Just like nutrition, training should have different phases you go through to make sure it is most effective. Even when your goal is singular (build lean muscle), it will improve your outcome over the long term to go through these different phases.
Before we dig in, credit for these concepts is due to the team at N1 Education. If you're a coach looking to learn more about these methods, we highly recommend you check out their education courses.
THE 3 PHASES IN HYPERTROPHY TRAINING ARE:
→ Strength (a.k.a. neurological)
You can think of hypertrophy as the main overarching goal, so you’ll spend the most amount of time there. Then think of strength and metabolic work as supporting phases to improve your hypertrophic response, and stimulate adaptations that will potentiate better responses the next time you’re in a hypertrophy phase. They are ways to bring up weaknesses, so that you aren’t being held back by your strength or metabolic conditioning.
Why periodize instead of just always focus on hypertrophy?
Think about training for a 5K run.
For a while you can make progress by just running the 5K for all of your training sessions. After a while though, the 5K run itself isn’t what is holding you back from improving.
→ Maybe it’s your speed, or finishing kick. In that case you would add in some speed work to improve that aspect of your running.
→ Maybe it’s endurance. In that case you would add in some longer distance runs.
Even though these aren’t specific to the 5K race, they’ll indirectly improve your performance by bringing up your weak links.
Another benefit of using different training stimuli is you can avoid full deload weeks, and instead use a different training phase to act as a deload.
Let’s say you are doing just hypertrophy training for the full year. About every 4th or 5th week you’d need a deload to bring training fatigue down and recover. That means you’ll take about 10 deloads in a year. That’s 10 weeks of not making forward progress.
If instead you take that time and just pivot to another training stimulus, you’re still making progress, just on a different energy system. For example if you’ve been doing metabolic work for the past 2-3 months and you notice you aren’t getting the same progress out of that training stimulus as you had been at first, you can pivot to a neurological phase. This would effectively be a ‘deload’ on your metabolic system and allow the fatigue generated there to dissipate, but you’ll now be making strength progress.
So what are the three phases?
A strength phase, also called a neurological phase, is where you build strength and motor unit recruitment you can carry forward into hypertrophy phases.
Imagine you can perform a lift in a hypertrophy phase for a set of 10 with 100 pounds. If your weak link is your strength, then going into a strength phase and building up strength in the 4-6 rep range means you’ll recruit more muscle fibers and go back to the hypertrophy phase lifting either more weight or more reps in that same lift.
STRENGTH PHASE CHARACTERISTICS:
→ Relatively low reps (usually in the 4-6 rep range)
→ Relatively longer rest periods (usually 2-4 minutes)
→ Fairly low time under tension
→ Low fatigue and usually not using intensification techniques like drop sets or supersets
→ You’ll use the heavier loads
Example of a strength set:
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: 4x4 (1 RIR): 120 Seconds rest between sets
Strength in this case isn’t talking about a powerlifting or even necessarily a “powerbuilding” program.
Most people will automatically think “bench, squat, deadlift, overhead press” when you say you’re in a strength phase.
While those types of exercises do lend themselves well to low reps and heavy weight, in this case you can use very similar exercise selection as you would in a hypertrophy or metabolic phase, but you’re using more straight sets, less intensification techniques, and a different shorter work to rest ratio.
Strength or neuro phases are great for anyone with high stress.
This means someone who has a high amount of psychological stress, big life events, job changes, etc. or someone who has a high amount of physiological stress from dieting, especially dieting on an aggressive calorie deficit intake or for a prolonged amount of time.
One really great thing about a neuro/strength phase is you can shift your focus a bit toward metrics.
Form is still the number one importance here, but within that parameter of good form and executing each rep properly, you can focus on adding weight and/or reps to the lift over time. This gives some short-term gratification in hypertrophy which in and of itself is a very slow grind goal.
Hypertrophy is where you’ll spend most of your time if your goal is to build muscle. This is the phase where you’re focused on maximizing muscle growth.
HYPERTROPHY PHASE CHARACTERISTICS:
→ Moderate rep range (usually 8-12)
→ Moderate rest periods (anywhere from 30 seconds to 120 seconds, depending on the 'compoundedness' of the movement)
→ Most amount of sets to failure compared to the other phases
Example of a hypertrophy set: Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: 3x10 (1 RIR): 90 Seconds rest between sets
The main goal of a hypertrophy phase is mechanical tension, which is tension/pulling on the individual fibers of the muscles, to create a stimulus for the muscle to grow larger.
For anyone with body composition goals (a.k.a. most of our clients), this is where you’ll spend most of your time across the year (assuming you are eating to support hypertrophy.)
Metabolic phases improve the utilization of carbohydrates for fuel, improve systemic conditioning and local conditioning of each muscle.
The metabolic phase isn’t meant to be done in a severely calorie restricted or carb restricted state because of its high glucose (carb) demand.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A METABOLIC PHASE:
→ Relatively higher rep range
→ Higher work to rest ratio
→ Rate limiter is local fatigue/burn or systemic cardio fatigue
Example of a metabolic set: 3x8 Hip dominant squat → Superset with 3x8 45 degree hip extension
To improve systemic conditioning you’ll be pairing or performing large compound exercises with a relatively short rest period between sets to challenge your cardiovascular system and total body recovery.
Improving your systemic conditioning will mean when you go back to hypertrophy training you’ll be able to push harder in sets without getting gassed and needing to end the set due to heart rate instead of being able to fully fatigue the target muscle.
To improve local conditioning in a metabolic phase you’ll be pairing smaller muscle groups or the same muscle group in supersets, i.e. preacher curls supersetted with incline bicep curls.
Doing this will train the muscle to handle more fatigue and train the liver to get better conditioned at converting metabolic waste.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Think of a video game avatar where you’re building your own player. You may have different attributes you can give them like strength, speed, power, jumping ability, and so on.
You’ll have some of these that are maxed out, and some that are lower. Bringing up your lowest one (i.e. the one with the most trainability) is where you’ll make the most improvement overall.
At some point, you reach your threshold for trainability in each given phase. You can think of trainability as the amount of progress/adaptations you have left in you before you start to plateau or even decline (or overshoot your recoverability).
If you finish a set of 10 squats and still can’t breath when it’s time to do the next set after 2-3 minutes of rest, you likely have the most trainability in a metabolic phase.
On the other hand if you are relatively weak in your lifts, don’t feel your target muscle during a lift, or abruptly fail a lift instead of having a gradual rep slowdown toward the end of a set, you likely have the most trainability in the neurological phase.
PERIODIZING YOUR TRAINING ACROSS A YEAR
For each person, how they go about deciding which order to go through these phases will be different.
For example, if a client is eating plenty of calories and has been bulking for quite a while in a hypertrophy phase, they will probably benefit most from doing a metabolic phase to bring up their cardio conditioning.
This person will also most likely already be eating plenty of carbs to support a highly glycolytic training phase.
Someone who has only been doing HIIT classes or strictly cardio for their workouts and is new to resistance training might benefit most from starting with a neurological phase to become more efficient at lifting and be able to recruit more muscle fibers.
You can identify these types of trainees because they are the ones who are wobbly under the weight, or seem to fail a lift very suddenly instead of gradually losing rep speed.
Going through a neurological phase will help them connect to the weight, fire more muscle fibers, and get better at the lifts before going into a hypertrophy phase.
Someone who has been dieting for a while on very low calories with limited carb intake should probably stay in a neuro phase since they don’t have the recovery resources for the more demanding training phases.
An example of a someone with a goal to build muscle, eating plenty of carbohydrates, low stress, and has most of their biofeedback optimized might structure their year something like this:
WEEKS 1-8: Hypertrophy phase
Once biofeedback starts to worsen or progress starts to plateau you assess the weak link in training. Let’s say for this person it’s their strength.
WEEKS 9-12: Neuro phase
This person spends 4 weeks in a neuro phase and allows their body to deload and recover from the hypertrophy style training.
WEEKS 13-20: Hypertrophy phase
You go back to hypertrophy and stay here until your progress starts to plateau again.
WEEKS 21-24: Systemic metabolic phase
You spend a mesocycle of training doing systemically metabolic training to improve your cardio and recovery between sets.
WEEKS 25-30: Neuro phase
You go back into a neuro phase to let your body deload from the taxing systemic metabolic phase and bring fatigue back down while working on improving strength.
WEEKS 31-38: Hypertrophy phase
Back into a hypertrophy phase to stimulate more muscle growth. You start to plateau from the localized burn in the muscle rather than the recovery between sets.
WEEKS 39-42: Local metabolic phase
You do a mesocycle in a metabolic phase in order to improve glycogen utilization in the muscle and improve conditioning and recovery of the muscle.
WEEKS 43-46: Neuro phase
You take another neuro phase to deload from the metabolic phase.
WEEKS 47-52: Hypertrophy phase
You finish out the year with another hypertrophy phase.
This is a pretty basic progression through a year, with all of the phases separated out distinctly. You would tailor this to your particular needs and goals.
The three phases exist on a continuum and can of course be combined in different ways, but the basic principle is that a majority of the year is spent in a hypertrophy stimulus with metabolic phases and neurological phases dispersed through the year to help support and potentiate more growth in other phases, without ever needing a full rest or deload where you completely break from making progress.
The important part is using each phase as a tool to address weaknesses and cause improvement, not to get stuck in one phase because it’s your favorite.
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