Back-Cycling Weights – Q&A

Question: I’ve been stuck lifting certain weights for quite a while now and just started learning about back-cycling weights or doing deloads and building back up in order to break past previous maxes.

I was just wondering, why does this work? How much should you back cycle weights? Should you back-cycle everything at the same time or only lifts that are stalled? Can you do this indefinitely (back-cycle and build back up and just keep repeating, passing your maxes with each cycle)? Also it’d be nice to hear some of your random thoughts
about this concept, and plateauing in general. Thanks!

Answer: Ok, a lot going on here and this is going to be a fairly long answer for a Q&A.  First let’s define terms: Back-cycling in this context refers to a situation where someone deliberately backs off their work weights for some period of time before starting to work back up towards those previous maxes in an attempt to smash through them.

So, for example, someone who had been stuck at 200lbsX8 reps in the bench press (for example) might back up to 80% of that 160 lbs for 8 repetitions and then start working back up in some fashion.  How they work up isn’t that relevant although, as you’ll see, I’ll assume a fairly linear increase.  That isn’t required, one could just as easily work in an undulating fashion back towards their previous maxes.

Mind you, this is only one way to back-cycle but it’s the simplest; you drop back to the realm of 75-85% of your previous best weights and then work back up over some period of time.  How far you drop back and how long you take to build back up depends on a host of factors; one of the primary ones is the length of your training cycle.

As a generality, the longer the training cycle, the longer you spend working fairly submaximally before getting back to your previous maxes.  Many old-school powerlifters would do long 12-16 week cycles where they didn’t even attempt new maxes until the end; you can google Ed Coan’s training as an example of this.  Similarly, Hardgainer author John Christy (RIP) often recommended a 4-6 week submaximal buildup before trying to push past your previous maxes into new territories for months on end (he kept progress going by using small weights and lots of food).

By the same token, the shorter the cycle, the shorter the build-up period.  In my own generic bulking program for example (which can be found on the support forum and I’ll eventually write up here), I use 6-8 week cycles.  It’s for intermediate trainees and I have folks take 2 weeks of sub-maximal work before pushing hard for PR’s for the next 4-6 weeks.  Then they back-cycle  and go again.

With that out of the way, let me address each of the above questions.  First off, why does this work?  There are at least two reasons.  The first has to do with something I won’t detail here called the Fitness-Fatigue model of adaptation.  Simply, training generates both fitness and fatigue and it’s the balance of the two that determines how well you express your fitness.

So for example say you do a hard workout and that increases fitness by 1%, but it also increases fatigue by 1%.  You won’t be any stronger until you rest and the fatigue goes away and the 1% can be ‘seen’.  An added principles is that fatigue goes away faster than fitness.  So when you rest, your fitness hangs around but as fatigue goes away you see the actual strength gains.  This is the basis of tapering for sports; you build up a lot of potential fitness over the cycle of training and then as you taper and let fatigue go away, performance increases.  Backcycling is sort of a taper.  Sort of.

In this vein, as I talked about in Returning to Training After a Layoff – Q&A, many people find that after short layoffs (3-5 days) that they come back stronger.  This is most likely due to the dissipation of fatigue that lets their strength fitness return.  So that’s probably part of it; someone who has been grinding along for weeks or months at the same weights who then drops back lets fatigue go away and they get stronger.  This shows up when they get back to their previous maxes.

Another issue and one that is often forgotten in the world of ‘go heavy or go home’ is that it’s not required to work at maximum to make gains in fitness.  For intermediates, as a a general rule, working in the realm of 80-85% (or 90%) of their best is sufficient to stimulate strength gains.  This is especially true if volume is increased somewhat.

An example will make this more clear. Say that fresh you can do that same 200X8 bench press for one all out set.  If it’s truly a limit set you’re not going to do more than 1 set of 8 with it although you might get multiple sets by dropping reps per set (or lowering the weight).

But let’s say you work in the realm of 170-180 (85-90%). You can probably get 3 or more work sets of 8 at this weight since it’s sub-maximal.  It’s work but you’re not grinding yourself out and you can get far more total repetitions than if you did the one maximum set at 200X8.  Alternately you might do 200X5 reps and get 3-4 sets (15-20 total repetitions vs 8 reps) because none of the sets are maximal.

And both of those approaches, to one degree or another will be stimulating strength gains.  Since this Q&A is about back-cycling, I’ll focus on the first one; just realize that dropping reps and maintaining weight is another way of back-cycling.

In any case, by dropping back to 160X8 for 3-4 sets, not only are you allowing fatigue from the previous training to go away, you’re still stimulating some strength gains.   Sure, maybe not as much as if you were grinding out 200X8 but gains nonetheless because you’re above the 80% threshold.  Then you go to 170X8 for multiple sets and you’re still stimulating strength gains.

Then 180X8, 190X8, 195X8 so that by the time you get back to 200X8, you’ve gotten stronger compared to where you started.   Stronger, such that 200X8 is no longer your maximum.  Which allows you to power through to a new level of strength.  And you might find that you keep making progress for some period of time until you come up against the place where fatigue has outstripped fitness.  Which is where you plateau and then back-cycle and start over.

In essence by back-cycling, you get back to a place where you can generate at least some strength gains without burning yourself out on maximum weights such that when you get back to your previous maximum level you can surpass it.  The old Hardgainer groups called this ‘gaining momentum’ but basically that’s all this is; you get your fitness moving upwards by working above a certain threshold (but below maximum) and that lets you power through old plateaus.

So that addresses the first question; don’t worry the second and third won’t take nearly as long.  The question of whether to back-cycle only stalled lifts or everything is one of those it depends areas.  Certainly some lifts tend to plateau before others; in general smaller muscle mass exercises seem to plateau sooner than larger muscle group exercises.  And it seems sort of illogical to back-cycle an exercise that is still gaining just because something unrelated has stalled.  Why stop making progress on squats or deads just because bench has stopped moving?

At the same time, you can’t separate everything from everything; there is overlap and all exercises impact on general functioning to one degree or another.  I’d generally say this: if you’re training without any sort of formal structure (i.e. the 2 week run-up to 4-6 weeks hard of my generic bulk), just back-cycle individual lifts as they stall out.  So if bench stalls, back-cycle it and run it back up; don’t back-cycle everything else.  If you are on something more formally structured, I think it’s better to back-cycle everything or stuff gets out of synch.

Finally, will this work indefinitely?  Probably not although I think it will work for more people than realize it for fairly long periods (throughout the intermediate years of training). If it did nobody would ever stop making gains and clearly this isn’t the case.   Eventually you get so close to your limits that you have to start using even more complex schemes to eke out the final bit of progress.  I’d strongly suggest the book Practical Programming for Strength Training by Rippetoe, Kilgore and Pendlay as a good starting place for some of those more complex schemes.

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