How Long Should You Stay on a Program?

ChangeProgramIt may sound incredibly basic, but I get this question all the time from young and old trainees alike:

How long should I stay on my program?

It’s such a simple question – but like most things, the answer isn’t quite that simple!

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and see how your goals directly affects how long you should stay on a program.

I Got 21 Questions…

Okay it may not be 21*, but I do have a few questions that I need to know before I can help you out here.*

(*If you don’t get the reference here, it’s time to get your early 2000’s hip-hop game back on point. See also: 50 Cent, The Game, and still-holding-on Outkast.)

A few of these would include:

  • What is your chronological age?
  • What is your training age? I.e. how long have you been training seriously?
  • What is your primary goal?

These questions give me a strong idea of how well you’ll recover, what exercises we need to give you, and how much adaptation we want to allow for.

The next question becomes, what do you mean exactly when we talk about changing your program?

  • Are we talking about changing programs, but keeping the goal the same? Or totally switching gears?
  • Are we just changing a few factors (i.e. sets, reps, etc.)? Or totally going in another direction?

As you can see, we’ve got a lot to think about here. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to assume that by change a program you either mean:

  • How often should I deload? And/or
  • How often should I switch up the exercise selection, sets/reps/rest period, etc.?

Let’s explore each of these in the context of our two primary fitness goals: Strength and fat loss.

If You Want Strength…

Neural-Metabolic ContinuumIf your goal is strength, you are squarely on the “neural” end of the training continuum.

While strength is obviously affected by muscle mass, we also know that a lot of the changes that happen in elite powerlifters and Olympic lifters are neural in nature.

They become more efficient and “tight” with their technique.

They turn on the correct muscles at the right time.

And perhaps more importantly, they can turn off muscles or relax muscles more efficiently as well!

The key word that I keep coming back to here is efficiency.

And if you want to get efficient at doing something, you need to do it time and time and time again.

How often should a strength athlete deload?

With a rank beginner, you can often go 8, 12 or even 16 weeks and never take a back off week. They’re incredibly inefficient neurally, and as such, they can continue to get stronger and stronger (i.e. more efficient) for months at a time.

Furthermore, due to this neural inefficiency, they don’t burn themselves out nearly as quickly.

Here’s a practical example with totally made-up numbers.

Imagine a rank beginner who starts squatting, and they’re using 150 pounds. However, they’re only using 40% of their strength/neural potential because they’re uncoordinated in the movement and don’t have things figured out yet.

On the flip side, let’s say you have an elite level powerlifter who is squatting 800 pounds, and using 90% of their strength/neural potential.

Not only is the sheer loading on the body incredibly demanding as you get stronger, but it’s much more fatiguing to their nervous system as well.

Charlie Francis often talked about the difference between going at 90% or even 95% in a sprint, versus 100%. The 90-95% sprint could be recovered from in a few days, while the 100% sprint could take 10-14 days to recover from!

The long and short of this is that newbies who are inefficient and figuring things out should only deload every couple of months, while an elite level powerlifter may deload every 2-4 weeks (depending on their training phase).

How often should a strength athlete tweak the variables?

Next we come to the question of variables, and again, this is largely dependent upon your training age and how much untapped potential you have.

A beginner could follow the same set-rep scheme (i.e. 3×8, 5×5, etc.) for months on end and continue to get stronger. Simply adding a little bit more weight to the bar week-to-week will suit them just fine, at least initially.

On the other hand, higher level intermediates and elite level powerlifters will need to do a better job of waving their intensity (typically by adjusting reps per set) over the course of a training cycle, versus simply adding weight to the bar week in and week out.

When you’re starting out, even very small stresses to your body will create an adaptation. Even if you’re only squatting 40% of your max when you start, your body responds very quickly to make itself stronger.

Unfortunately, as you get stronger and your body becomes more resilient, you have to incur a stronger and stronger stimulus to get a similar training adaptation.

Most of us have probably seen this in our own training – when you’re a newbie you literally get stronger week in and week out. You’re getting more efficient at the given movement patterns AND your body is adapting very quickly to the stimulus.

However, as we progress we have to use greater and greater volumes and intensities to stimulate the same kinds of response.

Now our progress isn’t measured a day-to-day, but often week-to-week or even month-to-month.

While a straight linear periodization program works great for a beginner, something like 5-3-1 is going to work well for the intermediate lifter.

I’m a huge fan of 5-3-1, because it hits the big lifts weekly, places a strong emphasis on quality technique with submaximal weights, and waves the volume and intensity over the four-week cycles.

So if you’re a powerlifter, here’s the Readers Digest version answer:

  • Beginners deload every couple of months, intermediates and elites deload every 2-4 weeks.
  • Do NOT stray too far from the competition lifts. If you want to get strong at squatting, benching and deadlifting, you need to squat, bench and deadlift.
  • A beginner needs minimal changes to their set and rep schemes, while a more advanced lifter could make changes within the week, or at the very least, between training weeks.

If You Want Fat Loss…

I’m going to be very specific here and talk about fat loss, versus “physique” changes in general.

A bodybuilder would be well served to vacillate between the neural and metabolic ends of the spectrum, so fat loss fits the bill much more clearly here (and will help me make my point!)

A powerlifter lives and dies by efficiency. It’s all about training the big lifts so that they become more efficient, and over time, move more weight.

In the fat loss world, no one cares how much you squat, bench or deadlift. It might look cool, but really, the only thing that matters is this:

Are your numbers, measurements and indicators trending in the right direction?

Furthermore, that efficiency that we pride ourselves on when getting strong may actually work against us when it comes to fat loss.

Think about the first time you tried a new lift in the gym. Chances are your weren’t great at the movement itself, and it took you at least a few sets to start to dial things in.

But as you get better and better, form gets tighter and tighter. And as this happens, you actually make the work easier on yourself.

And if your goal is to get shredded like wheat, then we need to choose a different path.

How often should a fat loss athlete deload?

For a fat loss client, I want them to deload just often enough to keep them fresh, and that’s about it.

Typically I will use an intro week in the first block of the month, and then switch things up. It may look like this:

  • Week 1 – 2×8
  • Week 2 – 3×8
  • Week 3 – 3×10
  • Week 4 – 3×12

Week 1 is going to make them sore and uncomfortable, just because we’re changing exercises on them.

From there, we progressively make the sessions more challenging (either adding sets, adding reps, cutting rest, etc.) until their life is a living hell.

I’m joking – sort of 🙂

Which leads me directly into my next point.

How often should a fat loss athlete tweak the variables?

When it comes to fat loss clients, I typically keep their exercise selection the same for at least 3-4 weeks.

I want to give them just enough time to get comfortable with a program so that we can start to build intensity, and then switch things up.

Remember – efficiency is great for powerlifting, but not so great for fat loss and metabolic changes.

(Random Tangent: We could have a serious discussion here about the bodybuilding of “muscle confusion” here as well, but I’ll save that for another time. However, I definitely think there’s merit to it if your only goal is to stimulate muscle growth.)

As such, we may start with something benign like a goblet squat, and then move to a different squatting progression in Month 2. In this way, we’re not only building intensity, but a bigger movement and exercise vocabulary as well.

With regards to sets, reps and rest period, sets and reps will typically change week-to-week, while rest periods will stay relatively constant.

However, when it’s time for a new program, we’ll typically switch the rest periods up in an effort to continue to keep the body guessing.

So if you’re focused on fat loss, here’s the Readers Digest version answer:

  • Deload every 3-4 weeks, typically just before you get well adapted to the program.
  • Switch your exercises up! I don’t think week-to-week is necessary, but every couple of weeks will allow you to get pretty intense, and then hit your body with a fresh, new stimulus.
  • Set and rep schemes should change from week-to-week, again, to make the program more intense (either via increased volume or intensity) over the training month.

Summary

This post took me a bit longer to write than I expected, but simply because what makes perfect sense in my brain wasn’t as easy to spit out in a coherent fashion.

I hope all this makes sense, and hopefully you learned a thing or two. If so, please take a minute to pass this post along to someone who could benefit from it.

And if my rambling came off as a little bit scattered, please feel free to post questions below so I can help clarify!

All the best

MR

Square-Banner_1A SMALLPS – If you like this, then you’re going to love my new Physical Preparation 101 DVD’s when they come out here in a few weeks. Stay tuned because they’re going to really help guide you when it comes to program design!

7 Comments

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  1. I like to read how other guys stack the deck. I’m not a deloader. I never have been, but I have always been open to change. I know it’s popular to deload , and I know the argument for CNS recovery, but I’m always curious to hear anecdotal evidence from the field. Can you talk about what specific advantages you have seen with individuals? These stories count. Thanks in advance for any response.

    • Well you can’t just go full-steam ahead forever – eventually your fatigue build-up gets so great that you either plateau or get injured.

      A deload is a way to allow your adaptive reserves to catch up to the fatigue you’re inducing from workouts. If you never back off or deload in some form or fashion, you’ll never be able to display optimal fitness or performance.

      Not sure if I answered your question, but that’s a brief overview 🙂

      • Thanks for replying. Sort of, Mike. What I’m looking for is field data on individuals who maybe didn’t used to deload, and now are deloading. What measurable improvements are they seeing? I understand the general argument. I just haven’t seen the evidence.

  2. Would you apply these same rules about strength increases that you have for powerlifters to athletes such as hockey players for example?

    • By and large, yes. Just keep in mind that athletes have so many physical qualities/traits they need to build (speed, strength, power, conditioning, etc.) it’s hard to focus solely on strength.

      However, waving the volume/intensity over the training month, and having a primary “emphasis” with regards to physical development will be key.

      Hope that helps!
      MR

  3. Thanks so much Mike; simple enough for the newbies to get it and a clear reminder for those with more experience. Love how you differentiate between the needs of Powerlifters and the needs of BodyBuilders.

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