If you have been using 5x5 or 3x10 (or any of the popular set and rep schemes for training programs) for an extended period of time, you already know one simple truth.
Linear overloading (adding a little more weight to your previous week's numbers) works well for beginners during their first 6-12 months in the weight room. That's why you can go from squatting an empty bar to 300 pounds in about a year on a lifting program that focuses on weekly linear progress.
However, you can't keep adding 5 pounds to the bar each week for the rest of your life. So after those initial newbie gains, many lifters hit a plateau where their progress stalls and they can't seem to get any stronger despite their continued hard work in the gym.
When adding weight is no longer an option, training loads must be varied and/or progressively increased over time.
So, how do you do that? By alternating between phases of high volume (accumulation) and high intensity (intensification).
In an accumulation phase, you'll be doing moderately heavy sets of 6-12 reps (at or below 80-85% of your 1RM) with shorter rest periods. This is the classic hypertrophy-oriented approach with the goal of adding some muscle to your frame and improving your general work capacity.
In an intensification phase, you'll be lifting 1-5 reps per set, on average. This translates to weights at and above 85% of your 1RM. Lifting heavy weights for lower reps will make you neurally more efficient and allow you to lift even heavier weights in the future.
How to Put This Trick Into Practice
Alternating between accumulation and intensification phases works best with free weight movements where you can train in multiple rep ranges and easily alter the exercise with different hand/limb positions, using a different bar or implement, etc.
So most big barbell lifts fit the bill here. Lateral Raises or Machine Leg Presses? Not so much.
A few good choices to include in your accumulation/intensification training:
- Squat (front, back or box)
- Deadlift (straight or trap bar, conventional or sumo style, off the floor or elevated off blocks)
- Bench Press (flat/incline/floor, regular or close grip)
- Chin-Ups (neutral/pronated/supinated grip, with body weight or external resistance)
Personally, I favor four-week training phases with my athletes. Four weeks is long enough to witness new strength gains, but not so long that the athlete will get bored and burnt out on the same workouts.
However, you could also opt for 3-6 weeks depending on your training goals and background. Highly advanced athletes need to change training stimuli more often than beginner/intermediate athletes to continue seeing gains.
So, let's say your Bench Press max has been stuck at 245 for weeks on end. Accumulation/intensification programming can help you burst through this plateau. Here's an example of what 16 weeks of accumulation/intensification programming for the Bench Press might look like.
Accumulation Phase 1
- Week 1: Bench Press 3x6
- Week 2: Bench Press 3x8
- Week 3: Bench Press 4x8
- Week 4: Bench Press 4x10
Volume (total reps): 18-40
Intensification Phase 1
- Week 1: 15-30 Degree Incline Bench Press 4x3
- Week 2: 15-30 Degree Incline Bench Press 4x3
- Week 3: 15-30 Degree Incline Bench Press 5x3
- Week 4: 15-30 Degree Incline Bench Press 5x3
Volume (total reps): 12-15
Accumulation Phase 2
- Week 1: Floor Press 3x6
- Week 2: Floor Press 3x6
- Week 3: Floor Press 4x6
- Week 4: Floor Press 4x6
Volume (total reps): 18-24
Intensification Phase 2
- Week 1: Bench Press 5x2
- Week 2: Bench Press 5x2
- Week 3: Bench Press 6x1
- Week 4: Bench Press 6x1
Volume (total reps): 6-10
Wrapping It All Up
It's not uncommon to see athletes train with the same exercises and the same rep/set schemes for months on end.
Then, when the gains suddenly stop coming, they wonder why they aren't getting any stronger.
Changing the training stimulus more frequently is an effective way to coax new gains. The two key variables you should vary if you find yourself in a training rut are:
- Exercise selection
- Rep range (and thus, training load)
Just by taking advantage of this very simple programming trick, I guarantee you'll be able to bust through any training plateau you might be banging your head against right now. Progress is fun in any endeavor, and breaking through plateaus can be an addicting and rewarding process for any athlete.
If you're struggling to increase your strength despite continued hard work in the weight room, start using accumulation/intensification programming and you'll be back on the gain train in no time.
Photo Credit: stevecoleimages/iStock
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