When You Can No Longer Rely On Beginner Gains
Many of us look back wistfully at the blissful days when nothing could go wrong in the weight room. Every routine struck gold. Every week, you slung another plate onto the barbell. There was no reason to suppose that your haphazardly-assembled programme wasn’t a stroke of broscience genius.
Life tends to be good when you’re warming up to the task of becoming the next Bill Pearl. Progress comes thick and fast, seemingly no matter what you do.
Until it runs dry, and you’re left clutching a one plate bench that refuses to budge upwards for weeks on end.
Clearly something needs to change for the forces to shift back into motion, and what you do from there can very much hinge on which cult you hail from.
The Usual Strategies For Busting Plateaus
If you’re a slave to notepad lifting, you deload for a week, ensconce away to some beachside resort, then return back to your trusted 5 x 5s. You’ll ramp up slowly, hoping that the extra rest has wiped away enough of the fatigue for you to blast past the plateau.
But let’s say you shirk the notepad, and instead steep yourself in the witchcraft of broscience. You meet the plateau head-on, don’t take any days off, scrap the current playlist, and disorientate the muscle into submission with a dizzying array of novel exercises.
Funnily enough, either of these roads could see you vaulting past the one plate blockade. But they won’t particularly quick at getting you there. And with each time you go running back to that same well to rescue a flagging programme, the less effective they’re going to be.
The thing is, muscle growth is driven by progressive overload, which would imply that a simple 5×5 setup with incremental increases in weight would be the straightest of roads. But the body is smart, and it tends to be incredibly good at adapting to meet a predictable stress. To the point where it has little need to actually installs new muscle fibers and get stronger.
That’s where muscle confusion could slot in, by producing such rich variety that the muscles have the option but to continue to progress to meet the unpredictable stressors. Unfortunately, this route is hamstrung by the fact that strength is very much skill-based. And hopping from programme to programme, exercise to exercise, will dent your ability to groove in specific motor patterns.
To underline that point, adding 10kg to a machine chest press won’t necessarily translate to a similar increase on the bench. The former lacks any stability work, doesn’t emphasise scapula control, and doesn’t hinge on your ability to form an impressive arch, all of which are crucial forces in the latter.
Introducing The DUP Solution
In case this has been an avalanche of information, I’ll roll it back to the basic notes.
- The muscle grows in response to new stressors
- But with each time it gets exposed to the same stressor, the response is weaker, and the adaptation smaller.
- That’s where it becomes important to vary the stimulus, but not to the extent where you lose specificity.
So in other words, you need a dose of both specificity and variety to assure progress. That’s where Daily Undulating Periodisation, or DUP, slots in. The name might suggest a complicated scheme, but it’s actually simple, and not unlike the routines that many successful non-periodised bodybuilders follow.
In essence, you’re treating your big lifts to a variety of rep ranges, usually styled as power, strength, and hypertrophy. But it’s easier to view them as low, medium, and high reps. Here’s an example showcasing the troublesome bench press.
Monday – 3 sets x 3 reps (Power)
Wednesday – 3 x 6 (Strength)
Friday – 3 x 12 (Hypertrophy)
Those reps I gave aren’t specific by any means, and they can hardly be expected to apply for all exercises. There’s no chance in hell I’m attempting a 12 rep set on deadlifts. So the selected reps should be dosed according to the context of the exercise at hand.
In any case, it’s a straightforward template, and it ticks the box of both specificity and variety. Because, as it happens, you don’t need to change up the exercise in order to spice things up.
Variety can be leveraged just as easily by simply switching up the rep ranges, and thereby, the intensity of the movement. Sets of 3 offer a very different stimulus to sets of 12. There’s more tension in the former, and more fatigue and metabolic accumulation in the latter. They hit different.
At the same time, DUP allows you to not just retain the big lifts, but also increase their frequency. Meaning you’re getting treated to more chances to hone your skills and perfect the lift.
For people who like their theories to be backed by science, there was a 12-week study comparing lifters following linear periodisation (the 5×5 experience) and DUP. The latter put in the exact same work, and yet, produced almost double the results.
So while I’m not attempting to make the case that DUP is the optimal programme, it certainly beats the socks off the bog-standard linear periodisation that most lifters follow. They hammer the same exercises week in, week out, incessantly. When an opening arises, when the muscles feel on form, they go up in weight or tack on a rep to their top set. It’s straightforward, and it certainly should produce the goods for beginners. But once the adaptations start to fizzle out, such a programme offers very little in terms of novel stimuli.
That’s where you have to stop relying on intensity alone, and begin to seek out more variety. More rep ranges, different training frequencies, and not to mention exercise selection. DUP caters to that.
How To Progress DUP
With all that being said, you still want to be able to have a way of progressing a format like DUP, otherwise you’ll still be at risk of stagnating. You should be able to manage fatigue so that it doesn’t prevent you from peaking at the right time, and you should have a roadmap that pushes you up from one milestone to the next.
There are numerous ways of enforcing this, but I’m a particular fan of double progression, since it allows the lifter to settle and dominate each weight before moving up.
With DP, you aim for a target rep count on your top set. If you hit those reps, you move up. If you fall short, you’re back at the same weight next week. This is a nice way to get around the inherent problem in linear periodisation, where you can’t expect to add weight week on week. At least, not if you’re not brand spanking new to the lifting game.
Here’s an example of DP in action.
It’s an unfortunate acronym.
- Week 1 – Bench Press – 50kg x 6
- Week 2 – Bench Press – 52.5kg x 5
- Week 3 – Bench Press – 52.5kg x 6
- Week 4 – Bench Press – 55kg x 5
As a side note, depending on whether you’re bent on strength or size goals, you don’t have to change the DUP setup by much. Because both outcomes are still dependent on you moving extra weight. The stronger you get, the bigger you’ll be able to get.
If you’re purely strength-focused, you might want to move the rep ranges down a little. If you’re purely hypertrophy-focused, nothing needs to be changed. High reps don’t drive hypertrophy. Mechanical tension does, and that means training close to failure. Which you can just as easily do in the 5-8 rep range, compared to the 12-15 rep range.
If anything, the former costs less fatigue and is therefore more sustainable. But I don’t want to get dragged too far down this road, because the hypertrophy topic deserves its own article.
In a nutshell, DUP allows you to combine enough intensity and variety to power past frustrating sticking points in your strength goals. Using DP within that scheme then enforces a method of progression that accounts for the natural ebbs and flows in the pursuit of swoledom.
In case you have any more questions, please invade the comments, it’s lonely down there.