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Sets, Reps and Intensity

Q: What can be done when training hard all the time and increasing the weight and reps stops working, especially when newbie gains reach a sticking point? What do you recommend for breaking through plateaus? I know that diet plays a role, but I’d like your opinion on how to adjust my routines. If you can give as much detail as possible, it would be greatly appreciated.

A: That’s a great question. Increasing either resistance or repetitions when you begin a weight-training program will almost guarantee success because your body is unaccustomed to the stress of resistance training. As you move from the beginning to the advanced level, however, it becomes much more difficult to make gains. You need to come up with new strategies in order to keep making progress.

One option is periodization, which involves cycling periods of higher-intensity and lower-intensity training. The length of the cycles varies depending on the program.

Basically, the goal of periodization is to let your body recuperate after a longer period of intense training. By stepping back on the training intensity, you give your body a chance to recuperate. As a result, it responds better to the next high-intensity cycle, and you avoid the risk of overtraining or injury.

I used a version of periodization shortly after I won the Natural Mr. Universe in 1992. In 1993 I planned on taking a full year off of competition so I could finish my college degree. I decided to experiment with a periodization program as a way to make improvements in my physique before I competed again.

The program I used had me training progressively heavier over a six-week period, followed by a four-week period of using lighter weights. The plan was for each 10-week block to progressively increase so that, by the end of the year, I would be using more weight and would have progressed more than I might have by training all out every week.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much out of that program. I found that the lighter four-week period was not intense enough, and I seemed to lose size and strength by the time I went back to the more intense six-week cycle. I think the lighter period was too long.

Now I arrange my training cycles over an eight-week period. I gradually increase either the resistance or the repetitions at each successive workout. After seven or eight weeks of that my body feels as if it needs a break. My muscles and joints start to feel overtrained.

At that point I either take a full week off from the gym or train very light and don’t push my workouts for a week or two. The rest gives my body a break and enables me to recuperate before beginning another high-intensity cycle.

It’s very important to make each cycle progressive. So, when I start the heavy cycle again, I need to begin with slightly more resistance than when I started the last cycle. If I use the same weights for each cycle, I never make progress.

You can also increase the intensity of each workout by adding more sets or making the workout harder in some other way. If you keep the resistance the same but add more sets for each eight-week cycle, you’ll make each cycle progressively harder. The problem is, doing too many sets often leads to overtraining.

Another method is to use high-intensity techniques like supersets or drop sets for your high-intensity eight-week cycle. As long as you can make the workouts harder each week and not do the same workout for all eight weeks, that can work.

The bottom line with my method of cycling workouts is to train intensely and make the workouts progressively harder for a short time, followed by a week or two of rest or decreased intensity. The key to making progress over the long term, typically a year, is to make each eight-week cycle harder—with more resistance or more intensity—than the last cycle. Progressive intensity is the key to growth, whatever method you use to achieve that intensity.

Q: I have a four-part question regarding precontest dieting from 12 weeks out. 1) How many weeks out from a contest should a person cut out bread, fruit, creatine and protein shakes? 2) How should water intake be cut leading up to a contest, assuming that the person takes in a gallon of water a day? 3) Could you recommend a good food or drink source for bringing out fullness and veins minutes before someone steps onstage? 4) Are these the carb, protein and fat percentages every competitor should use during the last 12 weeks before a contest?

12 weeks: 50/40/10

10 weeks: 40/50/10

8 weeks: 30/60/10

6 weeks: 20/70/10

4 weeks: 10/80/10

2 weeks: 10/80/10

1 week: 5/90/5

A: As to your first question, cutting out bread and fruit depends on your metabolism and the rest of your diet. Obviously, you don’t want to eat processed white bread because it is digested so quickly and offers no nutritional value.

Whole-grain bread and the popular Ezekiel bread, however, are absorbed much more slowly by the body, and they don’t cause a big rush of insulin because they contain more fiber. As a result, it’s possible to keep that type of  bread in your diet while you’re preparing for a contest.

The same goes for fruit. Fruit is a simple sugar, so you don’t want to eat too much total fruit, especially too much at one time. If you eat fruit in small quantities or keep the total amount of carbohydrates in your diet limited, you can still eat fruit when you’re losing bodyfat.

Most competitors I know cut creatine from their diet the week before the contest. Creatine pulls water into muscle cells, but you can retain some subcutaneous water from it, so it’s best to eliminate creatine a full week before the competition.

As for protein shakes, again, that’s an individual thing. When I won the Natural Mr. Universe contest the first time, I was using protein drinks right up to the contest, and I was ripped for that show. My metabolism was going so fast at that point that the protein drinks didn’t make a difference in my physique.

You should, however, be aware of how much sodium your protein contains. Some powders have lots of sodium, especially the ones that use casein. The whey isolate protein powders are typically very low in sodium, but check the label to be sure.

Many bodybuilders and figure athletes replace all protein drinks with whole food when they begin dieting for a competition. Others continue with protein drinks and can get ripped. Again, it all depends on how your body responds to your diet.

How much water you should drink right before a contest is another hotly debated topic. Some people dehydrate themselves in the days leading up to a contest by either eliminating all fluid entirely or cutting back on the amount of water they drink. Others drink up to a gallon a day of water up to the show.

As IRON MAN contributor Dave Goodin has discussed in his column, some bodybuilders mistake fat for water on their bodies. They think they’re holding water and can eliminate it in the days before the show when, in fact, they still have fat to lose.

If you’re really ripped and lean the week before the contest, cutting back on your water intake will probably flatten you out for the show. If you’re drinking a lot of water and are ripped and ready for the show, why change anything if it’s working?

I think that most people retain water from carbing up or taking in too much sodium. If you keep the carbs and sodium moderate to low—but not zero—you shouldn’t have a problem with fluid retention on the day of the contest.

Some bodybuilders don’t agree. They gradually drop their fluid intake the last two to three days before a contest. Many try to trick their bodies by drinking a lot of water—two to three gallons a day—and then gradually cut back until they’re down to half a gallon or less the day before the show. That’s been effective for many people, but I always suggest that you experiment weeks before the contest to see how it works with your body.

To bring out the veins before you step onstage, you should take in some type of quickly digested simple sugar. You don’t want to eat something that the body has to struggle to digest. You want sugar that will make your vascularity stand out and help you to get a better pump.

Right before I stepped onstage I ate baby food and fruit preserves. Both are very easy to digest, and they gave me a rush of sugar, which brought out my vascularity very quickly. After being somewhat carb-depleted for so many weeks, the body really reacts to the instant sugar rush from the simple carbs.

I don’t agree with the diet formulas you listed for getting ready for a contest. When I get ready for a contest or photo shoot, I normally eat about 45 to 50 percent protein, 25 to 30 percent carb and 25 to 30 percent fat. That diet enables me to lose fat slowly without sacrificing muscle tissue.

Very-low-carb diets don’t work for me. My body isn’t so carb sensitive that I have to go superlow to get ripped. I definitely have to watch my carbohydrate intake, and I have to keep it lower, but I still eat anywhere from 120 to 175 grams of carb a day.

I follow the same diet leading up to the show and gradually get leaner each week. If I plan the diet correctly, I’m ripped about a week before the show. The only changes I make during that last week are to keep my sodium and carbs under control so that I’m not holding any water the day of the contest.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to him via e-mail at [email protected]. Look for his DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at You can send written correspondence to John Hansen, P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561.  IM

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