That’s What They Said – Jim Wendler
Jim Wendler is a man who needs no introduction to those who seriously lift weights and use the internet. He is a former college footballer in the US as well as a powerlifter (although he doesn’t compete anymore). Most of his ‘fame’ however is due to the ebooks he has authored, the most popular being 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System For Raw Strength.
Following on from my first edition of “That’s What They Said“, this post will draw on one of my favourite quotes from his ebook:
You must have a very strong reason for doing an exercise. If you don’t, scrap it and move on. Sometimes, instead of what you do in the weight room, it’s what you don’t do that will lead to success.
Jim’s training system is based around four primary lifts – the squat, bench press, deadlift and military press. Throughout his book he emphasises the importance of keeping these lifts primary, and not ‘majoring in the minors’ by over doing the assistance work.
His contention is that assistance work should do just that – assist the primary lifts.
He feels it should not be a goal to strive constantly for PRs on the assistance lifts, especially if this progress comes at the expense of progress in the primary lifts.
The quote above is taken from his introduction to the assistance exercises part of his book and I feel really sums up what goes wrong with a lot of trainees.
Regardless of whether you use the same exercises as Jim or not, the take home point is that your efforts should be focussed on a few important things, that yield the best results.
In the case of 5/3/1, a system that is designed to build overall raw (without supportive equipment as used in the sport of powerlifting) strength, this focus is geared towards the lifts mentioned.
For an Olympic weightlifter, this focus should be geared towards the competitive lifts – the snatch and clean and jerk. No one wins medals for how much they can squat in a weightlifting competition.
It is the same in the sport of kettlebell lifting, you can get awesomely good at swings, one arm jerks and a myraid of other ‘kettlebell’ lifts without improving your results on the platform at all if you aren’t careful.
Even for bodybuilders, whose progress is based solely on qualitative measures, knowing which exercises best stimulate their muscle groups and focussing mainly on them will yield the best results overall.
After all, for a non-professional athlete, heck, even for a professional athlete, resources are very limited.
By resources, I’m talking primarily about time and energy. Both are finite and have many competing demands. As such, when choosing what exercises to put your precious time and energy into, you have to ensure that they are going to yield the best return.
Two common terms commonly thrown about are ‘exercises that give you the most bang for your buck’ and ‘training economy’.
So next time you train, instead of doing 4 slightly different presses, pare it down to 1 or 2 and monitor the results. This is called finding the minimum effective dose. This is the minimum amount of work you need to do to get the desired result.
If you are still getting the same or at least 80-90% of the results as you were previously (with half or a quarter of the workload), you have to weigh up whether the extra time and effort is worth the slightly improved results – chances are, if you are not making your living from training, it isn’t.
So looking back to the original quote from Jim, by not doing 2 or 3 exercises, you now have less training stress to recover from, so you will recover (and thus progress) faster.
You are also spending less time training, as well as less energy. These can be re-directed to other areas of your life, or other areas of your training that you may be neglecting – stretching and conditioning are common areas here.
So when you next train, make sure you have a very strong reason for doing everything you do, and if you have a personal trainer, don’t be afraid to ask them why you are doing each exercise.
If you can get equally good results doing less work than you are currently doing, I can’t see why you would want to do more.
To end with a great, and highly applicable cliche: work smarter, not harder.