Practicing the Lighter Side of 5/3/1: Day One

Snowing in Boise

It’s Christmas Eve and the snow is coming down steadily outside. It wasn’t snowing when I woke up this morning at about a quarter to 7. My wife told me to go back to bed and sleep in some more, but the gym was scheduled to open at 8 and I wanted to get to the squat rack first thing. Now that I have a better handle on proper form and a dedication to practice it, even if that means using lighter weights, I wanted to get on the come back trail.

Yesterday, the gym was packed. A fact one of the regulars commented on when we were talking while I was waiting for my personal trainer Chase to become available.

Today, I was hoping for a bit of a break, thinking that people would be spending time with family or traveling to their Christmas destinations.

That hope was in vain. The place was hopping when I got there a minute or two after it opened.

Fortunately, the squat rack was free, although there was a lot of activity coming from Brandee’s training group, plus a few of the weight room regulars were already hard at work.

I had my morning all planned out, at least the main lifts. At just a few minutes after 8 with the dim light of a winter morning just making its first appearance in the sky above Boise, I got to it.

I don’t consider this my re-start of the 5/3/1 program as such. I’ve still got one more training session with Chase next Wednesday. Right now, I’m just using week one to practice what I’ve learned thus far. The real work is yet to come.


Main Lifts

Barbell Back Squat in Squat Rack

6x 95lbs/43.0913kg (warm up)
6x 105lbs/47.6272kg (warm up)
5x 115lbs/52.1631kg
5x 125lbs/56.699kg
6x 145lbs/65.7709kg (5+)
5x 155lbs/70.3068 (joker)
3x 170lbs/77.1107 (joker)

Arnold's bench press
Photo credit: – Arnold’s bench press

Barbell Bench Press

10x 65lbs/29.4835kg (warm up)
8x 75lbs/34.0194kg (warm up)
5x 95lbs/43.0913kg
5x 110lbs/49.8952kg
6x 120lbs/54.4311kg (5+)
5x 125lbs/56.699kg (joker)
3x 135lbs/61.235kg (joker)

Assistance Lifts

Barbell Bent Over Row (5×10)

10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 115lbs/52.1631kg
10x 115lbs/52.1631kg

Dumbbell Bench Press (5×10)

10x 40lbs/18.1437kg
10x 40lbs/18.1437kg
10x 40lbs/18.1437kg
10x 45lbs/20.4117kg
10x 50lbs/22.6796kg

As you can see, I used a standard model for main lifts and the boring but big assistance lifts, not that anything I’m doing is going to turn me into the Incredible Hulk anytime soon.

box squat

As I’ve already mentioned, I went deliberately light, basing my percentages of my 1RM on my lighter training weights with Chase. This allowed me to ramp up a bit with the 5+ set as well as add some jokers.

OK, I’m not doing “beast mode” work here, but the idea is to train in an organized fashion while maintaining a neutral spine through all lifts and avoiding injury. This is supposed to ultimately strengthen my weak core (as well as the rest of me) rather than continue to tear it apart.

My squat form remained consistently good, as far as I could tell, through all sets. I was getting low each time, although this was slightly more of a challenge as the weight passed 145. I was happy that my back didn’t even twinge once during squats or the dismount. For my current program, I even did a 170 pound joker set for 3 reps, which is 5 pounds more than my previous personal best using a neutral spine.

Between sets of squats, I looked around the weight room. Brandee’s class had moved in, and with her typical high-energy style, they were taking command of a lot of equipment. Two of the regulars each had claimed the only two flat bench press benches available, so I was calculating how I was going to move my main and assistance lifts around to compensate.

However, I ended my session in the squat rack at the same time as one of the guys finished on his bench presses (the other guy, a super buff Asian dude, must have spent half an hour just doing presses, although while the bar touched his chest each time, he only lifted it halfway up, doing really rapid reps). Our timing was impeccable.

The guy on the other bench press bench and then the guy who came after him were benching weights I can only dream of. I can’t complain because their form was quite good, with the bar touching the chest and then going back up using a 165 pound plus barbell. By comparison, I wasn’t so hot, but like Chase says, it’s less about the numbers and more about doing it right.

I was still touching my chest with the bar for the 135 pound joker set, but it was pretty challenging, which is why I limited myself to 3 reps. This is practice. Like I said, the real work lies ahead.

bent over rowNormally, if my back is going to complain when I’m doing bench presses, it’s when I pull myself up to a seated position after each set. I did feel a very slight twinge in the offending area of my lower back, but nothing like before. I’m inclined to believe Chase is right and that this is a sign of weakness rather than me aggregating the injury.

After my bench press, since I had access to a barbell already, I decided to make bent over rows my first assistance lift. I set it at a modest 115 pounds and put the barbell on the floor. I decided against using two 45 pound weight plates to elevate the bar. If I were doing deadlifts, I probably would have, but I wouldn’t be trying to stand up straight when doing rows.

I assumed a deadlift stance anyway when getting ready to lift the bar, getting my rear as low as I could. Then I pushed up with my legs, assumed the position, and started my rows.

It was a do-able weight, but one that made me wonder if I’d be able to complete a full 10 reps for the final set. I did, but it was a struggle. Hopefully one that my back didn’t mind much.

Brandee’s class was still swarming around, but I managed to get one of the free benches for dumbbell bench presses. I figured a pair 40 pounders would work out well, but after the third set, I moved up to 45s, and for the final set, I took a chance on a pair of 50s. Even though the 50s were hard, I was still able to do all 10 reps successfully.

However, after each set, when I dropped the dumbbells onto the floor, I noticed that sitting up from a prone position made my lower right back ache. The combination of all the lifts was beginning to take some sort of toll. It wasn’t bad, but I took it as a warning sign not to push it.

The other reason why I decided to stop was I heard someone saying that it was really snowing hard outside. The free weight room is at the back and off to one side of the main entrance and all the windows, so unless you deliberately look, you won’t know what’s going on outside the gym.

Sure enough, when I looked out, I saw it was snowing heavily. I wasn’t anxious to wait another half hour and then try to drive back home in that mess. I think snow is pretty, but I don’t like driving in it.

dumbbell bench pressThe clock said I’d been working out about 50 to 55 minutes, which is respectable. I decided to call it, gathered my effects, and walked out of the gym.

As I write this, when I move a certain way, my lower back aches a bit, but I think the worst I did was to “wake it up” a bit. I didn’t re-injure myself thankfully, and I think that’s because I kept the weights relatively light and my ego in check.

I’m glad I allowed myself the opportunity to “do it right” for once. Now I can’t wait for Sunday and my chance to do the same with the overhead press and deadlifts using the 5/3/1 template.

If I am not for me, who is for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I. And if not now, when?

Hillel, Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14


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