After 6 arduous weeks, I have finished with Jim Wendler’s “5/3/1 Building the Monolith” aka “5/3/1 for Size”. This was one of those programs I had been wanting to run for a LONG time but just couldn’t ever find 6 solid weeks to dedicate to it due to competition schedules. I had a break in action and figured now was the time to do it. Additionally, I had been racking up a series of little dings and injuries that were starting to get annoying, and traditionally that correlated with my bodyweight being too low, so it was as good a time as any to gain some weight. I wanted to document my experience with it, as I haven’t seen enough data on this program, and in many cases people end up changing it so much that it’s not really meaningful.
The above having been said, I DID implement some changes to the program, and will include them for the sake of full disclosure.
Nothing as drastic as this
-The most significant change is that I completely altered the bench workout on workout 2 of each week. Instead of the 5x5 suggested by Jim ala 5x5/3/1, I did the original 5/3/1 plus 1 FSL widowmaker. This is how I have been training bench since Nov of 2015, and for the first time in my life my bench is finally progressing, so I didn’t want to change anything. That said, after running the program, Jim’s set-up makes a lot more sense and fits well within the parameters of the program. If I were to make a recommendation, keep it the way Jim set it up.
-I used an Ironmind Apollon’s Axle for all of my benching and almost all of my pressing. For the 2 lightest press workouts (Workout 3 of week 2 and week 4), I used a strongman log.
-On the second press workout of each week, I took all sets from the floor. If I used the axle, it was a continental. If I used the log, it was a viper press.
-I used an Ironmind Buffalo Bar for all of my squatting.
-I used a texas deadlift bar for all deadlifts, and pulled about 99% of my sets touch and go.
-Instead of an airdyne workout, I did some Stone of Steel over bar training as one of my conditioning workouts.
-I added 3 sets of standing ab wheel on workout 3 after week 1, because I found I had room to recover.
-After week 3, I no longer did straight sets of the 5x5 for chins, and instead ramped up to a topset of 5. This was primarily because weighted chins always kill my elbows, and this saved them from some pain.
-I had zero focus on recovery between workouts. No stretching, foam rolling, ice baths, massages, etc.
In sum, the bench was the most significant program deviation, while the rest was more preference stuff.
GETTING IT DONE IN AN HOUR
For a fun way to time the workouts, order 2 of these. Good for the diet as well.
Before approaching this program, everyone who ran it said they were spending 1.5-2 hours in the gym to get all the work done. I frankly didn’t want to spend that much time lifting weights, and only budgeted an hour of my day for training. I figured putting myself in a position where I only had an hour to train would mean I’d find a way to make it work, and I did. I took videos of the first 3 days of training just to capture what it ended up looking like (sped up to save you from boredom).
And for those of you that don’t want to watch 3 hours of training, here is the cheatsheat.
-Giant set the squats and presses with chins. I did sets of 4 at first, and added a rep each week, ending with 10 per set on week 6. It went Squat-chin-press-chin-repeat. Only rest long enough to change plates.
-Once you get through the presses, things change to squat-chin-pull apart-dip-chin-repeat. That being said, I found that doing squats after dips SUCKED, so I ended up saving the dips until after the squats were done, and then rest paused until I hit my rep goal for the day.
-Giant set as deadlift-curl-bench. I stuck with sets of 10 on curls.
-This was the hardest nut to crack. It only had 4 movements, but I find rows to really interfere with recovery between sets, so I had to save them until everything else was done. Best way to include them was as part of cleaning up my equipment (yes, even when it's your gym, you should keep it clean.)
-Even by week 6, I still didn’t know the best way to approach this. Some weeks, I’d do some warm-up sets of rows before hitting warm-ups of bench and dead, some weeks I’d save it to the end, some weeks I did Poundstone curls to save time on curls, etc. Just gotta gut this one out.
-Similar giant sets as day 1. Squat-chin-press. Once you're out of chins, go to Squat-pull apart-press. Once you're out of squats, go shrug-pull apart-press. Once you're out of pull aparts, do shrug-press.
-I kept the weight the same on the shrugs and shot to do it in fewer sets each week.
-Since this day eventually got up to 15x5 for presses, it would run a little longer than 60 minutes, so I did it on Saturdays, when I had more time. Was still taking maybe 80 minutes.
Workouts would last 50-70 minutes with this approach. With me being me, I did zero warm-up aside from warm-up sets. No mobility, stretching, cardio, voodoo or devil worship. Seemed to make things go faster. Also, the final workout of the program ran about 90 minutes, because that workouts is awful.
And yeah; it SUCKS. I was always gasping for air and feeling miserable, but I got it done.
Some of you people are treating these like this
I started with the following TMs
The squat and dead were a solid 85%, while the press and bench were more like a 90%. I actually took a spreadsheet, plugged in numbers and found what looked viable before starting. You want to definitely go light on this one, but at the same time I wanted to make sure I was really pushing myself. I stuck with increasing by the prescribed amount.
I started this straight off of a competition cycle training for a contest without a squat event, so my squat was a little on the low side, but it was as good a time as any to do a program with some squatting.
In retrospect, the press TM was about 1 cycle too far. I was too stubborn on this one.
Thankfully nothing this bad
I stuck close to Jim’s recommendations. I don’t own a weight vest, so I just wore a bunch of chains and clipped weight plates and loading pins to them to do weighted vest walks.
I would do this workout between the first and second lifting session. Between 2 and 3, I would do triples of the Stone of Steel over a bar, every minute on the minute for 10 minutes.
I’m still a strongman, and wanted to get some strongman stuff in. After the third lifting session, I’d do some prowler work or a strongman medley. In total, I missed 2 conditioning sessions on the program; both were chain walks.
Christ I am sick of these
Christ I am sick of these
So Jim says that the only requirement for the program is eating 1.5lbs of ground beef and a dozen eggs a day. Prior to starting the program, I was already eating more than 1.5lbs of some sort of meat a day, so this would just mean eating an extra dozen eggs. I imagine Jim’s recommendations were probably aimed towards people that tend to practice a more moderate/balanced diet vs. a low carb/high meat person such as myself. I ended up adding a pound of meat to my normal intake and eating anywhere between 6-12 eggs a day. I still only ate carbs close to training. Here is a sample day for my diet.
-0445: Wake up, eat 2 cups of wild blueberries with 3 tablespoons of raw honey
-0630: 2 scoops of protein, 1 cup of skim milk, 1 cup of frosted flakes
-0800: 9 heaping teaspoons of fat free greek yogurt mixed with protein powder
-0930: 1lb of meat (ground beef, steaks, ribs, ham, etc, whatever I had)
-1200: 5-6 eggs and some sort of green veggie
-1300: A quest bar
-1700: 1lb of meat and some sort of veggie
-1900: 5-6 eggs
About 98% of the eggs were hard boiled. I don’t like them that way; they were just the easiest to prep. I used an instant pot, and could easily make 10-12 with minimal effort. What got me through it all was a sugar free BBQ sauce.
I started the program weighing 194.8lbs at 5’9. In the final week, I weighed 200.2. This isn’t a significant amount of weight gained, but when you factor in that I’ve been training for 17 years and that I’m only 5’9, the fact I can eek out any more growth at this point in my life is amazing. I had been stagnant for a long time, and this is the first time in a while I managed to put on some clean weight.
I got much better at pressing, having only managed 205 for 3 in the first week to hitting 215 for 4 in the final week. This is pressing while under a significant degree of fatigue. My conditioning went through the roof as well, and by the end the workouts weren’t nearly as difficult as they were when I started. I truly gained some mastery over the programming.
Having not tested anything yet, it’s hard to objectively say if things got better or not. However, I definitely feel that I became a stronger squatter and deadlifter with all the submax work I put in. I had been hitting 1 big topset for so long that all these multi-set workouts really drove home something special.
-I absolutely CAN still gain muscle at this stage in my life. I had convinced myself otherwise, and that I’d only be able to eek away a pound a year or so. The potential is still there, I just have to work my ASS off for it. I have to train as hard as I possibly can and eat HUGE. I know what I need to do now if I ever want to fill out a weight class. That being said, I don’t think I can sustain this pace as a family man. My wife did a great job of putting up with my crap for these 6 weeks, but I was eating like it was my job, and most of my free time was spent getting food ready for the next day.
-It IS possible to out train a bad diet, but you have to work so brutally hard it’s not worth it. I was eating like it was my job and barely putting on weight. If I ate to satiate hunger, I would have maintained or possibly even lost weight. However, at the same time, most people who think they are able to outtrain a bad diet aren’t actually working this hard. I’d finish the lifting sessions covered in sweat and struggling to breathe, and did this 3 days a week on top of 2 hard conditioning session and 1 light one. It’s not gonna happen lifting 3 times a week for 3 sets of 5.
-The instant pot is awesome for making lots of food in a short time; especially eggs.
-Sugar free BBQ sauce is a great condiment.
-Anyone complaining that the program doesn’t have enough chest work is skipping the 200 dips. I never managed to make it all the way to 200 in the program.
-You can gain weight without many carbs.
-Everyone scoffs at the diet that Jim recommends and says “If I ate like that, I’d get SO fat!” Not if you’re actually running the program as it’s laid out. It totally makes sense to me why Jim has high school kids doing this to get ready for football. This will absolutely add some size, as long as you eat like a monster.
-It is entirely possible to move heavy weights while fatigued. Lots of people like to talk about how giant sets are the devil because they impact performance on heavy work, but I was able to hit almost every single required rep on this program using legit TMs while incredibly fatigued. In total, I missed 8 reps; 2 on the very first press workout and 1 on the first press workout of the very last week, and 5 on the final workout of the final week. In the case of that final instance, I was STILL hitting a continental before every set, so there was some potential to overcome this, but in general, I just had my TM slightly too high. Don’t get me wrong; you need to have a solid conditioning base, but it CAN be done. If nothing else, it’s just another argument for why conditioning is so important.
-Full body workouts are still totally viable at this point in my training. I had written them off a long time ago, thinking I was “too strong”
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY/IF I DO IT AGAIN
-I’d stick with Jim’s recommendation for bench (5x5/3/1). It makes more sense in the program. Granted, doing 5/3/1+FSL widowmaker made the workout shorter, which was a blessing. However, to combat that, I’d make this my Saturday workout, and swap out DB rows for t-bar rows, since the rows would go faster being unilateral. However, t-bar rows might be too taxing on the back, so if you have a back supported row machine, that’d probably work better.
-Swap out the weighted chins for lat pulldowns. A lot of folks can get away with weighted chins, but they tear up my elbows pretty bad. Ramping was a good band aid.
-More dead stop reps on deadlift. This was poor planning on my part; my wife started working a new schedule, and her later mornings correlated with my deadlift workout days. I didn’t want to be slamming plates while she was trying to sleep. On the plus side; I really mastered controlling the eccentric on the deadlifts.