Blood and Chalk 8

Jim Wendler Talks Big Weights

There's a ton of controversy about the merits of unilateral movements like split squats, lunges, even single-arm shoulder presses. Some coaches feel they're inferior, others say they kick so much ass they make the big lifts obsolete. What's your opinion?

The best thing about the fitness and strength industry is that you can always rely on it for some really good laughs. The fact that unilateral exercises have sparked such heated debate is amusing, and as always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.


First, let's examine the pro-unilateral crowd: these people generally believe that one-legged squats are safer than regular squats due to the lighter load on the back; or, because they work each leg independently, you can get a much more even effect on both legs; or, that they have a bigger carryover to sporting movements. There are other arguments I'm sure but these are the ones I hear all the time.

Here's the thing – anyone who's lifted any weight in their lives realizes that doing a one-legged movement with 50% of their squat training load is not the same thing – your other leg does come into play and as the weights get heavier, even more so. So a 200 lb. one-legged squat doesn't really equal a 400 lb. squat.

And even if the load on the back is less, is blindly reaching a leg back (searching for the elevated platform) while standing on one leg really any safer than squatting with two legs firmly planted on the ground?

Whether these one-legged movements carry over to sporting events all depends on whom you read, but people really, really need to realize that weight room work for sports is nothing more than GPP. The sport specific term – and crowd – has overplayed and overstayed its welcome.

Some movements lend themselves better than others, but to throw away stalwart movements like squats and deadlifts is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Sure, if the athlete has massive limitations and one-legged movements are ALL he can do, then I'm all for it, but I'll be damned if I teach a young athlete or an uncoordinated lifter how to perform a movement on ONE leg, rather than two.

Now to those that disregard all one-legged movements; again a knee-jerk reaction to the other side of the spectrum. These lifts do have a place – not necessarily in replacement of bigger lifts – but when done correctly and with a full range of movement, they offer a lot of benefits, namely flexibility in the hips.

For many, a one-legged squat or lunge offers a tremendous weighted stretch to the hip flexors, something that's much needed in athletes. In conjunction with a solid squat program, you now have the best of both worlds.

Whatever you choose to believe, just understand that the industry is full of people who want to ruffle some feathers and get people talking about them – any publicity is good publicity. Taking a ridiculous stand against something that is easily dissectible with common sense will only work against you.

Jim, what habits do you consider to be "musts" if I'm going to have a long future in powerlifting?

Great question. I can think of many – and will likely come up with a few more as soon as I respond, but here's what I consider to be the big ones:

Consistency – Without a doubt, the strongest and best lifters in the world have consistently busted their ass in the weight room. For decades. Not weeks, not a year, but decades.

There are genetic freaks out there that achieve a high level of strength quickly, but comparing yourself to them is unfair and will probably drive you out of the sport and into a 10-year Pop Tarts & Vicodin bender. Now, consistency doesn't always mean they're going balls out, every day. It means they chip away slowly, but surely.

Drive/Perseverance – Even with injuries, plateaus, loss of training partners, gyms, etc., the great lifters will find a way to adapt and overcome. If that means training alone in a barbaric gym in their garage, they do it. If that means having to train in a commercial gym by themselves, they get it done. If that means they have to train around an injury, they research and find a way.

Nothing will stand in their way and when an obstacle appears, they don't get frustrated; they simply find a different route around it.

It's easy to be motivated and excited to train when everything is going your way. It's another thing to hit a wall, scramble, kick, and scratch until you look back and see the marks of blood and sweat you leave behind.

Open Mind (with Filter) – You have to be open to new ideas, but you have to also be wary of what you read. Usually an older, more experienced lifter can filter through some of the bullshit, but sometimes desperation can lead to some poor decisions.

A lifter MUST have a core, a philosophy that he adheres to. He has to STAND for something. Yet he also has to learn to open himself up to new ideas and be smart enough to place them into his training without upsetting his core beliefs.

Now those are the "mind musts" of being involved with lifting for a long time. Here are the "body musts."

Stretching and mobility should be a priority.

Maintain decent conditioning levels – you don't need to be a marathon runner but don't turn into a heavy breathing slob either.

Use a full range of motion.

Understand the difference between muscles and movements.

You didn't start lifting weights to become smaller. (Some of you really need to let that one sink in.)

Train around injuries, not through them.

Write a Training Manifesto – I have a "Train to be Awesome" list that I refer to when I feel like I'm losing track of where I'm going/where I've been. Refer to this when you're "lost." Everyone needs to have their own Training Manifesto and it's all based on what you need and want from training. You don't have to share this with anyone – just hold yourself accountable.

Don't be afraid to do what you want, not what others want you to do. Don't hold yourself to others' standards – especially when your standards should be higher.

Training should be fun; there's joy in the pain of the process. When it becomes tiresome or becomes a "job" remember why you began training in the first place. It's not supposed to appease anyone but you.

Fads come and go, but the barbell remains the same. Respect it accordingly.

There's much confusion about the volume of assistance work in 5/3/1. I've seen some guys do two or three lifts for 5 sets of 10, while others use a more DoggCrapp rest-pause type of approach. What are your thoughts?

The volume of assistance work is always going to vary from lifter to lifter and workout to workout – some days you feel great and can push pretty hard; other times you only have time or energy for the main lift and maybe one or two more lifts. This is nothing new to training, but the minute you "prescribe" exactly what to do with assistance work, you run into a host of problems.


The beauty of the 5/3/1 program (if I do say so myself) is that it lays out the most important part of the program for you (the main lifts and the progressions) and you can individualize the assistance work for your needs, such as in-season training, fat loss, strength, conditioning, hypertrophy, etc. Any of these things can be achieved within the framework of the 5/3/1 program.

Obviously a higher volume assistance work can be used when getting bigger is the goal but be warned, when this is done, recovery for the main lifts is compromised. Same with a higher degree of conditioning – the additional work taps into your recovery.

The problem lies not so much in managing these things but coming to terms with the fact that when one facet goes UP, something will probably go DOWN. If you're at Brazilian Ju-Jitsu practice four nights a week and expect to lift (successfully) four days/week like a powerlifter, it's not going to happen. Something's going to have to give – or something is going to break.

My advice to everyone is to pick one goal you want to focus on and go for it. Don't be that guy who wants to get into shape like a fighter, compete in a powerlifting meet, lose 40 pounds of fat, and get stronger – all at once, and usually in 8 weeks. Pick one thing you want and go for it. All in. No compromises.

One thing that I'll never understand in the training world is this: even when given 99% of a program, people will always find a way to overthink and over analyze the remaining 1%. Which do you think is the most important?

I love 5/3/1. It's the only program I've ever followed that's allowed me to get consistently stronger. Here's the thing, though: I'm a bodybuilder at heart, and catch myself trying to "marry" your program with my favorite bodybuilding split. Does this have the makings of matrimonial bliss or a messy divorce?

Another closeted bodybuilder. Did you really think that just because you throw around terms like Westside and complain that your gym doesn't have a reverse hyper that we couldn't tell who you really are? The fact that you have your initials embroidered on your lifting straps was a dead give away.

I'm just messing with ya. Your question is a good one and the solution is pretty easy – just stick with the main movements, but divide the assistance work with body parts, much like a standard bodybuilding program.

The main movement stays the same and keeps strength in the program. This allows you to progress from week to week and actually get stronger, something lacking in about 99% of non-assisted bodybuilders' routines.

When you push the assistance in the program below, keep the reps on the final set to just the bare minimum or just slightly over.

For conditioning, I highly recommend 30-40 minutes of walking every day. Yes, walking. If you're asking why something so non-strenuous: if physique goals are your only concern, do not let the conditioning take away from your recovery. (See the earlier question about focusing on one goal at a time.)

Here's a sample template:

Day 1: Shoulders and Biceps

Standing Military Press 5/3/1
DB Military Press 4x12
Side Laterals/Rear Laterals 4x12
Barbell Curls 4x12
Preacher Curls 4x10

Day 2: Back

Deadlift –
Bent Over Rows 4x12
Chin ups 4x10 (or do Lat Pulldowns)
Good Mornings 4x10
Hanging Leg Raises 4x12

Day 3: Chest and Triceps

Bench Press 5/3/1
Weighted Dips 4x10
DB Flyes 4x12
Triceps Pushdowns 5x20
Push ups 4 sets to failure

Day 4: Legs and Abs

Squat 5/3/1
Leg Press 5x15
Leg Curls 5x15
Leg Extensions 4x12
Ab Wheel 4x12

Jim, some days I feel freaking awesome and push my sets 100% – only to feel like total horseshit the next day. Other days, it's the opposite – I feel like crap, and wind up having a kick-ass PR busting workout. My question is, are there any reliable ways to know if I'm set up to have an awesome workout or just a "requisite reps only" special?

Not really. That's probably not the answer you want but it's not easy to predict everything that you will feel on any given day.

There's a way around this though, and it's terribly simple: Always cut the last set short a few reps – and for many, this might mean to just do the requisite reps of the day, even if it's easy. This seems to work across the board.

What this does is ensure that you make progress each day without having the nasty training hangovers that occur after being party to the "All out or die!" training day.

Now I'm not saying to never have those, but when you do, realize that you'll pay later in the week for them. You can't continue that sort of effort day in/day out without suffering side effects, namely lack luster training and feeling like shit. This is especially true when squatting and deadlifting, as these take the most out of you physically and mentally. Many people have found out that cutting these sets short allow you to train better for longer.

Don't get caught up in training for the day – sometimes it can be a great way to relieve stress and take your mind to different places, but look at the big picture.

As a side note, this is precisely how I handle my conditioning. Most of my conditioning is done without much intensity – I relax and just get a quality workout in and leave. Do this consistently enough, however, and your conditioning goes through the roof.

That said, I usually have 1-2 days every month where I really PUSH my conditioning – I do something kind of stupid and basically kill myself. I pay for it later, BUT I don't do this all the time; I simply strive for good workouts done consistently. You'll be surprised at what happens when this is done, and it doesn't take long to realize the benefits.