What are training cycles?
/two steps back, three steps forward/
The mechanism behind training cycles works as follows:
1.Start with a light weight and build up to heavier loads.
2.Reduce the weight to a level slightly higher than your initial starting point.
3.Build back up again to a new personal record.
Let’s say that your best deadlift is 295lbs for 4 solid reps, and your goal is to add 20-30lbs to the lift in 8-10 weeks. Here’s how it can be done with a simple linear cycle.
Week 1: 220 x 6-8
Week 2: 235 x 6-8
Week 3: 250 x 5
Week 4: 265 x 5
Week 5: 280 x 5 – switch to 10lbs jumps
Week 6: 290 x 5
Week 7: 300 x 5
Week 8: 310 x 3-5
Week 9: 320 x 3
Note: The deadlift does not require a lot of volume to progress. That’s why once a week training is fine.
The weight added each week should be between 3-5% of your best lift. In this case, the number is between 9 and 15 pounds. You can use 10lbs for the whole cycle or 15lbs for the first few weeks before switching to 10lbs.
After this cycle, you can begin a new one with a starting weight around 240lbs.
This linear method works for a long time, and you can get very strong without changing anything for many months if not years.
Back when I was obsessed with lifting, I got to a 197.5 kg/434lbs deadlift for 2 reps at 74kg/165lbs personal bodyweight by following similar 8-10 weeks cycles. I was supposed to hit 205kg/451lbs after another 10-week cycle, but I had problems in my life and lost my passion for a while.
Types of training cycles
There are three main types of training cycles: linear, step and wave. I used the linear one in the example above. The weight increases from week to week until a peak. There is no deload within the cycle.
THE STEP CYCLE
The step cycle requires you to keep the weight the same for a few workouts.
Here’s an example:
Week 1: 245 x 5
Week 2: 245 x 5
Week 3: 260 x 5
Week 4: 260 x 5
Week 5: 275 x 5
Week 6: 275 x 5
Week 7: 290 x 5
Week 8: 290 x 5
Week 9: 300 x 5
Week 10: 300 x 5
Week 11: 310 x 3-4
Week 12: 320 x 3-4
Step cycles are long because you are repeating workouts. In general, they are reserved for more advanced lifters who need more time to recover.
Wave cycles come with a built-in deload session.
Week 1: 265 x 5 – initial light workout
Week 2: 275 x 5 – 10lbs increase
Week 3: 265 x 5 – return to the previous load from the most recent light workout
Week 4: 275 x 5 – repeat the increase once more
Week 5: 285 x 5 – add 10lbs again
Week 6: 275 x 5
Week 7: 285 x 5
Week 8: 295 x 5
Week 9: 285 x 5
Week 10: 295 x 5 – no more waves – time for PRs
Week 11: 305 – 310 x 5
Week 12: 315 – 325 x 3-5
Wave cycles are designed for advanced lifters who need frequent deloads. However, you can use this approach even as a beginner, although it’s not optimal. Nothing bad will happen, it will just take you more time to reach heavier loads.
Why do training cycles work?
I had a friend from high school who didn’t cut his hair four years in a row. Yet his hair was not that long due to an enormous amount of split ends.
When you have a lot of split ends, your hair length cannot increase. The hair grows at the root, but the split ends keep breaking off and offset the growth. Technically, the hair of my friend was growing without getting longer.
If you want to grow longer hair, the solution is to cycle. You let it grow to a certain point, then you remove the split ends to allow the hair to grow even more (three steps forward, two steps backward). Training cycles operate in a similar fashion.
Another phenomenon which explains the logic behind training cycles is the duality in this world. A plus cannot exist without a minus. The examples are endless – a day and a night, birth and death, sleep and awake hours…etc.
Since the science of lifting weights is affected by the very same laws, we can’t close our eyes and pretend that this principle does not exist. Work requires rest. Loading requires deloading.
How big should the jumps be?
Keep them between 3% to 5% of your best weight. When you are really strong, you can make even bigger jumps at the beginning of a cycle.
The jumps depend on the exercise too. The deadlift usually requires 10-20lbs jumps whereas the bench press does not tolerate weight increases above 7lbs.
The jumps can drop to – 0.5kg – 1kg/1-2lbs for exercises like weighted dips, pull-ups, and overhead presses.
Here’s a linear cycle applied to weighted pull-ups:
8 Weeks Pull up Training Cycle
Goal: 30kgx2 / 65lbsx2
Current: 27kgx2 / 60lbs x 2
The jumps should be 3-5% of the max weight (27kg).
In this case, this amounts to a number between 0.81kg and 1.35kg, but I will use 1kg (2lbs) and 1.5 kg (3.5lbs) to make the math easier.
Week 1-3 /1kg jumps/
Week 1: 20×5
Week 2: 21×5
Week 3: 22×5
Week 4-8 /1.5kg jumps/
Week 4: 23.5×3
Week 5: 25×3
Week 6: 26.5×3
Week 7: 28×3
Week 8: 29.5×3 or 30×1-2
Can I cycle forever?
Yes, but the gains will slow down tremendously eventually. Your first 4-8 week cycle may add 20lbs to a lift, but when you are advanced, you may have to spend 12 weeks to add 5-10lbs.
How many work sets should I perform?
I prefer to perform only one top set, but you can do more. Going over 2 work sets could be very painful once you are stronger, though.
One option would be to start with a really high volume such as 10×3 or 5×5 and later cut it to 1×5.
During the first few weeks, 10×3 or 5×5 will feel easy, but as the weight keeps on climbing, you can simply reduce the work sets. This reduction actually acts as a deload. The weight may be increasing, but the volume is decreasing.
Here’s an example:
Week 1: 230 – 5×5
Week 2: 240 – 5×5
Week 3: 250 – 5×5
Week 4: 260 – 5×5 #I hate this world
Week 5: 270 – 5×5 #Am I dead?
Week 6: 280×5,4,2,1 #I must be dead.
Switch to 1-2 work sets for 3 reps. It will feel like a deload.
Week 7: 290 – 2×3
Week 8: 300 – 2×3
Week 9: 310 – 2×3
Week 10: 320×2 – I am tired.
I had to work on a very important project and missed 2 weeks of training. What should I do?
When you miss a workout, you can simply repeat your last one and build back up again. I realize that in some cases it’s hard to have your training interrupted for 12 consecutive weeks. That’s why I prefer shorter 8-10 weeks cycles.
One time under the influence of lifting addiction, I rescheduled a trip to finish a training cycle. Stupid.
Can I apply training cycles to bodyweight exercises?
Let’s say that you can do 20 push-ups in a set and want to increase that number. A good starting point is to cut your reps in two. In our case, we have 10. Here’s a hypothetical cycle.
Workout 1: 5 sets of 10
Workout 2: 5 sets of 11
Workout 3: 5 sets of 12
Workout 4: 5 sets of 13
Workout 5: 5 sets of 14
Workout 6: 5 sets of 15
Workout 7: 5 sets of 16 – starting to hate life
Workout 8: 5 sets of 17 – form is not the best but is still decent
Workout 9: 5 sets of 18 – twilight zone
Workout 10: 5 sets of 19 – I can’t anymore
Rest 5 days, test your max and start again by dividing the new number in half.