How I Reached new Strength PR’s as a Natural Lifter after 20 years of Training while approaching 40

July 22, 2023

I started lifting when I was 16 and have pretty much pushed it as hard as reasonably possible as a natural lifter ever since (I'm 38 now).  It's a part of who I am.  

As time goes on, I've learned more and more about how to continue making gains as a natural lifter and I've come to realize the many mistakes that I made during my training career.  I'm now pushing new lifetime PR's at a lighter bodyweight than ever before while not training as hard.

The video above shows bench strength progress around 8 weeks apart with 105kg on the bench at approx 79kg bodyweight

In this post, I want to cover the biggest mistake that prevented me from making gains for many years despite pushing as hard as I reasonably could during that period.

Key Point:- Periodization for Hypertrophy

What I've come to learn over the years is that training for gains is a never ending balancing act between stress and recovery.  The technical term for this is the SRA curve (Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation). 

This is a fairly well understood mechanism.  In Layman's terms, you apply stress to your muscles in the form of exercise, outside of the gym you rest and recover to beyond the initial state.  You do this repeatedly over time, grow and get stronger.

However, as with most things, the devil is in the detail.  

The key point that took me a while to grasp is that managing the training stimulus and recovery required to produce a healthy and productive SRA curve depends a lot on your level as a lifter.

As an untrained beginner, you don't lift very heavy weights and you're still learning the technique.  You can go into the gym, smash a workout (let's say chest) and the next week you can do the same thing again, add more weight and be fine.  The training stimulus of each workout is sufficient and recovery time is minimal because you're not very strong.  Each time you go into the gym, you get stronger and bigger.  This is a beautiful time in your lifting journey and often called newbie gains. 

After the first few months, you start to plateau.  The weights are getting heavy enough that you are unable to recover and supercompensate within a few days. You need a longer time to recover.  So instead of adding weight to the bar every time you train, you try to add weight once per week.  Programs such as Starting Strength or the Texas Method follow this method.  

Back to my lifting career.  

I followed Starting Strength and the Texas Method for many years and I got to around 180kg deadlift, 150kg squat and 115kg bench press.  However, I could never really progress beyond these weights no matter how much I ate or how hard I trained.  

For many years (around a decade) I tried to push things as hard as I can, often red lining and grinding myself into the ground without realizing.  I was under the illusion that I just needed to train harder to get those gains.  Unfortunately I came to completely the wrong conclusion.

What was actually happening is that I was reaching the "intermediate level" as a lifter, which meant I was inducing more stress than I could recover from in such a short training interval.  

The Answer: Block Periodization

Programming with block periodization changed everything for me.

Instead of progressively overloading each week, I work up to a max effort week every 5 weeks.  

So, at the moment I'm running a 5 week block of training which includes four weeks of accumulation followed by a 1 week deload or "technique days".  

I calculate the intensity of each week by judging "reps in reserve" or RIR.  So week 1 is 3 RIR, that means that each set I perform should be sufficiently easy such that I could do 3 additional reps before failure.

  • Week 1 - 3 RIR
  • Week 2 - 2 RIR
  • Week 3 - 1 RIR
  • Week 4 - Max out
  • Week 5 - deload

In the above program, week 4 is hell.  I'm maxing out every lift and basically destroying myself.   This is the money week.  It's my final week of accumulation and it's where I allow myself to go to failure.

But week 5 is a full deload with a lot less volume which allows me to significantly recover.  And then the next block starts with 3 reps in reserve in week 1 which is also fairly easy and helps continue my recovery.  Weeks 2 gets a bit harder and week 3 is decently hard stopping 1 rep short of failure.

So essentially, instead of destroying myself and trying to recover each week, I'm destroying myself every 5 weeks and giving myself a longer time to recover.  Structuring my training in such a way allows me to inflict a greater level of stress on my body in weeks 3 and 4 (really training as hard as I can) while also allowing for greater recovery time.

This was the key to me making continual progress in my lifting career.

Since I've started using block periodization, I've jumped around 15kg in my bench (it's been stalled for years).  I've also worked my way up to 210kg deadlift and a 150kg high bar squat at a lighter weight than ever before. Essentially I'm hitting new PR's while natural only a few years short of 40.  It's reinvigorated my enthusiasm for lifting.

Recommended: The Renaissance Periodization App

I used to program my workouts myself using Google Sheets but recently have been using an app from the Renaissance Periodization crew that's really made my life easier.

The app allows you to create your blocks or "mesocycles" as they like to call it. The app then tells you what weight to lift and gives you a rep target.  Massive time saver and takes the guesswork out of lifting.  FYI: I have no affiliation with them, this is my genuine recommendation.

Key Points

  • As you advance as a lifter, weekly increases are no longer feasible because the stress that's needed to cause adaptation is so high that it takes longer to recover from
  • The stronger and more advanced you are as a lifter, the quicker you'll burn out and the more deload / rest periods  you'll need to build into your program.  Some super strong and advanced lifters have to deload every 3 weeks, for example.
  • A practical approach to avoiding burnout and ensuring progress is block periodization.

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