Cyclical progressions or program “cycling” or periodization is what works, every time, all things considered. Chaos or overextended steady state is what never works, ever, even including the one or two statistical outliers whose “testimonials” we see on infomercials. Generally, I find it not very helpful to juxtapose competitive bodybuilding lifestyle with layperson efforts. However, in the case of drawing people’s attention to programs which don’t work so well versus programs which HAVE TO repeatedly, reliably work over and over again, there’s a good lesson here.
Usually, the way people interface with fitness is going from nothing to too much, while day 3 has no rational connection to day 17. That “too much” I’m referencing with regard to their internal capacity and given hours and willpower for any given day or week. Let’s just say that they’re counting calories at 1200 a day and doing 6 hours of exercise per week (probably a bad idea, by the way). Now what? What progression can that person reasonably change to try to force the body to change in kind? And then what? And then what?
Obviously you’ll find that they’re about ready to break, even at the point of the givens in the first question. So it can’t go anywhere. There is no ramp. There is no momentum. There is no dramatic percent alteration which can be levied. So chaos follows.
Contrast that with progressive strategies which always work:
There’s an “off season.” Purposely people will take “fat burn time” per week low and caloric intake high. They will “start over” from time to time in both intensity and volume of work performed. The ON PURPOSE “starting week” may have as little as ZERO minutes of exercise and as many as 10,000 plus calories per day.
This allows for restoration of organ resilience, such that the body can endure the ensuing period of increased sympathetic activity.
Then there’s somewhere to go. There’s a launch point to increase activity. There’s a launch point from which to reduce food intake, glycemic impact. There’s a reasonable launch point for dramatic percent changes in stimulus. And the forthcoming progression can be relatively linear and continue with unbroken consistency for a while.
This is where the physique athlete shines and the laypeople shoot themselves in the feet.
There is more going on here than the bald minutes and theoretical total energy expenditure. But even if we were to just examine those two variables, how can you expect to progress if week 1 has you starving, week 3 has 247 minutes of intense mixed exercise, week 4 has 190 minutes of moderate cardio, week 5 has no food tracking, week 6 sleep is compromised, and so on? There’s no theme. There’s no framework. There’s no continuity. There’s no direction. Strength could still be built. Mobility can improve. You just can’t rely on shifts in composition.
You’re better off picking a daily 5 minute practice and growing your consistent behaviors. When you want to “see” a body comp progression curve, you must invoke a stimulus progression curve. After you’ve consistently increased stimuli 8-30 weeks in a row, you “start over.” That is, you reset various switches in the program or “cycle” the progressions, so you’re assuredly not overextended. Then, there’s a methodology at play. There’s a progression that’s definable.
Aiming to “go hard” isn’t strategic. One week you get sick. Now what? Got a “good workout” in today (whatever that even means). What about the next 8 days? Group training can fall into a trap for this as well. If it operates on “push it,” that sounds marketable and enticing. There’s just no foundation or scaffolding. So where are we going with it?
That’s why cyclical progression remains a secret. It has more nuance and doesn’t fit in a 5 second sound byte. It takes down time as an opportunity. It sees “pushing it” as the likely marker for the end of a progression period instead of the middle or beginning.
Pictured above is a recumbent bike. In the Winter and Spring of 2007 I lost about 70lbs personally using simply progressive programming strategies while my only "cardio" or "fat burn" tool was a 16 minute effort on the recumbent bike. It was such an effective tool that all of my employees and their clients began using this to the point that the gym didn't have enough bikes to fill the demand. The fact of the matter is that any tool would've worked. It was the progressive strategy that was the magic. You need not overwork yourself. You need not starve yourself. You need only to have some sensible direction in where you're going.
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