Advanced Strength/Size Routine Construction Part I:
Rebalancing The Balancing Act
Once you go through the fine-tuning procedure outlined in the 'Making A Strength/Size Routine' series you'll have yourself a good, solid training schedule. That's not to say, however, that it will be perfect. Advanced trainees, especially, will notice one critical thing: Some muscle groups recover faster than others; at least you fully recover from some exercises faster than others. Once you reach a more advanced level you'll probably find that you make optimal gains on certain exercises by training them more or less frequently than other exercises. And, if you think about it, usually the exercises that require the longest rest periods after training are the ones that involve a strong isometric contraction of stabilizing muscles. Borrowing a section from the 'Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training' article on the 'Physiology Related Articles' Page:
Studies on isolated muscle fibers have, indeed, linked reduced sarcoplasmic Ca++ concentrations to fatigue. Specifically, repetitive 'tetanic' contractions of isolated muscles caused a gradual decline of force that was closely associated with a decline in sarcoplasmic Ca++ concentrations (Westerblad & Allen, 1991).
...the problem appears not to be with the Ca++ concentrations in the sarcoplasmic reticulum, or their release channels, but probably as a consequence of impaired T-tubule signaling. During repeated contractions of a muscle fiber, K+ begins 'pooling' in the T-tubules. This results from an inability of the Na+/K+ ATPase Pump to maintain the proper Na+/K+ balance on the sarcolemma (at the T-tubules). This disturbance of the membrane potential in the T-tubules inhibits the conduction of the action potential to the sarcoplasmic reticulum and Ca++ is not optimally released - and, thus, forceful contraction is not achieved.
Incidently, the Ca-Pump is, itself, a major ATP consumer. During isometric contractions (when it's relative ATP consumption is greatest) it is estimated to consume ~30% of the total ATP produced in the muscle cell. This could, theoretically, contribute to declining ATP stores available for cross-bridge formation.
From this we can see that isometric contractions greatly involve the Ca-Pump. If the Ca-Pump is abnormally active then this means that Ca++ must be being released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum at accelerated rates also (the Ca-Pump acts to return Ca++ to the sarcoplasmic reticulum - if it is returning an elevated amount then an elevated amount must have been released). And if Ca++ is being released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum at accelerated rates then K+ 'pooling' in the T-tubules must also be heightened. To cut to the chase, what this all means is that isometric contractions take a significant toll on the signaling processes in muscle cells. This is, in fact, another form of nervous system fatigue because the signal to twitch cannot be effectively transmitted to the interior of the muscle fiber. When it's all said and done you need a longer recovery period after isometric training than after regular concentric training.
But what if you don't do isometric training? Well, if you look a little closer at your training you'll find, in fact, that you do. Squats involve a strong isometric contraction of the muscles of your lower back. If this didn't happen you'd slump forward on your face as you tried to stand up. Likewise, Deadlifts involve the same intense lower back isometrics as do Squats. Consider the fact that, on top of this, the lower back has an abnormally poor blood supply to it's lower regions (less transport of waste products out and all the 'good stuff' in) and you can begin to see why Squats and Deadlifts take so long to recover from. In addition, Squats (as do Deadlifts) inherently require a controlled descent. This means that muscles such as the adductors of the legs and various hip muscles experience a significant eccentric contraction. The eccentric phase actually causes more damage to the individual muscle fibers than the concentric phase (albeit, less total fibers are involved), thus requiring a longer recovery period. Bench Presses involve strong eccentric contractions of the small rotator cuff muscles of the shoulders and, therefore, themselves require a somewhat lengthy recovery period. In fact, most all of the compound exercises involve eccentric and isometric contractions to some degree. That's part of the reason why isolation exercises don't take the same 'toll' on your body as compounds do.
So, back here on planet Earth, what it all comes down to is that you may find you can sucessfully train Squats heavy once every 7 days but Bench Presses heavy once every 5 (just an example). How do you work your routine so that these two training frequencies can peacefully co-exist?
Let Them Fall Where They May
Well, for one, you could train a lift as it's ideal time comes up. Using our example, that means that you would indeed train your Squats every 7 days and your Bench Press every 5. Your training days would then move around in relation to each other and may eventually even all fall on the same day. If you break your exercises into two groups and do half on one training day and half on the other this means eventually your schedule will dictate that you'll have to do both routines on the same day. In that situation you have a couple of choices:
- Do both training routines at once but condense your routine so you don't over-work.
- Postpone one of the days to the next day.
Do both training routines at once but condense your routine so you don't over-work: Using our Bench Presses/Squats example, that means that if you combine your two routines and do a full-body routine you'll then have 5 complete days rest before you train again (when Bench Press day comes around again). That's only appropriate because a full 5 day rest will probably do you good after an intense full-body workout.
Postpone one of the days to the next day: Of course, if you do this you have to keep in mind that you are now training two days in a row - which may present a unneeded load on the central nervous system. Because of this, it may be a good idea to back off on training volume on one or both of those days.
You'll also notice that on the kind of fall-where-they-may schedule we're discussing this type of back-to-back training day situation might occur fairly frequently. This would mean that you'd need to closely watch your overtraining state around those periods. It may be that, due to your personal 'ideal' training frequencies, this type of routine structure just isn't practical.
Before we finish with this kind of routine design one more very important thing has to be considered. Because your training days may fall in very close proximity to each other it is very important that the separate training days contain very little overlap. To illustrate what I'm saying consider what would happen if you placed Deadlifts on day 1 and Squats on day 2. Eventually your schedule would roll around so that you're supposed to Deadlift the day before Squatting. Obviously this would not be a very wise way to train. On this type of schedule overlap has to be very highly considered.
Let's take a look at a sample two-day plan for someone who has determined that he can Squat heavy once every 7 days and Bench Press heavy once every 5. Such a program may look like this:
For Mass and Strength
For Strength and Power
And the schedule would be:
Day of Month - Training Day
1 ---------------- 1
2 ---------------- 2
6 ---------------- 1
9 ---------------- 2
16---------------- 1 & 2
21 --------------- 1
23 --------------- 2
26 --------------- 1
... and so on.
These two routines contain a minimum of overlap. The exception to this is the shoulders; but the shoulders are involved in just about every weight training exercise to some degree, so eliminating overlap there would be nearly impossible. If you did accomplish it your routine would probably be worthless by that point. You'll also notice that these two routines are taken straight from Part V of the 'Making A Strength/Size Routine' series - they were designed with minimum overlap in the first place. The reason was so that the routines could be repeated as frequently as possible, without interfering with each other.
But even on a schedule such as this you may not be able to cover all the bases. For instance, in the above routine for strength and power, what if you found that you could Power Clean heavy once every 4 days? Well, you could switch to a three-day training split and draft up a schedule similar to the above but with three days - but the Power Clean stresses many of the same muscles as the Squat, so now we're running into overlap problems.
Still, I have to say that if you can get a routine such as this to work you'll probably make your fastest gains - at least on those exercises that you have optimized the program for.
But there's more than one way to skin a cat. Let's look at some others.
Constructing Your Cycle Around Your Slowest Recovering Exercise
Let's say your slowest recovering exercise is Squats - and you find that you can Squat heavy once every 7 days. With this approach you would train all bodyparts intensely once every 7 days. "But that doesn't fix the problem", you'll probably say, "If a bodypart is ready to go again in 5 days but I don't train it for 7 I'll be missing out on those 2 extra days!" Well, what you could do is train the other bodyparts so hard that they do require 7 days rest. If, going back to our example, you find that you can train Bench Press hard once every 5 days then adding in extra chest exercises could extend that recovery period to a full seven days. Tack on 2 sets of Incline Presses and you just might hit the nail on the head. I caution you not to overdo it, though - a little goes a long way.
What we've done here is really a radical departure from our approach up to now. Before we've concentrated on tailoring our training frequency to fit our fixed training volume, now we're tailoring our training volume to fit our fixed frequency. And both approaches really are fine. I remind you that we don't want to have to extend our recuperation period due to extended nervous system recovery needs, though - we're after a longer muscle recovery period. So, this is not a licence to start training super-intensely. You'd be better off creating more muscular damage (micro-trauma) by upping your volume a bit than by hammering your nervous system with high intensity techniques (not to mention the long-term risk of irrational hypertrophy).
Now that we do have this new approach, though, a big convenience factor comes into our routine construction. We can decide to train a muscle once a week and then tailor our workload to 'fit' that frequency. This allows us to construct a routine that peacefully coexists with our lives outside of the gym. It may seem like an unsophisticated approach but it's convenience just may make it the one for you. And besides, by properly adjusting your training volume to fit that once a week frequency (or whatever else you decide on), you may not be compromising on your training at all.
In the next article of this series I'll present another method of dealing with differing exercise and bodypart recovery rates: The Heavy/Medium System.