From This Issue, January 1985.
While cycling is generally thought to be a training principle used only by weightlifters, with their complicated formulas of percentage of maximums for various lifts and exercises, etc., cycling is a very important principle to apply to your training if you are a bodybuilder too.
The intention of cycling is to prevent staleness, boredom, overtraining, sticking points and plateaus (physically and mentally), and even injuries by varying the intensity of the workout and the amount of weight used in accordance with your energy levels on any particular training day.
The condition of the body is not static; it varies and fluctuates and thus your training must vary too. But so often I'll overhear someone in the gym say, "I can't understand it. Last workout I benched 200 pounds easy and today I can barely get 190 pounds," or, "I don't don't what's the matter today, I'm so weak and tired!"
You must learn to accept these fluctuations as a normal occurrence and learn to train around them.
The amount of energy you have will vary (thus the intensity of your workouts will vary too) due to daily fluctuations in motivation, clearness of goals in your mind, change in priorities in your life, inner satisfaction, general state of your health, amount of sleep, amount and kinds of food eaten, work, stress and other intangible factors you may not even be aware of.
Maximum training places enormous stresses on the body and it needs rest and lighter workloads to recuperate. This is why top champs, realizing the body cannot be trained maximally all the time, usually follow a heavy workout with a lighter, more moderate one. Tom Platz trains his incredible thighs this way, a workout with low reps and heavy weights followed by a workout with high reps and lighter weights.
You have to learn to listen to your body and coax your body along to gains. Except for very short periods of time you cannot blitz or bomb or force your way to progress -- you'll burn yourself and your body chemistry out and overtax the muscles and nervous system -- in other words you'll overtrain. And if you overtrain, you won't gain.
Overtraining upsets the chemical balance of your nervous system and adrenal exhaustion occurs. Vince Gironda often speaks of "over tonis" -- too much work -- which actually results in the body smoothing out and muscles losing size and strength.
But by cycling you alter the stress loads to your body to prevent exhaustion of the body's stress activated chemicals. To use an analogy, when the body is gassed up on high octane fuel you can really go for it and train with maximum intensity but when the body runs out of gas (is exhausted and run down) you are forced by the necessity of the body's condition to rest more, use much lighter weights and to stress the body less until it recuperates and regenerates. If you ain't got it, you can't use it, of as Boyer Coe once told me, "You can't make chicken pie out of chicken sh-t!"
Cycling can also be advantageous to beginners and intermediates who have trouble training regularly. Remember, something is always better than nothing. Training regularly but in accord with your body's daily fluctuations is better than training sporadically.
Many trainees use instinctive training as an excuse for missing training and for slacking off. This is disastrous, especially for the beginning and intermediate bodybuilders who haven't yet made training a habit.
The obvious answer is to train very intensely and heavy on the days you have energy and desire, and on the days you feel down and weak, drop the weight if you must, even drop the number of exercises and sets, but do train.
For bodybuilding purposes there are actually two cycling principles I wish to discuss. One, originally developed by Frank Zane involves dividing your training year into a number of cycles or phases -- each on more intense and progressive than the preceding one.
The second cycling principle is actually a smaller cycle within the overall larger cycle and it helps to ensure steady, continuous progress with few sticking points. More on it later.
Progressive levels of training are not limited to just increasing the weight you use but to time, reducing rest between sets, number of exercises per bodypart, number of sets and amount of days trained. Although the principle is primarily used by advanced people training for contests, it can be adapted for beginning and intermediates too by reducing the number of exercises per bodypart, the number of sets used and the number of training days.
For those advanced trainees interested in contests the idea is to count back 365 days from your biggest contest day or chosen peak. Divide your year into 10 individual periods, each representing periods of increased intensity. Training this way not only gives your body time to slowly adapt to the increased workload of each successive phase or cycle helps you focus in on your short term goals, helping you to eventually reach your long term goals.
The sample routine I am about to give is one Frank Zane used for his Olympia training several years ago when he was in top shape. Thus even fairly advanced builders will have to drop down a notch or two in intensity from the routine outlined; not many can keep up with Frank Zane, who has spent years building up his endurance, recuperative powers and tolerance to heavy training.
PHASE I - For Zane this would start immediately right after the Olympia. He takes a complete layoff from training of 2-4 weeks to heal any injuries and to refresh his mind.
PHASE II - This lasts 2-4 weeks. Zane has low intensity, fun workouts. His intent is to pump some blood into the muscle. He also runs a mile twice a week to build up his endurance and to stay lean.
PHASE III - One month. Train three times per week, one exercise per bodypart, 5 sets each. Train whole body each workout and use pyramid principle (add weight and decrease reps each sets, i.e. 1 x 12,10,8,6,4.
PHASE IV - One month. Train 4 days a week on a split routine. This is the beginning of the gain phase. Use 2 exercises pre bodypart, 5 sets each. Use pyramid principle and add weight whenever possible.
PHASE V - One month. Same as Phase IV, but do 3 exercises per bodypart, 5 sets each.
PHASE VI - 2 months. Train 5 times per week. Gain weight and strength phase. Split body in half working half three times the first week and two times the second week and alternate with the other half of your body. Still use 3 exercises per bodypart, 5 sets each.
PHASE VII - One month. Now train 6 days per week and split your body tree ways:
Each bodypart is worked twice a week. This is the maximum size period. Use 4 exercises per bodypart, 5 sets each for strong bodyparts and up to 30 sets for weak bodyparts.
PHASE VIII - One month. Shaping and muscularity phase. Train 6 days per week but not train each bodypart three times weekly. Sets and number of sets same as Phase VII, but start decreasing rest time between sets from 1 minute to 45 seconds and also start running a mile twice a week.
PHASE IX - One month. Now up to 8 workouts per week (double split). Still 20-30 sets per bodypart. Work lagging bodyparts 3 days in a row. Reduce rest between sets to only 30 seconds and continue to run.
PHASE X - One week. Maximum definition. Zane is now two weeks from the Olympia. He still trains 6 days per week, but now has 9 workouts per week. At this point he stops running but increases his ab workouts and works calves every day.
PHASE XI - One week. Week of the contest. He trains Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday and rests Thursday/Friday/Saturday (contest on Saturday). He works out under Phase X system and works his weakest bodyparts all three days (30 sets each). The last three days he rests and sleeps maximally and practices his posing but doesn't train.
As you can see, this is a very severe schedule but it is set up to allow Zane to go from zero intensity up to absolute maximum intensity over a 12-month period which gives his body time to adapt.
One mistake many trainees, especially beginners, seem to make, is to jump from a 3 day routine, 3 sets per bodypart up to a 6 day, 20 sets per bodypart almost overnight and of course, their bodies are not in condition to make such a huge jump so they overtrain and lose interest in training.
The schedule I'm going to suggest beginners follow gives your bodies plenty of time to adjust to the increased workloads and greatly reduces the chances of going stale and overtraining.
Beginners could divide their year up into a number of phases and cycles but generally add sets and exercises much more slowly than advanced men.
PHASE I - One month. This is the foundation of your entire year's training so this vital phase cannot be rushed over or missed. Train your whole body 3 times per week, one exercise per bodypart, 2 sets per exercise. Use the pyramid principle and add weight and reduce the reps for the second set, e.g., 1x10, 1x8. Use a basic compound exercise for each bodypart -- thighs: squats, chest: bench press, delts: press, etc.
PHASE II - Two months. Same schedule as above but do 3 sets per bodypart for first month and 4 sets per bodypart for the second month.
PHASE III - One month. Same as Phase II but increase to 5 sets per bodypart and try to increase poundage as much as possible. Keep a journal and record the weight used and number of reps for all exercises.
PHASE IV - Two months. Now train 4 days per week on a split routine. Train each bodypart twice weekly. Use a push/pull split -- legs, back, biceps one day; and chest, delts, triceps the other day. Also now use two exercises per bodypart. First two weeks use 2 sets each and the next 4 weeks use 3 sets for the first exercise and 2 sets for the second. Use a compound exercise for your first exercise and an isolation for your second exercise, i.e., bench press, dumbbell flye; squat, leg curl; press, lateral raise.
PHASE V - 3 months. Same schedule as above. First month use 3 sets of each exercise (6 sets total) and for the second month use 7 sets (4, 3) and for the third month use 4 sets each.
PHASE VI - 3 months. Use 3 exercises for weak, lagging bodyparts, 3 sets each, and 2 exercises for strong bodyparts, 3 sets each. Still train 4 days per week. For the second month use 10 sets for weak parts (4, 3, 3) and 7 sets for strong parts (4, 3) and for the third and last month use 11 sets (4, 4, 3) for weak parts and 8 sets for strong (4, 4).
For intermediates your schedule may look something like this:
PHASE I - One month. 3 sets per bodypart, train whole body each workout, 3 times per week. Use compound exercises and pyramid schedule of increasing the weight and decreasing the reps.
PHASE II - One month. Same schedule as above but first two weeks go to 4 sets and the last two weeks go to 5 sets per bodypart.
PHASE III - Two months. Go to a 4 day split routine. Either push/pull (legs, back, biceps, forearms one day, and abs, chest, delts, triceps the other day); or else legs, arms one day; and chest, back, delts the other day. Use 2 exercises per bodypart, 2 sets each the first two weeks, 5 sets (3, 2) for the next 2 weeks and 3 sets each for the next one month.
PHASE IV - Three months. Same schedule as Phase III but continue to add sets every month. 7 sets (4, 3) for the first month, 8 sets (4, 4) for second month, and 9 sets (5, 4) for the last month.
PHASE V - Three months. Go to 3 exercises per bodypart (still train 4 days per week) and use 3 sets per exercise for first month. Use 4 exercises for weak bodyparts (3 sets each) and 3 exercises (3 sets each) for strong in second month and then go to 15 sets for weak parts (4, 4, 4, 3) and 10 sets (4, 3, 3) for strong parts.
PHASE VI - Two months. Same split, same schedule as above but go to 16 sets for weak parts and superset the last two exercises and strong parts do the same. For the last month increase straight and supersets by one set each. That is, weak parts;
5 sets - straight sets
4 sets - supersets
4 sets - supersets.
At the end of Phase VI take a month off and start again at Phase I, but of course you'll be a lot stronger and should be using heavier weights in each cycle.
These routines are only suggestions, to give you a basic idea of how to cycle your training. Depending upon your body type and energy level you may need less or more sets or you may wish to lengthen or shorten some of the cycles. There's no law that says you have to increase up from 5 sets to 6, 7, 8 or 9 sets. If you are happy training at 5 sets per bodypart, and you feel good and are making gains then by all means stick with it. As I said, these are only general guidelines.
You may have noticed that at the start of some of the new cycles or phases you actually start with less sets then you ended the previous cycle with. There is a very good reason for this which I will now discuss.
Doing less sets after having done more in a previous phase is called back cycling and it's really a form of cycling within a larger cycle. While the larger cycle is forever slowly moving forward you sometimes temporarily cycle backwards in a smaller cycle (in a sort of retro-grade motion) to allow yourself to recuperate before putting on a heavy drive forward again.
Back cycling is one of the most important principles you will ever apply to your training. It greatly reduces sticking points in your training. It will enable you to make steady gains in size and strength if you learn to understand it and apply it to your training sensibly.
When your muscles eventually adapt to the present workload and the gains slow down or stop, it seems logical to add even more sets and exercises to your workload. But doing more isn't always better. When your body is ready for it, it can thrive on increased workloads but sometimes it needs less if you are to progress to higher levels of achievement in size and strength.
When you reach a sticking point it is an indication that your body chemistry is upset and that you've overtaxed the mind, the muscles, and your nervous system. Back cycling gives the system a chance to recuperate and gives the muscles and tissue a chance to grow. It also keeps your enthusiasm up.
Basically back cycling amounts to taking one step backwards after taking two steps forward. Your progress in some cases may be slower but over the long haul (because it is steadier and continuous) your gains will be greater. And believe, that makes training a lot more fun!
Using the bench press as an example I'll show you how it works. It's very important that you keep an accurate journal and record the weight used and number or reps for each exercise for each workout or you won't be able to judge how you're progressing and how much to back cycle.
Week 1 - 175 x 8
Week 2 - 180 x 8
Week 3 - 185 x 8
Week 4 - 190 x 8
Week 5 - 190 x 8
At this point a sticking point has been encountered, so take 4-7 days off to give your system a chance to recuperate and then start again. Back cycle to a lower weight.
Week 7 - 185 x 8
Week 8 - 190 x 8
Week 9 - 195 x 8
Week 10 - 200 x 8
Week 11 - 200 x 8
Rest a week and back cycle.
Week 13 - 195 x 8
Week 14 - 200 x 8
Week 15 - 205 x 8
Week 16 - 210 x 8
Week 17 - 210 x 8
Rest, back cycle, continue on.
Generally, most people will hit a sticking point every 3-6 weeks at which point their energy level dives and their enthusiasm wanes. That is the time to rest and back cycle to a lighter weight and reduced workload.
The back cycling gives you a sort of running head start at the beginning of each new cycle and the rest taken before starting each new cycle softens up the muscle tissue and allows for the body chemistry to renew itself, as weell as for the muscle to recuperate and grow and for you to regain your strength. Thus you're ready to use heavy weights when you start your new cycle.
But by back cycling down 10-15 pounds from where you finished your previous cycle you're using weights that you are certain of handling, and this gives you momentum to break past the sticking point you encountered in the previous cycle.
Vince Gironda (above) believes that ideally you should train maximally with super intensity for a maximum of three whole weeks, and then you should rest one whole week. He feels three weeks of hard concentrated training is enough for just about anyone and at that point most bodybuilders become bored and stale.
Staleness is a result of overtaxing the nervous system. Remember, your workouts may not be too hard from the muscles point of view but it may be too much for your nervous system. If you experience shakiness in your hands and legs you know you are working on nerve force and draining your body's energy reserve.
Vince's findings seem to support the back cycle principle and the need for regular cycling of reduced workloads. So rest is not only suggested, it's absolutely necessary and vital. Rest is nature's way of restoring nerves, muscles, the body's chemistry and reserve system, thus your energy and enthusiasm.
Cycling does not just pertain to training. You should cycle your diet too. Don't start with five liver tablets a day and suddenly jump to 50 or 100 a day. Always start slowly, perhaps add one tablet a week to give your digestive system a chance to adjust. With all supplements try and take the minimum amount to get the maximum effect.
If you are underweight and you have trouble eating, slowly add more and more food to your diet. If, for example, you can only eat two eggs before feeling full then don't try and stuff down 10; you'll just get sick. Slowly add one egg every week and perhaps one or two glasses of milk a day and eventually your caloric total will build up.
Use your head and be patient.
Give cycling and back cycling a try and I'm sure you will avoid some of those annoying sticking points and experience some excellent gains.
Enjoy Your Lifting!