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My Q3 Weightlifting Program Explained
A resistance training program teardown to explain how exercise choice, and rep and set ranges tie to goals.
I want to dissect my current lifting program in the interest of:
Bringing to life what I meant by “boring” last time
Every three months (or so… cuz… life), I set new fitness goals (or milestones towards bigger goals) and design a program to get me there.
I’m not certified to do this, but I have read many textbooks on the topic (my favorites). My thirst for knowledge about strength, conditioning, and hypertrophy may never be quenched.
(If you have any good reads, please do share – especially on conditioning.)
It’s very difficult to set the right number of goals. My tendency is to want to move the needle on e v e r y t h i n g at once. Which of course is a disastrous idea. But as I ripen into the smarter decades of life, I’m getting better at scoping.
Early July, these were my stated goals:
Work towards a 300 pound deadlift. My current 1 repetition maximum (1RM) is 270 pounds. But I hadn’t been prioritizing deadlifts.
Revisit the front squat. I realized it had been close to 4 years since I had done front squats. I was avoiding them because they are hard. I wanted to see if focusing on the front squat for one cycle would move the needle on my back squat.
Participate in Apex Cool Labs’ 6-week palm cooling and pull-up challenge. This involved doing 8 sets of pull-ups twice per week. Given this intense volume, I knew this would be my only back exercise.
Grow my delts. This goal might be on my list every day for the rest of my life. Shoulders are so cool.
Work towards bodyweight Bulgarian splits squats for 8 repetitions. This goal is so random. I don’t know why I care, but I do.
The point is: work backwards from your goals.
Day 1: Leg Day
Front Squats: 5 x 5-7 reps
Hip Thrusts: 3 x 10-12 reps
Glute Bias Back Extensions: 3 x 15-20 reps
Day 2: Pull-Ups & Shoulder Press
Pull-ups: 8 x as many reps as possible (AMRAP)
Shoulder Press: 6 x AMRAP
Day 3: Leg Day
Deadlifts: 5 x 5 reps*
Bulgarian Split Squats: 3 x 6-8 reps
Day 4: Pull-Ups
Pull-ups: 8 x AMRAP
Day 5: Free day!
I reserved one day per week to do whatever I felt like doing. It typically ended up being cardio.
Run 3 - 6 miles
Do an Assault Runner Workout of the Week
I took two rest days per week.
I try to walk at least 7,000 steps per day. I have met or exceeded that goal 60% of the last 45 days. Far from perfect but also not bad :)
On rest days, I like to get in 10,000+ if possible.
On one of the rest days, I aim to do a long guided mobility session. I try very hard to get a second mobility session on a lifting day during the week but this is a 50/50 hit or miss.
What’s up with the free spots?
I have often struggled with coming up with an accessory lift plan. Doing the same accessory lifts for 12 weeks seems like a lot. Also, I was bouncing around between two different gyms. I never knew which gym I would be in on which day. And each gym has its own equipment and limitations.
I feel like accessory lifts are a great place to provide some variety in an otherwise repetitive plan. I did track everything so I could progress the number of reps or the weight for a given exercise.
Next time, I will craft my 12-week plan with core lifts remaining the same throughout and accessories shifting every 4-weeks.
What’s with the rep ranges?
I like giving myself a range because sometimes when I increase weight, I can’t quite hit all sets at that new weight on the high end of the range.
For example, with my front squat, I started the cycle at 5 x 7 reps at 115 pounds. By week four, I was ready to jump from 135 to 145. But I didn’t feel I could hit 145 for 5 sets of 7 reps. So I aimed for 5 x 5 at 145. The following week I did 5 sets at 7,7,6,6,5. The week after, I did 145 pounds for 7,7,7,7,6. The week after that I did 145 for 5 x 7 and felt good. On week 8, I moved to 150 pounds and dropped the reps back to 5 x 5.
I like this approach because it gives me time to get used to a new weight, while still progressing, and improving form.
For front squats, I’m less concerned with maxing out my strength and more concerned about building strength and hypertrophy (muscle mass). Hence, I chose a rep range of 5 - 7. This range is right in between the strength (1 - 5) and hypertrophy (6-15) ranges. Remember, this is a spectrum with no harsh cut offs (treat it as a guideline versus the law).
Both the front squat and back squat provide a similar stimulus to the glutes and quads, but the front squat requires more upper back focus which can be a limiting factor in back squats. Hence, I wanted to focus on front squats for 12 weeks and then go see how my back squat progresses. Here is a great video on the fantastic front squat.
For deadlifts, I Googled programs and got inspired by one called The Simple Deadlift Program. I particularly liked that it was a once-per-week deadlift program. And remember, my goal for deadlifts is to gain strength. That is why my rep range is 1 - 5 reps. This is the sweet spot for strength.
Here’s that program:
Week 1: 5 x 5 x 70% (5 sets of 5 reps at 70% of 1RM)
Week 2: 5 x 3 x 75%
Week 3: 5 x 1 x 80%
Week 4: No deadlifting, but feel free to do accessory movements like good mornings, weighted back raises, reverse hypers, or pull-throughs in the 10+ rep range.
Week 5: 5 x 5 x 75%
Week 6: 5 x 3 x 80%
Week 7: 5 x 1 x 85%
Week 8: No deadlifting, but feel free to do accessory movements.
Week 9: 4 x 5 x 80%
Week 10: 4 x 3 x 85%
Week 11: 4 x 1 x 90%
Week 12: No deadlifting, but feel free to do accessory movements.
Week 13: 3 x 5 x 85%
Week 14: 3 x 3 x 90%
Week 15: 3 x 1 x 95%
Week 16: Retest
Given what I know about my own abilities, I made adjustments.
I kicked things off closer to 5 x 5 at 75%. Women are known for being able to do more volume at a given percentage of their one rep max compared to men.
I’m not taking the breaks every 4th week. I suppose this could backfire on me, but I haven’t felt like I need them. I’ll take a break at the end of 12 weeks.
I’m not reducing the number of sets at a given rep range the deeper I get into the program. Again, I suppose this could backfire on me, but so far so good. I credit the fact that I use palm cooling with the Narwhals (Disclaimer: I’m a cofounder of this company).
Here are my exact numbers:
205 5 x 5 (76%)
225 5 x 3 (83%)
235 5 x 1 (87%)
225 5 x 5 (83%)
235 5 x 3 (87%)
250 5 x 1 (93%)
235 5 x 5 (87%) Everything from here on has been a PR in some way
250 5 x 3 (93%)
270 5 x 1 (100%)
250 5 x 5 (93%) I just finished this week successfully.
260 5 x 3 (97%)
Test new 1 RM
Bulgarian Split Squats
Also known as rear-foot elevated squats, I’m obsessed with this movement because I swear I can feel my legs growing every time I prioritize them. They are incredibly difficult mentally. After each set, I feel like I’m dying (but nothing a 2.5 minute palm cooling rest can’t fix).
I’m on a random quest to complete 8 reps per side at my bodyweight (135ish). I started this cycle at 95 pounds for 8 reps per side. I just hit 125 for 3 sets of 6 reps per side. Next week, I’ll go for 3 x 8 reps at 125 pounds.
Similarly to the front squat progression, I often give myself two weeks at a given weight. Week one, I go for 3 x 6 reps. Week 2, I go for 3 x 8 reps. If I am successful, I move up in weight the following week.
Remember, even an extra rep or two at a given weight is progression.
My upper body goals were dominated by a 6-week palm cooling and pull-up challenge in the middle of this cycle. So I’m freestyling it for the first and last few week of this 3-month cycle.
Is this the most efficient use of my time toward building a bigger and stronger body? No. But it’s fun.
Given the pull-up volume, I knew I couldn’t do other upper body pulling exercises during those six weeks but it was worth it. I increased my pull-up volume by 35% over 6 weeks.
For shoulder press, I decided to pick a weight I could do for about 10 reps and stay there for the entire cycle to see how much I could increase my volume. Why? Because higher volume (6-15 reps) is better for muscle growth. And, I love big delts.
In the midst of this cycle, I couldn’t stop thinking about how doing the same thing week in and week out probably seems boring to outsiders. But results happen in this repetitive grind. Hence, my plea last time to Fall in Love with Boredom in the Gym.
All too often we are bombarded with novel, fast-paced fitnessing on social media. Or, we feel like fitness is confusing and our goals are out of reach.
But they aren’t!
It is my hope that by breaking down what I do in the gym, it demystifies the “secrets” to results.
What questions do you have? What holds you back from lifting weights?