Blood & Chalk Vol 5 — Jim Wendler Talks Big Weightsby Bryan Krahn
To the layperson, powerlifters are a scary bunch.
Quite often they're heavily muscled, covered in tattoos, and capable of moving weights that your average CrossFitter would require a front-end loader to budge.
Yet despite their intimidating image, many powerlifters are among the nicest athletes you'd ever get a chance to rub shoulders with. In fact, sometimes the biggest, strongest, meanest looking SOB in the gym is also the most helpful and knowledgeable guy as well.
Too bad that nice powerlifter won't return our calls, so we're stuck with Jim Wendler.
Don't forget, if you have a question of your own for Big Jim, just post away in the discussion thread following the article. Jim loves to help people, and if you're serious about getting strong, you'll listen.
TM: I've been training using the 5-3-1 Method for a while now and it's working out well, especially with squats and overhead presses. However, my bench has stalled, big time.
I've seen you recommend just doing the prescribed reps, rather than as many as possible. Would this be a good time to do that for my bench, but continue with the standard method for the other lifts?
JW: For most people, myself included, the answer for most lifting and training problems is to do more. While this often works, it's not always a sure solution.
For example, if I'm getting ready to have a big week pressing, I'll take a week or two OFF from any kind of pressing accessory movements. This allows my chest and shoulders some time to recover and not stress them. This doesn't mean I don't press or bench press; it means that my accessory work is usually a lot of lat and upper back work.
So with this example in mind, understand that the best solution is not always to do more. It might be best to back off a bit and let your body recover instead. This might mean to lower the training max of your program, or keep the same training max and only do the prescribed reps. But since 1% of you will never do this and will choose the more volume route, here are two suggestions:
• Perform the bench press sets as written, then repeat the first set again, but go all out on this set, too.
• Perform the bench press sets as written, and repeat the percentages on the way down. For example, on the 3x5 week you would do 65% x5, 75% x5, 85% x5+, 75% x5, and 65% x 5+.
I assume most of you are doing chins and pull-ups between all your pressing sets. Be sure to continue to do this with these extra pressing sets to keep everything in balance.
TM: I'm a chick who loves powerlifting. I weigh 125 and want to know what my big three numbers should be before I consider entering my first meet?
JW: First, congratulations on thinking of entering a meet — you'll love it. It takes a lot of guts to get out on a platform and be judged by your peers and I admire anyone who does it.
Second, just do it! You don't have to be an all-star the first time you go to a meet. The important thing is to get in one and see if you like it. No one's going to judge you as a person on how much weight you lift; and if they do, their opinions aren't worth a watery shit.
Since you are new to this, let me offer a few points.
• Open light in the squat. No need to add fuel to the nervousness by attempting a weight you think you MIGHT get. The opening squat sets the whole tone of the meet for you: If you destroy it, your confidence is up, the butterflies will be gone, and you'll be awesome. You'll go back to your seat with a huge smile on your face. Of course, if you over-extend yourself too early and shit the bed, the opposite is true. In that case, prepare to have a long, miserable day.
• Bring someone you trust. This doesn't have to be anyone experienced in meets but someone that will help you navigate the meet and help you through the day. It DOES help if this person has meet experience, but as long as you have someone that can handle you (wrap knees, get you water, check on flights, etc.), it takes a whole lot off your plate. You can just concentrate on lifting weight.
• Don't cut weight — just weigh what you weigh. Worry about your training for the meet; no need to add cutting weight to your list of worries.
• Know the rules — every federation (about 458 in the United States) has different rules. Know the judging rules. Know the equipment rules. Don't be caught off guard.
• Ask other lifters and handlers at the meet for advice. 99% of the time people are going to be more than helpful. Just don't do it right before someone lifts.
So getting back to your original question, there's never a perfect time for entering your first powerlifting meet. You're never going to be strong enough; in this sport, the quest for a total shows that you can never be strong enough. Just go out there and do your best, and you'll have the respect of everyone in that room, no matter how strong you are.
TM: You often address what you consider to be the best assistance lifts. That said, one of my biggest problems with the book you wrote is your whole "the choice of assistance lifts doesn't matter" philosophy.
I was under the impression that certain assistance lifts are more useful than others in certain instances, like overcoming specific weak points.
Can you give some quick and dirty tips on when it's more appropriate to use one assistance lift over another?
JW: Whoa Tex, I've never said the choice of assistance lifts doesn't matter. If I felt that way, I wouldn't have devoted as much space in my book to the best assistance lifts as I did.
What I did say was, the choice of assistance lift pales in importance to the proper execution and loading of the key lifts. Too many younger lifters major in the minors, and they're called assistance lifts for a reason. That's the main point I was trying to make.
When evaluating whether an assistance lift has a place in your program, it helps to consider that assistance lifts are intended to accomplish a few specific goals:
• prevent strength imbalances.
• build muscle.
• strengthen weak areas.
• and most importantly, ASSIST the basic lifts (squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift; or whatever lifts you deem important in your training).
Let's take a look at the key lifts and what needs to be strong to do them:
Squat — abs, low back, hamstrings, quads.
Deadlift — same as squat, plus upper back/lats and grip.
Bench Press — chest, shoulders, triceps, lats/upper back.
Overhead Press — same as bench press, plus low back/abs.
So with this in mind, we have to have assistance work that compliments these lifts and provides balance. (Don't worry aspiring Jersey Shore stars, your precious hypertrophy will be achieved with volume.)
Here are some of the best assistance exercises for each area of the above:
• Abs — sit ups, ab wheel roll-outs, hanging leg raises.
• Low Back — good mornings, back raises, reverse hyperextensions.
• Quads — lunges, leg presses.
• Chest — dips, dumbbell presses, dumbbell flyes.
• Triceps — dumbbell presses, dips, triceps extension/pushdowns.
• Shoulders — any pressing exercise.
• Hamstrings — glute ham raise, good mornings, back raises, leg curls.
• Lats/upper back — pull-ups, bent rows, dumbbell rows, shrugs.
For the grip, just perform Kroc rows (high rep dumbbell rows) or high rep shrugs (no straps).
You'll notice a lot of overlap with some of these exercises because we're trying to do more with less. That's training economy, a very good thing; better results with less time in the weight room.
Now you don't have to perform all of these exercises in one workout — just pick one for each group and hammer it home. Some exercises may work better than others but you have to give it time to work. I see people do an exercise for three weeks and fail to put 80lbs on their bench and label it a big failure.
As for volume of the assistance lifts, that tends to vary from person to person and therefore it's hard to program on paper. When in doubt, push the main lift and do assistance work based on however you might feel that day.
Truth is, I tell seminar attendees all the time that a training program rarely fails due to improper assistance exercise selection. It will fail from poor programming, a lack of consistency, and failing to accommodate the ups and downs of life. In other words, a program must allow you to adjust a bit when you have a particularly good or absolutely shitty day.
It's not as simple as "Do this." You have to rely on that thing that rests between your ears.
TM: Jim, you talk a lot about hill sprinting. I have a big mother near my house and I did 20 sprints up and nearly lost my lunch. Care to elaborate more on hill sprinting?
JW: If given a choice, running hill sprints is my preferred method of conditioning. It taxes the lungs, legs, and most importantly, your mind. You get a big enough hill and you'll grow a big enough pair of balls after a year of running it. Three to four workouts a week on a big hill, done over the course of a year, will change your body and your mind.
Like many kids growing up in the Chicago area, Walter Payton was a huge influence. Not only was he a great athlete and person, his work ethic and commitment to his profession was legendary. Running hills was something that became synonymous with Payton and was often credited with giving him the physical and mental edge that made him great.
My mentor, Darren Llewellyn, first introduced me to hill sprints. He took me over to Sanders Hill in Northbrook, IL and had me run up and walk down until I felt queasy. I continued this regimen two to three days a week throughout high school and the strength, speed, and endurance I got from it were amazing. Legs got bigger and stronger. I got faster. And I was in incredible shape.
Of course, getting people to run them with me was almost impossible. A few people would offer to join me but would all mysteriously vanish after one or two sessions. The most consistent member of my hill running crew was a cross-country runner named Bruce Obog. I've no idea where Bruce is today, but if you happen to know, please send him a big thank you for me.
There are two downsides about running hills:
• It sucks balls.
• You have to find a good hill to run.
The first is easy to overcome — just man up. The second, not so much; but I live in the very flat state of Ohio and still found a great hill. Now this took about two years of half-ass looking and testing out many duds before I found my Big Mother.
The first thing I did was ask some of the locals as I'm not from this area. The second thing I did was Google search "Sledding Hill" with a couple different cities that I live near. There were half a dozen that were good but all were a long drive. This is fine for weekend training, but I didn't want to lift, travel, go run hills, travel back, and be home at 11pm.
I eventually found a great hill at a man-made reservoir, an option that I wouldn't have thought of had it not been for some friends.
Whatever the length and grade of your hill is will be fine, mostly because it has to be. You're going to be limited by what is available to you. But to give you an idea of the hills that I run:
• The small hill is about 40 yards.
• The big hill is about 75-80 yards.
I don't know about the grades of the hills but they work for me. If you're in doubt about your hill, just ask yourself this question: Will this hill give me a hell of a workout and make me awesome? If the answer is yes, you're fine. If not, keep searching.
Now the key to starting hill running/sprinting is simply going out there and doing a few and seeing how you feel. You don't have to make the first day into Hell Day. Make a goal for the day (my first time out I wanted to do 8) and do it. Don't worry about rest periods. Don't worry about how long it takes to do. Just get it done.
Do this for a few sessions and see how your knees, ankles, legs, and lungs feel. Once you get a handle on your body and your conditioning level you can start setting goals, progressions, and how many days/week you want to do them. All of these things are going to be dependent on your specific goals.
When I began running hills again I knew for an absolute fact that my lifts were going to take a beating. I'm not an idiot. You don't run up and down a hill four days a week and expect your lifts to suddenly increase. So once I began my hill running, the first thing I did was lower my training max significantly on my 5/3/1 workout.
I did this on ALL lifts. I also cut back on all lower body assistance lifts. Running up and walking down the hill is taxing on your legs — the workout you give your legs (and really your entire body) is phenomenal.
My workouts were very simple: I'd go to the weight room first, train my main lifts, do limited assistance work and drive to the hill. This was done four days/week.
After about three weeks, my legs started to feel a bit better and got used to the demand. Don't be fooled, the first couple squat workouts were far from impressive. What was once a warm-up was now shaking violently when I walked it out. Mentally, it's hard to handle but you have to start thinking differently-your legs are getting stronger but just aren't able to display it during a squat.
So in conclusion:
• Find a hill
• Take three weeks to adapt to it — find out how out of shape you are.
• Adjust weight room work to accommodate the extra running.
• Once your body adapts, figure out your goals and execute.
If in doubt, squat and run hills. A lot. Your body will thank you. And buy some cleats.
TM: I love trap bar deads and I'm pleased to know you've given them your seal of approval. My only problem is I feel them a lot in my quads, which is concerning as I'm already a quad-dominant lifter. Suggestions?
JW: My suggestion is to quit thinking you're quad dominant. Unless your quads hang over your kneecaps like an elephant's testicles, you're not quad dominant. You're just hamstring weak. And to cut out a simple core exercise is not an option.
I too was hamstring weak at one point. Today, I don't know if I'm hamstring STRONG, but certainly not hamstring weak. It took a lot of time to bring my hamstrings up to a level that was acceptable. This was also the case with my lats, lower back, and abs. The solution was simple: Hard work. And patience.
The first thing I did was make hamstring work the second thing I did on lower body days. So immediately after my main exercise, I would do good mornings or glute ham raises. In fact, Kevin Deweese (my old training partner) and I would do three sets of glute ham raises before each workout, lower or upper body. And on lower body days, we'd do them (or something similar) after the main lift of the day.
Because I'd neglected them for so long, it took about two years of quality training to bring them to an acceptable level. I was fine with this, as you should be too. Two years is nothing in the lifetime of a lifter, and you should be doing it anyway.
The point is this: Cutting out a "big" exercise because you're quad dominant is pointless unless you're going to hurt yourself. You may have to alter the weights a bit to make sure you don't do something stupid, but cutting it out entirely? That's the last thing you should do.
TM: I'm new to powerlifting and have my first meet scheduled in eight weeks. I'm following your advice and won't be adjusting my training one bit from 5/3/1, but everyone I talk to suggests I taper my training in some manner. It's really confusing, cause I have a hard enough time tapering my steroid cycles; now I have to taper my training, too? What do you suggest?
JW: This will be discussed in greater detail in my 5/3/1 for Powerlifting book, but my advice is pretty easy.
• Between now and the meet, work up to your openers once or twice. Your openers SHOULD be 85% of your goal for the meet. This should be done on your 3x3 week and your 5/3/1 week. On this week, you can push your last set but don't go crazy. If in doubt, just get the prescribed reps and work up.
• Take your deloading week one to two weeks before the meet. Some people need only a week to recover from the heavy training, others need two or three; you won't know until you try for yourself so pick one and do it. I personally use a two-week deload.
• The last three to four weeks, don't go over the prescribed reps. Make sure all sets and reps are strong and fast. No need to kill yourself this close to the meet.
• The week of the meet you will do no training — but keep up all restorative measures that you normally do. For example, I would keep PVC rolling, stretching, mobility work, and lacrosse ball rolling. Masturbate according to your current frequency. This will keep you active, help you recover, and keep you on some sort of a schedule.
• Be sure you have a clear understanding of the rules of the organization; don't lose an attempt because you didn't know there was a "squat" command.
• Don't forget to have your bag ready and packed several days before the meet. Make a list of all the things you will need and get them ready before the stress and anxiety of the meet causes you to pack your wife's vibrator instead of your toothbrush.
• Finally, please be sure to bring a friend/training partner you can trust to be your handler. This person will help you stay calm, change weights, call depth, get you water, wrap knees, pull up your suit, give the expediter your attempts, hand off, spot and make sure all you have to worry about is the meet.
One last piece of advice — if in doubt and you don't know what to do, train your balls off and take the last week off. If you're strong, you're strong. Weak people find excuses — strong people lift big weights. And to be honest, this last paragraph of advice is all you really need.
Got a question for Jim? Too bad, he doesn't give a shit. Regardless, post them after this article and I'll see if I can bribe him with some meat-flavored candy.
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