This article ties together the threads that link the training program suggestions on this site. It shows you the big picture: what routine is going to be most suitable for yourself and when, what to expect, and suggestions on when it’s suitable to modify things to chase progress. We start off by filling in the broad strokes that will apply to most, then we discuss some caveats. Take what is relevant to you now and ignore the rest, bookmark it then come back later.
Choosing A Routine When Cutting (Calorie Deficit, Fat-loss Target)
‘Linear progression’ means that the weight stays the same or goes up each session. – We build up the training effect by adding weight onto the bar every time that we can, keep at the same weight whenever we can’t (while waiting for the muscles and connective tissues to adapt and grow), then increase the weight again when we can handle it.
Novices will gain strength for a time regardless of whether they are in a calorie surplus or deficit.
Complete novices will use something like the Big 3 routine, with the same exercises each session, as that is the fastest way they will adapt and progress. It is best to not change things up and add in complication at this time – they need to practice the fundamental form of these lifts. Also, there is not the necessity to split things up at this stage yet because they haven’t learned to push themselves hard enough to require more recovery time.
If this is you, stop reading now and click here -> ‘The Big 3′ Routine. You can come back to this article later.
Eventually you will need to change things up in order to recover sufficiently to keep progressing. Rather than jumping immediately to a split, usually a small modification to the volume of deadlifting performed each week is sufficient. From there, moving to an alternating split (an A/B split), then a move to a three-day split (A/B/C split) it a good progression model.
‘Big 3’ Routine > ‘Big 3’ Modified > The A/B split > Three Day Split
Your training program when in a calorie deficit, whether novice or advanced trainee, will fall somewhere on the above linear progression training continuum. For a detailed example of this in action, check out the article, ‘How to Progress to a Split Routine’.
|A Note on Reverse Pyramid Training Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT), is a double progression model set-rep pattern – when you can no longer increase weight, you work to increase the number of reps. Then when you can lift the same weight with more reps you increase the weight lifted at a lower target rep number. However with no periodization, while a little more complicated, it is still a linear progression system. You may look to put the RPT set-rep pattern in at either the A/B Split (if you are very confident in your form) or 3 day split points.RPT is a very popular style of training, but it has it’s drawbacks that must not be overlooked. We’ll cover these in that article.|
Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.
Past the point of the Three Day Split Routine, if one is in calorie deficit circumstances and strength gains are no longer forthcoming, it usually needs to be accepted that there is little point in pursuing further strength gains by introducing more complicated programming elements like periodization* (whether a temporary deload, or a more structured volume building approach). The blockage to progress is obvious – the calorie deficit.
Your goal is to then maintain your strength gains for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake.
Experienced Strength Trainees
Experienced strength trainees will also find themselves somewhere on this ‘linear progression training continuum’. Exactly where depends on level of experience and recovery capacity, so if you’re not sure just try a routine and see. You should push for strength gains wherever possible while using good form, however it’s important to note that those most advanced will generally not make strength gains while in a deficit. If you’re in that category, then you likely know that. Your goal while in a fat-loss phase then will, as with the novice that has reached the end of the continuum, be strength** and muscle-mass retention.
Using the minimal amount of training volume that you can to achieve that is arguably best as this stops us from overburdening ourselves, which can lead to nasty consequences such as strength and muscle loss, or increasing stress (which can mess up our fat loss efforts in multiple ways).
Advanced trainees over the course of their lifting careers may have built up training volume tolerances that are way higher than those mentioned above. Though they won’t necessarily have to follow any of the templates above, when in a calorie deficit their recovery capacity is reduced, and they too need to cut back on the volume.
For muscle mass retention purposes, I see no reason that someone needs to strength train more frequently than three days a week. However, due to the large shift, if they have been training nearly every day of the week, it can be psychologically beneficial to keep a fourth training day in there.
Summary of Routine Suitability when Cutting
|Three Day Split||x||◯||◎||◯|
◎ > ◯ > △ > X = Most to least appropriate
Choosing A Routine When Bulking (Calorie Surplus, Muscle-gain Target)
All of the above beginner routines suitable for calorie surplus circumstances also. When finishing a fat-loss phase, although the immediate temptation is to switch up training to something different, people will usually start to make progress (strength gains) simply because the block to recovery and growth (insufficient food intake) has been lifted.
Though I appreciate that your immediate reaction is to avoid anything seemingly ‘beginner’ like the plague, you want to use these linear progression routines for as long as possible. This saves you unnecessary complication. When you can no longer progress by either moving up the linear progression training continuum, or creeping (to avoid unnecessary fat gain) up your calorie intake, you will have to add in elements of periodization.
Greg explained this in his guest post, ‘What To Do When You’re Done With Your Beginner Strength Training Program‘ in a rather informal but conceptually brilliant way:
- You continue to progress on a linear progression routine because the stress you put your body under with the training (represented by the flow from the tap) is enough to force adaptation, but less than the maximal about you can recover from.
- You can’t continue to progress forever on a linear progression routine because it gets to the point where the stress from the training is too high for you to be able to recover from.
- The thing bottlenecking progress is ‘work capacity’ (the size of the sink and the drain pipe) which is low due to the low volume of training.
- To increase work capacity, instead of trying to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting, increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session. – You cut back on weight lifted but start building up the volume (sets and reps) over several weeks and months to build work capacity (your sink and drain size), before then cutting back on volume to push for PRs.
Summary of Routine Suitability when Bulking
|Three Day Split||x||◯||◯|
◎ > ◯ > △ > X = Most to least appropriate
Caveats To The Above Rules
1. *Higher body-fat percentages blur boundary of what is possible on a cut
While an obese and a lean person may both be in calorie deficit circumstances, their energy availability is different. Fatter individuals have a larger pantry to dip into when the food on the table isn’t enough, leaner individuals don’t. This blurs the lines of what is possible on a calorie deficit because the energy available for recovery is different.
Therefore, someone who starts off at a high body-fat percentage, and stalls out at the end of the linear progression training continuum, may benefit from moving from their beginner routine and using some periodization principles, such as those discussed by Greg in his article. “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.”
What is the cut off point for this? – It comes down to the individual. “When you’re dealing with biology, you have to accept a little chaos and ambiguity,” says Greg. A little experimentation with this purposefully lower weight, higher volume method, as long as protein intake is sufficient and the deficit within recommended limits, will be fine for preserving muscle mass even if it doesn’t eventually lead to the desired strength increases.
2. **The mechanical disadvantage of being leaner needs to be taken into account when comparing lifting stats
Take your right arm, reach under your left arm pit and grab the fat on your back at chest level. When chasing a fat loss goal it is important to remember that this fat will be burned off too, as will the fat on your arms and legs.
When ripped you may look bigger due to the increased definition, but the chest and limb measurements will go down.
For experienced/advanced lifters I’ve said that the goal when in a calorie deficit is often to simply maintain strength, as that is a good proxy for muscle retention. However it is important to note that there is a mechanical disadvantage of being leaner, so in fact a drop in the lifting stats to a certain degree is to be expected and shouldn’t be confused with muscle loss.
The easiest way to visualise this effect is with the bench press, the leaner you are the further the bar has to travel, thus more ‘work’ has to be done for the same load. (Come on, recall your high school physics class: force x distance = work)
- A 5-10% drop is not uncommon (depending on just how much weight is lost).
- The pressing movements are usually affected more than the deadlift and the squat, and how much the latter is affected depends on limb length ratios.
- This also means that for a guy that has dropped, say, 25lbs, maintenance of lifts can be indicative of muscle mass gain.
Strength Numbers Do NOT Determine When You Need To Change Your Routine
You’ll see a lot of strength numbers thrown around on the internet as to whether you can consider yourself a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainee. These are just opinions, and they should not be confused as determining points for when you should switch up your training program.
How far you can progress with a beginner routine comes down to the individual. Some people will progress on a linear routine and squat past 500lbs before they need to change things up, others will stall at 200lbs. Once you have the controllable elements in your favour (good sleep, low stress, high quality of diet, great gym environment, etc.) it’s largely down to luck (age and genetics). Make the most of what you have, don’t worry about others.
What strength numbers relative to body weight can offer however is a rough way of determining how likely you are to be happy with your physique when you get down to a shredded state at your current strength level. This is because for the strength focused trainee, strength stats are going to be highly correlated with muscle mass.
If we are going by Martin Berkhan’s strength standards, my guess on how happy most people will be is summarised in the following table:
|Training status (per Berkhan’s strength standards)||Happiness scale when shredded (in smileys)|
|Intermediate||:/ or 🙂|
|Advanced||🙂 or 😀|
|Highly advanced||😀 or :p|
Happiness should not be confused with satisfaction. It is very rare that anyone is satisfied, we merely set the bar higher for ourselves when we reach our sets of goals.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.