18 Weeks of Maxing Out Squats, Presses, and Power Cleans

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For the past 18 weeks I have given over my programming to Zach Bijesse, my young friend, who is smart, super strong (he is a superheavyweight class weightlifter), and dedicated to a programming philosophy that is “Bulgarian,” in that it prescribes constant reiteration of the training lifts, at maximal efforts. Usually, the day’s workout prescribed more than I could accomplish in the time I had available for training, involving, ideally, maxing out on three lifts and adding volume in one, two, or all three. This chart, the latest and last iteration in a series of check-ins on the program, doesn’t reflect the volume work, or the overall volume attained, or the average intensity, nothing like that. It does just one thing. It plots my best single rep effort in each lift attained over three workout sessions each week. During a week for which there is no data, it means that for some reason I wasn’t able to attempt the lift, or Zach didn’t program it. There was a brief switch out to Front Squats, not reflected in this chart, a very brief dalliance with deadlifts.

The chart has clear and inescapable implications. It demonstrates the following points. (a) Maxing out Press day after day three days a week got me absolutely nowhere. Yes my press is stronger now than it was at the beginning of the program, but not by much. I peaked out on the press early on, in my sixth week, and then bounced against that glass ceiling for the next twelve weeks. (b) Maxing out on squat continuously helped me to get my HBBS up to where my LBBS was … back in January. I obviously need some other approach to squatting to make appreciable gains in it. Bottom line is: my squat sucks. Maybe I just lack the testicular fortitude to really squat heavy. That may be the case but the bottom line is: this program didn’t bring me a heck of a lot closer to my goal. What it did do was build confidence in me that I can do heavy singles day after day. That’s something. Yet, since I don’t feel much closer to my long term goal of a 1.5 x bodyweight squat (now 315 lbs) than I was last December, I am left underwhelmed. (c) Maxing out my Power Clean day after day got me ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE. In the first six weeks I made about 5kg progress; in the next six weeks I made 1kg progress; in the final six weeks I made no progress, and ended up consistently able to pull only what I’d pulled at the beginning. BOO.

By no means are my results to be regarded as a repudiation of “Bulgarian” training methods. I am the trainee here, and I am responsible for my own results. It isn’t the program, it’s me. There is no denying the validity of the Bulgarian concepts: effort drives adaptation, and, if you want to get better at something, do more of it. Why then didn’t I succeed following Zach’s program?

Well, I think that I might have had better results following this philosophy if I was younger, had more time to train, had better opportunities for recovery, especially sleep (i.e. wasn’t a full time professor and father of small children), and was able to do more like 10 training sessions a week, instead of 3. All these factors limited my gains and, disappointingly so. I know nobody is more disappointed in my failure to thrive on this program than my buddy Zach. SORRY ZACH. But it is where it is.

For me, then, is there any benefit to “Bulgarian” methods? Yes, for about six weeks. I do believe, and this is a well-known truism in the strength training world, that just about any program can bring you good results … for about six weeks. I believe Dan John is the one who made this concept famous. So, if I was looking to boost my numbers in lifts that I was stagnating in, I might, repeat, MIGHT, choose to do a six week program of daily maxes. But then I would switch it up. I see no value in pursuing this method for longer cycles, without interruption. But then, I’m not an Olympic style weightlifter from Bulgaria, or even one of our competitive Bulgarian style lifters at Asheville Strength and Conditioning. I’m just some old professor guy and I have to choose my programs wisely, based on what works for me.

missing days

It would be week XII. But I missed workout A. Looks like I’ll miss workout B tomorrow AM too. It means I fall behind on my projected squat linear progression, and being a super novice, I don’t even know how to deal with that programming issue.

My doctor ruled out pneumonia. Which is good. And basically said it’s viral and there’s nothing to be done except rest, fluids, chicken soup. Rest is actually my challenge. Being sick enough to force a rest period sucks pretty bad. Advice appreciated.

squat analysis

In keeping with the reality that my blog is actually just my gym notebook, consider this post a scratch-page.

For the past few minutes I’ve been looking back at the last couple of weeks of squat training, and trying to think my way into the coming weeks. I’ll soon be doing this same kind of analysis for other lifts that are in my rotation too, but one can take this kind of boring application of “math” only so much at a time.

Recent squat workouts include the following:
6/9/11: 3 x 5 x 160, HBBS; vol: 2,400.
6/6/11: 5, 3, 3, 3, 3, best set 3 x205, LBBS; vol: 3,480.
6/1/11: 3 x 5 x 160, HBBS; vol: 2,400.
5/27/11: 5, 5, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1; best set 1 x 235 (PR); LBBS; vol: 3,995.

This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a pattern — which bothers me. Yet, I think I’ve been and will be able to do at least 1x week HBBS 3×5 and 1x (or even 2x) week heavier squat workouts for the near future. This week I felt a bit aimless in setting up and squatting; the workout of 6/6/11 was kind of a disaster, if you ask me. So I want to be a little more systematic here.

For High Bar squats, I do like doing my 3 x 5 “calisthenic” squat sessions (combined with deadlifts set at 125% of squat weight) on low volume o-lifting days. These 3 x 5 workouts (currently 1x per week) are right about at 70% of my 1 RM, and will be increasing slowly in weeks to come. Doing this 1x per week and linearly increasing the weights continues to make sense for me for the time being. I feel like it constitute a sort of ongoing deload day, helping to keep my speed up and to maintain my capacity for a higher-rep set (5 reps?).

For Low Bar squats, it’s absolutely mandatory to keep doing something heavier 1-2x per week. I think I will move forward with some more medium volume dynamic effort sessions with 1-3 reps at between 80 and 95% of my max (lets say, from 185 to about 220) just trying to stay fast. I’ll plan to do these as follows over the next four weeks: week 1: 8 x 3 x 185, 8 x 3 x 195; week 2: 12 x 2 x 205; week 3: 15 x 1 x 215, 10 x 1 x 220; week 5: 6 x 4 x 135, rest; week 5: re-test 1 RM.

on my programming

Wednesday AM I did an OPT assessment session with coach Corey. It was interesting, and I learned a few things about myself. Although the training stimulus was real enough (involving deadlifts, back squats, and bench presses, plus a number of auxiliary lifts) I won’t record all my numbers here (I have them in a Google doc from Corey). Call it a strength day and call it a minor stimulus.

The OPT assessment looks at your capacity in the basic lifts and movements given very strict limitations regarding correct form and tempo. The result of these strictures is that most of your numbers are much lower than they are in practice in the gym; one is tempted to say they aren’t relevant from the perspective of someone who tracks work based on raw strength numbers (as I generally do). Corey did not put me through EVERY phase of the assessment; some of my lifting numbers weren’t even big enough justify trying certain body weight movements.

My upper body pulling and pushing strength is weaker than it should be, no doubt about it. A lot of this has to do with problems I’ve been having with shoulders and arm pain. Corey says this has a lot to do with problems in my posture and neck position during the lifts, and I know he’s probably right about that. He gave me some movement prescriptions that might help me rehab the ugly left shoulder and that might, over time, correct next problems and address general issues with forearms, etc. It’s all about head position, shoulder position, head position, shoulder position! This is the most important form issue I have to work on.

Corey recommends I do some shoulder work consistently as a part of my warm-ups and says that, in weightlifting, I should prioritize deadlift (with a better form, especially, regarding my head position) more than I recently have. I should do deadlift in preference to or before squats, until the numbers I can put up in both lifts, with best possible form, are closer to squat 100%, deadlift 125%.

Anyway, I’ve taken the results of the assessment under advisement and am moving on and I will be taking them into account. Yes, I have relative weaknesses, and yes I know more about them today than before, and yes, I believe I should work on them! Working on known weaknesses is a no-brainer.

In terms of following up on an OPT assessment, it seems like the prescribed course, that coach Corey might prefer, for example, would be for me to go to private coaching with Corey, while I work on deficiencies. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t like the idea. (a) I can’t afford it. (b) For some reason, although I do want my own, individual training plan — and haven’t been satisfied with programming that is targeted at “all the members” of CFA — I don’t particularly want an individualized programming approach that focuses primarily on addressing my weaknesses as OPT defines them. I don’t want to have to stick to a training plan that is more concerned with tempo and form than with raw numbers. I have seen too much progress from trying to follow various linear progressions to give up on them because my form isn’t 100% solid 100% of the time. I don’t think that can be the goal.

So I guess I prefer to continue feeling my own way.

I think it comes down to being a question of what’s fun for me. I need more open gym time, and I need opportunity to enjoy the parts of weightlifting that I find to be fun. And what I find especially enjoyable about it is the pursuit of bigger numbers. Opportunities for training, in terms of available hours per week — those are a limited resource.

I like slower, low volume sessions that emphasize maximal or just under maximal efforts in selected lifts (i.e. Bulgarian method weightlifting). I like working linear progressions in the basic lifts, across a variety of schemes of reps and sets, at defined percentages of your known maximal efforts; I love this form of applied mathematics. I like how it works.

I also love or love/hate the classic CrossFit style workout: short, basic, brutal sessions, combining 2-4 movements, that challenge you to do as much or go as fast as possible.

For me, the ideal programming situation would be: 2x a week of open gym (linear progression in basic lifts and training the olympic lifts), plus 1-2x a week of 30 minutes of strength work (biased towards strengthening weaknesses, perhaps) paired with a 5-25 minute “met-con”. Plus surfing, or skating, or running, or biking, or swimming or something active like that. That sounds like fun.

I’m not at my ideal right now and don’t see quite how to achieve it but I’m thinking about it a lot.