Lessons Learned: Intensity vs. Volume

As many of you know, I’m working Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 strength training program. After having a terrific 2016, something in my body crashed and burned and try as I might, I couldn’t get myself back into the gym regularly until October 2017 and by then, I’d lost almost all of my strength and stamina gains.

So I tried, tried again. Currently, I just finished week one of my sixth cycle, but at the end of the third cycle, I was feeling pretty beat up. Should I have taken a deload week? Maybe. But I did something else instead.

I decided to work my program but just the program with no joker sets. No going above and beyond. Instead, I’d do Boring But Big (BBB) which I previously described as:

Basically, after your three working sets, you lighten the barbell down to around between 30% to 60% of your max and then do five sets of the exact same exercise at ten reps per set.

It has to be heavy enough to challenge you but light enough to where you’ll always be able to do the ten reps in any given set. I’ve read of variations saying if you can’t make the ten in a set, add sets until your reps finally add up to fifty.

So I did that and it reminded me of why I switched to strength training to begin with. Back Squats and Deadlifts are amazingly brutal, even at modest weights, when you have to do five sets of ten reps per set. It takes a long time, mainly in the recovery between sets. Sure intensity is tough, but especially as you get older (I’ll turn 64 in July), volume is murder.

In fact on Back Squat and Overhead Press day, I’d get through the first three of my five sets of BBB Back Squats and then shift over to my Overhead Press routine just to get some rest. I’d do my working sets and then three BBB Overhead Press sets, and then switch back over and do the last two BBB Squat sets. Finally, I’d finish off the last two Press sets and I’d be done sometime around an hour or a little after from when I started.

And I was beat.

For Bench Press and Deadlift day fortunately I didn’t have to do a split routine just to stay alive, but it was tough, especially the DLs.

I started Cycle Four on Sunday, 14 January and finished on Thursday 1 February and I was never happier in my life (well, maybe I was happier about something once upon a time).

I think my pecs were starting to come up though, so the “big” part did kind of happen. I suppose if I kept up with it, I might get even bigger, but frankly, I’d rather do jokers.

Photo credit: westcoasttribe.com

Did my strategy pay off? Was I able to lift more and continue to increase my strength?

The short answer is yes. My Overhead Press remains exceedingly stubborn, but everything else is getting better.

So far my heaviest single rep for Back Squat is 220lbs/99.7903kg and my single rep Overhead Press is (alas) 1x 105lbs/47.6272kg

My Bench Press is up to 160lbs/72.5748kg for a one rep joker, and my Deadlift single rep joker is 290lbs/131.542kg.

A lot better than when I first got into the program again last October.

Winter continues to kick my butt. I can make myself get out of bed early on lift days but for cardio, forget it. That needs to change as do my nutritional habits (which my wife is nagging coaching me on).

There are other changes great and small that need to be layered into my program as I progress forward but in general, things are looking up.

The jokers are back.

Nothing tests your will more than a heavy barbell across your back and smashing your lungs.

Jim Wendler


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