Specialty bars have grown in popularity since Westside Barbell introduced them into their training. While the straight bar may always be king, especially for powerlifters who must use a straight bar in competition, variety never hurt anyone and in a lot of other cases, may prove superior to standard training. Enter the safety squat bar.
A few months back, I wrote a post on competition. If you missed it, check it out here: Who is Your Competition?
Evidently it ruffled a few feathers around town. Heard people calling me (behind my back) everything from a cocksucker to an asshole. All of a sudden I was the renegade gym owner.
Yo Primal Nation!
It has been about a month and a half since my last blog post. Let me apologize for dropping off the radar for a bit. Sometimes life proves tough to fit everything in that you need to accomplish during the course of a day.
One of the first things you lay eyes on when you enter the Primal Strength Gym is a wall of kegs. Once you take a closer look around, you’ll see a wide variety of odd objects like a circus dumbbell, sandbags, slosh pipes, tires, logs, grip tools and other unorthodox equipment.
Popular opinion and bro-science will tell you that you shouldn’t train squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press more than once a week.
It will fry your CNS, lead to overtraining, make you weaker, and lead to injury, they will say.
Go into any gym across the world, and one of the most prevalent lifts you will see is the bench press. It’s one of the first lifts most people learn and a staple for a ton of mass and strength building programs.
But to get bigger and stronger, do you really need to bench press?
Row variations, aside from pull-ups, are the most crucial movements to developing your back.
Two of the most common variations are barbell rows and dumbbell rows. While both are very effective, I will not usually prescribe bent over barbell rows in any of my training programs.
Deload week is one of those concepts that’s engrained into our heads as a way to force feed a recovery period into our training.
You’ll see it in a lot of prominent strength and muscle building routines, and while deloading does work, I will also tell you that the traditional deload is a complete waste of time.
Let me elaborate.
Traditional deloading typically looks like this:
- A planned week of rest (or light activity) following 3 weeks of intense training.
- Intensities ranging from 40-60% of your 1 rep max (RM) for the entire deload week.
- Lots of bodyweight training.
- Mobility and tissue work.
The traditional deload falls into the “recovery” phase. It is followed by the “supercompensation” phase, which I call the “rebound” phase where your body rebounds to come back from fatigue with a heightened level of performance.
The problem with the traditional deload doesn’t lie in its premise or concept as it relates to recovery. The guidelines for a deload are effective and have a time and place; but the problem lies in that it fails to take into account the specific needs and performance variances of the individual.
So Do You Really Need to Deload Every Four Weeks?
Of course not.
I’ve personally had intense training cycles last for upwards of 6-8 weeks before I saw any dip in performance. If I would have taken a prescribed deload week, I would have lost a week of heightened performance and gains.
Let me put it to you another way. One week of deload for every four weeks of training equates to 13 weeks off from training per year. That’s not a recipe for success.
Maybe there comes a point when you need to take a week off. That is up to you. For me, and most people I know/train, those times are few and far between. In fact, I usually feel worse after a week off and have to play catch up from taking the extra rest time.
With that being said, there are better ways to deload.
A Better Way to Deload
A much better way to approach your deload is through a concept called cybernetic periodization, a term coined by sports scientist Mel Siff.
Cybernetic periodization is essentially programming your deload days according to how the weights feel that certain day. Doing it this way allows you to account for the daily variances in your training as opposed to putting blanket guidelines on yourself.
For example, I had a girl come into the Primal Strength Gym about a month ago. We were talking and she was expressing disappointment that it was deload day.
As she was warming up, she realized that the weights felt light and her body was primed to perform. A prescribed arbitrary deload was not optimal for her progress that day. Instead of a deload, she kept pushing the weights higher and higher.
The result? She set a 10lb deadlift personal record.
Never sacrifice training performance and momentum for prescribed deload days. Ride the highs for as long as you can take them.
(Note: There is a difference between riding the highs and not being honest with the feedback your body is giving you (the key to using cybernetic periodization). Ignoring negative feedback from your body is a pathway to crashing and injury.)
#1: Autoregulatory Deload
In non-scientific terms, I call this the “play it by ear” deload. This deload is simple in concept, but it may take an advanced lifter to recognize when to apply it.
Essentially, you have no prescribed deload days. As with any program, your training volume and intensity will cycle but there are absolutely no planned deload days (not to be confused with days off in the training program).
Instead, you deload based solely on how your body feels on that given day. This takes honest self assessment and heightened body awareness but in my opinion, this is the best deload strategy you can use.
How do you put this into practice?
- Weights feel light and your body says it’s time for Hulk Smash?
- Push yourself to the extreme and aim for some PRs.
- Weights feel moderate and you have good energy?
- Push yourself above par but no need to max out.
- Weights feel sort of heavy and energy levels are so-so?
- Follow the program and meet your expectations, but don’t push yourself too hard. Technique above intensity.
- Weights feel like immovable lead and you feel like shit?
- Deload to 40-60% of your 1RM and back off the volume.
- Walk away after a thorough warm-up and self assessment. Give it a honest shot (some of my best days have actually come after starting sluggishly), but take the day off from the bar if need be and get some solid stretching and foam rolling in.
#2: Max Effort Deload
This one is similar to the “play it by ear” deload but it has a prescribed rest period while still utilizing cybernetic periodization.
Basically, you will plan to have two consecutive deload days within a 4-8 week training window (around week 6 is most common). They are not scheduled but you will base the deload days on how you feel in a given day.
As soon as you hit a “feel like shit” day that I mentioned earlier, your two day deload starts. In this two day window you will:
- Drop the intensity of your max effort barbell lifts to 40-60% of your 1RM
- Or drop the max effort barbell lifts entirely and focus solely on accessory work.
After those two days, you can ramp your training back up and start progressing as normal.
- A deload is effective and will work, but in a traditional sense, it is not optimal or necessary for training progress
- Deload needs to be based on individual needs and feelings, not prescribed programming
- Cybernetic periodization should be the main factor in deload programming
- There are two optimal ways to deload
- Autoregulatory Deload
- Max Effort Deload
- Deload programming requires honest self assessment and being in tune with your body
- DO NOT sacrifice performance and training momentum because a program says you have to deload
All the best Primal Nation,
As a strength coach, I do a lot of reading, not only in published articles and blog posts, but especially the comments sections.
I do this for a number of reasons, the most important being education. Part of that education is being in tune with the fitness market and where people are going wrong, which helps me better educate you and shield you from all of the bullshit.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that bro scientists, self-anointed “experts”, and gimmick pushers have completely polluted a lot of people’s perceptions and cemented their minds with false realities. Once this happens, it’s really difficult to change someone’s mind because a perception from a “trusted source” quickly becomes unwavering “truth”.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Challenge perception and seek truth through personal experience.
With that being said, let me give you some truths I’ve learned through blood, sweat, and tears in the iron game. Time to play a little game of perception versus reality.
(There are a lot of embedded links in this post that explain some concepts in detail; be sure to check them out if you need more explanation.)
Perception: Do not train muscle groups more than once a week.
Reality: Of all the training parameters (rest times, intensity, exercise selection, volume, etc.) I’ve played with over the years, training frequency has BY FAR been the most important to making gains. A recent personal example: Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve squatted, deadlifted, benched, and overhead pressed twice a week. Results? I’ve gained 20 pounds and added upwards of 20 pounds to some of my maxes.
Perception: Training for over an hour will wreck your hormones and make you catabolic.
Reality: If you want to get good at something, do you just practice for an hour? Didn’t think so. If you peruse my website, you will see me perpetuate this perception, but mostly that was a way of me trying to get people to eliminate too much time between sets and get people to focus. The reality is that you can train for several hours at a time (and will have to if you are making a lot of strength lifts that require more recovery time between sets) and be just fine.
Perception: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Reality: Depends on your goals. If you are trying to maximize fat loss, it’s not. Our hormonal cycles actually promote fat burning in the morning, so eating breakfast completely halts that. (If you’re trying to gain weight, just eat more later in the day.)
Perception: Eating carbs at night will make you fat.
Reality: Eating carbs all day and eclipsing your daily totals will make you fat. I eat the majority of my carbs at night (but stay within my daily allotment) and maintain 10%-12% bodyfat without a lot of high-intensity cardio.
Perception: Steady state cardio (jogging for example) is the best way to burn fat.
Reality: While your body does burn a higher percentage of fat at lower intensities (50% of calories from fat) versus higher intensities (35% of calories from fat), at higher intensities you burn far more calories overall, ultimately leading to more fat calories (in a much shorter amount of time).
For example, if I walk on the treadmill for an hour and burn 250 calories, I may have burned about 125 calories from fat. But let’s say I train Primal style and run several sets of hill sprints, followed by a high intensity finisher. In about 20 minutes, I could burn 500-600 calories, with 210 calories from fat. One-third of the time and far more fat burn…
Perception: You need to do a ton of cardio and ab work to get a six-pack.
Reality: Abs are made in the kitchen. Want to drop a few pounds? Eat below your maintenance levels. You can sit on your ass all day and lose weight by just cutting a few hundred calories off your daily intake. Use a few high-intensity cardio sessions a week to augment weight lifting and a muscle building diet.
Perception: After 4 weeks of intense training, you need a de-load week.
Reality: Your body will tell you when you need a de-load week, and that could not be for a couple of months. I’ve personally had hardcore training cycles last more than 2 months, making gains the whole time, before my performance dipped and I had to de-load.
Perception: You can’t train for hypertrophy and strength at the same time.
Reality: Yes you can. Training Primal style, we do it all the time. Supplement strength lifts with higher rep accessory work and you will make gains in both.
Perception: Body part splits are the most effective for building muscle.
Reality: Body part splits are great for making newbie gains, but are not as effective as full body or upper-lower split training. Remember what I said about frequency above? Training with a body part split completely eliminates that advantage. Don’t do it…train with an upper-lower split instead.
Perception: Females who lift weights will get huge.
Reality: Women lack the testosterone production to get big naturally. Want to get “toned”? What you are really saying is you want to lose body fat and gain muscle mass. How do you do that? Lift heavy weights.
Perception: Bodyweight training is not effective at building muscle and strength.
Reality: Bodyweight training is very effective if you know how to program it. This means learning the progressions and not sticking with standard variations. Check this out: Top 10 Bodyweight Exercises.
Perception: Muscle isolation is key to hypertrophy.
Reality: If your training volume for each muscle group is on point, isolation is not all that important. My arms are one of the most developed muscles on my body, and I don’t do any direct bicep work, but I work them indirectly all the time through row variations, pull-ups, and pressing. Remember what I said about frequency?
Perception: You need a ton of volume to gain muscle.
Reality: I’ve put on plenty of muscle doing sets of 6. The key is to lift heavy enough weights with an appropriate portion of volume. This means lifting heavy weights (70-85% of your one rep max) for sets of 6-8 for muscle gain. Lifting weights less than 70% of your 1-rep max (1RM) will not produce a significant training effect.
(There is a lot more to this and I’m admittedly oversimplifying the issue. Check out my “How To Series” for me details about which body parts respond well to higher volumes, etc.)
Perception: Circuits/intervals are great for building muscle.
Reality: Depends on a number of factors, but the key here is lifting heavy enough weights for those circuits, which means keeping your volume on the lower side. Sets of more than 12 (per exercise), because they have to be done with relatively low weight (less than 70% of your 1RM), really only train endurance.
Several recent studies have exposed this perception recently. A university study on the popular “Bodypump” class showed participants made no changes to their body composition (no fat loss and no muscle gain) over a 12-week period. Another American Council on Exercise (ACE) study showed P90X participants burned a lot of calories (similar to joggers actually) but had no muscle gain.
The old adage here is to train to your goals. If your main goal is to burn calories, increase endurance, and increase metabolic function/fat loss, circuits are certainly a good option. But if your main goal is to gain muscle, circuits should only be supplemental (short duration/high-intensity finishers) to traditional strength training. If you want to gain muscle, you have to get under the (heavy) bar. Period.
The problem lies in identifying how much is enough and how much is too much.
Training without enough volume will not induce strength or hypertrophy gains, and on the flip-side, too much training volume can lead to CNS fatigue and jeopardized recovery times. Training volume will also vary greatly depending on whether your goals are to gain mass or strength.
Primal policy for hypertrophy is to train predominantly in the 70%-85% of your 1 rep max for sets of no less than 6 reps (primarily 6-8 rep sets).
Total number of sets will vary but you should be aiming to train around 100 solid reps per muscle group per week. I emphasize per week because of my endorsement for higher training frequencies and upper lower splits (versus marathon training sessions and body part splits). I train the same muscle groups multiple days a week so my weekly training volume of 100 reps for each muscle group is split over the course of several sessions.
Each session does not have to be equal; for example on a upper-body day where I emphasize bench press, my training volume for chest will be on the higher side and I’ll round out my 100 reps for chest in a smaller workout a few days later.
I don’t have any solid recommendations for training volume when training for strength because strength gains are largely focused on training intensity.
If I’m trying to increase my deadlift max for example, I may not even eclipse 30 reps in a training week. But I’m also predominantly training with weights greater than 85% of my 1 rep max, so my capacity to handle more training volume is diminished.
Bottom line? Focus on intensity and not volume.
Troubleshooting Training Volume
While 100 reps per muscle group per week is a solid foundation to work from, like any other approach you will need to tweak your training volume as you go based on the gains (or lack thereof) you are making.
The more experienced a lifter you are, the more adept your body will be at handling higher-training volumes. If you are not gaining size with 100 reps per week, bump those numbers up to 120 and re-evaluate your progress.
You may also need to implement more training volume depending on the body part as well. Arms and calves for example respond well to higher training volumes, whereas larger muscles (like legs) take longer to recover and don’t necessarily need more reps for growth.
For some ideas on how to implement more training volume into your programming, check out this post:
All the best,