A phasic approach to training for strength & hypertrophy; maximising outcomes for fitness qualities one at a time
When I overlook (or spy) on other people’s training protocols, it seems that most (not all) people know what characteristics certain types of outcomes need; most people know that training for building muscle entails high volumes of sets, of which reps will probably vary between around 7 & 15, the need for repetitions to be taken close to failure & the need for increased volumes over time (4). When it comes to strength, repetitions between 1 & 6 usually work well (although strength can be a misleading description in a lot of cases), a lower overall volume with a focus on performance and increasing loads over the weeks and months to get the best gains.
What I don’t see often, is training structured for a specific goal, with a lot of trainees wanting a blend of this strength/hypertrophy in one with no real specificity towards one outcome; this might look like sets of 3-5 reps to start on a heavy compound, sets of 10-12 on something less overloading in nature to follow and sets of 15+ to finish on isolation work; this is often done within one training session, sometimes undulated (varied) in this way within a week and sometimes within a month with each week having a focus on a specific quality (strength, power etc.). Whilst this type of training will probably bring about some results, to maximise outcomes in each quality (strength and muscular gain in this case), there is a need for more specificity in the type of stimuli applied, and application of the training principle directed adaptation, that mandates that for best outcomes, that the sequential and continuous application of these specific stimuli be applied (1).
By adhering to the principles of specificity and directed adaptation, we would see a training programme with smaller undulations in rep range, intensity and total volume, held constant for a longer time (1-2 mesocycles in length maybe). This approach would allow the repeated application of stimulus that best facilitate this outcome (hypertrophy or strength), which will equal the most gain in this specific outcome (1). This approach will still allow for some variation in training variables, but not so much so that there are big crossovers in how the body is likely to respond, for hypertrophy, you may do one mesocycle at 6-10 reps, the next at 10-15 reps and then a last mesocycle at 12-15+ repetitions with some metabolite work (drop sets, giant sets and the like); within these phases you would see volume increases that fall within the recommended range for building muscle and intensity would follow the repetition range, keeping you within an appropriate proximity to failure (1).
This can be applied to strength training too, but maybe more in reverse, starting at the higher repetition ranges recommended, lower intensites recommended and higher volumes recommended; working down towards the lowest volumes/repetition ranges possible allow the highest intensities, allowing for the most weight to be lifted (1).
We will now discuss the phasic approach to training now we understand that at any one time, we need to train for a single goal to maximise that single outcome.
Phase potentiation is the training principle that says that training can be sequenced in a specific way that will allow for best overall results long term. Phase potentiation basically mandates that certain fitness qualities, when improved upon, will directly improve another fitness quality, without the need to train the second fitness quality specifically, so when you proceed to specifically train the second quality there is potential for better results. As this pertains to strength performance and hypertrophy, is that if you performed a dedicated phase to gaining muscle, you have now provided more of the raw materials needed to create more forceful movements (strength), as we know that muscle size is an indicator of absolute strength (2) (3), so when you go into a strength phase, you have more chance of a more positive outcome.
The same can work in a parallel of this situation (to a degree but not as much so), after performing a dedicated strength phase, you have become more efficient at producing forces, some of your muscle fibres have adopted the qualities of type II fibres (the ones that are shown to hypertrophy more and will produce more force), this then translates over to the ability (potentially) to lift more weights in your ‘hypertrophy rep ranges’ (1) (I put this in inverted commas as hypertrophy is attainable in all rep ranges (4), but potentially more effectively in the rep range we stated) allowing for more overload of volume = more gains.
This process of phase potentiation can be applied to team sports/power sports aswell, you would start in the same place (hypertrophy/work capacity), move onto general strength, but then move onto power work and then speed work; with each subsequent quality improving the next; with strength training having the potential to improve power qualities as much as dedicated power training (4), and power training having the same relationship with training for speed qualities.
One of the arguments for a more concurrent/mixed approach for training multiple qualities, is in the ability to ‘better’ maintain previously attained qualities; when we discuss how a phasic approach to training will attenuate these deleterious effects of decaying of previous qualities, this argument fades out. Basically, due to the close inter relationship between these fitness qualities, each one has sufficiently similar qualities to maintain any previous fitness gains. When it comes to hypertrophy, we know that high volumes of training are needed to induce further adaptations (1) (4), we also know that there is going to be an amount of training you can do to maintain these muscle gains, strength training likely meets the criteria of being voluminous enough to do this in most cases; we also know that to maintain muscle mass with low volumes, training for strength is the best way to do this, with the higher relative intensities providing a sufficient stimulus to maintain (and even improve on) muscular gains (1) (4).
When it comes to strength, there is going to only be an absolute intensity drop, as your rep ranges are going to expand during hypertrophy training, you are going to have to use less weight; it is common sense that you cannot use the same weight for a max set of 5 reps as a max set of 10 reps, but this doesn’t mean that you will not maintain (and likely improve upon) your 8,9,10RM and so on. Due to the parameters set out to maximise hypertrophy (60-85% 1RM or intensity and high volumes (4)), we are in a position to completely maintain our strength relative to the rep range we are working within (1).
The same can be said for power and speed training and maintaining each when you change phases (although they are more sensitive to losses, but this is mainly attenuated by the in season needs of a team sports athlete, by performing their given sport they will likely maintain most qualities built up; they are also looking to be relatively good at all the qualities, and not the best at any one, so adding some resistance training during the season will further facilitate this maintenance of fitness qualities).
‘Resensitization and training variation’
Another benefit of a phasic approach to training, is in the knowledge that after a certain amount of time, you will start to get diminishing returns from a particular stimulus (1). For example, there is only so long that you can mass for whilst performing hypertrophy training before stuff sort of stops happening, at the time this happens you need to apply training variation to reduce this staleness (1) (4). A phasic approach can apply this variation on two fronts, in applying variation to the stimulus being applied through changes in volume and intensity, and then in applying variation in exercise selection by reserving the exercises most relevant for the given goal to each phase, for example, a low bar squat for strength and high bar squat for quad hypertrophy or overhead military press for strength and upright rows and face pulls for hypertrophy (I know any exercise can build muscle but some are probably better than others, as I will describe).
By having bigger variations in volume and intensity, when training for a given quality becomes most stale, we allow us to be 1. Sensitive to the new stimulus we switch to, giving us the biggest return for our efforts because the change is large enough and 2. Reduce the specific fatigue/staleness that has developed with the current training style. As it relates to hypertrophy and strength, after 3-4 months of high volume training, you may be feeling very burnt out, unmotivated and seeing little gains; you could switch lanes to train for strength to allow you to reduce the amount of volume you are adapted to training to, then when we have done strength training for long enough, switching back to hypertrophy, these new lower volumes are the norm, so high volumes now become a sufficiently disruptive stimulus again, which is vital for building muscle (4), which basically allows us to gain muscle on lower volumes than we would have if we had just tried to push through our previous plateau.
As it pertains to exercise selection, sticking with the same specific exercise for too long, you become resistant to its improvement, and put yourself at risk of injury, as the connective tissue/tendon/specific muscle fibres being trained specifically with this movement become more and more irritated, as they are never getting the chance to fully recover between training (connective tissue and tendon take especially long to recover as they are poorly vascularised); this irritation will accumulate until you either change exercises or get hurt (1), which will allow for more recovery of the particular portion of the muscle/tendon/connective tissue that was overloaded the most. By reserving specific exercises for specific phases, we can 1. Use the exercises that are likely the most effective for that given goal and 2. Allow us to apply more variation as we change phases, to allow this resensitisation to be more effective, allowing us to more easily apply overload as we switch back.
For hypertrophy, we are looking for exercises that are stable, allow for overload, train some muscle groups more specifically (i.e. conventional deadlifts train more muscle groups harder than stiff legged deadlifts), allow as big a ROM as possible and can be trained with high volumes with as little fatigue attached to them as possible (4). The last point is very important, whilst some exercises provide a greater stimulus than others, they are so fatiguing in nature, that there is no realistic way to train them with any sort of volume or frequency, farmers carry for upper traps is a great example; this movements creates such an overload (because of the overall load used and axial loading) that they will in themselves, reduce the amount of training you can do for all muscle groups, because they are so centrally fatiguing, vs. a shrugging variation that is likely way less fatiguing, but can apply a similar stimulus to the traps themselves.
For strength, we are looking for exercises that are the most stable, allow for the most overload, utilise as many muscle groups to be used synergistically to create movement develop our roster of most relevant exercises for each phase.
I will finish up with a discussion on how much of each phase you would perform, in terms of duration, to maximise each of the qualities. 3-5 months is going to probably the most you are (consecutively) going to get out of each before switching up. I always recommend you tailoring this to whatever goal you want, for a body builder, you may be doing the full 3-5 months of hypertrophy style training, but only 4-6 weeks of strength style training, to get the most of resensitisation from the low volume training, and no more. For strength, it is going to depend on the individual, if the individual is lean and very well-muscled, near their genetic potential for growth, they may want to spend some more time in dedicated strength phases, as this will likely net more benefit than trying to add the very small amounts of muscle they have left to gain. But someone who is quite skinny, and is feeling like they are only eeking out small gains at their current bodyweight, may want to do an even split of hypertrophy and strength (maybe even more hypertrophy for a period), to allow them to produce more raw material to actually produce more forceful movements; like I said, refer back to your own goals and make an informed decision.
Thank you for reading up to this point, I hope this was insightful and will now give you some food for thought on how you are going to structure your own training for the coming months, and will allow you to make more informed decisions when creating a training programme. If you would like us to create a 14 week customised training programme for you, with lots of extras including guides on setting nutritional intake, then follow the link to apply for one (https://myonomics.typeform.com/to/xh91Q1) and get it sent over to you, to see how these principles can be applied in a programme.
(1) Wesley Smith, C., Israetel, M. and Hoffman, J. (2014) Scientific Principles of Strength Training.
(2) ALIZADEHKHAIYAT, O., HAWKES, D.H., KEMP, G.J., HOWARD, A. and FROSTICK, S.P., 2014. Muscle strength and its relationship with skeletal muscle mass indices as determined by segmental bio-impedance analysis. European journal of applied physiology, 114(1), pp. 177-185.
(3) SUCHOMEL, T.J. and STONE, M.H., 2017. The Relationships between Hip and Knee Extensor Cross-Sectional Area, Strength, Power, and Potentiation Characteristics. Sports, 5(3), pp. 66.
(4) Schoenfeld, B.J., 2010. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), pp.2857–2872.