Through the two semesters of weightlifting class, my progress was very slow, but I did learn a few useful techniques. The football coach provided some one-on-one instruction and taught me the squat and the “clean and jerk.” Both of which I really enjoyed, in between doing sets of bicep curls of course. We never tracked anything or made programs. After high school, I didn’t lift much at all for about ten years. It wasn’t until after graduating from college that I had purchased a free weight set from the sporting goods store and it sat in the basement with occasional sporadic usage.
All through my twenties I must have had a very fast metabolism because I ate and drank to no end. I did no formal workouts and never gained weight. That all changed not long after I passed age 30 and was recovering from an ACL reconstruction. I gained a considerable amount of fat over a short time. I had terrible acid reflux, and was eating Tums all day like candy. Stepping on the scale at the gastroenterologist office in May of 2010 and it said 225lbs! The last time I weighed myself many years earlier, I don’t think I was more than 180lbs. An upper gastrointestinal endoscopy would reveal I had developed a hiatal hernia. My doctor’s suggestion was to start taking Prilosec and lose 30 pounds. Sitting on the couch a few months later, exhausted from doing nothing all day, I decided he was right about the weight loss part. I went down in the basement and made up a workout using the dusty old equipment purchased many years earlier.
My weight lifting and fat loss journey had begun and continues today. My first workouts were done in a circuit style. Consulting with some articles, I read on BodyBuilding.com I decided on a full body split style workout. After a 5 minute warmup on an upright exercise bike, I planned to perform ten reps of each movement for three sets; Bench press, Lat Pull Downs, Delt raises, EZ bar curls, Leg extensions, skull crushers, leg curls, and finally bicycle crunches. All were done in that order as one giant set, for 3 cycles. I did this every other day, for the most part, from the summer of 2011 until December of 2012. On the weekends with nice weather, I would ride my mountain bike on the towpath trail. I also started "dieting" pretty hard at that time and drinking protein shakes.
I ended up hitting my 30lbs fat loss goal and went a little further. Starting at about 225lbs I went down to 179lbs. I felt great but I looked like I had never even touch a weight in my life. Pauline Nordin would say I was “skinny fat” with a yoga butt. At this point I wanted to start gaining muscle fast. I wanted to weigh 225lbs again, but keep off the fat this time. Why wasn’t the stuff I read about on BodyBuiding.com making me huge? I was consistently doing my routine, and trying to increase the weight lifted once in a while. I can’t recall how much my lifts increased, because just like in high school, I never wrote anything down.
That Christmas in 2012 I received a gift card for one personal training session at a local gym. I liked working out at home but I had nothing to lose, so I made an appointment. It went well. The trainer showed me a bunch of new stuff, like planks and resistance band walks. We squatted and bench pressed in a Smith Machine and did some band assisted pull ups. I could only do about 1 real pull up at that time. Afterwards I decided I wanted more training from a trainer. The gym owner recommended I contact one of the other trainers working there named Chris. We exchanged a few emails discussing my goal to gain muscle and the equipment I had at home, and agreed on a time to meet at my house to do a workout. This was a turning point in my weight lifting journey. Chris arrived for our appointment and left something behind that turned out to be extremely beneficial that I had been missing. It was a piece of paper. The paper had my name at the top, the word hypertrophy, a list of exercises on the left side, and blank spaces in a grid pattern to fill in my numbers over the next 3 weeks. I was instructed to record how much weight I used for each lift so he could review it during the next visit. I didn’t realize at the time that I had made the jump from exercising to training. Mark Rippetoe has written a lot about this important distinction.
Over the following weeks and months Chris continued to visit, bringing with him a new piece of paper each time. Gone were the days of 3 sets of 10. He taught me a lot of new stuff; using a ball, with resistance bands, body weight stuff, and movements with my cheap cable machine. My favorite lifts used the dumbbells and the barbell. We did front squats, back squats, and bench press variations. Best of all, I did deadlifts for the first time in my life. I always followed exactly what was on the paper and tried to increase the amount of weight I used each session. Each visit came with the excitement to see what changes Chris had made on the piece of paper.
One day Chris came over with a new workout and it didn’t have deadlifts anymore. But I wanted to do deadlifts because I really liked deadlifts. We crossed off one of the exercises and wrote in deadlifts. I was happy.
This was the first time I changed what he wanted me to do. Since he had started coming over I had been googling and reading about gaining muscle. I wanted more growth faster. I read all the articles I could find about protein, supplements, meal timing, sleeping, and cardio. My go-to resource for information became, and continues to be, Dr. Layne Norton. I also read a lot about making workout programs, but I had a trainer, he was doing that programming part for me. I didn’t bother thinking about the workouts too much, except for the little tweaks here and there.
I started tweaking Chris’s plan by adding a couple of extra sets using fewer reps and more weight, until I was eventually trying 1 rep maxes on bench and deadlift. Every time I hit a new personal best I would write it real big on the paper and circle it. I had fallen in love with heavy weights. Next, I asked Chris to start e-mailing me the workout prior to our appointments to check if my favorite lifts were included. Finally one day in August of 2014, I sat down and made a workout program myself. I think it kind of shocked him a little bit when he opened the e-mail. He told me I was the first client to ever send him the workout plan. He looked it over and approved.
During our next appointment I told him I about my new goal, to simply get stronger. I still wanted to grow more muscle, but I really wanted to increase strength. I told Chris I wanted reach a 1000lb power lifting total. That’s the total of your 1 rep max for Squat, Bench and Deadlift. I did a lot of research about different programs focused on increasing strength and found one I thought would be easy to implement and follow: 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength by Jim Wendler. The name has two words that were exactly what I was looking for, Simple and Strength.
I have been following 5/3/1 since November of 2014. This program took my strength to the next level. In 5/3/1, you setup a workout template and take it a step further. Before I was recording weights after I lifted them. With 5/3/1 you program the weights you’re going to lift ahead of each session based on percentages of a training max, which is 90% of your calculated 1 rep max. I won’t get into the details here. For more information about the 5/3/1, you should go buy Jim’s books. The Kindle editions are only $9.99 and worth every penny. Jim has created a variety of workout temples, all based on his training philosophy for programming the 4 main lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift and Press), then doing accessory and supplemental work to help build the main lifts. Chris continues to visit every month on my heaviest squat days in the 5/3/1 program. It’s always good to have a knowledgeable pair of eyes watching when you have a heavy barbell on your back trying to crush you.
With 5/3/1 you can program your training months ahead of time. Go to the gym each day, hit your numbers, and get out. It’s a great way to take out the guess work of what to do, feel confident you are not wasting time in the gym, and make continual incremental progress. The only drawback is the math required to program each workout. Who likes messing around with a calculator in between sets? Not me. I do however like to use MS Excel. It’s a very powerful application and perfect for programming the 5/3/1 workouts.
To simplify the math needed for 5/3/1, I have developed a spreadsheet that automatically programs every set, rep, and weight, for each workout. I have also added graphs to help visualize progress and a tool that compares the “Wilks Scores” of individual lifts. This took to a lot of up front development and has continued evolved over time. The result of this work has basically set me free in the gym. I can simply focus on hitting my numbers each workout and I know what those numbers are for weeks and months to come.
In November of 2014 my max deadlift was 400lbs at 201lbs bodyweight. I nearly passed out afterwards. It was truly a 1 rep max. Fast forward to May 12th 2016, having been following 5/3/1, I had on the program that day to deadlift 460lbs for 1 rep on my last work set. I hit that very easily, and decided to do what Jim calls a joker set and try for 480lbs. Joker sets are basically a form of autoregulation for days when you feel strong. 480lbs went up smooth. Standing there catching my breath I noticed the 10lb plates were just sitting right there on the floor next to the bar. All I had to do was put them on and try 500lbs. How could I not? 480 went up, what’s another 20lbs? I loaded the tens on the bar and doubled checked my bro math. The bar is 45 and eight 45lb plates, okay 405. Two 25lbs, two 10lb and two 2.5lb plates, yup, that’s the 480lbs I just hit. Now two more 10lbs plates, that’s 500lbs. I got in my stance, cinched up my belt. Took the biggest breath of my life, gripped the bar and pulled.
I deadlifted and locked out 500lbs, at 187lbs bodyweight, standing alone in my basement on May 12th 2016. Something I had never done before. I then did something else I never do; I took a picture of the bar on the floor and sent it to a couple of friends, lol.
I know many lifters deadlift much more than 500lbs.I have personally witnessed Layne Norton deadlift 505lbs for 8 reps. This was just two days after winning the 2015 Arnold Classic Pro Raw with a 694lbs deadlift, a 1730lbs total, and a hurt back. However for me, it was a great achievement. I was better that day than ever before. Coincidentally, my wife went into labor that night and gave birth to our son the next morning.
Increasing from a 400lbs deadlift to 500lbs would not have been possible without proper planning and tracking. All my other lifts improved similarly and I surpassed my goal of a 1000lbs powerlift total. The ability to easily track, analyze, and plan for the future made it possible. Using my 5/3/1 spreadsheet made the planning and tracking part very simple. All I had to do was lift the weights.