Programming Management for the Dual Athlete, Part 3

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In Part 2, we examined the role of training volume as a means of long-term progressive overload. As discussed previously, more and more physique sport athletes are competing in powerlifting in their time away from the stage. In Part 3, we will discuss some ways to appropriately manage this concept for the dual athlete within their offseason training. This article comes at a convenient time, as there has been some recent criticism (much of which is very justifiable) with the approach some dual athletes are taking. First, some general clarification should be made. It’s probably safe to say the majority of dual athletes have PRIMARY physique goals and SECONDARY powerlifting goals. This is an important question to ask yourself because it will have an impact on how you structure things over the long haul. In the current landscape of social media, trends are just as prevalent in fitness as they are in fashion. It’s easy for justifiable intent to transform into just going with the flow with others and overlooking and/or refusing to acknowledge obvious gaps in one’s plan. With the dual athlete, it oftentimes looks something like this:

  • Athlete steps off stage with defined offseason physique goals. They know this will take time so they commit to a 2-3 year offseason to make necessary improvements.
  • They decide to pursue powerlifting to fuel their offseason competitive flame while making physique improvements.
  • They add 150 lbs to their total and their legs and posterior chain show significant improvement.
  • They enter contest prep with smaller arms and shoulders than 3 years prior.

This isn’t really an unrealistic picture of what can easily occur. We want to avoid neglecting original intent. Dual athletes require a strategy that allows for multiple goals to be accomplished during the offseason. That being said, most dual athletes are physique sport athletes FIRST and powerlifters SECOND. Objectives need to be prioritized to allow for muscular hypertrophy first and foremost, while accommodating for strength peaks along the way. Strength doesn’t matter on stage, but we can certainly use strength as an avenue for progression and physique improvements. Remember, load is a component of training volume.  While it’s impossible to define a definitively optimal approach for these goals (or anything for that matter), a blend of periodization models/themes can be used to accomplish everything in a pretty efficient manner. Much of the long-term strategies described here are conceptual in nature and built on the foundational principles of managing the following training variables:

  • Volume
  • Intensity
  • Exercise selection



Macrocyle Variable Management

The macrocycle can be thought of like a college education. It’s the end product of multiple semesters (mesocycles), weeks (microcycles), and classes (gym sessions). By the end of it all, you know where you want to be standing. For our athlete, the macrocycle could be an individual year or their entire extended offseason. Therefore, the goals and variable management are broad in nature and description.

Physique Goals

  • Overall muscle hypertrophy
  • Bring up lagging body parts

Powerlifting Goals

  • Compete “x” amount of times
  • Progressively increase your total

Variable Management

  • Volume
    • Progressively do more work on an as-needed basis.
  • Intensity
    • Average annual training intensity may increase over time. This is largely based on the individual and training status. More advanced athletes who have really tapped their muscular potential may spend an increased ratio of their time at higher intensities to work the functional aspect of their structural capacity.
  • Exercise selection
    • Allow weak point body parts to be efficiently addressed (from a physique standpoint).
    • Improve sport form on Big 3 so we are executing competition lifts in the most efficient manner possible.

Mesocycle Variable Management

Mesocycles are blocks/phases of training, with underlying themes or goals. Block periodization can be a very powerful tool in structuring your annual training direction, especially for our dual athlete. By establishing some of your known (or roughly established) meets along the way, you can structure your rough annual plan in a manner that will allow you to have a peak for each meet, while still making changes to your physique in an efficient manner. It’s important to consider a block as part of the bigger picture, and not solely in isolation. We know volume is important, but realize that variable progression is not linear in nature within a block model.

There are four training blocks we will examine. In our example, these will progress from one to another in the order listed below:

Volume Block (often termed accumulation) – typically 4-6 weeks

  • Physique Goals
    • Muscle hypertrophy
    • Bring up lagging body parts
  • Powerlifting Goals
    • Increase work capacity
    • Muscle hypertrophy
  • Variable Management
    • Volume
      • The focus of a volume block is to emphasize muscular hypertrophy and improve work capacity.
    • Intensity
      • Intensity is scaled in a manner to accommodate the accumulation of volume while still meeting the intensity threshold required for a hypertrophic adaptation.
      • Typically volume block intensity resides around ~60-80% 1 RM depending on rep ranges; however, a dedicated training day at ~80-85% can help prevent detraining at the higher intensities as part of a daily undulating model.
    • Exercise selection
      • It would be prudent for the dual athlete to maintain some direct “Big 3” work, although movement specificity to sport form is not the main priority yet.
      • Exercise selection should accommodate the accumulation of training volume while minimizing injury risk. Ex: If an old lower back injury tends to flare up when you squat with high volume multiple times per week, you may opt for leg pressing on one of your days.
      • From a physique standpoint, lagging bodyparts should also help dictate exercise selection outside of the primary competition specific work. This seems to be a simple, yet often overlooked aspect for programming for the dual athlete. Keep the long-term goals in mind. If you are chronically neglecting muscular weak points in order to build your total, then you are not emphasizing your goals in the appropriate order.

Intensity Block (also termed transmutation) – typically 3-4 weeks

  • Physique Goals
    • Maintain muscle mass
  • Powerlifting Goals
    • Focus shifts from structural moreso to neurological adaptations
    • Increase ability to recruit high threshold motor units
  • Variable Management
    • Volume
      • Total volume at or slightly below that of volume block. We want volume to be enough to maintain a higher stress level session to session than is achieved in a volume block. This is to help set us up for supercompensation in the realization phase.
    • Intensity
      • There are significant increases in average intensities from those of the volume block. Intensity typically resides between ~75-90% 1 RM depending on day.
    • Exercise selection
      • More competition-specific than volume block
      • Exercises which address a weak ROM in the competition lift are commonly included here but are typically variants of main lift.
      • While isolation work may be scaled back a bit here, nothing should be eliminated entirely.

Realization Block- typically 1-3 weeks

  • Physique Goals
    • Maintain muscle mass
  • Powerlifting Goals
    • Supercompensate from intensity block
    • Strength gains come to full fruition
  • Variable Management
    • Volume
      • Volume is decreased to allow recovery and supercompensation
    • Intensity
      • Average intensity is as high or higher than intensity block to further progress load to those more specific to competition. Rep work usually resides ~80-95% depending on day.
    • Exercise selection
      • Strong emphasis on sport form in main competition movements
      • Overall specificity is at its highest
      • If there is one block where you can scale back on isolation work this is it. We want systemic recovery.

Transition Block (after meet or peak) – duration varies, but typically 3-6 weeks

  • Physique Goals
    • Push volume harder for lagging body parts that may not be significantly addressed in other blocks. This can be accomplished by accumulating extra volume from low stress isolation work (arms, delts, calves, etc). This is volume that one may find is sacrificed a bit in the intensity and realization blocks.
  • Powerlifting Goals
    • Maintain strength as best we can while re-sensitizing ourselves to competition-centric volume
    • Healing up any aches and pains
  • Variable Management
    • Volume
      • The goal is to re-sensitize our bodies to a reasonable volume stimulus on our heavy compounds. In order to do this, we must pull volume back for a period of time for those high-stress movements.
      • For the dual athlete, this may be a good time to aggressively push volume on the non-Big 3 centric lifting, or “fluff” work. Up to this point, this volume has may have been kept a bit at bay to accommodate for the volume emphasis on the competition centric movements.
    • Intensity
      • On average, intensity should be catered to maintain strength as best we can while allowing us to heal up nagging injuries. Remember, volume and intensity combine to create training stress. They are inversely related in most cases, and we are pulling back on volume quite a bit.
      • Intensity can be scaled back if general loading is a big contributing factor to joint discomfort.
      • Intensity for “fluff” work should be submaximal to cater to increased volume.
    • Exercise selection
      • The focus is on healing up injuries and avoiding anything that’s causing pain or discomfort.
      • Sport form is not a big priority here as we typically do not have a meet imminent.
      • Don’t feel obligated to do competition lifts if you are burnt out or need a change of pace.
      • Good opportunity to branch out and try something new in the gym (Machines, exercises, etc).


Block flow:

Being that an important goal of a volume block is developing muscle hypertrophy, block length/duration of emphasis needs to be considered. While hypertrophy is not the only goal during an accumulation phase, it is of large importance to the dual athlete. But how much hypertrophy is possible in four weeks? And for a natural athlete? It could be argued that the development-conscious dual athlete (especially natural) could benefit from extending volume block durations OR running multiple volume blocks successively to allow more significant hypertrophy to occur. Not only are they trying to get bigger to begin with, the added accumulation duration can lend itself to a more efficient intensity block that follows (We are essentially fine-tuning a bigger engine). In theory, this would result in a stronger downstream strength peak for your meet.

Remember how quickly you got stronger when you first started training? Those neurological adaptations are the first to come and the first to go. This is the reason why the neurologically demanding intensity blocks are AFTER we accumulate volume and hypertrophy, and closer to our meet/peak. The knock on extending the duration of our time accumulating volume is the risk of losing many of the neurological strength adaptations that have been achieved in previous heavy training cycles. However, the use of daily undulating periodization (DUP) within each microcycle can significantly attenuate much of the potential regression (more on this later).

Running the cycle of Volume↦Intensity↦Realization↦Transition↦REPEAT is not a new peaking concept by any means. However, for the dual athlete, the majority of time over the course of the year should probably be spent in accumulation. While it’s a common practice to increase the ratio of intensity and realization work over the course of the year (assuming the largest peak is at years end), the magnitude of this ratio shift should be considered for the context of our athlete.

Microcycle Variable Management

Once we have a general outline of block structure and succession, we can then determine how we want to program session to session and week to week within a mesocycle. There are a vast number of ways to do this, but daily undulating periodization (DUP) has been shown to be an effective tool to attenuate some of the pitfalls of a strictly linear model. This is not an article on the nuances of DUP, but more so how to implement its general concepts within a microcycle (and between microcycles) for the dual athlete over a long period of time.

Implementing a DUP model within microcycles/week to week will allow us to undulate rep ranges (read: intensities) in a manner that allows both “strength”and “hypertrophy” stimuli to occur within a week. Specifically, we undulate the volume and intensity session to session to achieve the primary desired training effect. By undulating rep ranges, we can also skew volume and intensity in a more specific direction to cater to the focus of the block we are in. With an extended accumulation duration prior to our intensity block, we can set aside some work focused on maintaining/progressing low-rep strength and neurological adaptations while still pushing volume as a whole. Let’s use squats as an example, training it 3x/wk. At this stage, we are ignoring potential variations in exercise selection.

 Important sidenote: When using tonnage, its important to realize that some exercise variations are going to yield substantially different amounts of tonnage even though they may have similar sets/reps/intensity protocols as would be observed with the main lift. For this reason, tracking tonnage is really only as useful as the consistency of exercise selection. Since the dual athlete may be utilizing more variations than a specificity obsessed powerlifter, then tonnage can actually be an inappropriate means of quantifying volume. An easy work around for this is to bring relative loads down to units of out 100, which conveniently enough, percentages can do very well (or approximated percentages based on rep and RPE pairings).

3 sets of 10 reps @ 65% can just become 3 x 10 x 65 for a value of 1,950.

This way, you can more directly compare volume across different exercises. TONNAGE in and of itself is not what leads to strength and hypertrophy. If that were the case we should just pick exercises where we can move the most absolute weight. 

Taking it a bit further volume is simply a way to roughly quantify accumulated tension, which has both a duration and a magnitude (intensity) component. When examining volume in conjunction with average intensity we can also indirectly gauge/compare applied stress from the exercise. Tension is a result of the applied torque across a muscle group doing work, and different exercise variations can accomplish similar applied torque across a muscle group with significantly different amounts of accumulated tonnage.

Example of microcycle in Accumulation Phase/Volume Block

Monday: 4 reps x 6 sets @ 80% 1 RM= 1,920

(This would be our “heavy” day emphasizing the recruitment of higher threshold motor units)

Wednesday: 9 reps x 4 sets @ 70% 1 RM=2,520

Friday: 12 reps x 4 sets @ 60% 1 RM= 2,880

 Average Rep Intensity: 67.78%

Total volume: 7,320

Example of microcycle in Transmutation/Intensity Block

Monday: 3 reps x 7 sets @ 85% 1 RM= 1,785

Wednesday: 5 reps x 6 sets @ 80% 1 RM= 2,400

Friday: 7 reps x 5 sets @ 75% 1 RM= 2,625

Average Rep Intensity: 79.18%

Total volume: 6,810

As you can see, both the volume and intensity microcycles undulate volume and intensity session to session. The volume block accumulates more volume but has a lower average intensity. The intensity microcycle has less tonnage but a greater average intensity. While they adhere to the underlying concept of a general inverse relationship between intensity and volume, they cater to the goal of their respective mesocycle.  By using daily undulation, we can string together multiple volume blocks and still keep functional and neurological adaptations more or less intact, while still progressing volume over time.



Microcycle Progression

There are a number of ways to program and transition between microcycles.

  • Keep sets/reps the same for each day, and increase load microcycle to microcycle within each block.
    • Pros: Built in load progression, increase in tonnage week to week
    • Cons: Assumption of increased strength within same rep range, not the most efficient manner of increasing tonnage
  • Keep reps/weight the same for each day, and increase number of sets microcycle to microcycle
    • Pros: Efficient way to increase tonnage week to week
    • Cons: Does not have built in load progression week to week
  • Reduce reps week to week, but increase intensity/load (linear model across microcycles)
    • Pros: Intensity/load typically increases as a product of decreased reps (assuming intensity is scaled in a relative manner). This can actually make this approach accommodating both for a taper OR an overreaching phase depending on set management.
    • Cons: Tonnage typically decreases, unless sets are increased (as could be a viable option for intentional overreaching). Not the most sustainable way to increase volume since tonnage and intensity are inversely related over time.
  • Increase reps week to week, and maintain/decrease intensity/load to cater to increased reps (reverse linear model across microcycles)
    • Pros: Efficient way to increase tonnage week to week on a very manageable scale
    • Cons: Typically requires a decrease in load depending on magnitude of rep increases
  • Autoregulate intensity across individual training sessions as part of any of the above options
    • This is one way to circumvent options where load would otherwise be somewhat static with a percentage based model. The ability to properly and honestly assess RPE, and most importantly be OK with sticking to the assigned RPE, is an acquired skill. However, once learned, this can become a very very valuable tool to help ensure you are achieving your desired training stress session to session.
  • Use of APRE/plus sets as a means to autoregulate load across microcycles
    • This is a good option for people who are very motivated by numbers and/or are still learning to use RPE. Having a defined load on the bar can also firm up behavioral aspects of recovery leading up to the session. The drawback here is that subsequent weekly training loads are often dictated by plus set performances of the previous week. What if you were having an exceptionally good or bad day when you did your plus set? That being said, for people with pretty even-keeled schedules and stress levels, this is a very solid approach. People with wildly variable schedules or performances day to day may opt against its use.

A balanced and blended approach:

Like most topics in iron sports, a balanced and blended approach is often the best fit. All of the above methods have their roles and can be (and probably should be) utilized across the span of various mesocycles. The overall goal is to not lose sight of our offseason hypertrophy goals while still accommodating for actual strength peaks. In Part 4, we will provide a sample scenario for an offseason dual athlete. In putting this all together, Part 4 will show what their actual programming and macro/microcycle progression could look like for the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift centric work to accomplish the PRIMARY goal of hypertrophy as well as multiple strength peaks for powerlifting competitions over the course of a year.

Related Articles

Powerlifting For Physique Sports Part 1

Powerlifting For Physique Sports Part 2: Volume Uber Alles

Brian Minor, MS is an natural pro bodybuilder, and raw powerlifter. He is a coach for INOV8 Elite Performance specializing in strength and physique oriented training/nutritional programming. He can be reached at [email protected]com

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