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Analyzing Strength Programs: Part III

I’ve had a lot of fun with this series of posts. (Here’s links to Part I and Part II so you can get caught-up.) It’s really opened my eyes as to how easy it truly is to program for strength. Over time, great coaches have tested and retested many different programs, and most seem to have arrived at a similar place. In this last post, I’m going to quickly go over rep range averages, as well as address mental stress and add my opinions on each program.

I think the funniest thing about this analysis came in the Part I. Each coach is wildly different and they work with a wide spectrum of different athletes/clientele. Logically, their programs shouldn’t look even remotely similar. But they do. The programs have many commonalities.

As for mental stress, I’d say that 5/3/1 is actually the most stressful, from a neurological point of view. But that’s why Wendler advises using his program on a three day per week schedule. Otherwise, you end up with two max effort upper body days and two max effort lower body days each week. That’s four total, as opposed to the two that we see in the other three programs.

The road is different for each program.

Additionally, you could add your squat and deadlift days together to create one max effort lower body day. You could actually do this with any of the programs if your time or recovery ability was limited.

Also, please note that the Starting Strength template includes a heavy deadlift or heavy clean every time you work out. This is different as this program and others like it (such as Even Easier Strength and Power to the People) are meant for rank beginners or extremely advanced lifters.

The original Westside for Skinny Bastards is probably the easiest to recover from, as it only included three days. Again, this is a great option for those with limited time or recovery ability.

As for rep ranges, the max effort days use anywhere from 1 to 25 total reps. This encompasses everything from singles to your typical 3×5 and your beginner-style 5×5. It gives you the flexibility to work with a 1-5 rep range and 3-5 sets. Perfect for building strength.

For repetition work, the lower body day range was anywhere from 15 to 50 reps. Again, this could be your typical 3×5 or a volumized 5×10. The repetition upper body day was similar, with the total rep range being 15-48.

I’d also like to note that the Westside and 5/3/1 assistance rep totals went all the way up to 120 at the highest. This is anywhere from a 3×10 to a 6×20. Assistance work, simplified. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Westside and 5/3/1 assistance work is more tailored toward individuals without other responsibilities beside lifting. Athletes, like the ones that DeFranco or Cressey might work with, have a host of other responsibilities to attend to, like speed and agility or skill work.

Lastly, the dynamic effort work ranged from 5 to 30 reps. For example, Westside uses 10×2 and 8×3 for their dynamic work, where Cressey likes to wave 6-10 sets of single or doubles on average.

After looking at these rep ranges, we can quickly compare them with Prilepin’s rep range and percentage table to get an idea of where we should be in terms of sets and reps. Our volume work doesn’t necessarily match up with Prilepin’s table that well. In fact, the best scheme I could draw up in order to fit both models would be a 6×6 volume day. And that’s only 36 reps. But in the end, one might argue that volume work is more about getting the reps in and feeling the muscle burn/chasing the pump than killing yourself with low reps.

On the contrary, Prilepin’s table is perfect for the max effort work. Our 90%+ range is best served with singles and doubles for up to 10 total reps. That would make 4×1 at 90% an easy day, while 5×2 at 90% would be extremely taxing. Our 80-90% range is better served with 2 to 4 reps per set with 10-20 total. That could mean 4×4 at 80% or 3×3 at 85%, two very popular schemes. Lastly, our 70-80% is best served with 3-6 reps for 12-24 total. This could mean a 5×5 at 80% (very difficult) or an easier 3×6 at 75%.

Whichever direction we choose to go in, it’s clear that Prilepin’s table matches perfectly with our max effort work. Assistance work is just that, assistance, so don’t get confused with your assistance schemes. Just hit your15-50 reps and move on.

Following up on that, it’s worth noting that the 90% rule works extremely well with Prilepin’s table. That is, make sure that all of your work sets are at 90% or above of your top set for the day. For example, let’s say you’re performing triples and your max triple is about 90% of your 1rm. What’s 90% of 90? 81%. Perfect! Let’s try that with fives. If your 5RM is about 85% of your max, than all of your sets should be at 76.5% or above. But what about singles? Well that’s easy. 90% of 100 (your 1RM) is simply 90%. And there you go, following the table again. (This is the way that I do almost all of my programming, for clientele and myself, and it’s awesome.)

Once you have the basic template set up with the bare necessities, you can adjust to best suit the needs of any athlete. You can use the speed-strength continuum to modify the programs to address each of the four stations. Find a coach that works with similar athletes and see if their programs work for you.

As for conditioning, the programs don’t really touch on conditioning usually. I find that two days of conditioning is usually enough, maybe three. Try to mix your conditioning up between faster, phosphagen system-conditioning like 40-100 yard sprints and longer, glycolytic system-conditioning like Prowler pushes or mid-distance sprints anywhere from 200 to 800 meters. Mix up your rest intervals too. Use 1:2-5  work to rest ratios.

I like to do my conditioning on my upper body days, allowing me time to recover before the lower body day, but also ensuring that I have energy to perform the conditioning after the workout. I try to avoid heavy conditioning the day before a lower body day, to avoid soreness.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally, I think that strength programming should be entirely based off of your goals. It depends on your priorities. If you prioritize strength and numbers above all else, go for Westside variation. If long-term health is a concern of yours, educate yourself on anatomy and physiology and check out Cressey’s programs. If you want some size, use a Rippetoe or DeFranco variation. And if you must squat err’ day, then at least listen to Dan John about how to program it.

I know there’s plenty of people out there program-hopping, hoping to find the Golden Ticket to strength, aesthetics, or confidence. I won’t say that this is the answer you’ve been looking for, but it should help to clear things up. The perfect program isn’t the answer or the destination because it doesn’t exist. Instead, take comfort in the fact that if you’re following a traditional strength program from any of the gurus that I’ve mentioned, you’re doing just fine.

These are the programs you’re looking for.

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