Thursday, May 9, 2013

3/1/5 Deadlift Program (Keys to) Success Story

By Andrew McGunagle

Prior to the start of last summer, I outlined the 3/1/5 deadlift program for my brother. My brother and I usually lift together throughout the school year, but I was headed home for summer and he was staying at school to work on a business project. Thus, he wanted to spend his summer focusing on his deadlift, mainly because the deadlift does not require any spotting from training partners.

His best deadlift before beginning the program was 415 pounds. Near the end of his 3/1/5 progression, he lifted 405 pounds for a set of five. He also lifted 455 pounds for a 40 pound 1RM PR.

My brother began the 3/1/5 program early in June of 2012, and he used just 275 pounds for three sets of three during his first session. From there, he made a few 10 pound jumps from session to session, then he began making 5 pound jumps as the lifts became more challenging. For a little over three months, he did not do much lifting beyond the deadlift sets that were scheduled. Usually, he would warm up, deadlift like a maniac, then leave. My brother was very consistent, and he trusted the program would work its magic and enable him to move the weight he needed to move every time he went to the gym.

Near the end of August, after he had worked his way up to deadlifting his old 1-rep PR for a set of five, he called me up, and we outlined a very short peaking plan for him to do before he tested his deadlift. This peaking plan entailed nothing more than taking an extra day of rest, nearly doubling the amount of food he was eating, doing an easy three sets of one with just 315 pounds, then going for a new PR after another day of rest.

The two and a half months of training and the week of peaking paid off, and in the third week of August 2012 he lifted 455 pounds for a 40 pound deadlift PR:

A 40 pound PR after just a few months of training is pretty stellar for an intermediate raw lifter. I firmly believe the 3/1/5 deadlift program can deliver similar results to any intermediate lifter who is willing to try it. However, there are a couple of keys to success that must be kept in mind: 

1. Start Light: I urged my brother to start his 3/1/5 progression with a paltry (for him) 275 pounds, and I'm glad he trusted me and took my advice. Deadlifting three times each week and deadlifting for sets of five are novel experiences for most lifters. Starting light enables individuals to gradually become accustomed to these challenges. Failing to ease into this program with light loads will likely cause the physiological and psychological stresses of this brand of training to temporarily surpass the recover abilities of the body and the coping abilities of the mind. While challenging these faculties is a desirable and necessary objective in strength training, it is important to slow things down and build the momentum necessary to prosper from a linear progression.      

2. Progress Optimally: Linear progressions rely on a few primary principles. First, you must do enough work to get stronger. Next, you must lift again in the interval in which you are ready to exploit the improved strength from that work. Lastly, the work in this second session must enable the lifter to once again get stronger and continue this stress-recover-stress-recover-etc. process. In order to do these things effectively, the workloads need to be sufficient, the intervals between sessions must be adequate, and the load increases must be reasonable.

These three factors, combined with a host of other details related to the training status of each individual lifter, all interact to determine whether or not a lifter will be able to sustain linear progress. Since many of the parameters of this program (the sets, the reps, and the frequency) are already outlined, much of the guesswork in this process is eliminated. However, there is still some room for error when it comes to the load increases, so I want to provide a couple of general guidelines that will make things even easier:
  • Slow and Steady: If you rightfully decide to start your progression with a relatively light and easy load, it will be tempting to make weight jumps larger than the recommended 5 pounds from session to session. While you can certainly get away with, say, 10 or 15 pound increases for your first few sessions, I would encourage you not to increase the weight too much too quickly. A slow and steady progression with light loads, and therefore lower intensities, enables your body to build its recovery capacities. While lifting only ~70% of your 1RM using submaximal effort protocols might not stimulate appreciable strength gains, your body is becoming accustomed to deadlifting three times per week. Building this tolerance and steadily increasing the intensity of your efforts will enable you to make more progress over the long haul.
  • Rewind and Rebuild:  One of the main problems - or advantages, depending on your perspective - of linear progressions is that they require lifters to be extremely consistent. Life sometimes gets in the way of 5 pound jumps, and continuing to grind through sets for the sake of completion can force lifters into a rut. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this issue. If stresses pile up and the weights become too challenging to make progress, all you need to do is drop the weight down a bit and begin to work your way back up. These mini-deloads provide you with a recovery buffer, as both your body and your mind get to ease up a bit. This same strategy needs to be enacted after a short lay off. If you take a vacation, you will likely lose some momentum, and starting back up where you left off will be too demanding. Instead of working yourself to a standstill, decreasing the weight and building back up should allow you to continue your progression.    
  • Manipulate for More: After doing the 3/1/5 deadlift program for a few months, you might reach a point where the session-to-session weight increases become too demanding. If you want to continue to milk the program for a bit more progress, you will need to make a few modifications. You can increase the weight once or twice each week instead of adding weight all three sessions. You can add a few sets to the first session of each week and/or drop a few sets from the mid-week singles. You can change the do-or-die set or five to a set of just three reps. There are a lot of variables you can manipulate, and managing the 3/1/5 program for a few months should provide you with the insights you need to make the correct adjustments. However, whatever you decide to change, you must keep in mind that you are going to need to do more and you are going to get less. Don't despair when progress slows; do what you must in order to keep moving forward.  
3. Don't Fear the Frequency: Throughout the past decade, deadlifting heavy more than once a week was thought to be blasphemous in most strength training circles. Some lifters believed - and countless others were led to believe - that deadlifts are too demanding to be done often. However, in the past few years there has been an exodus away from this low frequency school of thought. People are realizing that deadlifting two or more times a week will not kill them. In fact, these same individuals are seeing their deadlift numbers steadily climb as their frequency increases. Instead of being thought of as a destructive mythical beast, the deadlift is beginning to be considered as just another lift - as it should be.

Will you commit to this program?
Before committing to the 3/1/5 deadlift program, you must let go of any theories about the dangers of high frequency deadlifting you may have latched on to over the years. If deadlifting "too often" has beaten you up in the past, consider the possibility that your past training might have been poorly designed to allow any deadlift frequencies greater than once a week. Honestly ask yourself if you took the time to ease into higher frequencies and gave your body enough time to adapt to them. Dispel the opinions lifting "authorities" have forced upon you and reflect on the mistakes you might have made when experimenting in the past. Once you have done this, start the program, expect progress, and progress linearly as long as you realistically can. Enjoy the process and report back with PR's!

Thanks for reading!

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