Tag Archives: bench press

Switching from Starting Strength to 5/3/1 Program

When last I mentioned weightlifting, we were in the middle of a second 10-week session of the Starting Strength 3×5 program. The Starting Strength book is the foundational text that (almost) every power and Olympic lifter swears by. It took me nigh six months to finish reading, because it was just that dense and technical. Needless to say, the author knows what he’s talking about, and so it follows that his program would be an excellent place to start programming for yourself.

The program is super basic and straight forward. You warm up, then start doing sets of 5 until you start to slow down. This ridiculously low number is your starting weight. You then do three sets of five (3×5) at that weight. The following week, you add five pounds (or ten, if you’re a guy) and repeat. Ideally you will work up to your max 5 rep weight over the course of several weeks and be able to push beyond, but plateaus do happen, in which case you try to either increase your reps or decrease your time resting between them. You do this for a 10 week cycle before resetting.

I initially picked this program because it was simple and steady gains were built into it. The ten weeks gave a long enough time to start seeing some progress before restarting. I also liked that the lifts were basically: squat & press & pull-up, squat & press & deadlift, and squat & bench & clean. Since my initial goal was to strengthen my squat, doing lots of squats seemed like the ticket.

But after two cycles, I’m ready to switch things up. Squatting every single workout was getting old and the ten weeks was a little too long for me to see real progress. I was plateauing too much and didn’t have a good way to push forward or allow myself to reset in the middle. And weirdly, while my bench and deadlift were seeing appreciable gains, my squat and press felt stalled.

I’d read about the 5/3/1 program before, and even tried it for a cycle or two. I liked it at the time, but it was hard to stick to because we were doing Crossfit simultaneously, so I didn’t see any results. I’m going to try it again because a) it’s a four week cycle, b) it’s more varied, and c) it allows for a whole lot more wiggle room beyond the main lifts, which will let me work on problem areas when I have time. So one week I might add some back extensions to squat day and the next I might just get my squats in because that’s all I have the time and energy for. Both are cool. Also, squats are only once per week – hooray!

The program, basically, is:

Find your 1RM, then multiply that by 90%. This will be your starting weight. For example, I just tested my deadlift and have a 1RM of 220#. 90% of 220 is 198 – or 200, since our weights only go up by 5# increments. You then use that number – 200 – for the rest of your calculations.

Week one: 5 reps at 75%, 5 reps at 80%, 5 reps at 85%

Week two: 3 reps at 80%, 3 reps at 85%, 3 reps at 90%

Week three: 5+ reps at 85%, 3+ reps at 90%, 1+ reps at 95%

(+ means do at least the number prescribed, then go beyond if possible)

Week four: 5 reps at 40%, 5 reps at 50%, 5 reps at 60% (aka, deload)

You can technically do this program with any lift, but the prescribed version is squat, press, deadlift & bench, each on separate days. But – you are encouraged to do any variation on those lifts, as long as you are consistent within each four week cycle. That means you can back squat one cycle, then switch to front squat the next. Or you can sumo deadlift one cycle and Jefferson deadlift the next. Military press one, push press the next. Is all good, and the variation lends a little color to a sometimes dull regime. Just as long as you don’t confuse your numbers when you switch.

Needless to say, it’s good to be excited about a lifting program again. I’m starting vanilla – i.e., the basics of each lift – but I kind of can’t wait to play around with it and throw in some sumo deadlifts or even goblet squats. I don’t know when we’re going to go back to Crossfit – that’s the problem with stopping, hard to start again – but in the meantime I need some variation in my life.

Do you lift? What program do you follow?


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