Posted 1 month ago

Changing up your training

On the occasional consultation call, I can often be asked about the frequency with which I change my clients’ programmes, to which my response is usually “whenever it needs to be changed”. This might seem blunt but let me explain. The model I follow is that of progressive overload, and as such, of increasing mechanical load over time on the muscle(s). To do this, we need to repeat the same moves over and over again, increasing weight on the bar, reps in the set or improving form/execution at same weight and reps.

Why then do we have a tribe of people who think it’s common to change things every session or every 4 weeks? I believe this assumption is mostly down to misinformation or a lack of understanding of how or why a program is put in place. There are also some people out there claiming you need to “shock the muscle” when physiologically doesn’t actually make sense nor is actually possible. Therefore, the aim of this article is to discuss when you could look to change your training up and how to go about this.

Is there a need for change?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is this: is what I am doing currently working and/or bringing me closer to my goals? If the answer is yes, then there is simply no need to be changing anything up. In today’s society we want results quicker, so we can think that by changing training up we will grow quicker or get stronger. This is false, as in fact, muscle can only grow at a certain rate, and strength can also only increase at a certain pace.

You might be surprised to hear that I ran the same program for almost two years before changing it up. It was a Lower/Push/Pull/Off/Lower/Upper/Off split, and it worked a treat. For those two years, everything grew: I got stronger over every gaining phase and also completed two preps in between. I didn’t jump on the latest Instagram bodybuilder training trend, I just kept doing what I knew worked for me.

The point I am trying to make here is that there might not be a need to change your training up whatsoever, you simply might just need to spend more time doing what you’re doing. How much time? It depends! It could be a few months or even a few years down the line before a change is needed, but if you are persistent you will continue to grow.

Have you stopped getting stronger?
I’d say that with every program you do, you should try and maximise muscle growth from the LEAST amount of work possible. What do I mean by that? I mean working to get as much bang from as little buck as possible. For example, my quad volume hasn’t gone above 6-7 across the week for the last three years, and because I’ve kept progressing, I’ve not had the need to change this at all.

This low volume approach allows me to be fully recovered ahead of the next time I come around to training (my quads in this case), and also doesn’t tax my neural system and body as much as if I was doing 10-12 sets. Large movements that work legs will have a big impact on overall fatigue so if you keep volume super low, you’ll be fresher going into your next session which might be a push session the day after.

However, what happens when you stop you stop getting stronger and stall? Well, before you go and change the rotation completely, there are a few things we can do to allow you to continue to get stronger with your current split:

(1) Change the stalled exercise for a similar movement: If you are using a Pendulum squat, you could switch this to a Smith squat or V squat, without changing the reps and the sets. You’d just be proving a slightly different stimulus to promote growth, which would undoubtedly give you some more time progressing.

(2) Rotate between two similar movements: If you are finding it difficult to progress the same move week in and week out, then you can alternate those two similar exercises from week to week, meaning you’ll have a better chance of progression when you get back to hitting that same move.

(3) Work within a different rep range: If you have been doing top set at 5-8 and back offs 8-10 then why not get stronger at a slightly higher rep range. Your top set could be 10-12 and back offs 15-20. That is, you’re not changing the movement, but you’re giving yourself another opportunity for you to progress the weight at a different rep range.

(4) Keep the movement the same but play around with tempo: This might mean adding in another second on the way down, adding a two second pause at the bottom of a hack or just generally controlling the movement more. More control = more muscle contraction and another opportunity to capitalise on for muscle growth.

(5) The last and always the last option: increase volume across the week. This might be something like adding 2-3 sets total to your quad work, 1 on hack squat and 2 on the leg extension (for example). You’d add just a touch volume more to see how the body responds and take it from there.

As you can see, there are plenty options you can exhaust before you/your coach need to think about completely changing the rotation up. These alternative options are fairly simple yet often overlooked, because the prospect of a completely new program can sound a lot sexier on paper.

Dropping volume/frequency
When I use the word volume, I am referring to the total amount of sets that you do for a specific muscle group across the week. In the example above, I mentioned that I used to do about 6-7 sets for my quads across the week, but this wasn’t all done in one session. In fact, this was split between two sessions: 4/5 exercises in one session and 2-3 in the other. Frequency in this example is twice as I was hitting them in two sessions across the week.

There may come a time/scenario when you have to reduce your overall volume or frequency. When might this be? It will be either (1) when you cannot recover from the work you’ve done previously and it’s negatively impacting on your strength in the next session or (2) when that body part is responding fast and growing quickly compared to others.

Maximum Recoverable Volume
Our goal and focus will always be to get stronger during every session that we do, but if we find that the work that we did in our last session compromises our ability to improve in the next, then we should look to change that up immediately. You may start off by dropping 1-2 sets from the previous session. The first ones to go would be any extender type sets, such as rest pause, widow makers, cluster sets etc., as these eat into fatigue. You’d trial that for a couple of weeks and then see how your strength is in that second session. It might take some tweaking, but you should be able to figure out how many sets across the week you can perform, grow, and recover from adequately. This is also known as your maximum recoverable volume. Anything above this, you’ll notice you get weaker, and anything below, you’ll notice you don’t grow as much as you potentially could. In essence, there is a sweet spot for everyone, and you just need to spend time to find yours.

Symmetry in the physique
Another scenario in which you may drop total volume or frequency is when a specific body part is responding at a faster rate than others, causing an imbalance and a lack of symmetry in the physique. This is of course one of our top priorities in bodybuilding and one I encourage you to focus on. For myself, we (myself and my coach) found that my quads simply didn’t need to be worked twice a week and only need 6 sets across the week. Although I could tolerate more volume, my quads just grow quickly and over-power my upper body. Therefore, for the past year I have only trained my quads once a week and guess what, they’ve still grown just fine. What this has allowed is for me to hit other body parts more frequently, such as arms and chest, and allow them to somewhat “catch up” on the quads.

It is completely normal for certain body parts to grow/respond faster than others. It’s not something you can control, as it’s mostly down to genetics. You can however control how often you work that specific body part vs others to achieve the desired look. Therefore, if you don’t “need” to hit a muscle group more than once a week, then don’t feel like you have to just cause that ‘big guy’ down the gym does.

PPL, Upper/Lower, Bro splits
If you have been bodybuilding for years, there may come a time when you simply just have to change your training approach. This could be based on a number of different scenarios but there are a couple that stand out in my mind.

The first would be when you reach an age where you’d like to have kids, which means putting their needs before your own. This might mean having weekends completely off for family time, meaning you can only get in 3-4 sessions a week. This is where an upper/lower or full body split would come in handy. The key question is: can you still grow off that? Of course you can, just maybe not at the same rate as when you trained 5 times a week. If you maintain a surplus and stay on top of recovery it shouldn’t be an issue, you’ll just need to embrace patience.

The second situation would be where you have added so much size that you must simply switch to a single body part focus or ‘bro split’. In the amateur ranks this is very rare, but as you start to get into the professional league, you will see the pros hit muscle groups once a week and absolutely obliterate them. This is due to the sheer size of the muscle they need, which means they also need an incredible amount of volume to continue to grow, so they tend to get it done all on the one day.

Thirdly and finally, boredom can also be a factor that can lead to a need in a program change up. Even though a rotation might be working, you might just be sick of training a certain body part, or the way you’ve been doing things. In that instance, it is time to freshen things up, but I’d always try to keep total sets across the week similar if doing so and simply adapt frequency.

In summary, when it comes to changing your program up, first establish if you need to or not, and question the need for change if it’s working. Instead of changing things up when you stop getting stronger, there are a number of variables you can play about with to ensure you continue to progress. You might have to drop volume if certain body parts respond quicker or if your lifestyle changes, but overall think logically before making a change.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons