When planning a trip you have to take the time to map out the route you want to take that will get you to the destination in the fastest time possible or if you are like me the most scenic route possible. But the fact remains that if you want to get somewhere you have to know what path to take. Training is no exception to the rule, but thinking of training in a year-long macrocycle can be a bit daunting so I wanted to make things a little easier on you and just help you understand how to build out a mesocyclone or training block however you want to word it.
When planning out a mesocycle which can be any length of time but is typically 4-6 weeks you have to understand the basic principle of progressive overload and take into consideration your maximum ability to recover from the volume. Of course each mesocycle will look different in terms of overall volume or exercise selection and that is going to be based on what time of the year it is in your training. If you are closer to the meet it will look different than if you were 20 weeks out. But that is another topic for another article. The basic premise of building out a mesocycle pretty much stays the same, with the exception of the peak and taper, it is you start off easy and you work your way to something hard by the end of it.
If you jump out of the gate with a ton of volume you have to think to yourself how do I progress from here? You always have to leave room for improvement from a week to week perspective. An easy example of this is starting off week 1 with squats for 3 sets of 6 reps at 70%, pretty easy I know. Week 2 would progress in 3 ways depending on your goal of your mesocycle, which is extremely important to figure out before you write it out. You can either increase the load from 70% to say 75% and keep the reps and set the same, or you can increase the reps from 6 to 8, or you can increase the sets from 3 to 4. You can see how each one of those options allows for a rate of practical growth and progression from week 1. Let’s continue on, week 2 you do 3 sets of 6 reps at 75% and week 3 you go to 3 sets of 8 at 75% and week 4 you bump up the sets so it looks like 4 sets of 8 at 75%. This is a very basic approach to progressive overload within an exercise selection that not only makes sense in terms of week to week growth but by the end of it pushes the RPE to a very high point which will make it the hardest week of the mesocycle before a deload.
A basic progression like this can take you a very long way so don’t try to overcomplicate it, because that’s what we are good at doing. Now that you have a basic understanding of progression and the overload principle we have to take a look at what to do with all of the other exercises in our plan. It seems like the research shows training each lift or body part 2x a week seems to be the sweet spot and within that context, the lowish side to grow for overall work is around 12-14 working sets per body part. So we have the training frequency and we have the lowest possible amount of work that will still elicit growth we now have what week 1 of the plan will look like. Let’s stick with the squat example, we did 3 sets of 6 reps at 70% which gives us 3 working sets for quads, hamstrings, and glutes. We now have to build out 9-11 more sets within that week to hit our low-end threshold. Since we need to squat 2x per week, let’s add in another squat progression that we can build on, 3 sets of 8 reps at 65%. We have half of the work done for the week add in a few more exercises and we are there. 3 sets of 10 lunges with a more quad dominant step will now take our quad work up to 9 working sets and we can finish things off with 4 sets of 15 leg extensions to give us 13 total working sets for quads. Once you break things down in this manner it is easy to see what to add and how to add it. The progression from week 1 to week 2 would look like 13 working sets to 15-16 working sets on up to week 4 hitting the top of the volume chart at 20-22 working sets.
Another thing to note when building out a mesocycle is exercise variation. Some people feel that switching up the exercises constantly will allow for greater adaption to be made because you get a new stimulus each time. What they don’t consider is the fact that you can continue on with the same exercise keep the stimulus high and also as you get better at the lift you will be able to recruit more and more motor units each time you perform the exercise. Studies show that you can continue to progress and get a stimulus out of an exercise for 3-4 sessions and maybe even more depending on your training age. So that means on week 1 as you are learning the exercise you will get some adaption out of it, week 2 you get a little better at it so you can recruit a bit more motor units, and by week 3 and 4 you have a good handle on the technique of the lift and you can really push it and get the most out of it. If you are constantly varying up your exercises you won’t come close to tapping into those upper threshold motor units that can really add size and strength.
Always keep in mind that each individual will have their own threshold to reach but starting them off with a basic approach like this will allow you to gauge things a lot better instead of just burying them right off the bat. You have to build up each week, I think if you can understand that basic concept you can build a pretty successful program even if it looks basic and easy. Once you learn to push yourself you don’t need much to grow and get stronger, you just have to do a little bit more each time. I hope this has helped show you the way to building out your own program in a thoughtful way and will help you and your athletes continue to grow within the sport.