Paragon Training Methods Strength Cycle

Physique Strength Cycle Fall 2023

Growing season is here and with that, we’re bringing you the brand new strength cycle for Paragon Physique programs!

Why we love strength cycles: you get stronger, gain muscle, and improve your ability to move heavy weights. These cycles typically encompass super heavy weight for lower reps (~1-6 Reps).

  • Feel like a baddie as you pick up heavy things + celebrate what your body can do
  • Smash the heavy lifts you love (Back Squats, Deadlifts, Bench, Strict Press, etc)
  • Enjoy bodybuilding accessory work (alongside the compound lifts) so you can maximize looking great while you get strong
  • Assess your progress by maxing out and establishing new PRs + 1-Rep Maxes

But also, if strength cycles are not your thing, we will still provide a robust “hypertrophy” option.

You can keep the same strength movement and perform it in higher rep ranges, or completely swap the strength movement for more hypertrophy-based exercises that train the same general area of the body.

Keep reading for all the good deets!


General Details

  • 60-75 min workouts for Full Gym
  • 60 min workouts for Home Gym
  • 3-Day Full Body Option
  • 4-Day Upper/Lower Split Option
  • If you enjoy cardio, you have the option of completing up to 3 potential sessions each week of Zone 2 / Zone 5 Cardio

Full Gym Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Dumbbells
  • Squat rack
  • Bench
  • Machines including: Cables, leg press, leg extension/curl (note there will be free weight swaps available for busy gyms)

Home Gym Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Dumbbells
  • Squat rack
  • Bench
  • Resistance bands

Strength Cycle Intro

Paragon Co-founder Bryan Boorstein is here to discuss the Strength Cycle for Fall 2023.

This 6-week cycle strength cycle is part of the larger periodization model we follow at Paragon, where strength cycles precede 18 weeks of Hypertrophy-based training. Often, the first 6 weeks of the 18-week hypertrophy will have a slight metabolic flare (more details about the hypertrophy coming mid-way through the strength cycle).

The primary focus of training periodization over the year is to optimize strength and hypertrophy outcomes without sacrificing conditioning levels necessary to optimize base health levels.

You can think of these phases on a spectrum, with hypertrophy being in the middle (the most well-rounded stimulus). Then strength is just slightly lower reps and longer rest periods. Metabolic is going to be slightly lighter weights with shorter rest periods.

This strength cycle, we introduce a few changes from the prior strength cycle.

The changes are primarily seen in the periodization model within the 6-week cycle (i.e. the rep scheme approach is different than the last cycle). We also have introduced a new movement into the cycle (Back-Rack Reverse Lunges will replace the Hip Thrust). Many of the other components will remain similar to the prior strength cycle.

Let’s discuss some of the science that makes this approach so effective and delve into the specific details of this training cycle!


Rationale for Strength Cycles

1. Strength phases allow you to assess your progress at a much more tangible level.

Yes, we can get stronger and set a “PR” in the 10-15 rep range but being able to say, “I set a PR in a 1, 2, or 3-rep max” is something we can hold with us as an emblem of our hard work and dedication. Not to mention, lifting heavy has a certain grit and determination associated that isn’t quite the same with higher rep ranges.

Ok, now onto some science 🙂

2. Re-sensitization to the “hypertrophy” stimulus is one major reason.

The research behind this idea is building momentum, though I wouldn’t say it’s fact at this point. The idea is that our bodies are extremely resilient, and therefore adapt to a given stimulus, making it more difficult to continue to make progress without altering the stimulus temporarily.

A good analogy here would be what happens with continuous exposure to the sun. When the stimulus is new, we adapt quickly, and we can see skin changing to a darker color. As we do this more and more, we have to stay out in the sun longer to elicit an adaptation the next time we go into the sun.

The sun exposure is much like training volume during a hypertrophy phase. Instead of having to do more and more, we can change stimulus temporarily and allow the body to “de-train” that stimulus slightly (avoid sun exposure), and then come back with a renewed ability to manifest these adaptations (be “more sensitive” to the sun).

3. Potential HYPERTROPHY benefit of preceding a hypertrophy phase with a strength phase.

There is a 2020 study by Carvalho and colleagues (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33241958), which demonstrated exactly this idea.

One group did an 8-week hypertrophy phase while the other group did a 3-week strength phase, then a 5-week hypertrophy phase. The group that did the strength phase first, ended up with more hypertrophy. The reasoning for this is still ambiguous, in my opinion, and I may still argue that this is a result of “re-sensitization” more than “priming,” but it was proven effective either way!

4. The final one is simply psychological fatigue.

The majority of people find it quite difficult to do the same thing all the time. Especially when you consider that hypertrophy training mostly trains close to failure in higher rep ranges, many of these sets can be quite painful as the lactic acid and other metabolites flood the body during hard sets. When we do strength work in lower rep ranges, the work is still extremely difficult, but it doesn’t have the same burn associated with doing higher reps. It can be a nice reprieve to train in this manner for a few weeks!


Program Delivery

1. New Hypertrophy Swap Option

There is a new option for members during the strength cycle (which started last cycle and will continue for all future strength cycles).

Due to the feedback from a significant minority of members who prefer not to do strength cycles, we are now offering hypertrophy options for all the repeating movements.

Each hypertrophy option will have a different rep scheme (focusing mostly on the 6-12 rep range), and there will be some options for more hypertrophy-focused swaps in exercise selection.

We do encourage you to utilize the strength movement, wherever possible. Even if it that means squatting, deadlifting and benching in the 6-12 rep range, we can be pretty confident that there is some benefit to changing movements out every now and then. If all you ever did was RDL variations, you would be missing out on a varied stimulus from the deadlift. Not to mention the psychological monotony of performing the same movement in every cycle. 

Therefore, unless there Is a good reason to swap out the programmed strength movement, you ought to stick with it, even if you opt to train in higher rep ranges.

2. Can we mix and match strength and hypertrophy?

We figure some of you all will want to prioritize strength for some lifts, and maybe prioritize hypertrophy for others (or specific body parts). This “mix and match” approach should be totally fine.

Per the standard protocol for repeating movements, we just want to make sure we stick with the same choices throughout the cycle; meaning whether you take the strength or hypertrophy route on a given movement, then be consistent and progress that exercise for 7 weeks!

3. Why is 3D Physique Lower/Upper/Full Body this cycle?

After much discussion (and a Paragon community poll), we ultimately decided to keep 3D Physique as full body for the hypertrophy phases.

However, for Strength cycles, it would be imprudent to do full body training. In a strength phase, we want to maximize neuromuscular coordination, which requires recovery between sessions where similar areas of the body are being trained.

Due to the nature of the exercise selection in a strength cycle, which consists of extremely complex and demanding compound movements (deadlifts, squats, bench presses), there would be significant crossover fatigue that would likely inhibit maximum adaptations.

The lower body tends to absorb the most damage from strength cycles. By putting the lower body training on Monday, this allows 4 full days before training any lower body again (on Friday). The upper body takes much less damage/fatigue, and therefore can be trained on Wednesday and again on Friday with much less deleterious impact on the results.

This has proven effective in prior iterations of our strength cycles, so it makes the most practical sense to implement in this manner!


Strength Cycle Deets

The Rep scheme is the main difference you will notice from the prior strength cycle.

The new rep scheme is still a version of the Linear Periodization approach.

CURRENT CYCLE REP SCHEME:

Week 1 = 3 Reps (~5 reps from failure)
Week 2 = 3 Reps (~4 reps from failure)
Week 3 = 2 Reps (~3 reps from failure)
Week 4 = 2 Reps (~2 reps from failure)
Week 5 = 1 Rep (~1 rep from failure)
Week 6 = 1 Rep (max testing, to technical failure)

In the prior cycle, the rep scheme was a linear 6-5-4-3-2-1, where we dropped a rep and increased load each week, while working progressively closer to failure each week.

In the current cycle, we will still increase the load each week and work closer to failure (as shown in the example above). In this sense, the model is still “linear.” However, in many ways, this new model will make the progression process even more intuitive by keeping the same rep target for two straight weeks. This will allow you to be more accurate in assessing how much load to add.

Linear progression models in general are the simplest form of progression to implement and is also “backed by science” as the most effective way to increase strength over a training block.

A 2009 study by Prestes and colleagues on 20 women, found that Linear Periodization provided significantly more strength improvements on Bench Press, Pulldowns, Curls, and Leg Extensions, when compared to the alternative method.

Comparison of Linear and Reverse Linear Periodization Effects on Maximal Strength and Body Composition

This makes intuitive sense, based on everything we know about the development of strength compared to Hypertrophy.

Specifically, strength responds to lower volumes, and guess what happen as the reps decrease across the cycle?… You are in effect, decreasing total volume load.

This means that as weights and effort are increasing week to week, the decrease in total reps is helping to facilitate recovery (via a reduction in volume) and allowing you to properly manifest your strength potential.

It’s also important to note that not all repeating movements are conducive to using the same 3-3-2-2-1-1 rep scheme.

For example, with row variations we are not going to do a one-rep max. The progression will instead be mostly sets of 3-6 reps (while still looking to increase load progressively across the cycle).


BACK SQUATS TWICE A WEEK!?!?!

In the last few strength cycles, we have implemented Back Squats as a repeating movement TWICE each week.

We will be doing the same this cycle!

With Back squats as a primary movement (up there with deadlifts as the “main” focus of the cycle), and with the knowledge that strength is a skill (meaning the more often we practice it, the faster the adaptation will take place), there is great rationale for including back squats twice across the week.

The first session utilizes the same approach outlined above (linear periodization, decreasing reps / increasing load across the cycle).

The second session will be lighter with focus on “technical execution and speed” sets, using reduced weight and reps. These sets will be a percentage of the weights used on the first session.

This second session is meant to enhance execution and refine movement patterns with intention that this will carry over to the heavy sets the following week (also the potential benefits of staying further from failure for strength goals, as described below).

The objective on the lighter day is to accelerate each rep as fast as possible on the “up” portion (even though the weight is light). This “up” portion is called the concentric, and we have plenty of data to support the idea of “maximal concentric intent” being vital to the development of the neurological side of building strength.

“To increase strength, faster resistance training is thought to provide a better stimulus for neural adaptations, which could lead to greater strength gains” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-021-01465-2, Wilk, 2021)


Strength Work & Proximity to Failure

Many studies are now showing that strength is increased faster, staying further from failure.

The rationale is based on the idea that strength development is a result of total force production.

Force = Mass x Acceleration, so we want to keep the concentric speed faster (avoiding the grinding reps that slow); increasing the force applied.

The other negative ramification of “grinding” reps is the inevitable compensation mechanism that occurs. Our bodies are professional compensators; meaning we will always find the easiest solution to the problem.

If we are completing tough reps where mini compensations occur, we are not allowing the neural (skill) adaptations to take place.

Essentially, we are teaching our bodies how to be better at compensating, as opposed to training the specific skill adaptation that we are after.

We are creating bad habits that become permanent and inhibit our strength adaptations.

There are two studies I’d like to focus on to cement this point.

1. A new “pre-print” of a Meta-Regression from 2023 (basically a study of all studies on a topic) by Robinson and colleagues (https://sportrxiv.org/index.php/server/preprint/view/295), found that training closer to failure provided non-linear increases in hypertrophy. However, in the same review, they found that training closer to failure for strength did not have any increased benefit to increasing strength; only increasing fatigue. It seems that even sets with as much as 5-8 reps from failure produce similar increases in strength, with exponentially less fatigue (when reps are performed with maximal concentric intent; meaning lifting the weight as fast as possible).

2. In a 2021 study by Karsten and colleagues (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31365457/),  one group trained 4 sets of 10 Reps to failure, while the other group used the same weight (approx. 10-rep max), but completed 8 sets of 5 Reps (leaving 5 reps from failure each set).

The group that left 5 reps from failure had better strength gains! This has been confirmed in practice, among a wealth of top-level coaches, too!

(notably, the group that did 4 sets of 10 to failure achieved better hypertrophy results, which is also in line with the research (that we need be closer to failure to maximize muscle building).

Ultimately, this cycle is about building Neural Efficiency across the musculature while re-sensitizing to some of the hypertrophy stimulus.


Sample Workouts


Repeating Movements for the Strength Cycle

*** See the BLOG above for additional info on the “Hypertrophy” Swap options. I will only BRIEFLY address these Hypertrophy swaps in the below write-up since the majority of members will be completing the strength cycle.

***Note The below is listed for the 4-Day Physique programs, however, the 3-Day program utilized the same repeating movements (abeit a few less).


Monday:

A. Barbell Back Squat – Low Bar

Alternate Strength Movements you can swap:
-Barbell Back Squat – High Bar

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Hack Squat
-Leg Press
-Heels Elevated Back Squat w/ Pause
-Foam Roller Hack Squats

B. Sumo Deadlifts

Alternate Strength Movements you can swap:
– Conventional Deadlifts
-Trap Bar Deadlifts

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Barbell RDL
-Trap Bar RDL

We’ve got some big barbell movements to start the week! Should be fun to move some big weights!

For the back squat, I encourage you to use the LOW BAR position. This will make the movement more glute dominant, and allow you to brace through the midline more effectively with heavier weights.

Descend down under control, in 2-3 seconds. I am a huge fan of a pause at the bottom for standardization purposes; but most important is that you execute the movement the same rep to rep.

Make sure you avoid standing with the weight on your back. Hit the top, take one breath, and immediately descend back down. If you rest longer than that, the weight is too heavy for the target reps.

For the deadlifts, you have a choice of conventional, sumo, or trap bar. Any of them are fine! Given that this is not a hypertrophy cycle, I won’t go into detail about which biases which musculature. They’re all good and effective.

Just make sure you are remaining in control. No turning your spine into a question mark. I find it very helpful to remember two specific cues:

1. Push the floor away (instead of lifting the bar up)
2. Everything rises together (when the weight is too heavy, the hips rise first).

The deadlift variations are the most fatiguing movement in this entire cycle, which makes it even more important to maintain the “reps from failure” recommendations.

Also remember that the “reps from failure” are assuming technical failure (meaning if the back rounds or form deviates, that is already “past failure” so to speak).

For the Hypertrophy swaps, it’s as simple as selecting your preferred RDL variation, or continue to use the more standard deadlift variations for the hypertrophy rep range targets.


Tuesday:

A. Flat Barbell Bench Press

Alternate Strength Movements you can swap:
-Smith Machine Bench Press

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Flat DB Bench Press
-Machine Chest Press
-Cable Chest Press

B. Strict Pull-ups

Alternate Strength Movements you can swap:
– Weighted Pull-ups (dip belt)
-Weighted Pull-ups (band strap)
-Pull-up Negatives

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Wide Grip Cable Pulldown
-Rack Pull-ups
-Foot Assisted Rack Pull-ups
-Machine Assisted Pull-Up

The Flat Barbell Bench Press is the choice of movement here, because we will be working to a 1-rep max at the end. It would be inappropriate to try and do this with DB or machine chest press. However, given the similar loading mechanism (and safety), you could use the Smith Machine and still follow the “strength focus” rep range targets.

Remember that the path of the barbell (when doing the free weight version) is what’s called an S-curve. So the bar starts at the top with the arms perfectly vertical at support position. As the bar descends, it will contact the lower chest (below the nipple line/where the underwire of a sports bra would be), then press back up to support (pressing towards the head slightly).

Many ways to load a pull-up here if you are strong enough to add weight. The Dip belt is the most loadable. Using the band backpack is fine for hypertrophy cycles, or if you aren’t super strong. But to try loading over 25 lbs in that band backpack won’t be too fun.

If you are not quite ready to load pull-ups, then doing proper “strict pull-ups” is the perfect progression to get you to the weighted pull-up. Who knows… maybe by the end of the cycle, you will be doing a 1 rep max pull-up with added weight!

It’s important to note that only the weighted pull-ups, negatives, and bodyweight strict pull-ups are appropriate for the strength rep range targets. For the Hypertrophy swaps, we’ll be using higher rep ranges, and so pulldowns and rack pull-up variations will be appropriate.

As with any pull-up in our programs, we expect you to remain strict. Avoid using the hips to “get the last few inches” and avoid rounding the upper back. We want to remain in “thoracic extension” (slightly arched) the entire time. It helps to think about “leading with the chest” to facilitate this execution.


Thursday:

A. Low Bar Back Squat

Alternate Strength Movements you can swap:
-Barbell Back Squat – High Bar

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Hack Squat
-Leg Press
-Heels Elevated Back Squat w/ Pause
-Foam Roller Hack Squats

B. Back-Rack Reverse Lunges

Alternate Movement you can swap:
– Barbell Front Rack Reverse Lunge
– Smith Machine Alternating Reverse Lunges

This second day of squats was discussed in detail in the bulk of the blog above. Here it is again:

The second session will be lighter with focus on “technical execution and speed” sets, using reduced weight and reps. These sets will be a percentage of the weights used in the first session.

This second session is meant to enhance execution and refine movement patterns with the intention that this will carry over to the heavy sets the following week (also the potential benefits of staying further from failure for strength goals, as described below).

The objective on the lighter day is to accelerate each rep as fast as possible on the “up” portion (even though the weight is light). This “up” portion is called the concentric, and we have plenty of data to support the idea of “maximal concentric intent” being vital to developing the neurological side of building strength.

For the Hypertrophy swaps, there will be a different rep scheme than that used on Monday. You can use the same variation as Monday, or swap to a different one (such as Leg press one day and Hack Squat the other).

The Back-Rack Reverse Lunges are a savage single-leg movement. They provide a much higher level of stability, which is often lacking in most single-leg squat movements, and they are also performed with “alternating” legs, which means that you can properly train both legs at the same time. One of my least favorite things about single-leg movements is having to do double the number of sets to achieve the same stimulus; and this variation eliminates that issue completely.

You can opt to use a low bar or high bar position (or a safety squat bar). You can also feel free to execute the movement in whatever way feels most natural, with no concern about whether it’s quad or glute-dominant. In a strength cycle, we just want to move the most load from point A to point B!

As you step back, ensure you are not walking a “tight rope” (meaning we want some width between the feet; likely similar to your squat stance in total width).

Once your knee gently contacts the ground, drive the hips forward and stand back to center, using both the quads and glutes (as well as a bit of power from the midline / low back).

Much like the squats, we want to avoid excessive rest at the top of the rep, so look to standardize your “breather” each rep to allow just one quick gulp of air, and then descend the next leg into the reverse lunge.

The rep scheme will begin with sets of 6 reps (3 per leg) and will decrease week to week in the same manner that has been described for the other large compound repeating movements.

The hypertrophy reps will stay in the 10-16 range for most of the cycle (5-8 per leg).


Friday:

A. Strict Barbell Pendlay Row

There are no Strength swaps for Pendlay Rows.

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Chest Supported Machine Row
-Chest Supported Cable Row
-Chest Supported T-Bar Row
-Chest Supported DB Row
-Head Supported DB Row

B. Strict Barbell Overhead Press

There are no Strength swaps for Overhead BB Press.

Alternate Hypertrophy Movements you can swap:
-Seated Machine Overhead Press
-DB Overhead Press – Seated
-DB Overhead Press – Standing
-Smith Machine Overhead Press

For the Pendlay Row, the best advice here is to find the bottom of your RDL, and then maintain that position as you row. It is super important to have tension through the hamstrings/glutes and lower back, which keep the body rigid and help to avoid using momentum.

This is an extremely short overloaded movement, meaning the last 2-3 inches of the rep are the most difficult (as the hands approach the torso). Make sure you select loading where you don’t cheat by “humping” or adjusting the torso position as it gets difficult rep to rep.

This movement will not follow the same descending rep scheme described for the primary compound repeating movements. We will likely stick in the 3-6 rep range for those following the strength programming (and higher rep targets for those in hypertrophy).

For the hypertrophy rep range targets, any of the DB or machine swaps would be suitable!

For the Overhead Press, we want to set it up with glutes and midline squeezed, bracing. Elbows directly under or just barely in front of the bar.

As you press, we don’t want to go around the face, so we must move the face slightly back and out of the way.

As soon as the bar clears the head, we can move the head forward, under the bar, to press out and complete the rep from the strongest position.


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