…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:
- Emphasize compound barbell lifts
- Start too light
- Progress slowly
- 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.