sessions of 3×10
    WEEK 2 70%-80% Total volume: 72 reps – Example: 1 session of 4×10, 1 session of 4×8
    WEEK 3 70%-80% Total volume: 80 reps – Example: 2 sessions of 5×8

    Intensification:
    WEEK 4 85% Total volume: 50 reps – Example: 2 sessions of 5×5
    WEEK 5 90% Total volume: 40 reps – Example: 2 sesisons of 5×4
    WEEK 6 95% Total volume: 24 reps – Example: 2 sessions of 4×3

    WEEK 7 — DELOAD — 65% Total volume: 48 reps – Example: 2 sessions of 3×8

    WEEK 8 — TEST 1 RM

    WEEK 9 — PARTY (if any PRs last week)

    Do you think it’s reasonable? Thank you for your time.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Sergio, thanks for the comment. Personally I think what you’re asking me to look at and critique is beyond scope of the comment feature and into the realm of asking for a consultation.
      Now, please know that it’s not cause I don’t want to be helpful, but because I believe in treating everyone fairly, and if I were to do so for you, it could open the floodgates with other comments.

      If Greg wishes to chime in then I’m happy for him to do so of course.

  9. Ioseba

    Great article Greg! Not sure If you keep reading this comments, though. My question is:
    – Is there any difference between doing one long cycle of 8 weeks of “accumulation phase” followed by 8 weeks of “intensification” phase or doing 2 shorter cycles of 4 weeks of “accumulation” followed by 4 weeks of “intensification” and then repeat?
    Which one would be better for hypertrophy and strength gains?
    Thanks in advance!

  10. Anatoly

    It looks very like Poliquin’s accumulation/intensification phases

    I phase(accumulation)
    progressing in volume while weight is the same
    3×10 60% -> 5×10 60%

    II phase(intensification)
    progressing in weight and keeping volume the same
    5×5 70% -> 5×5 80%

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  12. LaReine

    Omg this article is GOLD! Thanks Greg and Andy for sharing! I’ve been stuck on my squat numbers for awhile and I’m super excited to tweak my reps a bit to get more overall volume.. duh genius! More is more!

    1. Andy Morgan

      LaReine, glad you liked it.
      I’m not sure of the definition of genius, but Greg is the closest person I know to one. (1580 in his SATS at 14, then a perfect 1600 at 16 and 17).

  13. IamWebber

    How do you know that you’re not recovering for your next work out?

    Or how do you measure your recovery?

    How do you know if you are training to hard or not hard enough?

    Thanks

    Love the site by the way…

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Richard, thanks for the questions and the feedback – appreciate it and glad to hear it.
      “How do you know that you’re not recovering for your next work out? Or how do you measure your recovery?”
      It’s perfectly possible and normal to have a single bad workout, so never base your training and diet changes around the results of a single session. However if multiple sessions are off from expectation then you know that something needs to be changed. It can’t be measured, but heart-rate variability (HRV) can be used to gauge it. This is also related to your next question…

      “How do you know if you are training to hard or not hard enough?”
      Experimentation. Does adding more volume increase the rate at which you progress, or push you into the over-training zone and cause progress to slowdown? Conversely, does decreasing volume allow you to progress faster or not? Here’s a graph representing that:
      Over-training

      This is taken from the follow up article to this one on stress that I think you’ll find useful:
      Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

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  15. Patrik

    Hi Andy.

    Quick question: Should I move towards a split routine first before trying do add more voulme to the training when I’m in a deficit and starting to stall in the Big 3 excersises?

    // Patrik

      1. Patrik

        Hi Andy.

        Sorry for the stupid question. I had read that article before but totally forgot the part where the answer to my question was written. To answer my own question: volume should be kept low so that I can manage to recover properly as I’m in a deficit. Then I will go towards a split routine at first and when I’m done with the cutting I’ll add more volume to the training as Greg has described in this article when the bulking starts.

        And his article where he talks about why powerlifters should train more like bodybuilders is also interesting regarding this topic.

        Thanks again for the reply Andy.

  16. Mike

    Andy,

    I started to really stall with progession in the recomendation you made for me with 5×5 in squats and bench. Squat is around 285 and 290 and bench is 235 240, Would be smart to drop the weight and up the volume as stated above?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Are you in a calorie deficit Mike or surplus? No surname in the comment here so I don’t know who you are or what circumstances that was recommended under.

        1. Andy Morgan

          Mike Busi! Hey bud good to hear from you.
          Well, there is your answer then. – Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming. This is covered four or five paragraphs in, in this guide:
          Which Routine Is For Me?

  17. Taste of Fire

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

    What are your thoughts about volume and multiple exercises per muscle group?

    Let’s say we train chest 2x per week with 2 or 3 exercises (very typical):
    – Incline bench press 3×6-8
    – Flies 3×10-12
    (- Dips 3×10-12)

    Total volume of chest would now be about 50-60 reps per training. Are we supposed to ramp up all exercises to about 5×10?

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  23. Travis

    Greg, any reason not to use a conjugate system instead? That is, perform strength work (say 5×3) Mon/Tues and volume work (3×8 working up to 5x10ish) on Thur/Fri? How would this compare to going back and forth between the two for months at a time? I mean why not train in a conjugate fashion right from beginner on through to intermediate or even advanced? Thx

    1. Greg Nuckols

      That’s more of an undulating system than a conjugate system, but point taken.

      And yes, there’s no reason to not vary training stressors throughout the week. I wasn’t saying you had to do the same reps and sets each workout (sorry if it came across that way) – I was just using some numbers to illustrate the concept. For your example, you could apply the same principles by focusing on increasing volume on your volume day for a period of time while simply trying to maintain your strength work, and then dial back your volume work a bit and focus on increasing weight on your strength work.

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  25. Adam

    Andy/Greg: Thanks for the feedback! To be honest, I drank the Berkhan fuckarounditus article kool-aid… where he dismisses straps and belts. Thanks for setting me straight here.

    I’ve been deadlifting 1/wk for three or four years now — but my 1 RM is only about twice my body-weight, so I don’t think I’ll be competing anytime soon! For now, I’m working on that upper-back strength w/ the wide-grip deadlift as you recommend. I’ll use those straps now.

    Thanks to both of you for two excellent sites and collaborating like this!

  26. Adam

    Greg — Not sure if you’re still responding to this thread, but had a question for you and had some trouble posting on your blog.

    My question is about wide grip deadlifts w/ the double over-hand grip. Before I switched things up, I’d been doing standard deadlifts with mixed grip with my top work set at 355×4. I used chalk, but no belt or straps.

    Now that I’ve switched to the wide grip and following your program above, I’m shooting for 225×6 for 3 or 4 sets. However, I just can’t hold onto the bar w/ double-overhand. My grip is weak!

    If I use straps, I have no problem with the pull at all.

    Wondering what you might recommend here for wide grip double-overhand: 1) Lower the weight and ditch the straps? or 2) keep the weight where it is and use the straps?

    If you can’t respond here, I’ll check back as your 8 part series on deadlifts progresses.

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Adam. Not sure either if Greg it still checking back to answer, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Give him a few days. If not then post another comment using the reply feature and I’ll handle it.

    2. Greg Nuckols

      Hey Adam!

      Go ahead and use straps. The way I see it – you deadlift to train the pulling muscles. If you can deadlift more weight/reps than you can grip, then by stopping when your grip goes, you’re not training your back, hamstrings, and glutes as hard as you’d otherwise be able to. If you’re interested in competing at some point, and your grip limits your ability to hold onto maximal deadlifts, then just add in some dedicated grip work. But for deadlifts – especially if you’re pulling a fair amount of reps – I almost always recommend the use of straps.

      1. Andy Morgan

        Greg, thanks for answering.
        I’ll just add the caveat in here that this doesn’t apply to beginners, who basically just need to give their connective tissues time to develop. I say this before someone lifting 135lbs for 5 starts worrying that they may need to use grips when they just need a little patience.

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  29. Hectorr

    What are recomended rest times between sets/excercises when training volume?

    I have been training RPT for some time now, and there I use 3 minutes between sets, 4-5 minutes between excercises.

  30. Adam

    Greg — Great article! Question…

    My routine right now is RPT 3 days/wk and I never do more than one big lift per workout. So, it’s monday squat, wednesday bench, friday DLs.

    When I switch to the method you’ve outlined above, am I still splitting those lifts over the three days or am I doing squats, bench & DL every time I work out?

    Apologies if you’ve answered this elsewhere!

    Thanks.

    1. Greg Nuckols

      No problem. What I outlined isn’t the set-in-stone way you have to do it. It was just one example to illustrate the concept. As long as you’re trying to do more total work than you’re currently doing, you’re good to go.

  31. EricB

    This article came at the perfect time in my training, and I just did my first “volume/work capacity” workout.

    Any advice on how add in reps/sets to get to something like the 5×10 goal? Example, my squat was stuck at 205# 3×5. This workout did 155# 4×8. Keeping it at 155# would it be advisable to try the progression:
    4×9
    5×8
    4×10
    5×10
    (I am assuming there may be workouts in between there a 9x9x9x7 working up to the 4×9 benchmark or so…)

    Is 5×10 a good stopping point or just see how far one can get in a 6 week volume focus?

    1. Greg Nuckols

      Those weren’t set-in-stone numbers you had to hit.

      So to this point, you added weight until the rate at which you could add weight slowed down. Now, you just add volume until the rate as which you can add volume slows down. If that’s 4×9 or 5×10 or 6×15, it doesn’t matter much. Acclimating to the higher volume will give you some wiggle room to start adding weight again – that’s the major takeaway.

  32. tehlolcat

    “Their squat is limited by weak quads (their butt instantly shoots up, shifting weight away from their quads and toward their stronger posterior musculature), their bench is limited by weak triceps (missing and lockout), and their deadlift is limited by a weak upper back (rounds coming off the floor, and can’t get it fully extended at lockout).”

    WTF have you been spying on me?? This is me exactly. Although, I have been on a cut for the last 12 weeks and I thought the crappy form came from general loss in strength even though I managed to keep my reps and sets for the most part.

    Would you suggest to now adress my obvious weaknesses with some weeks of assistent work or should I continue lifting like I do and see if it’s fixed with some more calories?

      1. tehlolcat

        Thank you for the reply Greg, and thank you for the article as well, forgot to say that. Very useful information.

        Allright, I’ll try bodyweight squats for a couple of weeks then. Funny thing though I have a hard time reaching depth and good balance with no barbell on my back, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

        And when you say “cut back in weight”, do you mean just to cut back and restart the progression (adding more weight to the bar when I hit my target reps), or did you mean cut back and increase the volume (as described above)?

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  34. Martin

    Greg, in case of low total volume and high intensity how can it be applied to RPT style of training? Say my bench press looks like this:

    150×6
    140×7
    130×8

    Will changing it to something like below be okay?

    135×8
    125×9
    115×10

    …or should I change it to something like 130 3×8?

    1. Greg Nuckols

      I don’t like RPT for increasing work capacity because pushing too close to failure on one set will effect how much volume you can do on subsequent sets. I.e. if the most you can do is 10 reps with a weight, you could knock out sets of 6 all day. If you do 10 reps on the first set, though, you’ll be too fatigued to continue doing as much volume as you would have otherwise been able to do.

      1. Martin

        Thanks a lot Greg, much appreciated! I’ll follow your advice from the article then and use 3×8.

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  37. Salim

    Great article, very helpful as I was experiencing stalls in core movements.

    I assume that increasing volume over weeks in order to improve workload capacity (and main lifts indirectly) is something you can afford when being at maintenance/slow bulk only. If one is on a cut, is such an increase in volume advisable?

    I would be tempted to answer “no” as the recovery capacity is impaired by the caloric restriction but I would like to have your opinion. Thanks in advance

    1. Greg Nuckols

      The “right” answer is to only do it if you’re bulking.

      However, it’s my opinion that with how low of volume most beginner programs are, you probably won’t have any issues increasing training volume, though the maximal amount you can handle would be less. It just means you have to monitor recovery more closely.

  38. EricB

    Question on frequency:

    I’ve been doing the Big3 routine as laid out by Andy here, and as the weights have gotten heavier I started cutting volume (to 3×5’s across eventually) and then frequency (working out 3x per week, moving deadlifts to only one day, and squatting only on the other two. Then mixing presses in with bench presses).

    If I were to deload and increase my work capacity, would you suggest at least starting back to a Big3 type pattern and removing the complexity I’ve added in initially (all 3 each workout, sets across)? Accessory work is not something I’m am inherently driven to do, but I have no problem with it if that’s what’ll make me stronger.

    This article totally fills in a major “missing link” in my understanding, thanks for putting it out there,

    -Eric

  39. mfmaxpower

    Great article. One scenario I rarely see addressed in the beginner progression model is whether it’s possible and how to manage different body parts reaching the end of the beginner stage at different times.

    For example, my squat gains are still progressing (partly because I had to layoff squats due to injury) but my pressing numbers aren’t moving. Do you start training the movements differently?

    1. Greg Nuckols

      Short answer: yes.

      Just because of strength differences between the lifts, you’ll almost certainly be able to progress on squats and deadlifts longer than bench, and especially overhead press. Go ahead and start training your pressing differently, and just stay the course for squatting.

  40. jimmy

    Firstly, great article Greg!! Stumbled across your blog recently and only started reading it in the past couple of weeks, its a gold mine! Love it 🙂

    My question is with regards to rest times…

    Would decreasing rest times between sets (eg 3 mins, to 2mins, to 1 minute) also be a way of increasing work capacity??

    1. jimmy

      Ohh and I had a question regarding reps…

      Should you adjust the weight so you get the desired reps?

      For example, on the bench you get:

      2 x 10 x 140
      1 x 9 x 140
      1 x 8 x 140
      1 x 7 x 140

      Would you scale the weight down on the last 3 sets to get to 10 reps, or just stick with the weight until you get to 10 reps for every set??

      Thanks again 🙂

      1. Greg Nuckols

        Good question, but at this point I think you’re mostly overthinking it 😉

        Either drop the weight so you can keep getting 10, or next week try to beat total reps with 140, so maybe shooting for 3×10, 1×9, 1×8

    2. Greg Nuckols

      Hey Jimmy, that’s a good question.

      I’d give it a tentative yes. However, that’s not the best route most of the time. Magnitude of adaptation is largely based on training volume and intensity. So most of the time, you’re better off resting longer so you can move more weight for move volume, rather than shortening rest periods (unless you’re aim is primarily metabolic adaptations).

      Here’s a good read on the subject: http://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2013/11/14/rest-periods-hypertrophy/

  41. Yifan

    Thanks for this great article, Greg. I have been stalling with my lifts in the past half a year with only very small increase in weights lifted. Hopefully, this will save me from going from program to program trying to get more gains.

    A question regarding when you have reached 5×10 on the volume work. From what I understand, it seems that one would immediately switch to something like 3×5 while moving up in the weight to give a bigger difference between stress and recovery to allow more growth. Or is that not the right way? Should the reps/sets be gradually decreased while the weight gradually increases?

    1. Greg Nuckols

      To be totally honest, it wouldn’t make a huge difference. However, there’ll be a big difference between how much weight you could use for 5×10, and how much you could use for 3×5. By gradually lowering the volume and increasing the weight, you can re-acclimatize to the heavier loading, rather than increasing the weight on the bar by 20% in one week, or jumping straight to 3×5 with the same weight and having 4-5 weeks of REALLY easy workouts until you built back up to a weight that would be challenging for sets of 5.

  42. Steve Thresher

    This is a brilliant article Greg.

    With the assistance work, do you suggest just starting light and trying to increase the weight/sets/reps every workout like the main movements or just stick to the same weight/sets/reps?

    1. Greg Nuckols

      Start with something vanilla like 3×8-10. For a few weeks, you’ll be able to just add weight as you learn the movements. Once that tops out, then yes – try to add more reps week to week, moving from ~30ish total reps to ~50ish, then drop back to ~30ish total reps and increase weight a bit more. The difference between accessories and main lifts, is that process will probably take 3-4 weeks with accessories, and the increase in weight will be pretty small. With the main lifts, you’re drawing the process out over a few months, and should be looking for larger increases.

  43. Matt

    Very timely article. After stalling using RPT I moved to 5/3/1 BBB template and made consistent albeit slow progress for the last 10 months. Despite undeniable strength gains I have made undetectable size gains (cycling calories so for 3 weeks of surplus and 1 week in deficit a month in order to burn off extra fat if needed). Overall I have gained around 10 pounds in the last year (comparing lean and dry to lean and dry). Despite the 10 pounds my arm size has not changed. From your article it becomes clear that I have done little to nothing to increase the volume of my workouts hence my work capacity. Since I have now stalled (overflowed my sink) and will be switching things up after a break what would you recommend for someone who is adapted to max effort but not so much to medium weight and volume?

    1. Greg

      Drop your training weights by 15% or so and try to increase your volume by 5-10% per week. And if you really want bigger arms… nothing wrong with curls and triceps extensions

  44. T.

    Perfectly timed. Thanks – I can really see this approach working better for me than moving into a split.

  45. JD

    Great post. I would also like to recommend people use https://cronometer.com/ for tracking. It is free and allows you to keep track of your micronutrients as well as your macronutrients. If your long term eating habits have you void in certain minerals or vitamins it can cause long term health impacts. Great to be ripped but it would not fun if you open yourself up to other chronic issues.

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