Intensity cycling looks like a sensible concept at first but will slow or even reverse your progress. The Hardgainer style of training, made popular through the excellent book Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert, promotes it. It argues that you should plan for small jumps in poundage by decreasing effort when your progress on an exercise reaches a peak. A different but similar concept plays a role in periodization, though you usually apply different loads with the same amount of effort.
Intensity cycling works by designing a cycle that has you begin with a period of easier work before it grows tougher.
Say your best bench press is 210 lb. for 7 reps. Normally when you reach 8 reps for any weight, you go up 5 lb. the next session. Unfortunately, you have remained stuck at 210 lb. despite your utmost effort and continue to get 7 reps week after week. Instead of remaining at this impasse indefinitely, intensity cycling would recommend a different strategy.
You drop down about 75%, going back to 160 lb. You then build back up to your old PR in 5 lb. jumps. You train the bench press twice a week, going for just 8 reps and adding 5 lb. each time. As the increments return you closer and closer to your old personal record (PR), you could even decrease the jumps to 2.5 lb. if you sense any growing struggle. You avoid training to failure until perhaps the last couple of workouts. This aims to avoid overtraining and build confidence toward achieving a PR.
You will overcome 210 lb. through this process and perhaps reach 225 lb. for 7 before you start over again at 75%. Perhaps you even drop the bench press entirely for a few months. Viewed over the course of years, you achieve in a wave-like pattern with peaks and troughs. The whole chart climbs over time though.
While this looks reasonable in theory, you waste time and may detrain during the easy periods. Instead of maintaining your hard-fought muscle and strength, you lose it and then hope to build back up. You have no guarantee at the end of a cycle that you will beat your old PRs, and likely will just return from whence you came.
Instead, regulate your training variables. Reduce the number of sets and exercises along with how often you train. Avoid reducing the intensity, as it remains the most important factor for results. Think of intensity as effort and how much weight you use. Both must stay high for results. Consider these suggestions.
Slow and steady wins the race.
- Plan for smaller jumps in intensity as you develop.
- increase weight in smaller increments.
- increase reps in smaller distances (halves or even quarters).
- keep your effort constant.
Periodization and the Hardgainer philosophies state that linear progression cannot occur forever. While true, this does not justify a regression. Progress just happens with diminishing returns.
Use 1-5 lb. fractional plates. Consider a full range of motion rep a great victory but feel satisfied with smaller distances added. Reduce your standards for progress as you grow more advanced.
Be careful about having too high a standard for intensity as well. It seems positive failure imparts enough stress for most. Reaching negative failure or beyond with advanced techniques can overtrain you. These usually add by-products of fatigue instead of creating more tension, the main stimulus for more size and strength.
- Set volume properly from the start.
Too much fatigue in the first place prevents gains in fitness. Reach the bare minimum that will allow you to obtain your goals. With 1-2 warm-up sets, a single tough set per exercise should get the job done.
Perform only a push, pull, and squat while lifting as this cuts out redundancy and exercises that can injure you.
- Plan frequency for the long run.
- Avoid variety.
Intensity cycling implies value in variety, since working hard at one exercise may have you let up on another. You specialize in a lift, an idea that lacks balance and invites isolation. Instead, cut down on your exercise list forever, working each exercise hard.
- In general, take very small steps forward.
Systems do recover at different rates, but you can allow overall recovery with a week of rest in most cases. For example, your biceps may recover fast enough to train twice a week but your nervous system may need a full week. Take the full week. This represents one reason why DOMS is a poor barometer for progress. Instead, rely on adding weight over time and allow yourself more recovery before less.
- Eat enough food while sleeping well and long enough.
Avoid Intensity Cycling
While overtraining is a far greater problem than undertraining, it can still occur and seems more likely with intensity cycling. Most people usually make progress for awhile then maintain forever. I argue this has more to do with training variables versus a lack of intensity cycling.
Taking a week off to deload here and there is sensible. This happens when you get sick, injured, or your program feels like too much. If you find yourself resorting to this too often, then you need an overhaul for your program. By pairing intensity cycling with this good idea, proponents can then make a poor logical assumption that the whole idea has merit.
Think of your workout in terms of intensity, volume, and frequency. You need to strike a balance so you can work hard and heavy consistently. I recommend avoiding intensity cycling and instead tinkering with your variables to setup a good program in the first place.