How Long Should A Training Cycle Be? Beginner, Intermediate, & Advanced

The most annoying answer to a question is 'that depends'. But to be honest it does depend. It depends on a few things. Not necessarily how much weight you lift, though that is a good indicator of your ability to improve, but more so it is to do with how quickly you are able to recover and how advanced you are at your given sport, in this example it is weightlifting.

The whole point of a training cycle is to produce a training effect. A positive adaptation to the sport. We do this by introducing our body to a stimulus, and then recovering from that stimulus, becoming a stronger/fitter athlete. The quicker you are able to recover from a stimulus the better. The quicker you can recover from an adequate stimulus the faster you can improve, and the shorter your cycles can be.

A beginner squatting 5x5 at 80% will not find it too much of a challenge to recover in a day or two. An advanced lifter may be unable to even complete this session and will certainly need a much longer period of recovery, the stimulus being far far greater for them.  Not only will a more advanced athlete require a longer recovery period, they will require more variation in their training to cause further stimulation. 

Let's break down all athletes into 3 brackets: beginner, intermediate, advanced.

Beginner Lifters

Beginner lifters will have the shortest training cycle. A beginner, an athlete who has been lifting for less than a year, is simply not strong enough to lift anything that requires a long recovery period. I like giving beginners and intermediate lifters 5x5 for the majority of their strength lifts. It is boring but it works. It is just good old fashioned work. If an athlete is bored with it, I will simply give them 4x6, or  6x4, or something similar, basically the same as  5x5, just more variation for them. 

A beginner will start their 5x5 on the squats on a Monday, rest on a Tuesday, and be fully recovered to increase the load by a kilo or 2 and do it all over again on the Wednesday, and then again on the Friday. We spoke about variation being key to progression. For a beginner, the simple act of loading another few kilos on the bar and squatting with that weight instead will cause enough variation with which to progress.

So essentially a beginner lifter's training cycle is about 2 days long. Their SRA curve (stimulus, recovery, adaptation)  is very small. Giving a beginner a 12 week program, complete with 10s, 5s, 3s, daily undulating periodisation, blah blah blah is just stupid. It is one of the worst ways to train a beginner. It will produce far less progress, and it will waste so much time spent trying to strategically recover the athlete, over load them, and eventually peak them. A 12 week program expects progress every 12 weeks. A beginner deserves progress every few days! (Getting angry now) You are doing beginners such a disservice by making them run long training cycles. You are stunting their growth. Stop trying to be fancy with beginners, they don't need it. They have been sat on the couch for so long that simply going to the gym and lifting is such a colossal stimulus that they will improve.

Intermediate Lifters

Once you graduate to an intermediate lifter your training cycles need only be weekly. Using the same 5x5 squat example, an athlete will now perform a 5x5 on a Monday. They are now strong enough that the stimulus of the 5x5 requires a longer recovery period. Perhaps they need a lighter day of squats to help in the recovery process. Thus they add a second light day. At this point they feel reasonably recovered and can push a higher intensity session, a 5RM a few days later for example. They can use this 5RM to test their progress. Then on Monday they run that whole 3 day squat cycle over again, only this time a kilo heavier. This cycle allows an athlete to essentially train (day 1), deload (day 2), and peak (day 3). This is all they need. Again, giving this athlete a 12 week program is unnecessary and time consuming. In case you hadn't realised, this program is the Texas Squat Program. 

Of course these weeks can follow some sort or slight progression within themselves. Perhaps the volume of accessory lifts climbs over 4 of these 1 week cycles before dropping for a few weeks. Either way, between years 1 & 2 of training, this is most likely all you really need to further your strength levels.

Advanced Lifters

An advanced lifter is what you want to stay away from being for as long as possible. You want to be as strong as an advanced lifter sure, but you don't want to have to train like an advanced lifter. You want to be able to make progress weekly like an intermediate lifter. The idea of trying to put a kilo onto your squats  every week sounds ideal. Unfortunately for advanced lifters a training program now takes 12 weeks. They can only expect  to try and achieve a new record every 3 to 4 months. An advanced lifter needs several heavy training sessions one after the other to cause enough of a stimulus, including enough scheduled recovery and peaking to progress. Unlike the SRA curve of the beginner lifter that lasted a couple of days, the SRA curve for an advanced lifter is much much longer.

So stop trying to be a level higher than you really are. Beginners want to be intermediate, intermediate want to be advanced, and advanced want to be beginners again. The lower your level, the faster your progress. When I spoke to Glenn Pendlay about this matter he said that he knows some guys who snatch 120kg who he would still consider beginners because of their ability to improve so often. Similarly he has athletes who are yet to snatch anywhere near that who he would consider intermediate or even advanced because their progress is so slow.   

Being a beginner in this sense is not an insult... It is a complement. 

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