In the previous three posts of this series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), I sketched out my training experiences in 2014: the sorts of work I was doing, when, and why, along with general mistakes. In this post, I will focus specifically on my barbell strength work in 2014 (and early 2015): what worked, what didn’t, injuries, and so forth.
My 2014 barbell work can be divided into roughly 5 periods: (1) the first couple months (with intermittent returns for a couple of weeks), which I’ll refer to as my SS (Starting Strength) periods; (2) the maintenance periods (where I did not try to drive improvement in barbell strength); (3) the weightlifting period; (4) the high-intensity period; (5) the 5/3/1 period.
The SS periods were roughly designed around a linear progression on Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program. (To be clear, the adaptation of Rippetoe’s material was fairly loose and he would not call what I did Starting Strength.) Each MWF workout started with an appropriate warm-up, then 3 sets across (i.e. same weight) of 5 reps of the back squat, followed by 3 sets across of 5 reps in the strict press, followed by 1-3 sets of 5 reps in the deadlift or bent-over row. (I did accessory work TRS, which I will discuss after this.) This program was a linear progression, so I attempted to add weight every workout. (Note that I did not use the bench press: I have no bench at home, and usually intense training in the bench ends up hurting by elbows quite a bit around the 195-205x3x5 range.)
Now, it should be mentioned that I’ve been lifting on and off, with varying levels of seriousness, for about 5 years at this point. However, as with this time, I’d never really done a linear progression right. My intent was to fix that, although as it happened I didn’t understand deloads, stalls, and resets nearly as well as I ought to have. Consequently, within a few weeks I stalled in the back squat and the press. Instead of merely taking 10% off the bar and working back up as Rippetoe advises, however, I would complete 3×5 (3 sets of 5) one workout and then, the following workout, I would do something like 6×1, then 5×2, then 4×3, then 4×4, then 3×5 over the course of 5 workouts. I was able to keep driving (slow) progress like this, but I suspect it was not as quick or effective as if I had simply deloaded and reset. That was my first mistake.
My second mistake was, I think, rest sets that were far too long. I simply wasn’t bright enough to be disciplined about it at all, so I would just rest until I felt like doing another set. This caused me to have 2+ hour workouts and rest sets that could be 10 or 15 min long. (I work out at home so there was no one to get annoyed.) I suspect that this allowed me to maintain a pretty high level of intensity, but also allowed too much recovery between sets such that there was an inadequate volume-related stimulus and, as a result, less need for my body to supercompensate. (This is just a hunch and I could be wrong, but since most beginning programs seem to advise rest periods of no more than 7 min between sets, and usually in the 3-5 min range, I suspect the too-long rest periods were hurting me.)
I also had at least one (maybe two or three) general physical capability issues. I lack dorsiflexion in my ankles, which means that my ankles cannot bend forward or out very far. As a consequence, the only way for me to stay balance is to allow my lower back to collapse and my butt to tuck under (“butt wink”), which is a much less stable position for squatting (given the lack of a stiff, upright torso). I’ve worked on this and I lift in (Olympic) weightlifting shoes, which helps, but that has been a limiting issue for me. The second possible limiting issue is a lack of hip mobility. Although I’m pretty sure abduction and transverse abduction in my hips are both adequate for squatting, my hamstrings are very tight, which results in my pelvis seemingly staying “frozen” under during hip flexion and the movement coming out of my lumbar and thoracic spine’s range of motion. I’m not sure how much this affects my squat, but it also makes it hard for me to pull a heavy deadlift with a neutral arch in my L-spine. (This sort of hamstring mobility is also critical for compression exercises in gymnastics, e.g. L-sit, manna, etc.) Finally, I have the common fault of my hips moving faster than the bar under very heavy loads. I’m not sure where in my posterior chain the fault lies, but I’m pretty sure it allows me to be pinned more easily.
On TR, I (theoretically) would do some heavy barbell snatch, muscle-ups, some weighted pulls, and some weighted ring dips. In retrospect, I would have put the weighted pulls and dips after my MWF workouts, and skipped the muscle-ups and snatch work. I also tried to do hikes or runs 3-4x/week, which I think was absurdly ambitious. Although this ended up not hurting my recovery as much as it could have (because I skipped lots of these workouts), it was bad programming.
Overall, in these periods (I did one 6-week period and then 2 2-week periods) my progress was reasonably satisfactory and, I suspect, would have been much better if I had just done the program. I think I could have gotten away with more conditioning than Rippetoe recommends, but I needed better rep schemes and to leave my ego at the door.
My maintenance barbell strength program was very simple: twice a week, 3×3 in the back squat and strict press (at the last weight I’d completed 3×5), and 1-3×3 in the deadlift or bent-over row. This worked well, and after a few months I found these sets getting substantially easier. My intent was to create a “floor” of strength that I wouldn’t fall through while I worked on other skills (GST, weightlifting, etc), and this was successful.
My weightlifting period lasted about 4 weeks, and involved a modified Bulgarian program MWF, with maintenance strict press and bodyweight work on Thursdays, and runs on Tuesdays. On the “Bulgarian” days, I worked up to a heavy single, then backed off a bit and collected 4-7 singles or doubles at a more moderate weight. I did this for snatch, clean and jerk, and back squat. It took my snatch from a 1RM of 105lbs to 145lbs (life PR), and clean and jerk from 165lbs to 185lbs (life PR). When I started this program, my back squat 1RM was already at least 250lbs, which was all the weight I had in my garage at the time. Usually I would a heavy single at 250 and then back off to a few singles or doubles around 215-235. This was not a good approach. I tried to use a high-intensity approach to keep pushing that 1RM higher, and ultimately I lost the 1RM and all my work capacity for the back squat. Very dumb.
Eventually, I had to stop this cycle because my wrists couldn’t handle the beating from constantly catching the snatch and the clean — particularly catching the clean. Catching the snatch didn’t bother my wrists too often, but catching cleans in the rack position was murder. I’ve learned since that it may have been a consequence of letting the bar drop on me, or possibly also inadequate connective tissue development paired with muscular development. Either way, though this cycle definitely helped improve my weightlifting, it left my physically not able to continue and it made my back squat worse.
This was the worst and dumbest of all the training I did in 2014. I tried to drive improvement in the back squat using my modified Bulgarian approach (the one which ended up failing due, I think, to inadequate volume — 2x/week and constantly trying to get as heavy as possible), improvement in the strict press using a similar quasi-Bulgarian approach (similar issue), and then various conditioning workouts: runs that were too long, weekly 5 min slayfests where I would try to acquire as many reps of the back squat at bodyweight (or higher) as possible in 5 min, and other sorts of misery. I was able to drive that 5 min AMRAP number higher, but overall this cycle was poorly-planned and poorly-executed. I should have simply gone back to maintenance in the strict press and the back squat. Frustration with this lack of progress drove me, after about two and a half months of this program, to my final cycle.
I think the major issue here was that my constant attempts to push the load very high without accompanying volume work probably left me only one option for adaptation: CNS. I wasn’t doing enough volume to stimulate hypertrophy, which is an important part of strength. As a result, I was doing little to improve my body’s ability to take punishment and this left me with nothing to show but a decrease in my 1RM in the back squat of at least 15lbs, and probably a 5-10lb drop in the strict press.
I found Wendler’s 5/3/1 in late August 2014, during my first cycle of the F1/H1 programs from GB. Aggravated with my lack of progress in my “high intensity” cycle, I knew I needed a better program. I also knew that I needed something which would allow me to recover from the GST work. 5/3/1 seemed like a decent choice: each lift is trained once per week, with 3 work sets increasing in load until the final work set is done for an AMRAP. (The specific programming isn’t too important here, but can be read on the links provided.) Best of all, 5/3/1 was designed to work on a one-week-in-four deload schedule, just like GB’s programming; consequently, I would be able to rest both the same week.
I decided to give 5/3/1 a shot, and started it paired with my second GB cycle. In the second 5/3/1 cycle, I managed to strain my back twice (costing me a week of training each time), due to stupidly training heavy back squats for an AMRAP a few hours after doing very intensive GST-based lower back work. I then moved my squats from Fridays (when GST was often intense) to Thursday, when there was no focused core work.
I quickly realized I wasn’t making much progress on 5/3/1, and I read Wendler’s Beyond 5/3/1, which contained suggestions for substantial more volume on top of the original 5/3/1 programming. I added in his Joker Sets (sets of 5, 3, or 1 at 5-10% heavier than the heaviest work set, which was an AMRAP) and his First Set Last approach (3×5 at the same load as the first work set of the day). This enabled me to put somewhere around 10 lbs on my strict press and somewhere between 15 (verified max, but done after the day’s sets and thus probably not a true max) and 30 (calculated) lbs on my back squat over the following 5 cycles. Progress was slow but I was fine with that, as it gave me the ability to recover and make progress in my GST work as well. Life was good. (I also did lightish strict press, ring dips, front squats, bent-over rows, deadlifts, and good mornings 1-2x/week for accessory work.)
In mid-January 2015, however, I had a day or two of gnarly food poisoning. I finished out that cycle fine on strict press by dropping rapidly on back squat, and that pattern has held in the weeks since then: lost 15-30lbs on my back squat (all my progress since starting 5/3/1, in other words), and frozen progress in the press.
At this point, the obvious choice is to deload and reset, but the fact that my gains in 5/3/1 were so brittle frustrates me. I will probably go back to 5/3/1 at some point (because it legitimately did work, and it’s possible that other factors coincided with me getting sick to screw up my progress), but I decided that it was time to try something new: an actual linear progression, done (mostly) right, for the first time in my life.
Next steps: Greyskull LP
My internal debate was between StrongLifts 5×5 and something much closer to the SS protocol that worked for me (but with shorter rest periods, proper resets when stalled, and so forth). Whatever it was, I would need to do it on the 4-week cycle I was already doing with my GST work (3 ramp-up, 1 deload). I had thought of alternating the cycles: a SS for four weeks, then SL for the next four weeks (at the same starting weight). I thought this might be a decent way to push high-intensity adaptation under SS, and then backfill hypertrophy and work capacity with SL. I was also, of course, considering doing just SS or just SL, and then switching to the other when I couldn’t eke out more progress.
It was around this time that I saw recommendations for Greyskull LP by “Johnny Pain”. The program is 3x/week, but instead of squatting every work out (like SS and SL), you squat 2x/week and deadlift 1x/week. Given my busy school schedule, three squat workouts a week seemed a little much. The program is similar to SS (with which Johnny Pain used to be affiliated) in that you do 3 sets of 5 across (for each lift except deadlift, which is a single set of 5+), but the final set is an AMRAP. For squat and deadlift, you add 5lbs each workout that you successfully complete 3×5 (always aiming for more reps with the last set). Once you fail to complete 5 reps on the final set, you take 10% off the bar and reset. The clever part of the program is that with the deloads, you’re not just subjecting the body to the same stimulus which didn’t work to keep driving adaptation (a criticism I’ve seen aimed at both SL and SS); instead, you are now doing weight which is much easier for you and so you can really go all-out in the AMRAP set and try to beat your previous AMRAP records. This (supposedly) reduces some of the psychological distaste of a reset, ensures that the stimulus is increased to drive adaptation, and is also supposedly useful for hypertrophy.
I’ve decided to add Greyskull LP into my training, but without the bench press and with similar assistance work as in my 5/3/1 program (plus barbell curls and probably minus ring dips). I’ll do GB’s F1 MWF and Greyskull LP TRS.
If it doesn’t work for me (seems plausible with doing too much work), I’ll put my GST training into maintenance and try to hit Greyskull again. If it still doesn’t work, then I’ll just work on SL for awhile, then SS.