As I was getting ready, I kept worrying that as I was working in the squat rack, shaved head guy and his daughter would take both bench press stations and I’d have to interrupt my main lifts and figure out what else to do.
I guess I’m a creature of habit and I like to do my workouts exactly as mapped out in my exercise log. Apparently, I took this worry to the gym with me because the thought kept bugging me.
I got there about 5 minutes until the hour and chit-chatted with Joe, one of the older regulars, until the doors opened at 5 a.m. I didn’t want any delays, so I left my hoodie in the car (it was a “toasty” 41 degrees F or about 5 degrees C outside) so I wouldn’t have to pause once I got in the gym to stuff it in a locker.
This morning’s receptionist is one of the “smart” ones, that is, she’s memorized all of the regulars’ member numbers, so in I went and bolted for the squat rack.
But evidently “hump day” just wasn’t my day, well, not in the weight room anyway. Here’s how I started Wednesday morning.
Back Squat in Squat Rack
10x 45lbs/20.4117kg (warm up)
5x 95lbs/43.0913kg (warm up)
3x 150lbs/68.0389kg (1+)
2x 165lbs/74.8427kg (joker)
1x 175lbs/79.3787kg (joker)
0x 185lbs/83.9146kg (joker)
10x 45lbs/20.4117kg (warm up)
5x 95lbs/43.0913kg (warm up)
2x 145lbs/65.7709kg (1+)
1x 150lbs/68.0389kg (joker)
Bench Supported Dumbbell Bent Over Row (5×10)
Barbell Bench Press (5×10)
Leg Back Raises
Leg Side Raises
Alternating Arm/Leg Raises (Bird Dog)
12x each side
Standing on One Foot
30 seconds each side
The warm up sets went well, and I thought it might be a good omen that I was going to make a new PR at squats today. I went through my working sets as predicted and then decided to aggressively pursue my joker sets. That’s when things started to go wrong.
Oh, not horribly wrong, just that I didn’t seem to be able to handle weights that last Sunday wouldn’t have been a problem. My first joker was with a 165 pound barbell but I only did 2 reps. On Sunday, I did 3 reps with a 160 pound barbell and 3 at 170, so this was disappointing.
I could only do a single rep for 175 this morning, but I was determined to make a PR, so I increased the weight on the bar to 185, 5 more pounds than the PR I made earlier in the week.
Fortunately, I had the safety bars in place.
I unpinned the barbell, did the walk back, took my stance, tightened everything up, and squatted into the hole. My butt landed on the bench under me, but when I tried to stand again, I got nothing. Frustrated, I tried again, but I couldn’t generate the necessary effort.
Feeling rather humiliated, I rested the barbell on the safety bars, ducked underneath, got up, unloaded the barbell, returned it to the rack, and marked “0” for the number of reps I made on the final joker.
I had a witness.
Bent over guy (who is a strength trainer and who knows what he’s doing) came in while I was resting between sets of squats. I had noticed someone left some weight plates loaded on the Smith machine, so during my break, I started unloading them.
He asked if I was using the Smith machine, and I explained that I get annoyed when people don’t put their equipment away when they’re done. He shares my attitude about “cleaning up after children,” and we had a good laugh about it.
He squats way more than me, so it was pretty humbling not only to use such light weights (compared to him), but to fail to make even a single rep for my final joker set.
I took that discouragement to the bench press. One of the other regulars had taken one of the stations, so I got the other. Shaved head guy and his daughter had just walked in, but it was biceps and triceps day for them, not chest day.
Warm up sets went fine but even 125 pounds for 5 reps was strenuous. My working sets were identical to what I did last Sunday in term of the numbers, but I barely made 2 reps with the 1+ set, and knew I wasn’t going to do anywhere near my PR of 160 pounds for 1 rep.
I increased the weight 5 pounds to 150 and tried again. I only could do 1 rep, and that was extremely difficult, so I stopped right there. No use hitting failure for both my main lifts. If I got stuck under the barbell, dumping the weight plates so I could get free would make a heck of a noise, and draw more of the wrong kind of attention to me than I wanted.
Going back over my log for the past several weeks shows me that, if anything, I’m actually getting a little weaker at my bench press. Not sure what this means, but I have to start doing something different to build myself up. The same for my back squats. I keep hitting plateaus.
On the spur of the moment, I switched up my assistance lifts. Instead of using a barbell for bent over rows, I used a dumbbell, and then for my “boring but big” bench press, I went back to the barbell.
The weights aren’t all that impressive, but my arms are killing me right now, so obviously something is weak and needs work.
When I finished my 2 assistance lifts, I was really tempted to get the 12 inch high box and practice box squats with just the bar, making it a third assistance lift, but there just wasn’t time. Besides, I have to accept that some days just don’t go as well as others, and pushing myself isn’t going to change that.
I settled for my Kasey the Chiropractor core work and called it a day.
I definitely worked hard. I was tired and sweating when I left the gym. It was a good workout as far as effort expended was concerned. It just wasn’t what I wanted in terms of demonstrating a gain in strength.
When writing this blog post, I decided to Google “5/3/1 plateaus” just to see what came up and maybe even what I could expect.
The first search result was the bodybuilding.com forums. Scanning through the thread, I realized the fellow who started the discussion was talking about failing his final working set, not jokers. One piece of advice was to drop the weight 5 pounds.
The other thing that got my attention was basing weights based on 90% of your 1RM for the final working set and not the actual 1RM. I recalled the chart I use to calculate my weights, and realized I’d been basing all of my numbers on my true 1RM rather than on 90% . My working sets might actually be a tad heavy, let alone my jokers.
I’ll have to take that into consideration when I plot out next week’s lifting weights. I’ve been planning on setting aside a deload week, and just start the third cycle with 5/5/5+ week. So far, I don’t see a reason to change that plan.
The guy being discussed in the forum thread looks like he was doing way too many assistance lifts, so he might have been exhausting himself and not allowing enough time for rest and recovery.
That’s something I need to consider as well, and if push comes to shove, I might even have to go from lifting 4 days to 3.
The next search result was reddit, but it didn’t seem to contain much useful information, at least at my level (or lack thereof) of experience.
I did find a criticism of Wendler’s program and the main takeaway was that 5/3/1 will not work forever. Eventually, you’ll hit plateaus and have to switch to something else (as an aside, one of the people who commented on that blogspot back in 2013 was lyfta på jobbet, who talked me into trying 5/3/1 in the first place).
Of course, all of the references I’ve cited so far have been talking about much younger guys who lift what I would consider insanely heavy weights. I’m nowhere near that and I probably won’t get there, but I find it hard to believe that I’ve reached my functional limits for squats and the bench press so soon.
The last 2 search results I looked at are both from T-Nation.com, which more or less idolizes Wendler’s program.
The only reference to plateaus in the first link was:
I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from lifters who used 5/3/1 to overcome plateaus in strength and size development. And it’s not just from advanced guys. I received a thank-you from a guy who went from 135 for 1 rep on the bench to 135 for 17.
The other link was to the T-Nations forum and was an article called Bitches, Gripes, Complaints and Plateaus, posted by a 19-year-old. Somehow, I don’t think the experiences of some teenager who’s been lifting 4 years are going to apply to me.
Frankly, my quick and dirty Google search didn’t yield much practical advice. In fact, the best advice I found was from the bodybuilding.com forums.
My final takeaway from all this is that there probably isn’t anything wrong (yet). Joker sets aren’t working sets. If I’m succeeding on my working sets, then I haven’t hit a plateau, technically. I should also review the weight percentages I’ve been using and consider the possibility that (gasp) they might be just slightly too heavy for where I am right now, at least as far as squats, bench press, and overhead press are concerned (I’m making great gains so far with my deadlifts).
I’m not 19 years old anymore, and I’m not one of these old strongmen. I haven’t been doing this for very long, and I’m going to have to accept where my body is at right now and work with it. I also have to accept that this is going to be slow, and that any strength gains aren’t necessarily going to be linear.
What I’m doing is still better than doing nothing. I’ll lift tomorrow using the weights in my exercise log and then re-evaluate everything for the start of the third cycle next week. We’ll see.
Oh, late in composing this blog post, I came across an article called Plateau Busters: 5 GUARANTEED Ways to Analyze and Break Through Plateaus that actually provided some useful information. I’ll have to write a follow up blog to discuss it.
Don’t wait until conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes conditions perfect.