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Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 2

In Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 1, I discussed some basic periodization concepts and mentioned some of the major writers on the topic. Yet, somehow I managed to miss one of the primary proponents of having bodybuilders perform different types of training to maximize appearance: Fred Hatfield.

With his concept of Holistic Training, Dr. Squat may have been one of the first to formalize the idea of training different ‘components’ of a muscle to maximize/optimize growth and appearance. So let’s look at that briefly.

Fred Hatfield’s Holistic Training

In his original holistic training schema, Dr. Hatfield proposed using three different intensity/rep ranges to optimally stimulate a muscle. This included sets of 4-6 done explosively, sets of 12-15 done rhythmically and sets of 40 done fairly slowly. Different types of workouts were done in a fairly complicated cycling pattern (Hatfield called this ABC training) and, frankly, keeping everything straight was a huge pain in the ass.

As a starting point, there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with this schema although I’m going to tech it up a little bit in a second. I also feel that Dr. Squat left out a type of training of utmost importance to the bodybuilder: pure strength training. I’ll discuss that below.

Different “Types” of Muscle Growth

I’m going to assume that anybody reading this magazine has a basic understanding of fiber types. In (very) brief, there are three major types of muscle fibers: Type I (or slow oxidative), Type IIa (fast oxidative/glycolytic) and Type IIx (fast glycolytic). The old Type IIb fibers turn out only to exist in animal models, IIx describes the highest threshold fibers in humans.

Each fiber type has a distinctive physiology in terms of force and growth capability, fatigueability, etc. Type I fibers have the lowest force output and growth potential and take the longest to fatigue and Type II fibers have a higher force output and growth capacity and fatigue more quickly with Type IIa being intermediate between Type I and Type IIx.

We might simplistically look at the rep schemes of holistic training as hitting a given pool of motor units: sets of 4-6 for Type IIx, sets of 12-15 for Type IIa and sets of 40 for Type I. This isn’t necessarily incorrect although it goes a little beyond that.

Dr. Hatfield may have been one of the first Americans to latch onto the idea that there were different components of a muscle that contributed to muscle growth. This goes along with the European idea of myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (this topic is discussed in greater detail in my Ultimate Diet 2.0).

Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to growth of the actual contractile component of the muscle fiber while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to growth of everything else: glycogen, water, minerals, mitochondria and capillaries. The key thing to note is that each component requires a differential type of stress to stimulate growth.

The Role of Pure Strength Training for Bodybuilders

As I mentioned above, the one thing that Hatfield (as I recall anyhow) left out of his holistic training was pure strength training. This can describe a lot of different types of training but let’s define it hear as anything below 5 reps. Heavy sets of 2 and 3 (doubles and triples) with a near maximum weight for example.

The key thing to realize is that strength production is a combination of both muscular and neurological factors: a variety of neural adaptations takes place in response to pure strength training that increases strength output without making people bigger.

I know that there is a long-held belief that there is an absolute relationship between strength and size but it’s not that simple: athletes like power- and Olympic lifters increase strength without getting any bigger all the time and they do it by maximizing neural factors.

Now, I suspect that most bodybuilders could give the first shit about being strong, the sport is all about being big and freaky. But I will argue that improving the neural components of strength will help you get even bigger in the long run. The reason, actually, is fairly simple.

Stimulating myofibrillar growth means imposing some combination of tension, fatigue and damage components onto muscle fibers (stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is more about fatigue and energy depletion than tension per se).

By improving strength in low rep ranges with pure strength training, bodybuilders can use more weight in higher rep ranges. This means more tension, more damage and more ultimate growth. It’s also nice to actually be as strong as you look: too many big but ultimately weak bodybuilders walking around out there in my opinion.

Intensity Zones

So with that introduction taken care of, let’s talk about intensity zones, since that is a key concept to all periodization schemes. The one problem I had with Hatfield’s scheme is that it wasn’t necessarily specific enough. As coaches like Charles Poliquin have pointed out, the issue of time under tension may be just as important to the overall growth stimulus as rep count per se.

That is to say that 5 reps done in 60 seconds (a very slow tempo) isn’t the same as 5 reps done in 30 seconds or 5 reps done in 5 seconds. The first would be most likely to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the second myofibrillar hypertrophy and the third pure strength and power.

As another example, I’ve seen folks perform 40 reps (Hatfield’s “long” set) in 40 seconds which is defeating the purpose: a timed set of 60-120 seconds with no focus on reps would be more beneficial. So let’s look at the different intensity zones.

Pure Strength Training

The goal of pure strength training is to improve the neural components of strength production. Weight should be 85% of 1 repetition maximum or higher. Sets should last 20 seconds or less. Generally 5 reps or less done with a 2-3 second negative. Lift as fast as possible. Typically compound exercises such as squats, bench press, power clean, deadlift, etc. are chosen.

Isolation exercises can be used for this type of training but your form has to be perfect or you’ll probably get hurt. Strength athletes commonly do many, many sets (6-10 sets of 2-3) but they are usually only focusing on a handful of lifts. A bodybuilder may need to hit more bodyparts which would mean cutting the total number of sets done.

Intensive Bodybuilding Method (i.e. Powerbuilding)

The goal of this zone is to increase myofibrillar size and muscle density. This zone also increases maximal strength although not to the degree that pure strength training does. Weight would be in the 80-85% of 1 RM range. Set length ranges from 20-30 seconds. A generic approach might be repeat sets of 4-6 reps on a 3-4 second down, no pause, 1 up tempo.

Rest periods should be about 3 minutes between sets. Depending on volume tolerance and the number of exercises performed, anywhere from 2 to 8 sets per bodypart might be done. As with strength training, compound exercises are usually preferred; isolation exercises can be done but only with picture perfect form.

Extensive Bodybuilding Method

The goal of this zone is a combination of myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy with the lower end of the range (6-8 reps) being more geared towards myofibrillar growth (with some strength gains) and the higher end of the range (10-12 or even 15 reps) geared towards more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Due to glycogen depletion, there will be an increase in glycogen and water (pump growth) storage, especially in the higher rep ranges.

Weights should be in the 70-80% of 1RM range with set length lasting from 30-45 (or 60) seconds. Rest periods are generally 1-2 minutes. Anywhere from 6-12 repetitions or so on a 3 down, 2 up tempo. Anywhere from 3-6 sets might be done. Anal compulsive bodybuilders could probably subdivide this category into two different ranges, one spanning the 6-8 rep range and the other spanning the 12-15 rep range. A mix of compound or isolation exercises can be done in this zone.

Really Extensive Bodybuilding Method

No, I’m not good at thinking up clever names for training like the other writers in this field.  The goal of this zone is purely sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, with the emphasis on capillarization and mitochondria moreso than on the other components such as glycogen.

As I mentioned above, I think the best approach to this type of training is to forget about reps and do 1 or 2 timed sets of 1-2 minutes with the goal being continuous movement. I would generally recommend isolation exercises above the compounds on this one. Admittedly, you’ll see god if you try to squat continuously for 2 minutes (which I once had a mountain biker I was training do) but you tend to fatigue cardiovascularly when you use those types of exercises.

Training vs. Maintenance Loads

Ok, now you’re thinking that there’s no way in hell you can possibly hit everything I described above, you’d be in the gym for 4 hours every day. Obviously trying to follow 6 sets of 2 in the squat with 4-5 sets of 4-6 with 2-3 sets of 12-15 with 1-2 sets of 1-2 minutes would be an absurd workload.

One thing to realize is that though I’ve made it look like each intensity zone is a distinct entity, please understand that that’s not the case. As I indicated above, there is a certain amount of carryover between zones and it’s better to think of training on a continuum. So even though intensive bodybuilding has as its main goal myofibrillar growth, there are still going to be strength gains.

Sets of 6-8 will generate similar (but not identical) adaptations to the 4-6 rep range and the 12-15 rep range will generate similar (but not identical) adaptations to the 1-2 minute range. This allows for some consolidation of training when you start designing programs.

This is also where the whole concept of periodization comes in. The thing to realize is that it’s unrealistic to try and hit all components of a muscle sufficiently all at once. Even endurance weenies, who are known for trying to shotgun their training (distance one day, hills another, intervals a third, technique a fourth) are learning that it’s better to focus on one or two components of training during a given cycle and maintain everything else with the focus changing throughout the training year.

So in any given 6-8 week cycle, you would choose to focus on one or two of the above components (there are 4 total but remember the overlap) and simply maintain the others. What does this mean exactly?

Research has found that, in both endurance and strength training, the amount of work you need to maintain something is far far less than what’s needed to increase it. In general, you can cut the volume and frequency by 2/3rds as long as you maintain the intensity and you can maintain a given capacity for quite some time.

So say you were doing 6 set of 2 twice per week to improve strength in the squat during one cycle. In the next you could maintain by performing 2 sets of 2 once or twice per week. The same would hold for the other components of training.

I guess while I’m on the topic, I should address training frequency briefly. In the example workouts I’m going to present in part 3 (sorry, I have to get this finished or Justin will have me head), I’m going to assume a body part training frequency of twice per week since I consider that, on average, to be the minimum for natural trainees to make good gains in strength or size. All of the numbers below assume that frequency. Obviously if you use a different bodypart training frequency, you’ll have to adjust training to compensate.

With that said, here’s a chart indicating both training and maintaining loads for each of the different intensity zones of training.

Training and Maintaining Loads

In Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 3, I’ll start to look at some application of all of this with some sample workouts.

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5 thoughts on “Periodization for Bodybuilders: Part 2

  1. During a 3-4 week strength phase, how should we work the abs? I mean, should we go heavy with abs too?

  2. Lulz @ Freddy…

    Typical gym-rat question.

  3. Wouldn’t training low reps (1-5) or even 6-8 at the same time as doing high rep sets upwards of 2 minutes send mixed messages to the type IIa fibers? They wouldn’t know if they should express themselves more oxidatively or more anaerobically. Wouldn’t this go against the whole “you can’t sit on 2 horses if you only have one ass” thing?

  4. Ed: Since the goal here is growth, I’m not sure that worrying about oxidative vs. anaerobic expression is terribly relevant. As well, the explicit goal of the long sets (if you bother with them) is more training the Type I fibers anyhow.

  5. Lyle
    Need Your thoughts on this

    This was my question to the author of the website…
    First of all would like to say i like reading your articles and your non biased and non influenced view upon which you present the articles.
    Firstly i am a personal trainer from australia and im currently working to studying my degree in nutrition, upon the hopes of one day presenting an actual and factual no bullshit account of the truths of muscle building.
    Your article on are body builders just “glycogen”, appealed to me quite astoundingly as this is one “idea” or “concept”, that im trying to establish the truth of.
    So i really apprichate your view on the subject and would like your thoughts on the following questions if you have the time.
    Ok so the theory that bodybuilders are just puffed up water weight or stored glycogen ect, is something that is intriging me.
    Take for instance the “standard” rep recomendations for the “different” types of muscular growth ect.
    ok so take for instance 1 to 3 reps near but not to failure on a cycling programme focued on above 85 percent max weight will allow for maximum neurological strength gains with little increase in the size or volume of the muscle.
    Now say 3- 8 reps reaching failure ensuring maximum weight to failure low volume would focus more on the ” myofibrillar” growth of the actual muscle.
    Now in terms of sacroplasmic growth from everything that i have learnt, read, studied, this would be higher rep ranges to failure more reps more sets = more fatigue which requires different adaptions of the muscles.
    eg. due to this fatigue of reps and sets ect the body adapts to increase its storage capicity of atp, creatine, glycogen, ect in order to handle this “differnt” stress and metabolic requirement that has been handed to it.
    Put bloody simply, its been run into the ground and fatigued, it adapts in order to handle this stress next time better.
    Ok so for instance focuses on increasing strenght reguardless of rep range, ( since increased volume or a better wording increased strength or load over time), is the only proven requirment of building muscle, then if this occurs reguardless of the rep range there will me adaptions int he myfibrillar context. EVEN IF is is a pump and rep typical bodybuilder workout.
    Now we have established that one can increas size without strength, one can increase strength and actual myfibrillar growth and some volume and myfrib growth.
    So the question that i ask to you is you state that there really is no scientific evidence of sacroplasmic growth, take the follwoing for example./
    Take a trained person who has been focusing on max strength in terms of 4 -8 reps to failure 1 or two sets with decent gains in the past year in so called “true” muscle growth, hard dense and compact.
    Now if for a month you switch this person to a pump and rep high stress high fatigue routine focusing on “sacroplasmic”,growth you will undoubtedly see a very visible and scale measurable increase in the size, growth and volume of the individuals muscles due to the increase storage of glycogen, creatine ect.
    This will happen, the individual is allready adavnced growthwise and strenght wise so this growth is comming directly from what you have “appeard”, to disprove doesnt actually exist.
    Now if this person returns to there normal programme after sometime this “sacroplasmic” growth will receed due to the bodys no further requirment to keep the extra energy storage becaused its no longer being stressed and fatigued in this manner.
    Would love as detailed a reply on your thoughts to this in contrast to what you wrote in your article.
    My belief is that this Growth does actually occur and the increasced cell volume and storage is a definitive thing.

    What are your thoughts on this that sacroplasmic growth doesnt acually exist???
    Respect your knowledge and thoughts and would very greatly apprichate your thoughts on the topic especially lyle. Im all for the no bull answers and concepts which is all part of the book im currently writing.
    Your thoughts are indeed respected.
    Cheers mark

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