Much of my programming, especially in the initial phases, is focused on ‘innervation’ training – emphasising the ‘mind-muscle connection’ and consciously contracting and squeezing the target muscle – typically from unorthodox angles and using sub-maximal weights.
The problem with this is that it won’t build as much overall muscle mass – The weight is light and sets are rarely taken to failure – so there isn’t much force or muscle damage being created to stimulate growth – so the focus is on blood flow and pump to stimulate small improvements.
On the other hand, training for strength, under heavy loads and to failure are all critical factors necessary for growth. Push your body with progressively heavier weights and take yourself to that point of eyeball-bursting pain once in a while and you stimulate the hypertrophic response.
The downside to this is that under these circumstances, the body has absolutely no idea of your goals of thick lower lats, quad sweep, a full upper chest and wide, capped delts. All it cares about is not getting squashed under a heavy bar. So in the interest of survival, it will do whatever it needs to to move the weight.
Your body will emphasise dominant, efficient muscle groups at the expense of your lagging, inefficient body parts. The heavier or closer to failure you go, the more significant this dominance in recruitment becomes – exacerbating issues from both an aesthetic and rehab perspective.
Spending all of your time focusing on beating last week’s performance and continually getting stronger will undoubtedly cause a positive growth response – but you’ll also wind up accruing injuries from failing to correct structural imbalances with dominant body parts will continuing to grow, with your weaknesses become further highlighted.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this – there’s a middle ground. Both approaches are needed to progress optimally. The art of programming comes down to the periodisation of the above – whether it’s within a session or across a training cycle to create a strong, aesthetically pleasing, injury-free physique.
The best piece of advice I can give anyone is to train to a plan.
Periodisation has been around forever. In just about every sport I can think of, there is always a focus on planning out training cycles to achieve certain benchmark goals.
For performance athletes like powerlifters, olympic lifters, gymnasts and fighters, this is common practice – Plan out 16 weeks, or in some cases the entire year, methodically and follow it and peak perfectly for that competition.
Somewhere along the way, most physique athletes completely forgot about this basic principle. Instead of mapping out short and long term goals, and setting realistic training protocols to meet them, I’m seeing a lot of athletes going in and training blindly.
Heavy sets, volume work, forced reps, drop sets, isoholds, supersets and other intensifying techniques are thrown at every workout, with the person driving themselves into the ground every single session, 7 days a week with no rhyme or reason.
Don’t get me wrong, as I said above I’m a huge fan of training hard and training to failure as a basic stimulus for growth – ON OCCASION. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is the overuse of intensifying techniques or load in every single session, and consistently pushing things to failure in a rush for better results. The worst offenders of this generally occurs in the pre contest period, in the last 4-6 weeks.
In most cases, what’s the outcome? Injury, mental burnout and diminished results. I’ve seen a lot of unnecessary injuries and lack of results from people both in their off seasons and pre contest periods from simply training blindly.
There’s a time for everything – and like it or not, a lot of the time, less is more.
While it may sound hardcore to “treat every session like it’s your last”, realistically, you need to come to terms with the fact that like anything, fat loss and muscle growth takes time and intelligent planning.
If you have no idea on how many sets, tonnage and volume you’re performing in a session – and how that relates to other sessions and ultimately a training cycle, then you are training blind and missing out on a lot of useful information and progress.
Here’s what to do..
1) Map out your timeline – where do you want to be in 6-12 months, or more? What goals and deadlines are you setting for yourself long term in terms of strength and size?
2) Set your start point – that’s today. Where are you currently at with respect to structural balance, strength and body composition – relative to your goal?
3) Bridge the gap. Reverse engineer the process. Let’s say you’ve got a goal of adding 5kg of muscle over 12 months – While it’s hard to quantify that into weekly or monthly averages due to physiological variances – we know one thing for sure – for you to be 5kg bigger, you undoubtedly WILL be stronger. So you might start there.
We know relative strength and volume work are both vital for growth – so it comes down to splitting that up into shorter 3-6 week microcycles. We also know how vital it is to maintain integrity of joints and connective tissue, and to preserve and improve structural balance – so that needs to be prioritised as well.
A simple set up may look like this
Phase 1 – Structural Balance & Innervation – high exercise variety, reps and sets
Phase 2 – High Volume – Higher reps, lower sets and weight shifted. Focusing on blood volume and muscle damage.
Phase 3 – Relative Strength- Low volume & reps, higher amount of sets and weight shifted. Focusing on explosiveness and relative strength
Spending anywhere between 3-6 weeks in each phase before repeating.
The next and most important step comes in analysing your data and making informed decisions – How successful was the last phase? What movements worked well? How much strength did I gain? How much did my bodyweight increase, whilst body fat decreased? Did a certain phase yield more benefits to me? How can I adjust this to make it better?
Most importantly – Am I on target to achieve my goal outlined from Day 1? If not.. How can I adjust the next 2-3 microcycles to make up for lost time.
Everyone is individual – some people will yield more from a Relative Strength phase, whilst others thrive of High Volume. There is a caveat emptor to this – Even if you tend to flourish from a particular style of training – it is simply a matter of time before it starts to yield diminishing returns. Knowing when to back off and change into the next phase is crucial for long term success.
The possibilities are endless.