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.
Training Program Choice Depends on Training Level
The training program you choose will depend on your level of training advancement. This is best defined by your recovery ability, not how much you can actually lift.
We are all individuals. Someone that can squat 1.5x bodyweight might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another may may need several days to recover. If we were to make recommendations on training frequency and volume based on relative strength, they would be appropriate for some, but woefully inappropriate for others. So, we’ll use recovery capacity to help us decide training program choice.
‘Recovery capacity’ may sound like a rather abstract concept, but a simple way to think of it is how complicated you need to make your training in order to progress.
- Can you add weight or reps to your main exercises at nearly every training session? Excellent, this is called linear progression, it’s the simplest way to do things and you’ll make the fastest progress this way while you can still use it.
- Do you need to alternate training intensities and volume, and split your training into blocks in order to still make progress? This is known as periodization. It comes in many forms but what we’ll discuss on this site for now, will be linear periodization. (The rest can be found in my book.)
To Make The Fastest Gains Use Linear Progression Routines While You Can
When you can increase the weight lifted (or the number of reps performed) from session to session, this is called linear progression. If you can use linear progression for the majority of your exercises then I would consider you to be a novice trainee. Don’t let the word ‘novice’ bruise your ego. If you can use linear progression then you should use linear progression as this is the fastest way to make progress, so don’t try an intermediate progression model (linear periodization) too early.
There are many different training routines that will be suited to a novice trainee, but for reasons discussed in The Core Principles of Effective Training, I recommend a focus on the main compound exercises during this time in a lifter’s career. As practice is important for the learning of proper technique, we will use a high frequency and low number of exercises to start with.
At it’s most basic we have The Big 3 Routine. This will have you performing the squat, bench press and deadlift every training session.
As you gain more proficiency you will need to change things in order to recover sufficiently between sessions and to keep progressing linearly. Usually a small reduction to the number of sets of deadlifts performed each session is sufficient for a first modification.
From there, splitting up your training so that you have more time between training the same compound exercises will give you enough time to recover while still progressing linearly.
If you are new to training the barbell lifts then modifications to your routine may run along this linear progression continuum:
‘Big 3’ Routine → ‘Big 3’ Modified → The A/B split → Three Day Split
There are two key training templates introduced on this site that use linear progression in their examples, ‘The Big 3 Routine’ and ‘Three Day Split Routine’.
If you are a complete novice when it comes to the barbell squat, deadlift or bench press then I would suggest that you start with ‘The Big 3 Routine‘. Go and read that now then come back to this later.
If you have training experience and find you can still progress linearly with most of your exercises then read ‘Progressing from The Big 3 to a Split Routine.’ This will give you an idea of where to start. Don’t sweat your initial choice too much as you can always change later if you find it too easy, or too difficult to recover from. This article will also introduce you to the essential skill of learning how to adjust your routine when progress stalls, which is one of the essential skills needed for long term success. (People often fail to learn this, choosing to instead jump blindly from routine to routine when progress stalls, never learning the broader principles of tailoring things for themselves.)
If you’d consider yourself an experienced trainee try the ‘Three Day Split Routine‘ to see if you can progress linearly first by splitting things up in that way before moving onto a routine that uses linear periodization.
Linear Periodization, For When Linear Progression No Longer Works
When you can no longer progress by either moving up the linear progression training continuum, or creeping up your calorie intake (which is often the block to recovery and growth), you will have to add in elements of periodization.
I had Greg Nuckols explain the reason for this in a guest post on the site a while back with this rather informal but conceptually easy to understand model:
- 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 amount 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 load you’re lifting, increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session. – You cut back on the load on the bar, 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.
Workload/training volume = sets x reps x load
There are many ways this can be done. I’ll cover this in a subsequent article. For now, check out Greg’s guest article, ‘What To Do When You’re Done With Your Linear Progression Strength Training Program.’
The Difference Between Cutting and Bulking
When bulking the difference in your routine will be the amount of volume you can handle. You will have an energy surplus and so recovery capacity will be higher. As you switch from a cut to a bulk the addition of more sets to your current exercises, or adding exercises (possibly one or two compound movements per session and an accessory movement or two), is a good idea. If you switch from a bulk to a cut then the reduction of training volume made in a similar way is a good idea.
All of the routines mentioned above will work for a cut. You may add volume to them for a bulk.
Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.
If you are in calorie deficit circumstances and strength gains are no longer forthcoming, though you could pursue further strength gains by introducing more complicated programming elements like periodization, often it just needs to be accepted that further progression will need to wait until the cut ends. – The blockage to progress is the calorie deficit. Your goal in this situation is to maintain your training adaptations for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake. A rough way to gauge this is to strive to maintain your strength in the main compound movements.
How much progress can be made while cutting?
On average, for someone let’s say cutting from 20% body fat to a stage shredded 5%, they’ll make progress during the first 1/3 of the cut, work to maintain their progress during the middle third, and then probably regress a little in the last 1/3 as they get below 9% body fat. Now, as the vast majority of clients aren’t destined for the stage, regressions don’t typically happen to any significant extent at all. They usually make progress until they get down to around 13-14% body fat, after which point the training is often mainly about maintaining what they have.
But this is just averages, and there aren’t any average cases.
- It’s rare that people are equally experienced in all lifts, some will progress better than others. The bench tends to be one that suffers, but that’s the combination of people generally having more experience here, as well as the loss of fat from the back and chest meaning the bar has to travel further. Any new lift will expect good progress, but that won’t necessarily relate to muscle mass gain while base competency with the movement pattern is gained.
- Some people are coming back to training from a period of time off so they make great progress.
- Some people tell themselves they won’t make any progress in a deficit and that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy (the mind has a powerful effect on the body).
- Some people have life stress come up that hampers how well they respond to the training.
- Lastly, different people are just different. I’ve seen some guys make progress throughout the entirety of a cut. I’ve seen some people just get stuck without explanation. (Though in these latter cases I’m fairly convinced it’s just a lack of belief in themselves that holds them back – poor gym environment, etc. I try to weed these people out in the application process though and just tell them straight – get your arse to a proper gym – which means I rarely see this issue anymore.)
Higher body-fat percentages blur the 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 (their fat stores) 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 novice 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 calorie deficit within recommended limits, will be fine for preserving muscle mass even if it doesn’t eventually lead to the desired strength increases.
Don’t forget about the mechanical disadvantage to being leaner
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.
I’ve said that past a certain level of leanness the goal of simply maintaining strength as you cut is a good one, as that is a 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. (Recall your high school physics class: work = force x distance)
- 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 RoutineAs covered at the start of the article, strength numbers don’t determine what routine you should use, nor do they 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 novice, intermediate, advanced or elite trainee. These are just milestones, 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 novice 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.