Are You Ready for the Next Level?

During 1999 and 2000 I wrote and published a series of 12-week training programs for Testosterone. These programs were published as the Limping Series (lower body) and the Twelve Weeks to Super Strength (upper body) programs. There was also an additional 12-week, arm-specialization program titled Great Guns. The upper and lower body programs were also published as one in my book, Get Buffed!.

These articles have proven to be very popular and everyone who's followed them correctly has reported tremendous results. But the truth is the programs almost never came to be. That's because it took T-mag a long time to convince me to present a generic program. I had, for the last 15 years been meeting my standard of service and individualizing every program I'd written. Yes, thousands and thousands of them. (Read long hours, little sleep.) So it was almost blasphemy to put out a generalized program, because as I don't need to tell you, there aren't two identical people on the planet.

Finally, I was convinced that whatever the shortfalls presented by generic programs, they'd be outweighed by the benefits that many would receive. In hindsight I found this to be right. But the bottom line is I'm still not totally happy. My mission is to educate you about your training decisions. This is the underlying theme of the Get Buffed! book.

I knew my ideas could be a bit shocking to the regular bodybuilding audience, so I deliberately kept a few of the things I do in practice out of the original articles. Admittedly, I was also worried that T-mag wouldn't publish such unique and radical programs. So to "gently" introduce my style of training and to avoid any initial confusion, I toned the programs down. Now I feel it's time to step things up and take you to the next level. I'm happy with the original programs, but my desire to push for a greater result in training means I'm not content to leave it there.

I receive many e-mails from people saying how well the12-week "Limping" program worked for them, but they all want to know what to do next. Can they go back and repeat this program or should they wait a while? Sure, you could go back and repeat the program but that would be boring and ultimately not optimal. You could definitely return to this program once a year, leaving you to find three other 12-week programs to do during the calendar year. Or, I could provide you with the next generation of Ian King strength/bodybuilding programs. Hmm, I can hear your heartbeat kick up a notch from here.

So I'm going to take the next step. This is what I'm going to do:

The latter will mean more people will optimize their results, but at the same time it means you'll have to read more carefully and do some thinking for yourself. Don't allow yourself to get too overwhelmed. The process is simple; it's the product that's complex!

The Tools of Individualization

Before I expose you to the second generation of programs, I'm going to introduce you to a few tools of individualization. We won't talk about every individualization tool known to man, but enough to increase the effectiveness of these programs over and above the generic level. We're going to work with six variables which will result in 730 different programs and subsequent training outcomes. Don't worry, though, all you've got to do is pickone.

Enough talk. Let's go! There are six variables in the following discussion and by the end, I want you to have decided which option within each of those variables you're going to use, so get out your training log and take notes. For your information, the base program is a four day a week, calendar day, split routine.

These are the variables we'll exploit to varying degrees:

Here we go!

Body Part Prioritization

There's a very simple but powerful lesson I've learned from my years of personal and practical application: The muscle done first is done best! Just like I said, simple, but don't underestimate its power, which is magnified over time. So if you don't see the impact over a few months, don't fear. It will be as obvious as the dog's balls over a year or more! A negative example of this is when a person does his favorite body part first in the week and first in the workout, every time! The longer this goes on, the worse the imbalance becomes!

This is how we're going to apply a simple exploitation of this concept: I'm breaking the body into three parts upper, lower and trunk. If you're deficient in a body part, do it first in the week all the way through the 12 weeks. If you're balanced in these body parts, then just rotate them.

If you do the upper body on days one and three of the week (first), then they'll get a slightly better training effect than the lower body. If you do the lower body on days one and three, it will get a slightly better training effect than the upper body. If you do the trunk first, then it will receive priority in effort. If done last in the workout, it'll receive the lowest training effect. (If you still cling to the paradigm of "abs first is dangerous", please read my article on ab training here.)

Here are the four options I've created. Pick one now.

Prioritization Body part sequence
L-U-A Lower on A and C days, Upper on B and D days, abs last on all days
U-L-A Upper on A and C days, Lower on B and D days, abs last on all days
A-L-U Abs first on all days and then lower (A and C), upper (B and D)
A-U-L Abs first on all days and then upper (A and C), lower (B and D)

Now that you've made that decision, here's how each will look on the calendar week:

  Sun Mon A Day Tues B Day Wed Thurs C Day Fri D Day Sat
L-U-A   Lower & Abdom Upper & Abdom   Lower & Abdom Upper & Abdom  
U-L-A   Upper & Abdom Lower & Abdom   Upper & Abdom Lower & Abdom  
A-L-U   Abdom & Lower Abdom & Upper   Abdom & Lower Abdom & Upper  
A-U-L   Abdom & Upper Abdom & Lower   Abdom & Upper Abdom & Lower  

Now all you have to do is treat each of the four stages that make up this program as units to be manipulated and decide how to address each stage. No, you don't have to apply the same sequence to stage two and beyond because you used it in stage one. You can use a different sequence in each stage if you want. But remember, there should be a rationale for this; don't just use variety for variety sake. Make sure the sequence reflects your needs at the time.

Loading Parameters

One of the succinct conclusions I've reached from years of training participation is that the more advanced you become, the lower the repetition number that you'll probably get the best response to. Put simply, sets of 12 may have worked in the early stage, but chances are that five years later your intuition will tell you that you need to be averaging around six or so reps. And as time goes on, this may go down. What was once a neuromuscular loading for you is now a hypertrophy rep! In later years, you may find yourself becoming non-responsive to higher reps.

This individual response is not only a function of training age, it may also be a product of training history, training goals, sub-cultural influences, fiber type, genetics, recovery capacity and so on. People spend years studying each of these variables, but we aren't going to here! Let's just keep the process simple, allocate the bulk of this phenomenon to training age or training goals, and pick one of the following options.

To cater to these powerful variables, I'm going to create three options of loading parameters. You don't have to fully understand what I'm doing, just what you need to do, which is to pick one option. These are the three options I'm going to create and provide throughout the 12 week programs:

Option Variables Manipulated to Achieve Effect
  Sequence Reps (and therefore loading) Rest periods
Hypertrophy dominant goals; and/or early training age Pre-fatigue in hypertrophy phases UHigher numbers and or longer time under tension Shorter, and in hypertrophy phases, more use of tri and super sets
Balance between hypertrophy-neural goals; and/or intermediate training age A mix of pre-fatigue and conventional sequence in hypertrophy phases Medium numbers and or medium time under tension Medium
Neural dominant goals; and/or advanced training age Conventional in hypertrophy phases Lower numbers and or shorter time under tension Longer, including in hypertrophy phases

If you're still unsure, you can easily decide which combination is most suited to you now based on your recent training experiences. In other words, if you're unsure of what decision to make based on this article, then reflect back over the last few years and look for patterns of what worked and what didn't. Which has been more effective for you in the past, higher reps and shorter rests or lower reps and longer rests?

Periodization models

The subject of periodization has gone from a coach's tool to a writer's tool along with the subsequent confusion. Put simply, periodization simply means to plan. There's really no such thing as the Russian way or the American way. There may be patterns of commonality within regions or countries, but the concept of periodization doesn't start and stop with Russia. Now we've demystified the concept, let's work it! Again, in the interests of simplicity, I present two options. I call them linear and alternating. No, they aren't the only ones, but don't throw the baby out with the bath water. If they work for you, use them, trendy or not!

Linear periodization involves a progressive reduction in one variable (e.g. reps) and an inverse change in another variable (e.g. load). Most commonly, a program will start with high reps, low load, and then trend in the other direction. The benefit of linear periodization is that you can work towards your optimal loading in a progressive manner. The downside is that at the start you may be de-training the effects you get at the end, and at the end you may be de-training the effects you may get at the start. Put the downsides on the shelf for the moment. If you're what I'd call a beginner or intermediate trainer, this will work. And it may even work at times in an advanced trainer.

Alternating periodization involves taking a more significant jump up and down in reps and loading. The benefits of alternating periodization is that you get more frequent exposure to the varying stimulus, and thus are less likely to detrain any of them. The downside is that you need to be experienced in load selection, or you may not work near optimal loading – the loading jumps around a lot more. As a beginner I wouldn't rush into using this technique, but as an advanced trainer it's more likely to work for you. Intermediate trainers can go either way.

In these 12 week programs I'll present them in either of the above – all you need to do is pick up on that and change it around. For example, if I say that a program is going to be a linear program like this:

Sample Average Reps
Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
10-20 8-15 6-10 4-8

If you want to make it into an alternating program, do the four stages in this order :

Sample Average Reps
Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
10-20 6-10 8-15 4-8

So in the above chart, you're going to do what was intended in stage three and do it in stage two. Conversely, if I present the 12 week program as an alternating program, such as this:

Sample Average Reps
Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
10-20 6-10 8-15 4-8

If you want to make it into a linear program, do the four stages in this order:

Sample Average Reps
Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
10-20 8-15 6-10 4-8

Don't be sucked into using an alternating or more exotic form of periodization just because it's exotic. The only thing that should matter to you is the result, and you need to apply your intuition and rationale, not your emotions in making this decision.

Rate of change

How many weeks you should stay on one program can be influenced by a lot of variables, but I'm going to focus on the 20% that give 80% of the impact. These include rate of adaptation and exposure to loading.

An experienced person, a person closer to their possible ceiling of possibilities, has less room for improvement and therefore can plateau out more quickly. A relative novice, on the other hand, who has lots of room between their current capacities and their ceiling of possibilities, may experience greater improvement and this improvement may continue over a longer period of time. Literally interpreted, the less experienced you are relative to any given exercise or muscle group, the longer you can and should stay on a program.

Conversely, the more experienced you are, the shorter your exposure should be. When I say program, I'm in particular referring to sets, reps, rest period, speed of movement and exercises. These are the major variables that, when manipulated, constitute a "new program".

The other major influencing variable when talking about rate of change is exposure to intensity. If you're exposed to loading closer to your current maximum early in a program, the time frame you'll probably benefit from staying on that program is diminished. This may be because you're taken closer to your ceiling earlier, or because it creates an earlier onset of residual fatigue – or more likely, both. As I say, we just need to work out what to do. We can leave the "why's" to those who dedicate their life to seeking these answers.

So how do you know which rate of change to use? Most importantly, learn from your experiences. If you've seen a pattern of improvement for "X" number of weeks followed by a sudden reduction or halting of improvement, take note of this pattern. The critical variable is intensity. If you change the intensity from what you did in those examples that gave you insight, you move the goal posts. So I say this: all things being equal (i.e. if you use the same intensity exposure and progression you did previously), you can expect to plateau in "X" weeks.

The most common successful numbers of weeks I've seen and used for adult clients (I say "adult" because kids can often use longer periods) is four, three and two, going from least experienced to most experienced. So if I say this program is a three weeks per stage program and your intuition tells you to use two or four weeks instead, do so! I'd encourage you, however, to apply my progressive intensity models as follows:

Progressive application of intensity for the less experienced lifter, or those wishing to develop the load capacity slowly.

Week No Key Words Example %age loading
1

Focus on technique

Easy loading

No high level fatigue

No failure

80-85% of previous RM (Repetition Maximum)
2

Maintain technical focus

Medium loading

No failure

85-90% of previous RM
3

Maintain technique as load rises

Higher level of fatigue

No failure

95-100% or previous RM
4

Focus on loading with minimal diminishment of technique

Highest level of fatigue short of failing

Don't aim to fail but may occur

100-105% or previous RM

Progressive application of intensity for intermediate lifter.

Week No Key Words Example %age loading
1

Focus on technique

Medium loading

No failure

85-90% of previous RM
2

Maintain technique as load rises

Higher level of fatigue

No failure

95-100% or previous RM
3

Focus on loading with minimal diminishment of technique

Highest level of fatigue short of failing

Don't aim to fail but may occur

100-105% or previous RM

Progressive application of intensity for advanced lifter.

Week No Key Words Example %age loading
1

Focus on technique

Higher level of fatigue

No failure

95-100% or previous RM
2

Focus on loading with minimal diminishment of technique

Highest level of fatigue short of failing

Don't aim to fail but may occur

100-105% or previous RM

These rates of change guidelines are just that - guidelines. I know elite lifters who don't change much over 12 weeks! Remember, I'm not telling you what to do, just giving you some guidance. You decide, and you analyze objectively at the end as to the effectiveness of your decision.

Bilateral Muscle Balance

This is a very strong case of the needs of individuals being met. You may have such a significant imbalance between your right and left arms, that you should never (or at least not until the imbalance is corrected) use a barbell! Yet you may see a program that says "use a barbell" and literally interpret it, against your best interests.

In the second generation Get Buffed! Programs, I'll provide options in at least two out of the four stages for you to chose unilateral (one limb at a time) or bilateral (two limbs together) exercises, depending upon your specific needs. And I want to encourage you to take it to the next level, even when I don't provide the options. If you know it's not in your best interests to be using a barbell or similar bilateral device, don't! Find a suitable unilateral option!

Recovery Models

This concept of recovery weeks or half-recovery weeks is nothing new, at least in training literature. It's a sound training principle applied with regular monotony in most high level sports training programs. Why it hasn't been so applied in general strength training isn't as clear. Is it lack of education? Or is it a lack of control of emotions? ("How could I take a week off? My biceps would fall off!") Maybe it's the opportunity to simply raise the chemical intake when fatigue sets in!

Whatever, most people, when reminiscing about their training pasts, will express key words that tell me instinctively where they should place their recovery weeks. For example: "I go really well for three weeks then I crash." Easy solution, take a recovery week after every three weeks of training!

Sounds simple? It is! Either take the recovery week or modify your exposure to loading along the progressive exposure-to-intensity model I promote, or both. Either way, you won't know until you've tried it. As many smart coaches now know (and I think we can credit Charlie Francis for this), if in doubt do less!

I've created five options that suit a variety of rate-of-change combinations. These are outlined below. To help determine whether the rest week should be a full or half recovery week, read the relevant section in my Get Buffed! book.

Option Total weeks in program if using 4 stages Rate of change combinations it suits
3+1 16 wks 3 week stages
4+1 20 wks 4 week or 2 x 2 week stages
6+1 14 wks 2 x 3 week stages
8+1 9 wks 4 x 2 week stages
12+1 13 wks 4 x 2 wk blocks straight

To clarify things, the column on the left represents how many weeks you'd train before taking a week off. For example, the second line lists "4 + 1" as an option. That means you'd train for 4 weeks before taking a week off. Since this particular program has a total of four phases, you'd be training 4 weeks, taking a week off, training 4 weeks, taking a week off, and so on and so forth until 20 weeks had passed. The third column shows that this system would work well with a phase that took either 4 weeks to complete, or 2 individual phases that were each 2 weeks long in duration.

Which one do you use? Pick one of them and learn from doing! The one thing I can say for sure is if you don't use one of the above or something very similar, you may be short-changing yourself.

Conclusion

By now you should have made a decision as to which option you're going to use within the six variables of individualization that have been identified. If you haven't already made notes, you could print out the page containing the following table and draw a circle around each option you've decided to go with.

Individualization Variables Options
  1 2 3 4 5
Body part L-U-A U-L-A A-L-U A-U-L  
Loading parameters Hypertrophy/ Lower training age Hypertrophy- neural /Medium training age Neural / Advanced training age    
Periodization model Linear Alternating      
Rate of change 4 weeks 3 weeks 2 weeks    
Bilateral muscle balance Unilateral Bilateral      
Recovery models 3+1 4+1 6+1 8+1 12+1

I'll be presenting the programs in stages in the following order:

So, yes, it's going to take a while to piece the program together, but considering the amount of information involved, see this as a bonus!

Be prepared to make some exciting gains in the next few months, T-men!