Alpha-testing a massively incomplete autoregulatory bastardization of 5/3/1

…that’s what I’m doing in the gym these days.

So as I’ve mentioned before, I really like the idea of “cybernetic periodization”, which means “lifting as much as you can on any given day, but no more” rather than “replacing your body with robot parts” as you might expect.  I’ve started lifting five days a week, which is great because it means (wait for it…) I get to lift five days a week, but it’s not so great in that some of those days I’m varying degrees of beat up and can’t exactly push for PRs.  (Fun fact: This happens independently of how often I lift, because my job’s kind of engrossing and every once in a while it rises to dominate my life.)  So, what to do?

Well, I’ve had my best gains on Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1.  It’s based on the following principles:

  1. Emphasize compound barbell lifts
  2. Start too light
  3. Progress slowly
  4. Set PRs

I’m on board with 1-3, but 4 tends to give me fits.  I take it too literally, and my ego gets in the way.  So, wat do?

I started off by identifying seven lifts I care about.  You can guess what these are: squat, front squat, press, bench, snatch, clean, and deadlift.  I took recent maxes on each of these from my training logs — not special “test day” maxes, not “six months ago I could lift this” maxes, not “on a good day I ought to be able to hit” maxes, but stuff I’ve done recently for clean singles.  Then I took 85% of those.

That’s my target lift for the day.  It’s a lift I ought to be able to hit for a single no matter what life throws at me, provided that I’m actually healthy enough to get to the gym and not spread cholera.

So on squat day, for example, I’ll work up to a single at my target weight.  This is not taxing; in fact, it’s basically a warmup.  From there, I proceed by feel.  Did that single feel snappy and smooth?  Add five or ten pounds and do another single, then reassess.  Did it feel slow, grindy, or awkward?  Maybe some technique issues need addressing?  Hit another single, and reassess.  They’re just singles, so they go by quickly — lots of lifts in a short time.  Changing the weights is usually enough rest.  Keep going as long as it feels good, adding weight when reasonable.

Did that single say “fuck this, I’m done”?  Move on to backoff sets.  Backoff sets are free-form, just get them done.  Some days it’s five sets of three at the target weight or above; some days it’s one set of five at 50% and get the fuck out.  The only rule here is “do some backoffs”.

If the day’s big lift is a squat, I just squat.  If it’s a press of some sort, I try to superset in chins or DB rows.  If it’s a snatch or a clean, I throw in a Klokov press or a jerk after each rep until I can’t any more, then I don’t worry about it.  Supersetting is, again, something I don’t think too hard about.

Deadlifts are a special case in that I don’t do ’em as a major lift, I work them in after presses.  And I don’t do backoffs.  My guess is that I’m demanding enough of my recovery capacity without lots of deadlift volume on the regular, and putting them after the main lift limits the load I can use.

Once I’ve finished the main lift (or superset), I work in whatever else I need to complete the “push, pull, squat” trifecta.  If I squatted, I’ll do a push/pull superset like dips and chins.  If I pressed or pulled, I’ll do something squat-like, counting deadlifts (as above) and their variations (I particularly like snatch-grip deadlifts in here).  Again, I don’t think too hard about it, I just get it done.  Eight sets of five feels about right?  Okay.  Five sets of three?  Okay.

After that, I do some accessory work, conditioning, grip, whatever.  I try to make sure I get out of the gym in less than an hour, which usually leaves time for a few sets of curls or rotator-cuff work and a bunch of wrist curls (believe it or not, fellow nerds, they’ll make typing all day a much less painful experience).  If I’m having a bad day, my rest periods are long, and I barely get into accessory work?  No big deal, I hit the important things.  If I’m having a good day and squatting heavy singles forever, again, no big deal, I hit the important thing.  As Matt Perryman says: the more you lift, the less bad days matter.  You can always come back the next day and hit it again.

Progression is simple.  The target for any given lift is supposed to be a weight I can hit no matter how bad I’m feeling, as long as I’m feeling good enough to go lift.  If I hit (or exceed?) that weight for four workouts in a row, I’ll add five or ten pounds.  After four workouts I should have a decent idea of how much I can increase the target, if at all.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  I’m not competing in anything, so I’m not paying attention to (actual or calculated) maxes on any of my lifts.  The idea behind this is to maximize “total training effect” — that if I get into the gym and lift often enough, I’m going to get stronger.  So far my bench (of all things) has been feeling strong, and I’ve set a massive PR on reps on overhead squats — which, unsurprisingly, left me floored for the next couple workouts.  Mostly, lifting this way just feels fun and comfortable, and I’m finding ways to improve my lifts incrementally week by week.

I’m not suggesting any of you go out and do the same, or that I’ve found the next big thing, or even that I wouldn’t be better off just lifting on 5/3/1.  But so far I’m pretty pleased with this, and I thought I’d give it some air time.

5 Responses to “Alpha-testing a massively incomplete autoregulatory bastardization of 5/3/1”

  1. July 17, 2013 at 00:32

    This does seem very much like all manner of programs, from the Broz or simplified Bulgarian olympic lifting template through to the Doug Hepburn recommendations.

    I’ll note that when he was older, Doug Hepburn decided that doing a bunch of back-off sets was a waste of bodily resources, and that just the heavy stuff was enough. However I’m not sure this was correct for someone who isn’t a 60+ year old ex-world-champion. As an old guy, Doug’s body was in a fairly different condition to most people who are decades younger and don’t have decades of world champion level muscle already built up.

    I have tried this system using weighted chins. My recommendation is “Don’t try this system with weighted chins. At least not if you are me.” My wild, unsupported by data, guess is that the lower body is better able to take this.

    (My exercise choice was constrained by needing a lift I can do indoors. I’m not doing max squats in the rain. Been there, done that, slipped over and had the bar land on me.)

    • July 17, 2013 at 17:10

      Doug Hepburn, eh? I learned something today. (And yeah, if I was capable of lifting Hepburn-sized weight, I might write off the backoffs as a waste too.)

      Really I think this is an exercise in finding just enough structure for my workouts. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ll go gung-ho on something (like those OHSQs) one day, and feel utterly wrecked for the next couple of workouts. I think I need an upper bound as well as a lower.

      Chins are a killer. I need lots of volume on them to maintain any halfway-respectable level of strength, but too much of the same variation murders my elbows and shoulders. They taunt me.

  2. 3 Ivan P.
    July 19, 2013 at 20:21

    As a counterpoint to the above comment, I find backoff sets to be immensely important. I work off of a similar free-form (read pussified Broz/Bulgarian’ish) program focused on Olympic Weightlifting. You seem to have you’re head on straight wrt your training, but I want to offer a couple of specific suggests that might help.

    1) When I first started doing this type of program, I tried to do the “free form” back off work. I banged my head against the proverbial wall for the better part of a year before I realized that I wasn’t doing quite as much back off work as I thought I was, and thus, progress was non-existent. I find its too easy to just say “fuck it” if I don’t have some structure to the back off work. Shitty day at work? Your max lift didn’t go the way you want it to? It was too easy to find an excuse to skip an important part of the program. I need some minimal structure to a workout to force me to do the necessary work (ie volume). My current front squat days (normally after an hour of Oly work) looks like this: Work up to a max single for the day. Drop to 70%-75% and work triples up to a 3RM for the day, minimum of three sets. 2 sets of five (fast reps) at 50% to finish. On bad days, I’ll just do 3 quick sets at ~75% can call it done. Good days could be 6-7 sets. Just make sure there is some minimum workload, don’t leave it to the middle of the workout to figure out what that should be. (I guess that’s just a long winded way of saying “some structure be good, but not a lot”)

    2) I have to let my inner “Olympic Weightlifting Snob” shine for a second, but I’ve found that its really hard to make progress on SN/C+J practicing only once a week. 2x/week (per lift) seems to be a minimal. It’s a little different if you’re just doing the power versions (which is fine), but the full lifts are just too complicated of a movement pattern to nail down on a 1x/week basis. Suggestion: Forget about C+J for now, and focus on SN 2x/week. I’m sure that if you get your SN up, along with your overall strength, you’ll get good carryover to C+J later on.

    3) “I think I need an upper bound as well as a lower.” NO YOU DON’T! Those (rare) good days where the barbell is flying effortlessly up are to be cherished, and exploited, for all they’re worth. Yes, you’re next few workouts might suck, but that’s name of the game for a high frequency program. You have to take the bad with the good. On those good days, don’t you dare stop early for the sake of your next workout. Push until you’ve hit your new “real” max, however much you may regret it the next day. Example, I hit a new PR yesterday on SN after missing about a dozen attempts at maximal weights. Today, I was wondering who the hell glued my bar to the ground. Brush it off, and move on.

    Anywho….just my $.02.

    • July 20, 2013 at 00:11

      That’s more like two bucks than two cents, Ivan, thanks!

      1. The reason I’ve put down backoff and accessory work as “free-form” is that I wanted to get rid of reasons not to do it (“Oh shit, I’ve scheduled 5×5 at 80% for my backoffs, but I feel like crap… yeah fuck it let’s just go get a beer”). My guess is that if I give myself the mental out of “just one or two sets”, I’ll end up doing more work than I would if I wrote it out. That seems to be the way things are playing out, too. I like your ideas for more structured backoff work, and I’ll probably give ’em a try in a month or two — in part what I want to do with this framework is play around with different ideas and see what works best.

      2. I would dearly love to take your advice. I’m working on the power variations, because a) I have no coach and b) I’m kind of gunning to do a strongman comp 40lbs from now, but my snatch is going great and my C+J sucks a big bag of donkey cock. Hence, I want to work on what I suck at, which explains why I spent so much time benching today. Stupid presses.

      3. I needed that, thanks.

  3. August 12, 2014 at 06:46

    Exceptional website. Many useful information and facts in this article. My business is delivering this to several buddies ans furthermore spreading throughout delightful. And naturally, thanks a lot with your sweat!

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