Egg, caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly. Spring, summer, fall, winter. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Sunrise, sunset. Life consists of cycles - perpetually repeating patterns. There are no butterflies without caterpillars,
no inhaling without exhaling, and, except for the frigid ends of the earth, no sunrise without sunset.
Bodybuilding training also benefits from cycles because it's difficult to maintain peak intensity and volume for an extended period without banging up against a plateau. To paraphrase the Bible and the Byrds, there
is a season for everything: a time to grow big, a time to rest, a time to get lean and a time to pick up your contest trophy. This article will explain how to cycle your training to avoid plateaus and keep your
physique perpetually permuting toward a contest-quality standard.
GET ON YOUR CYCLE
There have long been offseason and precontest periods in bodybuilding. Typically, the offseason is used for accumulating maximum mass with little concern for muscularity, and precontest periods are focused on
shedding fat and shaping muscles via higher intensity and volume. Contest day is often followed by a period of low-intensity workouts or no workouts at all. This is the traditional cycle: offseason, precontest
In this simplified methodology, though, the offseason period typically lasts too long, lulling the body into a static holding pattern. If you go a year or more between contests, you are hardly "cycling" your
training. Furthermore, most bodybuilders are not competitors and thus never have precontest or postcontest periods. All of their training is offseason, a term that is too often an excuse for sluggish unfocused
workouts and all-you-can-eat "diets."
Bodybuilders can learn much about cycling from powerlifters. Powerlifters may look pale and smooth and have an odd affinity for smelling salts, but give them credit: They know how to avoid plateaus in order to
continuously make gains. Most of them do so by cycling their routines. They know that trying to go heavy for low reps, workout after workout, is a sure-fire way of getting stuck in a rut. That's why they plot out
phases lasting two to three months during which they go progressively heavier. Week after week, weights increase and reps decrease. A lifter may start out doing six sets of 10 reps of squats at the beginning of a
cycle, four sets of five in the middle and pyramid up to a maximum single in the final days (perhaps just before a competition). The plan is to be stronger at the end of one phase than at the end of the previous
one. Then, perhaps after a week or two off, the lifter begins another cycle.
Your bodybuilding cycles should also last two to three months. Your focus should be on making targeted improvements throughout that time. Over the weeks, you can still have heavy and light days and utilize a
variety of training methods, but the thrust of your workouts should always correspond to the goal of the cycle.
Each time span should have one clearly defined purpose. This doesn't necessarily have to be a number on a tape measure or a bathroom scale, or a personal best in a lift. It can simply be an overall target for your
physical appearance or training intensity, but you need to know where you're going in order to get there in the shortest amount of time. Unless you have an extra week to kill, you wouldn't try to drive cross-country
without a map or directions. Likewise, you'll need a plan for your physique or you're liable to make a wrong turn.
You also can't go everywhere at once. If you try that, you're likely to go nowhere at all. Don't attempt to gain 20 pounds of muscle, lose 30 pounds of blubber and hit personal bests in a dozen lifts over the course
of 10 weeks. Your training cycle can't be both offseason and precontest simultaneously and there are limits to what you can achieve in a few months. Make up your mind. If you want to both lose weight and gain strength,
focus on one or the other during a cycle, with the knowledge that you can focus on the other next time.
What follows are five types of bodybuilding cycles. Choose the 10-week period that best suits your goals at any given time.
CYCLE ONE: Bulking
This is the proverbial offseason span. Eating is at least half the battle and, in this case, more than half the fun. You can't be afraid of adding some fat if you want to make the fastest gains possible. Vanishing
abs signal that you're getting enough protein and calories to feed your muscles. But you also need to keep the fat gain in check. Set a reasonable target gain of five to 10 pounds in 10 weeks, depending on your
current condition. If you gain more than 10 pounds over a 10-week cycle, chances are that most of it will be flab.
In the gym, decrease repetitions, increase weights and rest periods and focus on basic compound lifts, such as squats, rows and bench presses. You might want to set target weights and reps for one or more exercises,
just as powerlifters do. Limit the number of isolation lifts to better focus your energy on the heavy basics. At the end of the cycle, reevaluate your physique and goals. Decide whether to begin another bulking
phase or focus on refining what you've gained.
CYCLE TWO: Weight Loss
This is similar to a precontest cycle, but it's less intense and you should be less concerned about achieving an ultimate muscular shape. As with a mass-gaining phase, diet is crucial; however, just as you shouldn't
fear adding a little fat when bulking up, in this phase, you should be prepared to lose some muscle if you want to slim down fast. It's almost inevitable. Losing 10 pounds over 10 weeks is a reasonable goal. Shedding
more may cause you to sacrifice too much lean mass.
The key to a weight-loss cycle is aerobics. Perform 20 minutes to an hour of cardio work at least four times per week. Ideally, it should be done first thing in the morning, but if that's not possible, do it after
your workout. You won't need to alter your weight training drastically, but higher reps, fewer heavy basics and more isolation lifts can help you focus on muscularity and muscle shape, qualities that should come out
as you strip away the blanket of fat.
CYCLE THREE: Refining
During this period, don't focus on gaining or losing weight rapidly. Instead, focus on gaining muscle without gaining fat. Of course, this process will be slower than bulking or losing. You'll probably gain just
one to two pounds over 10 weeks, but the overall change to your physique can be as dramatic as eight pounds of bulk.
Even more than other cycles, refining will allow you to spend two to three months focusing carefully on one or two weak points, placing special emphasis on a particular bodypart or symmetrical flaw. Perhaps your
calves lag behind, your shoulder-to-hip taper needs to be increased, or maybe your traps have grown too large. Make improving these weak points the goal for this cycle in order to attain a more properly proportioned
You might think that all your bodyparts are in balance, but you'd better ask others for their opinions. Get an objective and knowledgeable observer to point out weaknesses. If Mr. or Ms. Expert also can't find a flaw,
focus on one or two areas anyway. Simply rotate these areas from one cycle to another. Calves are usually good candidates for extra attention because they're often slow to grow. Likewise, because bodybuilders are
seldom too wide, it's hard to go wrong placing special emphasis on lats and delts.
CYCLE FOUR: Precontest
The purpose of precontest mode is to achieve peak condition on the day of a bodybuilding competition. Fat and water are stripped away, while as much muscle as possible is retained. Of course, aerobics, diet, and water
and sodium intake are crucial to this. In terms of weight training, some competitors basically maintain their offseason routines, although it's inevitable that the poundage used decreases during those final weeks when
a trainer is lean and hungry.
Many bodybuilders adopt the Weider Quality Training Principle in the last few weeks before a contest. In this way, they progressively reduce the average rest intervals between sets from 60-90 seconds at the start of
the cycle to as little as 15-20 seconds near contest day. This is done to maximize muscularity and density. The Weider Supersets Principle, combining one exercise with another with no rest in between, and the Weider
Descending Sets Principle, doing the same exercise with progressively lower weight and no rest, are also useful tools during a precontest phase. These techniques boost intensity by expanding sets and reducing rest
periods. The key to precontest training is to push your muscles to the max while also restricting calories and, eventually, carbohydrates and sodium. This is a very taxing combination. Luckily, it's only temporary.
CYCLE FIVE: Rejuvenation
A period of rejuvenation can follow a contest or any stressful cycle. It might comprise a layoff from the gym lasting a few days or even weeks. Or, it might be a period of low-intensity workouts emphasizing high-rep
pumping exercises. It's probably time for a rejuvenation cycle if you're recovering from an injury, if you fear that you've been overtraining, or if you've simply lost the enthusiasm to hit the weights intensely. Assuming
you're healthy, three weeks should be the maximum length for such a bodybuilding break. Some trainers like to take a few days off at the end of every stressful cycle. If utilized correctly, short layoffs and low-intensity
workouts can recharge your body and your bodybuilding spirit.
THE GROWING SEASON
Many bodybuilders utilize cycling without even realizing it. It's simply a matter of setting short-term goals and plotting a course over two to three months to reach that goal. This isn't much of an intrusion on your current
program. Instead of simply trying to gain the maximum amount of mass over the course of a year (or years), think in terms of 10-week periods. Set goals and reevaluate your physique on a regular basis. Remember that nature
has a season for everything, including a time to reap the fruits of a carefully planned, well-nourished and growing physique. Cycling your routines is one of the best ways to reap what you sow in the gym.