Notes From the Field: How To Cycle Workouts

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Every coach has their own ideas about what’s the best time to cycle movements. These ideas can range from the dumbass ACE-certified globo-gym trainer that says “You gotta change it up to keep the body guessing!” to the Devout Westside Follower who maintains that you must cycle movements every week and “blast the muscle for assistance work” (without taking into account the training age of the guy he’s advising) all the way to the old school football coach who says you need to “squat, bench, and power clean/deadlift” and when that stops working the answer is to… “Squat, bench, and power clean/deadlift”.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to setting up a training schedule.

I got into some of the issues with cycling movements and skill development a while back in this series of posts on “Muscle Confusion”, so I won’t retread much ground about that. For those who don’t want to re-read that stuff, here’s the Cliff’s Notes for the two sides of the periodization coin:

The pros of not cycling or very long cycles:

-Motor efficiency. By performing these movements over and over again you become very good at them. That all makes sense, right? You want to squat big weight, then practice squatting. This shit isn’t rocket science.

-Potential for greater hypertrophy. If you’re always changing movements up then you’re constantly trying to teach your nervous system (The Boss) new movements. That means that the bulk of your training time will be spent performing exercises inefficiently. That’s not necessarily bad at times (see below), but when it comes to hypertrophy it’ll mean that you’re not hitting the muscles directly as much. Since the limiting factor is more likely to be your muscle fiber recruitment over true muscle fatigue then you stand the risk of not causing as much muscular damage which is a big impetus for growth.

-Ease of planning, etc. If you’re squatting, benching, and cleaning over and over again then it’s pretty easy to plan a workout. On the other hand, if you’re the guy who insists on using every new toy under the sun then workouts can quickly take on a nose bleed-inducing level of complexity (and coming very close to my Who gives a shit? threshold). *Here’s a hint, the best answer is somewhere in the middle.

Ok, so the pros of cycling movements frequently:

-It’s easier to avoid nervous system stress/burnout.
There’s only so long you can keep pounding away at the same movement, especially with relatively heavy loads, before you start to see diminishing and even negative returns. If this wasn’t the case then we’d all bench a grand, right?

For heavy power movements, especially in the 90% of max load and above range, this can happen pretty quickly. Think of the nervous system like a bridge: Lots and lots of light loads can go over it with no difficulty, but if you exceed the weight limit you’re on dangerous ground. You might get away with it once, maybe even twice, but sooner rather than later you’re going to be picking crayfish out of your drawers, fatty.

-The inefficiency of novel movements can result in greater energy demand and thus some extra fat loss. Basically you’re not as good at performing the movements, so you require more energy to do them. Honestly, this is a much bigger deal for cardio than strength training (“good” or efficient runners use shockingly little calories compared to novice runners). In strength training this is balanced out as skilled/efficient lifters lift bigger weights, so the effect is not as cool as it sounds.

-There’s a certain appeal to doing new movements regularly. You become better at doing a lot of different things, which makes you more “athletic”, and it’s more fun. Doing the same shit over and over again is boring. I get it. Just like the wife gets boring when she starts rocking the old sweatpants all the time so does the bench press after three months. Now that sexy new incline bench with the chains… grrr.

Ok, that’s all lovely, right? Now you’ve read all about cycling movements and what effect that can have on your training. But like most fitness pros I’ve just told you a bunch of shit that sounds cool but doesn’t really do you much good. Welcome to the internet, bishes.

Well, I’m going to buck the trend. Here’s how I cycle most of my (intermediate to advanced) clients’ training for maximal effect:

We work the primary movements on short, three or four-week cycles. This allows us to progress heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses in the 3-5 rep range and then get out before burn-out sets in. Could I probably push it longer for my intermediate clients? Probably. However, constantly pushing that envelope is a recipe for injury and stalled progress.

-Key assistance exercises are run on longer cycles such as six weeks, eight weeks, or even longer.
Think chin-ups, dumbbell rows, close-grip bench, Romanian deadlifts, etc. Assistance exercises are usually performed at a lighter load such as multiple sets of 5-10 reps. This is not nearly so draining. Here it behooves us to “practice” the movements for a longer period of time. We practice and then dominate these exercises as the weeks go on, packing on slabs of muscle and building a strong foundation.

-Conditioning is changed frequently (often daily). Conditioning is, by its very nature, muscularly exhaustive but not particularly tough on the nervous system. If CNS stress is increasing then you’re likely going too heavy to be conditioning. In the conditioning portion of my training is when I work on athletic skills, multiple movements, as well as add a touch of uncertainty to the workout.

I’ve found this system works the best both logistically and for results in my own training and for the bulk of my clients once they get beyond the beginner stage. Advanced lifters may have to cycle their main movements more often or they may have to spend more time doing sub-maximal work.

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How do you structure your training? Reply below!

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