Blood and Chalk: Jim Wendler Talks Big Weightsby Bryan Krahn
Jim Wendler of Elite Fitness Training Systems knows a lot about moving big weights.
As a former competitive power lifter, Jim's best lifts included a 700-pound deadlift, 675-pound bench press, and a 1000-pound squat, which, when you do the math, all totals up to 'really freaking heavy.'
Jim has since retired from competing, trading in all the physical challenges that come with weighing 275 pounds for fatherhood and a busy career at Elite as Dave Tate's right hand man. But the new lean, mean Jim is even more passionate than ever about strength, having published the popular ebook, 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength.
Considering there are about 350 or so 5/3/1 training logs posted at T NATION, we figured there just might be a demand for a little Q and A with big Jim himself.
But for those who can't handle a little harsh language, consider yourselves warned. This ain't your mama's power lifting column! The Devil's Advocate always tells it like it is.
So without further ado and parental advisories, here's big Jim, raw and uncut.
T NATION: My winter project is to build a yoke so intimidating that it will scare the guys I grapple with. Any tips on growing the traps/upper back/neck? Any benefits to a big yoke?
Jim Wendler: There are many benefits of a well-endowed yoke. First, it is actually a sign that you lift weights, a calling card that most are afraid to get or don't work hard enough to ever earn. Second, it looks awesome. Third, it gets you out of wearing ties and having to button your shirts' top button (Why the fuck are you wearing a button down shirt anyway?).
Fourth, because, once again, it looks fucking awesome.
The first thing you must do is what you should already be doing — training heavy and deadlifting. Do this consistently and never take days off (unless they're scheduled). Repeat for about 5 years.
The second thing is to do power cleans. Pick up the bar and put it on your shoulders. Do this once a week.
The third thing is to do some kind of rowing movement: barbell or dumbbell. Don't turn this into a Quasimodo power clean, though. Do this once a week for 5 sets of 10 reps.
The fourth thing is to get your hands on a neck harness and start nodding your way to a bigger neck. For novices, I recommend 30-50 reps three times per week. Build this up until you're doing 100 reps per day.
Round this out with some balancing of your shoulder girdle — face pulls, rear laterals, the Joe DeFranco Scarecrow, etc. These should be done WITHOUT emphasis on weight, but rather on the movement. Do this twice a week for 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps.
Now, before anyone asks, the reason I didn't include shrugs for the yoke (although they are a very good movement) is: 1) To piss you all off and make you cry, 2) 100% of people would be better off if they just concentrated their efforts on deadlifting and power cleaning correctly, 3) I have rarely seen anyone do a shrug correctly, and 4) I have bigger traps than 99% of people and I never do them.
TM: Whenever I deadlift, my grip always seems to fail before by back or hamstrings. I've tried everything to build up my grip strength, but no luck. Help!
JW: The typical answer is to say, "Use straps!" but that won't solve anything other than building a bigger ego and a shittier deadlift. There are a couple of very useful things that have helped my once-awful grip into something that is no longer an issue.
1. Do high rep dumbbell rows. These need to be done with the heaviest weight you can handle for 20+ reps. These are also known as Kroc Rows and do wonders for developing upper back, lat, and grip strength. Your goal should be "whatever dumbbell you think you can't do for one rep" x 50. Seriously.
2. Do reps on the deadlift. Everyone is scared to do reps on the deadlift because they say they it might hurt their back or that they're training for speed, etc. The truth is that they suck and don't want to do something hard. I know because that pussy was me, many years ago. But doing reps, even as many as 10 or more on the deadlift, is a great way to build your grip strength.
3. Do high rep shrugs. The same principles apply as the high rep dumbbell rows. Do these with a double overhand grip and a barbell.
4. Do warm-ups and downsets (if applicable to your programming) in the deadlift with a double overhand grip.
Notice that every one of these grip enhancers is more than just a grip exercise. This is the definition of 'training economy.'
TM: After reading some articles at T NATION and EliteFTS about power cleans, I've decided to add them to my 5/3/1 set up. Will this screw up my squat or deadlift workouts? Any advice you might have is appreciated.
JW: First of all, power cleans aren't that hard to learn. It seems like everyone believes they're as complicated and difficult to do as organic chemistry. If that were the case, people who stock shelves at Home Depot and Lowe's would be the most amazing athletes ever. Picking something up and racking it across the shoulders is a natural movement, so don't let these experts ruin a fun exercise.
Now if you're going to be a competitive Olympic lifter it might be different, but you don't need to hire a quarterback coach in order to throw a football around with your friends, do you?
These aren't going to hurt your squat or deadlift in the least bit; for some this might actually increase their deadlift due to the extra upper back work. I usually have people do these as the first exercise of the day, right before they squat or deadlift.
Most of the time people get a good boost to their second exercise due to the explosive nature of the power clean. For sets and reps, I highly recommend people use my 5/3/1 set up; it's easy to follow and you might actually get stronger.
Here are some easy ways to teach yourself how to power clean:
1. First, be sure you can walk and chew Red Man at the same time.
2. Please be able to show me you have some kind of muscle development and coordination and can do pushups, sit-ups, dips, and lunges (without falling).
3. Pick the bar up with good form (i.e. deadlift).
4. Once the bar passes the knees, jump like you mean it.
5. Rack the barbell across shoulders and stand up.
6. Put the bar back down again.
7. Don't be a fucking pussy with this exercise or wimp it up.
TM: In your 5/3/1 Manual, you briefly talk about the best lifts to bring up your deadlift. Unfortunately, you go into zero detail, you lazy bastard. Care to elaborate?
JW: This is really simple and I'll make it easy for everyone. Here are the exercises:
1. Deadlift. You're already doing this. Just please have some sort of plan, like my 5/3/1 program.
2. Good Mornings. Do these on your deadlift day, good form, ass WAY back, knees almost straight (slight bend) for 5 sets of 10 reps. This is to build your low back and hamstrings. I do these with the safety squat bar. You don't have to go heavy on these as I rarely do more than 135. Do not wear a belt.
3. Squat. You should already be doing this. This should be done without equipment, too. Because you're squatting without equipment, you'll be using a shoulder width or narrower stance, which will place great emphasis on your quads. Make sure you're going parallel or lower to bring the glutes and hamstrings into play. Strong legs are important for a good deadlift.
4. High rep dumbbell rows. This is great for building lockout strength and grip strength. For a long time I could never lock out deadlifts. I thought I needed more glutes, low back, or hamstring work. While these things are important, the high rep dumbbell rows solved the problem for me.
5. Weighted sit-ups and hanging straight leg raises. For abdominal strength. Do I really need to explain this?
Do these five things with a plan, purpose, and reckless enthusiasm. Your deadlift will go up.
TM: This fuckball at my gym (I train at a lame 24 Hour Fitness) actually showed up to squat in a squat suit. I almost killed myself laughing, cause his max weight was 365. I honestly think he was wearing it to impress some of the chicks there.
But it kind of got me thinking, what I could do with a suit? My best parallel squat is 495, give or take. Theoretically, what could I get out of a suit? What about a bench shirt? My best raw bench is 385.
JW: It takes a brave man to lift at a 24 Hour Fitness and an even braver one to use a squat suit. The drama that is the Great Gear Debate is overwhelming. Powerlifting is one of the few sports where men will bitch, moan, and criticize what another man is wearing. I never thought powerlifting could end up on Bravo but it certainly looks like it might. Fashion divas!
Do squat suits and bench shirts help? Yeah, they certainly help you lift more weight. For most, there'll be an immediate carryover, but not what most would consider outrageous. It's hard to get 200+lbs out of a bench shirt. The technique is different, the pressure in your head, chest, back and arms is insane and the weight can feel overwhelming; like your arms are going to break and your shoulder is going to pop out of its socket.
The same with a squat suit. You might be able to squat more, but can you even take it out of the rack? 700 or 800lbs feels a bit different than 500 and that is something that no suit, brief or shirt can help you with.
What you can/can't get out of powerlifting gear is going to be determined by your dedication to learning the equipment. And if you don't get a lot out of it, you'll hate those that do and claim it's ruining the sport. And if you do get a lot out of it, you'll claim you really aren't. That's how it goes.
TM: I have about 30 books and ebooks about powerlifting...5/3/1 is my favorite, of course. Unfortunately, about 2/3 of my books are basically shit. Who should I trust in this field? How do I spot the goods from the bullshit? Can you list your favorite strength training books?
JW: I'm no expert on training books, but I can tell you how to get a built-in Bullshit Detector. Are you ready for this pearl of wisdom? Sit down and take out your pen or even better, write this in your own blood and semen:
Train like a motherfucker for 10 years, no breaks, no bullshit, nothing but you and the bar, the rack and some chalk
Once you do this, you'll be able to read most things about training and realize if they're full of shit or not. You'll see people widely regarded as experts as the charlatans that they really are. Without ever meeting the author, you'll be able to tell if he or she actually has calluses or if they just hide behind a keyboard. It's like this amazing veil of shit will be lifted from your eyes and everything will be clear.
Every once in awhile you'll lose track, but all you have to do look at someone's shins and hands; do they look fucked up? Then listen to them.
TM: What's the biggest technique myth that just won't die?
JW: The biggest myth is that you'll have perfect form when doing a rep max. If it's a true rep max, not a set of 5 reps but a 5RM, your form isn't going to be perfect. This is because it's a REP MAX. If your form was perfect, I doubt it was a true rep max or if you even tried that hard in the first place.
The problem lies in the fact that there are people who want feedback on their videos during a rep max set and want to know what the problem is with their form. This is fine, except that there are going to be flaws, and there should be flaws.
In other words, unless you're putting your body in such a position that an injury will occur, or doing something seriously wrong (like squatting with the bar on your forehead or benching with your ass 3 feet off the bench), you're probably okay.
Now people will ask me and other people where their weak points are — and that's fine — but the weak point myth is something that's best left for another discussion.
Got a question for Big Jim? Hop onto the article discussion thread and fire away.
Jim Wendler and his big yoke.
High-rep dumbbell rows will build up your grip.
The Joe DeFranco Scarecrow exercise.
Will power cleans screw up your squat?
Jim knows how to develop a built-in bullshit detector.
Jim Wendler's 531 ebook.
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