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Refrain to Gain

Back off to recharge for another growth spurt

For years we’ve known that in the world of weight training, going full-blast year-round is not the best way to make consistent gains. As tough as our mental attitudes may be, we are all flesh-and-blood organisms and not machines. The technique of periodization recognizes that reality. Periodization is nothing more than intentionally cycling variables such as training volume, intensity and percentage of maximum weights used to reach peaks in size and/or strength.

Powerlifters and Olympic lifters use periodization to break new personal records in competition year after year. Bodybuilders also use modified versions of periodization to subdivide their training year into off-seasons for adding size and strength and precontest, or lean-out, phases to get shredded.

The mistake many bodybuilders make is that they keep the intensity turned way up at all times, even when they’re using lighter weights and higher reps. That doesn’t fulfill the requirements of periodization, which means the body never really has a chance to recharge in order to perform at a higher level later on. If you can’t seem to cycle your training in such a manner, use the unique circumstances of your life to find a six-to-10-week block of the year to back off significantly on training intensity.

If you’re in high school or college, that can be the most academically demanding time of year, such as preparing for SATs or final exams. If you’re grown up and in the workplace, determine when it would be to your greatest advantage to cut back on training so that extra time can be devoted to advancing in your company, increasing sales, etc. If you have children, summer vacation is an opportune season to spend more time with the little ones in the mountains or at the beach. You could even improve your relationship with your significant other by making an effort to bring the romance back.

Whatever you do, refuse to feel guilty about not training as hard as usual, and absolutely resist the temptation to resume full-bore workouts until the time is right. By easing up on training for six to 10 weeks, you’ll catch up on a lot of things at work and at home that you may not have realized were lacking. In the meantime, your joints, muscles and overall system will rejuvenate and be ready to hit new highs when you finally resume heavy, intense training. You’ll probably find yourself making progress that has eluded you for years because your body never had a chance to recover from the constant pounding it was subjected to.

Here are a few simple guidelines to follow during your back-off period:

Avoid training to failure. The major key to bringing the intensity down a couple of notches is to avoid taking your sets to failure. Not to say that your training should be completely wimpy, but stop a rep or two shy of what you could do on each set. That allows the muscles and nervous system to come back to full health and optimal function.

Forget the crazy weights. You may take pride in using very heavy weights for four to six reps regularly. To give your body and especially your joints a well-deserved break, try staying in the 10-to-12 range for upper body and 12-to-20 range for lower. An added benefit is that nagging injuries start to heal at last.

Limit weight training to 40 minutes, no more than four times a week. This is very important, so time yourself. From the second you start your first work set to the minute you finish your last one, no more than 40 minutes should pass. That will keep you from trying to make up for the lighter weight and reduced intensity simply by cranking up the volume of exercises and sets. Get in and out in that 40 minutes or less, and you’ll be helping your body rest and become primed for your usual blasting in a few weeks.

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