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Analyzing Strength Programs: Part I

msProgramming for strength training can be difficult. Looking at a training program and trying to figure it out can be mind-boggling for people. Now just imagine trying to write them for hundreds of people with different goals. Imagine writing them for hundreds of people with different goals, but attempting to create a blanket program that works for everyone.

This dilemma has led to the formation of products such as the High Performance Handbook by Eric Cressey and the multi-volume 5/3/1 book series by Jim Wendler.

Something that I’ve wanted to do for a while was provide an analysis of the exercise selection, as well as the set and rep schemes, of many strength programs all intended on helping you reach the same goal: becoming inhumanly strong. I wanted to find the similarities and the most common rep ranges across the programs. Here’s the programs that I chose:

  • Maximum Strength by Eric Cressey
  • Westside for Skinny Bastards (3rd Version) by Joe DeFranco
  • Westside Conjugate Method by Louie Simmons
  • 5/3/1 (with Periodization Bible as assistance) by Jim Wendler
  • Power To The People by Pavel Tsatsouline
  • Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe
  • Even Easier Strength by Dan John

Pretty impressive list, no? These are some of the greatest names in the modern-day strength game. I selected them for their popularity, common days-per-week structures, and utilization of pure strength as the primary objective of each program. Furthermore, I compared PTTP, SS, and EES  only against each other, since they are full-body workouts and the other four programs have an upper/lower split.

531Before I delve into any results, let me give a quick rundown of some differences between the programs. First off, Cressey is a baseball guy and places emphasis on structural balance within the body in order to reduce injury risk. Joe DeFranco has a reputation for putting serious mass on his athletes (Brian Cushing anyone?), as does Rippetoe. Pavel started the RFC and is primarily strength focused. Wendler is a former Louie Simmons disciple and has since dropped his geared powerlifting and attempted to simplify his training to avoid too much interference with life itself. Louie Simmons is still running the strongest gym in the world, pound-for-pound, and they do the majority of their training raw (in case anyone was doubting their non-geared strength). Dan John is simplistic, much like Pavel, and EES follows that model.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, at first. I expected Cressey’s program to include a lot more single-leg and external rotation work to keep things balanced. I figured 5/3/1 and Westside would look extremely similar in terms of exercises and rep ranges. I also thought that Dan John and Pavel’s work would look very similar, attributed to the fact that EES is based off of another Pavel program.Lastly, I thought WSFSBIII would include more direct arm work than anyone, but also more volume in general.

In Part I and II, I’ll cover the commonalities in exercise selection and differences in overall volume, but I’ll save  rep ranges, mental stress, and my personal thoughts for Part III. Also, I know that Westside (for instance) has many different variations to it and there are 1,001 coaches out their peddling their system as “Westside.” Here, I’m focused on using the Periodization Bible version laid out by Dave Tate. And lastly, this was by no means an all-inclusive scientific look at each programs minute details. This is meant to serve as an overview and a slap in the face to anyone confused about programming.

Full-body Workouts

I separated these full-body workouts into two different days to compare exercise selection, since SS includes two different days within it’s program.

The only exercises that appeared uniformly across the programs were max effort lower body and max effort upper body push.

Other exercises that appeared in the programs includes hip extension, anterior core, lower back, vertical pull, horizontal pull, and loaded carry.

As far as overall volume goes, all three workouts end up in a similar range, although SS is a 3-DAW program, meaning that there are more overall rest days as opposed to the John and Tsatsouline programs.

ssI was surprised by the limited exercise selection across the programs, considering the wide range of opinions on which exercises are The Best To Help You Deadlift 800 lbs! or The One Magical Exercise You Aren’t Doing That Would Increase Your Bench Press In The Same Session!. 

To summarize this brief section, beginner workouts seem to have one commonality: max effort lower body and max effort upper push work. From there, it seems simplest to break up the assistance work listed. As an example, “A” day might consist of ME lower, ME upper push, lower back, horizontal pull, and loaded carry. On the “B” day, you’d simply replace the assistance work with a vertical pull, anterior core move, and hip extension-dominant movement. On the other hand, you could choose some and use it for a 3-4 week cycle and switch it up cycle to cycle. I personally like both.

Upper-Lower Split Programs – Max Effort Lower Body

This is where the true fun begins. Ever wondered whether you should be doing Maximum Strength or 5/3/1? Trying to write your own program, but can’t seem to ever settle on anything? This could be your answer right here!

I’ll start with ME Lower Body Day.

Between the four programs examined (5/3/1, Maximum Strength, Westside, and WSFSBIII), the only commonalities in this day were a max effort lower body exercise and a core exercise. Next to those, single-leg work was the runner up, contributing to three of the programs. (Single-leg work is in 5/3/1 filed under “Quads.”)

From there, lower back and hamstring work are in 2-3 of the programs, depending on which day you complete hamstring work in 5/3/1. Dynamic effort (DE) lower body work is only present in Cressey’s program, probably attributable to the fact that Cressey is more of a “relative strength” guy.

The volume is similar between Cressey and DeFranco, but the assistance work is much higher under the Westside and 5/3/1 template. Also, the max effort work volume work is higher under Cressey and Wendler because of multiple sets near the top weight.

I’d probably expect WSFSBIII to be higher in volume, if not for the fact it’s directed at athletes with multiple other responsibilities along with getting strong. Maximum Strength is very similar.

All told, your main priorities on ME day should be max effort work (duh!) and core, followed by single-leg and hamstring work.

Max Effort Upper Body Day

ME upper body day had the most similarities of any of the four days in the split, with each workout consisting of max effort, push assistance, pulling, and upper back work. (As a side note, sometimes upper back work is done on lower body days by Tate’s version.)

Three of the workouts (all except Cressey’s) included some type of arm work, biceps in DeFranco’s and triceps in Westside/5/3/1.

DeFranco’s was the only program to include any type of trap/shrug work, probably due to the high volume of football players in his facility that need the hypertrophy or “armor building” (As Dan John calls it) for season.

This day seems pretty straight forward. Every good program should have a max effort day with push/pull assistance and upper back/external rotation work.

As far as volume, Westside and 5/3/1 again topped the other two programs with assistance volume up to 120 reps per exercise, where most of Cressey and DeFranco’s reps stop at 48, with 60 being the highest!

Conclusion: Part I

So I’ll stop talking here. There’s a lot to cover in this three-part series so I’ll cover the dynamic effort/second upper and second lower days in the next post.

As we can see, there actually is a lot of crossover between strength programs if you break it down into basic exercise selections. This quick analysis is a good indication is programming isn’t so hard after all. We can break up our exercise selection into basic groups and see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

In the next post, I’ll cover second lower and upper body days, as they actually showed a bit more fluctuation than the first two. In the third post, I’ll go into a little more detail about the actual rep ranges, mental stress, and my personal thoughts on beginner, intermediate, and advanced trainees.

Other than that, Happy 4th of July!

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