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Politics. No wait, politics suck, let’s talk about something else.

I kinda wanna talk politics, since we’ve reached the “Silly Season” part of the Presidential campaign where everything gets over-analyzed and beaten into the ground. Did Governor Romney give away the election by hitting the current Administration on the Libyan embassy attack? Did President Obama screw himself by allowing Vice-President Biden to talk at the convention? Did Gary Johnson blow up his campaign by…wait, who the hell is Gary Johnson? Didn’t he play for the Chargers? (Fun fact: Yes. Non-fun coincidence: he died on President Obama’s 49th birthday. If it’s not clear at this point that we’re talking about a different Gary Johnson than the current Libertarian Presidential candidate, then I don’t know what to tell you other than you might be an idiot and I can only assume you’re a big Mitt Romney supporter.)

Politics is depressing, though. We have a nearly unbridgeable gap between left and right in which each side is completely flabbergasted that the other side could say and believe the things they do. I’m not immune from this: I routinely read about people who honestly believe Mitt Romney will fix the economy (he won’t), and also believe that President Obama wants to take their guns away (he won’t) or is a Muslim (he’s not; I hew pretty closely to the theory that says he’s actually a closet atheist, and can’t admit it until his political career is over), or believe that “ObamaCare” should be called “ObamaTax” despite the fact that they don’t even know anyone who makes enough money that their taxes will be going up as a result of the ACA, aside from the penalty paid by those who don’t get health insurance as part of the individual mandate, something only put in place so that health insurance company lobbyists would allow their representatives in Congress to vote for the law.

That was a long sentence. Just like a potential Romney Administration. (Rim shot.)

I may come back to politics as we get closer to the election. Instead, I’ll give you an update on my current workout/diet regimen, which is going reasonably well.

While in Texas I ate relatively healthily, by which I mean I think I only had chicken fried steak one time, although I should admit the steak itself was most of a single cow. I only gained 3-4 pounds while we were gone, most of which was water weight that I lost in a few days after getting back to the program, and so I continued with my Leangains cut, and continued my RPT workouts. By mid-August, though, I was getting very frustrated with the strength loss I was seeing, and wanted to get back to eating a bit more, so I decided to switch to a “recomp”, and also add a bit more volume to my program.

I should explain what “recomp” is; it’s short for “recomposition,” and usually means eating approximately the same amount of calories as you burn. So if your body uses 2500 calories a day, you eat 2500 calories a day. The idea behind it is that you do that and lift heavy weights and get plenty of protein, and your body should theoretically shed a bit of fat, and your muscles should grow. The problem is that it’s very, very slow. The human body doesn’t just turn fat into muscle, despite what you may have read; it either loses bodyweight (because of caloric deficit, eating less than you use) or adds bodyweight (because of caloric surplus, eating more than you use). So eating the same amount of calories every day means your body uses those calories…and then has nothing to grow muscle with. On Leangains, however, you eat more on training day than on rest days, so after lifting weights your body uses extra calories to build muscle, and on the rest days your body is in a deficit and sheds fat. It’s still not as fast as the classic “bulk/cut” cycle, but it doesn’t require you to spend a few months getting fat while adding muscle, and then spend a few months cutting that fat back off. Also, folks with very low bodyfat tend to lose fat slowly anyway, and folks with a lot of barbell training under their belt add muscle slowly as well. So for folks who are already in good shape, it’s good enough. I’m not sure if I qualify for “in good shape” yet, but I did buy a pair of 34×34 jeans at Old Navy that fit nicely. I’m averaging about 228 pounds, which is the least I’ve weighed since freshman year of college, and I didn’t have near as much muscle at the time. I estimate my bodyfat at around 15% right now.

So I switched to the Leangains recomp protocol, and since I would be eating more and therefore theoretically be able to recover faster, I thought it might be a good idea to go back to a full-body workout. After poking around a bit I settled on “The Texas Method,” which is an intermediate lifting program involving a high volume workout on Monday, a light workout on Wednesday, and then a low-volume but heavy day on Friday. So for example, you might work with 80% of your max on Monday, but do 5 sets of 5 reps; on Wednesday, you work at 50-60% and do 2-3 sets of 5; on Friday, you try to set a 5-rep personal record. It works best when eating a big surplus, but by cutting the volume back to 3×5 on Monday and hoping for less frequent Friday maxes, I thought it might work on a recomp.

I lasted 4 workouts.

Part of the problem was that on the 2nd week, I decided to replace rows with power cleans, which would probably be a great idea if I was any good at power cleans or decided to start low. Instead I really wore myself out with 3×3 at 175lbs and the next day I strained my back bending over to fill my water bottle. Also, my ever-annoying right hip had started to flare up a bit, and I thought maybe the volume was going to be too much and trying to add 5 pounds to my maxes every week was wishful thinking without eating 4000 calories a day. It was time to try something else, so I looked into 5/3/1, a program by Jim Wendler. Now, for anyone who’s read my posts on Fitocracy over the past year or so, the fact that I’m doing 5/3/1 might come as a surprise given how many times I’ve told people not to do 5/3/1. In fact, I’ve never had anything against 5/3/1; I’d never done it, but from everything I’d read it seemed like a fantastic program if you are of a sufficient training level that periodization and slow monthly progression are necessary. The reason I was telling people not to do the program was because they were new lifters, and adding 5-10 pounds a month to their lifts was silly when they could do Starting Strength and add 5 pounds every workout.

However, knowing that RPT (which meant hitting the same weights every week and never being able to progress, even if I was pyramiding down from the max) wasn’t working, so periodization (working at different percentages each week) seemed like a great idea; and realizing that unless I was willing to eat like a pig I probably couldn’t add weight every week like the true intermediate lifter I am, 5/3/1 seemed like a nice option. It also features frequent “deload” weeks to give my poor old man muscles a chance to recover.

(WARNING: things are about to get lifter-nerdy up in this.)
The gist of 5/3/1 is that you do a 4-week cycle: first week, you warm up and do 3 ramped sets of 5, topping out at about 85% of your “training max” (more on this in a moment); second week, you warm up and then do 3 ramped sets of three, getting to 90%; and then in week three you warmup and do a set of 5@85%, 3@90%, and then 1@95% of your training max. The fun part is that the 3rd set each week, the prescribed reps is only a minimum: you actually do as many as you possibly can. So on week one you might actually do 11 reps at 85% of your max, and in week three you might be able to do 5 or 6. I’m in the middle of week 1, and I hit 11 reps of my top squat set on Monday, and 9 each on deadlift and overhead press yesterday.

In week 4, you deload, just basically doing warmups and allowing your body to recover from the 3 week pounding you just gave it. Then you repeat the cycle, pretty much forever if you want.

The real genius of the program is the use of the “training max,” which is not the same thing as your true max. In fact, if you know your true one-rep-max (1RM) Wendler prescribes setting your training max to 90% of it. If you don’t know your one-rep-max, he has you estimate it from your 5RM or whatever rep max you happen to know. The reasons that you set your weekly percentages from this hypothetical training max instead of your true max are, in no particular order:

  1. Most guys don’t know their true current max.
    “I do a seminar basically every week,” Wendler says, his voice rising. “Every time, without fail, when I ask someone what their one-rep max is, I get this: ‘Wellll, about three years ago I hit 365 for a triple, but that was when I was training heavier …’ Most guys just don’t have a f***ing clue.
    “By using the 90%, I account for this bulls***. By using weights they can actually handle, guys are building muscle, avoiding burnout, and most importantly, making progress every workout.”

  2. If you step backwards a bit, you allow yourself to build momentum forward such that after a few months your training max actually exceeds your previous max, and a few months after that, you’re doing multiple reps in week 3 of a cycle with what had once been a theoretical 1RM.

  3. As Jim says, “You don’t need to operate at your max to increase your max.” Since the top set has only a minimum prescribed number of reps, you can achieve muscle exhaustion with high reps that will trigger muscle growth, and follow up in the heavier weeks with lower reps that continue to stimulate growth.

Every cycle, you add 10 pounds to the training max of your deadlift and squat, and 5 pounds to the presses. You could even increment even more slowly, something I might explore if I find I have to reset too frequently. A reset is triggered by not being able to get all the prescribed minimum reps for an exercise, and so in the next cycle you knock 10% off the training max and work your way back up.

Normally, 5/3/1 is a 4-day training program, with overhead press, deadlift, bench press, and squat all done on separate days with various assistance exercises that are left pretty much up to the trainee. I’m doing Wendler’s “beginner” modification, which is a 3 day “full-body” variation in which on Monday I squat heavy, then bench press very light, and do some assistance (rows or leg raises); Wednesday I deadlift heavy and overhead press heavy, followed by some chins; and Friday I’ll squat light, bench heavy, and then probably do some inverted bodyweight rows. I have a good amount of muscle soreness from the workouts, but no joint pain so far, and my back’s holding up fine. I’ve considered doing the regular 4-day program but honestly can’t rely on being able to get 4 lunch hours a week devoted to training. My hope is that over the fall/winter/spring I knock out 9-10 cycles of 5/3/1, add 7-8 pounds of muscle, and cut off enough fat so that my super-fly abs start popping like a toaster strudel. I’ll keep y’all updated since I’m sure you’re on pins and needles about the whole thing.

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