As already noted in my deadletter posts of my first and second structured training cycle last year, I had problems transmuting the increased volume of the volume block into increased max lifts. Comparing the average volume session, where I did something from 30 to 50 repetitions with my working weight, in addition to lots of assistance, the measly ten reps in supposedly "intense" workouts, at least half of which where quite easy as I was ramping to the weight, just seem off. Well, and it was off, because of my misunderstanding of what needs to be done. So here I record what I learned about the roles of the transitioning and the realization phases in a classical periodization scheme. As the naming is not quite uniform across literature, I refer to the transition phase as the one following a volume block, where the goal is to acclimate the lifter to using big weights, to harness the gained strength from the volume block. The realization phase then leads straight up to the competition and serves to actually being able to display this strength.
Anecdotes to the rescue
Listening to other people is sometimes helpful and so it was in my case. I recalled that during my trainer education, one of the attendees prepared under Daniel Flaminio for some big competition, maybe even the nationals, however my memory is blurry on this. What is more important is that she told that her preparation was quite gruesome with all the typical symptoms of overreaching present, as for example insomnia after especially hard training sessions. I one the other hand did not experience anything like that during my prep period – in fact it seemed rather easy on my and although the weights felt very heavy, I did not feel exhausted after training. And this was my epiphany. Despite all the fearmongering about training too much, I knew that I was not working hard enough. Not out of laziness, but because I had no idea how to train harder at that time and I thought the whole transitioning business was about dissipating fatigue. But effective preparation is actually about two things: First, you train to lift big weights. Second, you reduce any fatigue upcoming to the competition or max test.
Transitioning is training to lift big weights
Say you've come from a volume block and you trained with fairly high reps, something around five per set, for many sets. This means you used mostly weights somewhere between 70% and 85% on the main lifts over a span of four to eight weeks. After this period, even extending slightly beyond your (hopefully increased) five rep max might lead to weights you cannot move for a triple. The weight feels just damn too heavy. Well, the key is now not to rely on the mantra "fatigue masks fitness", take a volume reduction and wait for the magical gains fairy to increase your maxes. This is actually the time where the real hard training starts, because now you have to train to lift big weights. As you know, for example from my rep range man page, training is about the completion of stress-recovery-cycles: You subject yourself to a stressor and then you recover adequately in order to harness the supercompensation effect.
So we have to take bigger weights and then use them to an extend that is actually stressful. But as already noted, after the volume block even slight increases of the training weight yield weights which do not allow for a big workload; a weight with which you could complete a pyramid from aforementioned post might be just too easy to allow for any training to happen, at least if only lifted once. Going through the programs and repetition schemes I knew I did not find anything that specifically addressed this problem, so I had to think of something for myself.
As the anecdote above was the whole impetus leading me to this conclusion and I had no way to quantify if I trained hard enough, I based my transitioning phase on perception: I would take bigger weights which I could manage for sets of threes and then I would continue doing so, until one of the following two things happened: I could not complete the next set, in which case I would simply reduce the weight and continue doing sets. Or, I experienced a sensation of staleness. Not just mere fatigue, but an existential unwillingness to begin the next set, a state of boredom and disgust, which sets in after you've rested for a few minutes, but just can't take the next set. Not physical, but mental exhaustion. This is the place where you can use your favorite fluff talk motivation thingy, like "I don't stop when I'm tired, I stop when I'm done" or whatever, since we actually are trying to get to the point where finally physical exhaustion might set in.
This actually worked quite well, although I still do not have a recipe to follow. On one day I decided to do 5×5 with a weight a little bit lighter, but already a bit heavier than the weights in the volume block. That went so well that I did seven reps in the last set and then thought to do at least one rep with my previous 3RM, but that rep was so easy that I decided to go all out on this set and did four reps. I always went by what feels right, so if I felt somewhat exhausted, I would do fewer reps, or if the weights felt heavy, I did more reps with less weight, constantly pushing the previous reps and weights.
Realization is reducing fatigue
After a few weeks of really heavy training it was time to test my new found power. As an intermediate lifter longer tapers are not only unnecessary, but can even lead to detraining. So I did what I always do and just made a one week preparation, with Monday a single with my projected second attempts and a few lihter sets to top it off. Wednesday was then just going for my opener, followed again by even lighter sets. Friday I went for my maxes.
Unfortunately I got sick that week so that I had not much left in me on Friday and could realize 5kg PRs on my lifts, but only 2.5kg. But still, the lifts went well, in contrast to my previous attempts at periodization, where I often could barely move more weight than my 3RM.
So, finally after a year of tinkering I have a simple and working 9 week block periodization.
|Block||Duration||What to do|
|Volume||6 weeks||"Just do the work". ×5@9 with 5-10% fatigue worked well for me on the main lifts, anything for assistance|
|Transitioning||2 Weeks||"Take what's there". Get as many reps as you can with a heavy weight allowing for 1-3 Reps, then do backoff or repeats until you can't take it anymore.|
|Realization||1 Week||Just practice your second and first attempt while getting fresh for the maxtest at the end of the week.|
There is still a lot of work to do. I figure that the Transitioning phase might be extended. Once you get to the point where you are able to produce substantial volume at higher weights, one might try to milk that a bit longer, with a more structured approach, where one does pyramids or something similar, instead of pushing to the point of mental fatigue. However, I am glad that I finally found a way back to strength after a volume block, as on one hand, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that you should spend most time accumulating volume, whereas on the other hand, my maxes always took a dive after a period without lifting heavy and it took me long to get back to my old maxes.