Blood and Chalk Volume 10
Jim Wendler is an accomplished powerlifter who was schooled, beaten up and bloodied, and "graduated with honors" from Westside. His best lifts include a 1000-pound squat, a 675-pound bench, and a 700-pound deadlift – a 2375 total in the 275 lbs. class. That's right, inhuman strength.
Perhaps unlike his mentors and peers, Wendler applies a more streamlined, "get in and get out" mentality to his workouts. This mindset gave birth to his book, "5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength." It currently ranks as one of the most popular lifting systems ever developed.
When this former Division 1 college athlete isn't getting a new tattoo, riding his motorcycle, or tending to his offspring, he's dishing out often-caustic but-oh-so-true information and advice about lifting. He is, above all, 100% his own man.
T NATION: Many strength-training systems have a speed component. I've noticed that 5/3/1 doesn't really go there. Do you not see it as necessary? I'm an athlete (defensive back) so speed is important to me.
Jim Wendler: There's been a lot of discussion about the value of dynamic work. I'm 100% in favor of it, and all you have to do is look at some of the most explosive athletes on the planet – throwers. Most of these guys possess very high levels of strength and speed. Along with football players, they're some of the biggest and fastest athletes around.
Growing up I always looked at how these guys trained , guys like Randy Matson, Ulf Timmerman, Randy Barnes, Brent Noon, etc. All of them reportedly trained with basic exercises like the squat, bench, and clean and did a ton of jumps, sprints, and throws; the latter being what I consider to be great for any athlete, even if you're just performing on the platform.
The trick is to set up a basic training template and incorporate the appropriate jump or throw. For example:
- Warm-up (jump rope, dynamic/static stretching, foam rolling)
- Dynamic training (box jumps, hurdle jumps, shot put/medicine ball throws)
- Strength work (squat, clean, deadlift, press, bench press)
- Assistance work
For the jumps and throws, make sure your level of preparedness matches the exercises – don't start out with five-foot depth jumps. Med ball throws (over the head, chest passes, backwards) and simple landing drills from a box are all good ways to make sure you're ready for the next step.
Along with starting with the right exercises, it's important not to turn this into a conditioning session. Take your time and do the reps CORRECTLY. Unlike a gangbang, training is always about quality over quantity.
I designed the 5/3/1 program to be very versatile for every situation and every lifter– from athlete to gym rat to powerlifter. You just need to fit the right pieces into the program to customize it for you.
T NATION: You talk a lot about learning to program and finding your own ideal frequency. Training too much sounds easy to spot – you're always sore, tired, and don't make progress. How do I know if I'm not training frequently enough?
JW: Wow. I've never heard that question asked before – mainly because the people that suffer from a lack of training are usually too lazy to care OR they know they haven't put forth the effort needed and taken full responsibility (someone who's finishing up school and has a ton of papers, tests, and studying to take care of would be an example). But for the most part this isn't something that I've ever heard.
Anyhow, there are a couple things I've noticed about undertrainers.
First, their form is always off; they don't know where to place their feet on the squat or deadlift...or the bar never seems to sit right on their backs. Remember, this is also a problem with beginners or when a lifter tries to change part of their technique or form. This also creeps up when there's a weight gain and the leverages are different.
Second, they always get sore. Even when doing a basic workout with minimal assistance work.
Third, they get consistently fatter and softer.
Fourth, they make zero progress.
In reality, not training frequently enough is usually a sign of depression, stress, or something bigger happening in life. There are reasons why someone who loves to train is no longer motivated to get in the gym.
T NATION: I know too much assistance work can mess up progress as can hitting the assistance stuff too hard. Thing is, I love assistance work. Can I do "more" of it, provided I keep the intensity low? What do you suggest?
JW: This is very easy to do. Remember that in training and in life, there's a balance to everything – a push and a pull. You push something into your training and something has to come out. In your case, you want to push up the volume of your assistance work to elicit greater gains in hypertrophy. Because of this you have to pull something out.
I'd start by dialing back your training maxes to at least 90% of your max and don't go for max reps. Just keep things "even" with your heavy lifting. Don't push everything that hard – keep the intensity up, but the volume LOW.
Now after your big lift of the day, beat the hell out of the muscles. For example, you could squat and then follow that up with big work for your quads, hamstrings, and lower back. But with the increased volume of the assistance work, you need the extra energy that wasn't spent on the main lifts.
The problem is that everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. It doesn't work like that – you can't be strong like a powerlifter, fast as sprinter, and as big as a linebacker. Well, you can, but these people are so rare that teams pay them millions of dollars and television stations have billion dollar contracts to broadcast them to you. They're called professional football players, and if you're one of them, you aren't reading this, as you're too busy counting your money and cracking skulls.
So if you want to increase the volume of your assistance work, dial back the strength work in the beginning of your training. This will allow you to maintain your strength and build the muscle you desire. Also, less typing – more eating.
T NATION: You love chin-ups. So do I. What are your thoughts on weighted chins?
JW: I like them. I'm not voting for them in the next "Five Awesome Exercises" election but they certainly have their place. I've championed chin-ups for years, mostly because they're great for the upper back, lats, and arms. And because you can do them anywhere – chin-up bar, top of the Smith machine, scaffolding, top of the monolift, playground equipment, etc.
Weighted chins are a good idea IF you can do them, and even then you still need to keep bodyweight chins as part of your training (unless you can bang out multiple sets of 20 with good form). And if that's the case, gain some weight!
If you want to add some weighted chins as part of your training repertoire, start light and see how you do. Make sure you use something that doesn't allow the weight or dumbbell to swing too much when you do them. I recommend a good chin/dip belt or simply get a piece of chain and hang it from your lifting belt.
Harry Selkow at eliteFTS.com has a great chinning program that'll increase your weighted chins AND your bodyweight chins. My approach is simpler. One day I'd do bodyweight chins for 50 or more total reps. The next chin-up day I'd do a couple sets of weighted chins, either multiple sets at a given weight (for example 5 sets of 6 reps with 45 lbs.) or work up to an all-out set with the heaviest weight I can handle.
As much as I love doing chins, they're still not squats, presses, cleans, and pulls. They're great to do, but I'm not going to lose sleep if my strength on these goes up and my chinning strength remain stagnant.
You can't sleep with all the women in the sorority, so just be happy you got some trim.
T NATION: What are your favorite strongman moves and how would I program them into 5/3/1?
JW: Provided that you're not a strongman in training (i.e. you aren't training for a contest), this is easy to do.
For log pressing, do this as a second exercise on either of your bench or press days. I love the rackable log that EFS sells; it's so much easier to do presses and bench pressing with that thing.
For log cleans, I've done these for the past couple of years and used them as a main exercise. I'd do them with the same set/rep scheme as the squat, deadlift, or power clean. Do these before you squat or deadlift. Admittedly, I never really learned the proper form on these, I just picked it up and performed a Neanderthal man clean.
With pulling a weighted sled hand-over-hand, farmer's walks, sled drags, tire flips, Yoke walks, or even Prowler pushes (I know, not a strongman move but it's awesome), I'd do these at the end of the training day. Now please remember that these things are weighted and do tax the hell out of you, so if you're going to add these in you may want to limit the assistance work on those days.
- Power Clean – 5/3/1
- Squat – 5/3/1
- Hanging leg raises – 3 sets
- Farmer's walk
I don't pretend to know exactly how to do all of these things well. When we did farmer's walks, we'd just go for 40 yards, rest, add weight, and then go 40 more. This went on until we couldn't do it. We always started fairly light and worked up slowly (sound familiar)?
Whatever you plan on doing or have access to, all of these exercises offer variety to the staleness a weight room may have. Get the big movements in, then push, drag, or carry some heavy shit. Can't get more awesome than that.
T NATION: After yet another "no chalk in our facility" lecture I'm officially done with the commercial gym. The wife's given me the go-ahead to turn our basement into a kick-ass (albeit small) gym. You know equipment, what items are must-haves?
JW: This kind of depends on what you want to do in your training and what your goals are. But for simplicity sake, let's just say you want to be strong and awesome. This is by far the easiest thing you can train for, and probably the cheapest. Here's what you'll need.
Power rack – This will allow you to squat and bench safely. Make sure you get a dumbbell bench or adjustable incline bench to go in there. Get a chin bar and dip bars (detachable) on the rack. I'm always partial to EFS' stuff mostly because I've trained on it for a decade and it's always survived the beatings. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to people looking to cut corners on cost and then having to buy another rack. Buy nice, don't buy twice!
Texas power bar – Don't get a cheap bar. The Texas Power Bar is BY FAR the best all-around lifting bar there is. If I'm going to put a bar on my back, over my face, or over my head I want to be sure that it is built to last. This is NOT something I'd skimp on.
Platform – I'm assuming that you'll be doing deadlifts and cleans so this is a no brainer. And it's cheap too. Build a 6x8 platform using 2x12's and plywood. I did it and I have a public education and drank most of my brain cells away. I also put a 6x8 piece of carpet on there so my feet don't slip. This thing is bomb proof and a great way to have a dedicated area for deadlifts and cleans.
Weights – This is where you get killed so look around for gyms that are going out of business or go to a used sporting goods store. Also, check classified ads like Craigslist (not the personal ads, for a change) and any other resource you can find. You can always find good used stuff if you're patient and know where to look.
Mats – This isn't necessary but most people cover their floor with some kind of matting. I'd really look at places that sell horse mat stalls as they're infinitely cheaper than gym flooring and are the same thing. I got mine at Tractor Supply.
Specialty bars – This isn't necessary but you may want to look into something like a Texas Squat Bar, Texas DL Bar, Safety Squat Bar, or a log.
Chalk – The reason you want a home gym, right?
Cheap but loud radio – This will get covered in chalk so don't invest too much.
Space heater – This is a must for cold weather states if you train in a garage. Hearty Canadians can skip this, or use the cash for a chalk stand shaped like the Stanley Cup.
Adjustable dumbbells – I like the ones from Ironmind or you can simply build your own. They're easy to make and assemble. Look around the Internet for more information.
Sled or Prowler – Again, this isn't necessary but I love the Prowler for conditioning.
Bands – A great substitute for a pulley system. You can do rows, pulldowns, face pulls, and triceps pushdowns with them. I recommend getting some light and average bands for this.
A home gym is a GREAT investment if you're committed to the basics of training. My last piece of advice is to rid your space of anything that isn't training related. Make that your home. You don't study where you sleep and you shouldn't train where your kids play video games.
Got a question for Jim? Tough! He doesn't give a rat's ass! Still, you could try throwing one up on the Live Spill. It's possible he's feeling relatively warm and fuzzy today.