Training Phases Clients Go Through For Building Muscle

Periodization for building muscle is low on the priority list. 

There are other things that play a much larger role.

For example, how much volume you do,  and how hard you train

But periodization can play a role, especially in terms of long term adherence. 

In an ideal world we would just train 100%, 100% of the time, but this isn’t practical. 

Not only from a recovery standpoint (your body would break down), but from an adherence standpoint as well (there is more to life than the gym). 

Getting a client to stick with a program long term is my main role as a coach. Even through those hard times. 

This is where periodization can come into play. 

In this blog I want to go over how to utilize different training phases to keep our clients engaged and adherent to their training. 

Normal muscle building training 

This is the bulk of the programming. This is where progress is made. 

We spend about 4-6 weeks in a training phase. 

This is your typical:

  • 10-20 sets per muscle group (sometimes less sometimes more)
  • 5-30 rep range (the bulk is in the 8-15 rep range)
  • 0-3 RIR
  • Focused on progressive overload. 

After each phase we change some things up like:

  • Small rep range changes
  • Take out exercises that are getting stale/add in new exercises the client wants.
  • Potentially increase volume

Clients usually get about 1-3 of these phases in a row before needing an active rest or primer/strength phase (will go over these soon). 

In between each 4-6 week phase we take deloads, unless they are a beginner then we may go a bit longer without taking deloads. 

Read HERE on priorities for building muscle. 

Metabolite/high volume phase

This is a phase that we sparingly use to increase training volume. 

We will usually do this in that last normal muscle building phase. After 1-2 regular muscle building phases. 

It usually comes right before an active rest phase or primer phase. 

In this phase we use intensity techniques like:

These are easy ways to increase volume without having to add a lot of time to the clients training routine. 

For most clients we never do 2 of these in a row as your body adapts to them quickly and they can cause a lot of CNS fatigue. 

Plus most people HATE training this way, I can attest to this. It freaking sucks. 

This is also a phase where reps can get pretty high, think 20-30 reps. 

This can also be a good phase to use at the end of a fat loss phase when the client is pretty depleted and doing heavy weight isn’t ideal. 

There is still a good amount of training in the 8-15 range (as some exercises just don’t do well with higher than 12-15 reps), but more higher reps than normal. 

Deload week 

A deload is a temporary reduction in intensity or training volume. 

With online clients we focus our training on progressive overload. This means that over time we are trying to do more whether that be through adding more weight, more reps, more sets, better technique etc. 

The plus side to progressive overload is that this is what is needed to build muscle, but the downside is that it also comes at cost, and that cost is fatigue. 

Fatigue isn’t all bad, but too much fatigue can lead to higher injury risk, burnout, and poorer training performance. 

So at some point we must lower that fatigue. 

Insert deload weeks. 

The goal of a deload is to lower fatigue. And we know that overloading can induce fatigue, therefore we want our training to not be overloading during a deload. 

There are multiple ways to deload, you can:

  • Do less sets
  • Do less reps
  • Do less weight
  • You can do just one of the things mentioned above, or you can do a combo of two, or a combo of all three. 

But ultimately we want the training to be less intense than it normally is. 

It really just depends on how the client/you are feeling in terms of what to do. 

If a client is feeling really burnt out, beat up, and has some nagging injuries then we may just have them do a combo of all three. 

If a client is feeling good overall and not overly fatigued, then we may just have them do less reps. 

The best part about all of this is that studies have shown that even multiple 3-week layoffs during a 6 month resistance training program did not cause strength or muscle loss (Ogasawara et al.).

This is key because for most deloads we just do this for 1 week. 

The other big part of the deload is the mental side of things. 

Sometimes it is just nice for the client to go into the gym and not have to worry about pushing themselves and trying to do more than they did in previous weeks. It can be refreshing. 

Not only does it lower fatigue, but it also helps the clients with motivation moving forward. 

Many clients come to me where in the past they just always kept pushing it, but then they plateaued and became disheartened by that eventually leading to less motivation. 

They think something is wrong with them, but they just need to take a lighter week in the gym. 

We take these deloads about every 4-6 weeks. 

For beginners they can go much longer, with them we take one every 8-12 weeks or so. 

At first clients are weirded out by this, but as they dial in their training they start to realize the importance of deloads.

The downside with deloads is that they do NOT fully get rid of all fatigue. But they do a good enough job. 

Primer/Strength Phase

After 2 plus phases of training for building muscle (which requires higher training volumes and overloading) your body can adapt to this AND you may just be carrying a lot of fatigue (more than what deloads can get rid of). 

In a study by Bickell and colleagues participants did a 16 week training program and then after the first 16 weeks they were then randomly assigned to another 32 weeks of training with either ~66% or ~90% less volume. Bickel et al. reported that young individuals did not exhibit a significant decrease in muscle fiber cross-sectional area after 32 weeks of training with these substantially lower volumes.

They did find that older individuals may need a bit more volume to maintain their muscle. 

We can get away with almost no training whatsoever for 16 weeks and still maintain our muscle. This is GREAT news.

Insert strength/primer phases. 

These are essentially low training volume periods. 

Steve Hall coined this the primer phase. 

It can also go by the strength phase. 

What we do in this phase is drop the clients volume. For most we don’t make big decreases, but if the individual is feeling beat up, we may make larger decreases. 

We make these decreases by:

  • Doing less training days (maybe they go from 5 days to 4)
  • Less exercises
  • Less reps
  • Less sets

Again how much and how many decreases we make depends on the client. 

The training is still hard, but it is just slightly different than your typical muscle building programming. Its more strength focused. 

We also use these primer phases for times when a client is going through a very busy time, and they cannot dedicate all that time to working out. 

Lastly we also use these phases when a client first gets started training with us. 

This allows us to have them dial in their technique, while not getting excessive amounts of fatigue. Think of this as the baseline training phase. It can also be considered the home base. 

When things get busy you go to the home base.

You can be in a primer phase for as little as 3 weeks to as long as you want. It just depends on what is going on. 

Active Rest

An active rest phase is 1-2 weeks where they do NO programmed training whatsoever. 

These can happen during times where maybe they are traveling, or have a very busy time in their life (exams, new born, etc.). 

This is never our first goal though, we only want to implement these if we HAVE to. 

You can take 1-3 weeks off from training and not lose any muscle. Once you get past that it seems that you will start to see some muscle loss. 

The good news with that though is that if you have trained for some time, you will see your muscle growth come back very quickly (aka muscle memory). 

With this in mind, we can use active rest phases for clients who cannot make it to the gym OR if they are just so burnt out from training or beat up they can take 1-2 weeks to lower fatigue mentally and physically. 

We rarely do planned active rest phases with clients, sometimes it is more reactive than anything, but again very little muscle will be lost and this can be a time to get remotivated. 

The other benefit of active rest phases are they do a GREAT job of getting rid of most fatigue, more than deloads do. 

Overview

This is how a typical clients program looks like:

Phase 1: Baseline/primer 4-6 weeks

Deload

Phase 2: typical hypertrophy programing 4-6 weeks

Deload

Phase 3: typical hypertrophy programming 4-6 weeks

Deload

Phase 4: one more hypertrophy phase (metabolite/high volume maybe?) OR primer phase 4-6 weeks

Deload 

Phase 5: if they did not take aprimer phase, then this is the time they will take on. 

Rinse and repeat. 

There you have it, that is how we use different phases to keep client engaged and fresh with their training. 

If you want more guidance and structure with your training fill out the coaching app HERE and lets get to work 

References: 

Ogasawara, R., et al.  Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training.  Eur J Appl Physiol.  113(4):975-985, 2013.

Bickel, C. S., Cross, J. M., & Bamman, M. M. (2011). Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(7), 1177–1187. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e318207c15d

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