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When discussing the meat and potatoes of strength training theory, it’s a very good idea to become familiar or re-familiarize ourselves with basic terms. This will lay down the ability to make the most sense of training discussions. Most of us have seen and used many of the terms to follow, but there is still some confusion in the industry about some of these, and it seems like a good idea to clear them up.

Intensity: Also known as “absolute intensity,” it is the amount of resistance presented during a movement. Measured as force, and usually expressed in pounds or kilograms. Thus the intensity of a 335lb squat for one easy rep is higher than the intensity of a 315lb squat for 11.5 reps to absolute muscular failure. When most people use this term, they really mean the next term on our list.

Relative Intensity: Proximity to concentric muscular failure of any given set. This means that a set of 405 for 3, where you could have done 6, is less relatively intense than a set of 275 for 8, where you could have only got 9 with a gun to your head.

Volume: The amount of total mechanical work done during a rep, set, exercise session, week, or any other measurement of training time. Technically measured as the sum total force x distance executed. It can be measured precisely by multiplying the sets, reps, and weight as well as the distance of bar path. However, in most cases volume is compared between the same lifts (bench vs. bench, squat vs. squat) of the same lifter, and thus distance can be obviated. For this reason a reasonable proxy of sets x reps x weight can be used to estimate volume.

Frequency: The number of training sessions performed within a certain unit of time, usually measured within the week.

Exercise Selection: The actual name of the exercise, or exercises, used in a training session. For example, it is a true statement to say that you just trained legs, but a more precise statement would explain that you did squats and stiff legged deadlifts.

Training Session: A single bout of training which can be done multiple times per week or even multiple times per day. Each training session generally has a warm up, a working phase, and a distinct end which may or may not involve a cool down.

Light Session: A session of training that is intentionally non-overloading and relatively easy to accomplish. The purpose of a light session is to enhance the process of recovery/adaptation while mitigating the loss of technique, muscle size, and strength. Light sessions are typically characterized by a reduction in volume and/or intensity.

Off Day: A day during which no training sessions occur.

Microcycle: A unit of training time measured between the repetition of a single training session type. In other words if you train bench and accessories on Monday, next Monday (when you train it for the first time again) is the start of the second microcycle. This of course includes all training sessions and off days within that time frame. An example would be training bench and accessories Monday, squatting and lower body accessories Tuesday, overhead pressing and accessories Thursday, and training deadlifts and lower body accessories Friday. Those four workouts and three off days construct our first microcycle and when they are repeated next week, with planned alterations in weight set and rep amounts, that will construct the second microcycle, and so on. Microcycles are typically (but not always) a week in length.

Accumulation Phase: A series of sequential microcycles during which training gets progressively harder, which occurs through an increase in either volume, intensity, or both.

Deload Phase: Most commonly referred to just as a “deload,” it is an entire microcycle composed of light sessions of various sorts, the purpose of which is to reduce fatigue while preserving adaptations. For a deload to be effective in meaningfully brining down fatigue, its reduction of volume and intensity from normal accumulation training must be marked and non-trivial.

Mesocycle: An organized sequence of microcycles ordered to elicit a set of distinct training adaptations. The typical mesocycle is composed of two distinct phases, an accumulation phase, which usually lasts for three to five weeks and a deload phase, which usually lasts for about a week. The typical mesocycle usually lasts for about a month. Sometimes defined elsewhere as “summated microcycles.”

Accumulation/Deload Paradigm: The ratio of time spent in an accumulation phase vs. a deload phase during any particular mesocycle. Typical paradigms include the classic 3:1 paradigm, but other common uses include the 4:1 paradigm (common to hypertrophy training) and the 3:2 paradigm (common to peaking and tapering).

Training Block: Known elsewhere as “summated mesocycles” a training block typically consists of one to three mesocycles. All of the mesocycles within one training block have a unified or similar purpose. For example, three sequential mesocycles where muscle growth is the dominant training priority form a hypertrophy training block.

Macrocycle: A sequence of training blocks arranged in a particular
order to accomplish high level improvement in sport performance. Macrocycles often culminate in a competitive performance. For example, a powerlifting macrocycle is typically composed of a hypertrophy block followed by a strength block and then a peaking block before a powerlifting competition. Most properly designed macrocycles will also include an active rest phase after the competition. When the next hypertrophy block begins, that is considered the start of the next meet macrocycle.

Mass: A concordant block of both training and nutrition designed to increase the muscle mass of the lifter. Mass phases are characterized by high volume training and hypercaloric dieting, and generally last between one and three months.

Maintenance: A nutritional block during which no attempt to lose or gain bodyweight is made, and a stable training bodyweight is held. Training during this time may consist of any of the possible phases, but is mostly characterized by basic strength and peaking training. Maintenance phases usually last at least a month, but have no top end limit in length so long as significant alterations in body composition are not the goal.

Cut: A concordant block of both training and nutrition designed to decrease the fat mass of the lifter while maintaining his/her muscle mass. Cut phases are characterized by high volume training, hypocaloric diets, and generally last between one and three months.

Strength: The maximal ability to produce force. Measured in the laboratory in Newtons and in the gym/platform in pounds and kilos.

Task-Specific Strength: The maximal ability to produce force in a specific movement. For example, deadlifting strength is the amount
of force you can produce in the deadlift. In task specific strength the maximal force at the weakest point of the lift is the actual task specific strength of that movement. For example, if you can lock out 800lbs from the knees, but you can only break 600lbs off of the floor; your deadlifting strength is only 600lbs.

Hypertrophy Block: A block of training, the goal of which is to add muscle mass (during a mass phase) or prevent its loss (during a cutting phase). Generally characterized by higher training volumes and minimum intensities of 60% 1RM, which translates roughly to reps in the 6-10 range for most powerlifting applications.

General Strength Block: A block of training, the goal of which is to increase force production abilities. Such training is generally categorized by intensities of 75% 1RM and higher and sets in the three to six repetition range.

Peaking Block: A block of training designed to allow the powerlifter to express his/her basic strength in the task-specific act of one repetition maximums in the competition lifts. This phase is characterized by an accumulation phase of around 90% 1RM lifting, and an elongated deload called a taper during which strength is maintained while fatigue is reduced to enhance meet performance.

Active Rest: A dedicated block of training, which is almost always one mesocycle in length, the purpose of which is to reduce fatigue and prepare the lifter for another productive macrocycle of training. This block is usually characterized by, essentially, a sequence of specialized deload phases. An active rest block is unique in that it does not have an accumulation phase.

Homeostasis: The process of maintaining a stable internal environment within a system with respect to fluctuations in the state of the environment external to the system. All life is characterized in large part by the ability to maintain homeostasis, including the human body when exposed to the external fluctuations of powerlifting training stress. This concept is very important because adaptations are almost exclusive stimulated by a disruption of homeostasis within the lifter’s body (usually with hard training).

Periodization: The logical sequencing of training variables for the purpose of eliciting maximal adaptations, reducing injury rates, and peaking the athlete for best performance at a particular time of his/ her choosing. The final product of applied periodization is a properly constructed macrocycle of training that leads to beneficial results.

Flexibility: The range of motion possible in a joint, muscle action, or a series of joints involved in a specific task.

Technique: The execution of a lift in the proper sequence and form of movement (positions and motions of the trunk and all limbs) to move the weight with both maximal effect and reasonable safety. All lifters are built differently and thus no one will have identical technique and there is no such thing as ideal technique, but large commonalities of basic execution will apply to all body types.

Mobility: The intersection of technique, strength, and flexibility. A lifter can be said to be properly mobile in the squat if they have the flexibility and strength to hit all of the necessary positions with good technique. It is possible that someone is perfectly strong and flexible but lacks the technical ability (usually knowledge of correct technique or lack of practice with the correct technique) to execute a lift properly. It is possible that a very strong and technical lifter can be considered improperly mobile because he is not sufficiently flexible enough to execute the proper range of motion of the lift with good technique. It can also be just as true that a very flexible and technical person who lacks the necessary strength to maintain proper technique during some parts of the range of motion is also not properly mobile. Of course, any combination of deficiencies in the technique, strength, or flexibility needed to execute the lift with proper technique through its full range of motion can also contribute to improper mobility.

Dr. Mike Israetel

Mike is a professor of Exercise Science at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and was previously a professor at the University of Central Missouri, where he taught Exercise Physiology, Personal Training, and Advanced Programming for sports and fitness. Mike’s PhD is in Sport Physiology, and he has been a consultant on sports nutrition to the U.S. Olympic Training Site in Johnson City, TN. Mike has coached numerous powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, and other individuals in both diet and weight training. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Mike is a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu grappler. He used to hold a bunch of state, national, and world records in raw powerlifting back when everyone was in equipment, so that’s cool!

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