Brad the powerlifter has had to take a back seat as of late. A lingering rib issue in my right posterior rib cage sidelined me from doing my competition squat and deadlift for quite some time. As a result, I’ve had to revamp my training into what I feel is its simplest form. Being at this for 20+ years now, I know I cannot program a linear progression plan like I could 15 years ago. Progression has to be more “observed” and I have to pick my shots when programming. I also can’t train as heavy as I would like and need to build-in “fail safes” that allow me to mentally train lighter and to a definitive stopping point, so as to not dig a hole so deep I can’t get back out. The result is what I would call an “auto-regulated bodybuilding periodization with observed progression”.
When writing programs for athletes, whether they are aspiring general population or high-level bodybuilders/powerlifters, always keep the big picture at the forefront. Consider not just the short term, but weeks and months of training. This can be as simple as picking rep targets for each exercise and then changing them every month. For example, you can pick a given rep target, and repeat sets until the rep target can’t be met any more (i.e. fatigue prevents you from being able to continue doing that load and rep combination). What load would you use? Well, in my case, I have decades of training under my belt to pull from, so I know what is appropriate. I can choose a load that is both difficult enough to generate fatigue set to set, but also submaximal enough to allow me to crank out a few sets before I can no longer continue doing sets with that load for the target number of reps. Less experienced lifters might have to start with a guess. Really, you won’t know until you get your hands dirty in the gym. Don’t sweat the details. Figure it out on any given training day, and then just execute. How many sets? Again, you really won’t know, as this is dictated by how quickly you fatigue on the day (this is where the autoregulation comes in). However, what you do know is that you stop on the set that you cannot meet your rep target. I am not a very good judge of RPE, so I decided to make it simple in this manner. I stop the exercise either at max/failure (RPE 10 or occasionally if I miss a rep) or one short of failure (RPE 9). Others who might be a better judge or reps in reserve could use a lower RPE like 8. But in a nutshell, you know your rep targets for each exercise; and you know when to stop any given exercise before you move to the next one. Then, simply rinse and repeat each and every week. I have a spreadsheet that calculates volume load (sets x reps x load) and total repetitions. This ensures that I can keep track and see if I’m either progressing, or at the bare minimum, not regressing.
Daily programming is very easy when you are just trying for a rep target and then auto-regulating load and seeing how many sets you can get. Here is how I set mine up: the first and second sessions of the week my average rep target is 10. That doesn’t mean all my exercises are done for ten reps though. Rather, some exercises have a rep target of 6, the rest a rep target of 15; averaging roughly 10. Then the third and fourth sessions of the week, my average rep target is 15 with a similar setup, some exercises have a rep target of 10 while others a rep target of 20. Now when it comes to monthly or block to block periodization, it’s just as easy. If said parameters were repeated weekly for a period of 4 weeks, then the following 4 weeks would follow the same structure but with lower average rep targets (thus, bringing in some elements of linear periodization). Thus, for the higher intensity block I just use the same setup with lower rep targets. In the first and second sessions of the week the average rep target would be 5, with some exercises assigned a rep target of 3, the rest a rep target of 7. Likewise, the third and fourth sessions of the week the rep target would be 10, some exercises with a rep target of 8 others a rep target of 12. Knowing that you need to keep fatigue from mounting, which will limit your performance, plan a deload in between these 2 blocks of training, and voila! You have a 9-week macrocycle of training planned out (4 weeks of high rep training, 1-week deload, 4 week of low rep training). Here’s what it looks like on paper with a bare minimum of exercises as an example.
As I mentioned, progress is observed through tracking tonnages (volume load; sets x reps x load) and/or total repetitions. In most cases, the act of training consistently ensures progression and you just let it happen. However, if a reduction in volume through tonnages or total repetitions is observed over the course of a few weeks, here are some things you can do that will help you increase volume in future weeks. In my opinion, this is where it gets fun and you can really let the inner “Ahnold” come out, and you get to experience the joy of self-torture!
- Add an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set once the fatigue stop RPE is met (my favorite)
- Add a drop set once the fatigue stop RPE is met (drop load then rep it out).
- Use rest pause sets to once the fatigue stop RPE is met (do clusters of repetitions separated by 20-30 secs rest after completing your last set).
- Increase all your rep targets by one for a few weeks.
After a few weeks of using any of these techniques, you should be begging for a deload. Then, simply alternate blocks back and forth recycling them over and over again. Alternatively, you can also set up 3 blocks of training and assign different rep targets (low, medium and high) in each block and continuously alternate those blocks, separating each with a deload. With all this said, I am in the infancy of using this system (about 15 weeks now), but I am enjoying the heck out of it. I’m also looking forward to seeing what it might do to my physique in the coming year.