I read Dan John’s book “Never Let Go” sometime ago, as I work through my backlog of notes I’ve come now to putting thoughts together on his work, something which for a long time I struggled to do. His work doesn’t really speak to much of a narrative, so when I dub this post “Program Design”, what I really mean to say is: this will be a post of really great take-home points John makes about such. Today I’ll be discussing 4 program design points:
- 5 Simple tips for program success
- Different Variations of “5×5”
- 3 levels of implementation for the phrase “if it works, do it everyday”
- An analysis of volume and intensity
1. 5 Simple tips for program success
John’s first tip for planning a training program is to come up with a basic routine, but basic doesn’t necessarily mean boring. Here by basic he still wants you to design something that is fresh, but gets results. How you determine this might be by your own goals and measures of success, for him it is measure by “basic lifting measurements or throwing distances. It could be a ratio of upper-arm measurement to waist measurement.” (p. 94) For me personally it is about what my specific program at the time dictates, be it endurance, strength, hypertrophy, I also might mix in more meta goals such as muscle-building, or fat-loss in which I might still use these same programs, but tweaked slightly to suit my goals (for example if seeking fat loss, I employ multiple set strategies with minimal rest time no matter whether I’m in an endurance, or strength phase).
His second tip is to add varying tools from your training toolbox one at a time, if you have a new exercise, or exercise product, or piece of exercise equipment try one out during each phase of training, this will help you to focus on how the new tool is affecting your training, without masking its benefits by having to many varying forms of stimulus. “Some things only work for a short period of time.” (p. 94) Remember, you can overuse your favorite tools.
His third tip is an addition to the second:
Some great ideas work sometimes, but not all the time. In fact, I keep a chart of all the training tools at my disposal and reread this list anytime I feel like having a little instant variation. (John, 2009, p.95)
John states that following this principle to nutrition is more difficult as he notes: if it works immediately, its illegal. If it works quickly it’s banned.” (p. 95) He advises using a standard nutrition plan (which includes three meals a day, before training, protein with every meal and water as your base beverage, p. 95), it’s only after you have these basics down that you should start to play around with different nutritional variables (be it fish oil or I might add, intermittent fasting, low carb etc).
2. Different variations of “5×5”
Jon talks about the 5 reps by 5 sets routine here, but notes that your standard 5×5 routine including warm up sets could take a long time, due to the nature of warm up sets (that is gradually increasing your weight until you reach what they call your “working sets” or the actual 5×5 that you record), and he states 5×5 traditionally done could be very taxing for the body. He offers 5 variations of the 5×5 workout to streamline it for you.
Variation One: The John Powell Workout – this variation, based on John’s discus world holder “buddy” states that you pick a target weight and perform 5 sets of it performing as many reps as you can (the example John uses the lifter only got a total of 10 reps over the 5 sets), you would then repeat this program and weight weekly until you reached the total 25 reps x 5 sets.
The upside of this workout may not be obvious; it allows us to use heavy weights and slowly, steadily build volume. (John, 2009, p.99)
Variation Two: What most people really do – Here John states that what most people do with 5×5 is use 3 of their 5 sets to warm up and actually end up doing 2 working sets. John actually agrees that there is some merit to this workout however, as long as your “warm up” sets are actually heavy enough to challenge you. He admits it’s not exactly scientific but he recognizes that many strong people in the field of strength and conditioning have used, and sworn by this method. He asks you consider it.
Variation Three: The Wave – For this one John notes the wave is kind of like a wave performed at a sports game by the crowd, this feature simply states that you work up in weight for some of the 5×5 sets, drop back for a set or 2 then increase the weight again. The upshot is we get to lift lots of heavy weights, but we also get sets where the weights “fly up” perhaps working subtly on speed (if that is your purpose).
Variation Four: The Wave II – In this variation John asks you track your 5×5 sets and see where you’re the strongest and by this information you might be able to determine where you can place your back off sets, and heavier sets within the 5×5 schema.When you determine your peaks and troughs you can better specialise your 5×5 program to you, and thus tailor your results to your specific body, and workings of such.
Variation Five: Dropping back – This variation states you begin with your heaviest set, thus allowing the “volume” part of this workout to be done with weights that perhaps, for the muscle-building crowd, you can use to feel “in the muscle” thus increasing the likelihood of hypertrophy.
This is a great adaptation for people who train in a situation where they can’t always have spotters, not just the home-gym trainer, but people who train in gyms where consistent, competent spotters can’t be found. (John, 2009, p.102)
John suggests three rules that might apply to any variation you pick:
Rule one: Use the same rest periods for every set no matter the variation you pick, he recommends “one minute, three minutes or five minutes” (p. 102).
Rule two: Try not to have an entire program of 5×5, he notes that it works great on the big lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press, military press, curl), isolation and core exercises might be best left to a higher rep scheme.
Number three: Calculate the weights times the reps and add them up over 5 sets, this will give you a measure of progress, no matter what variation you use, if that number goes up, you’re progressing, that is getting stronger (and who knows, maybe more muscular).
That might be enough for today, I’ll finish up with his three remaining program design tips in section (B) of the next blog. Stay tuned.
John, D. (2009). Never Let Go. Aptos, Cal. On Target Productions.
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