If I could go back and do it over again, there are several things I'd do differently. I'd spend more time on my calculus homework. I'd drink better beer. I'd spend less time trying to date more women and spend more time trying to get other things accomplished. And I'd apply a few simple things I've since learned about training to my own program.
It's obvious to me now, 35 years removed, that I didn't take advantage of the simple ability a young man has to physically stress himself hard, recover from it relatively easily, and then stress himself again — and thus rapidly accumulate the effects of training and recovery in a somewhat linear fashion.
If I had this wisdom back then, I'd have just done a simple program of squats, benches, overhead presses, deadlifts, and cleans, going up a little bit every time I trained, three days per week, until I was much bigger and stronger — or until this simple program quit working.
In other words, I would've used the program outlined in my book, Starting Strength, for as long as it delivered consistent, significant results. Please keep in mind that I'm not going to describe a program for beginners in this article; quite the contrary, it's for intermediate to advanced lifters.
However, I need to make some points from Starting Strength.
The Novice Effect
Let's first review why the simple linear progression described in Starting Strength is the ideal choice for novices.
Young men adapt quickly if they're stressed, fed, and rested enough. I learned this simple programming fact from running a gym for decades, showing everybody how to use the barbell exercises and watching what happened to them.
It's called the novice effect: guys who've started out with a simple program, approached it diligently and intelligently, and have gained 30-40 pounds of useful bodyweight in just a few months while more than doubling their strength and power.
The Novice Effect In Action
The driving force behind the power of the novice effect is simplicity. Trainees added 10 pounds at first, and then 5 pounds to their squat and deadlift every time they trained the exercise. Similarly, they added 5 pounds at first, and then 1, 2, or 3 pounds to their bench press, overhead press, and power clean every time they trained the exercise.
They didn't do much else in the beginning; no other exercises except chin-ups and maybe some curls. They didn't run, they didn't waste time in front of the dumbbell rack, and they didn't do a bunch of sit-ups or planks or anything with a cable, wobble board, or Bosu ball.
But the ability to adapt to this quickly and this thoroughly doesn't last long and begins to slow down the moment you start to get stronger, imperceptibly at first, and then more rapidly as you approach the limits of your capacity to recover from each increasingly difficult workout.
The rotten, irritating, sorry-ass fact is that as you approach your genetically predetermined physical limitations, it becomes harder to make progress. This is the principle of diminishing returns and we observe this throughout nature and throughout our lives.
The first improvements are easy and cheap, and the more improvement you want, the longer it takes and the more it costs. But if you don't take advantage of the opportunity while you have it, you leave things undone, and perhaps undoable later.
Let's say that you were wise enough to take advantage of your youth and put in five good months of simple linear progression. You ignored the fools who told you that undulating periodization was "The Way To Go," and you made the best, most rapid, and most important progress you'll ever make in the weight room — and now you're committed enough to the potential of barbell training that you're willing to do the hard work that comes next.
Next comes more progress, of course, but at a slower pace. You're now strong enough that each workout represents a stress that takes longer to recover from. You're lifting weights that are heavy enough that your increases in load take place every week instead of every workout, three times per week.
This means that progress is one-third the pace it was previously; it also means that it has the potential to occur for a longer period of time, if you're diligent.
Balancing the higher stress of the increasing loads is the fact that not only has your strength improved, but your ability to recover has improved with it so that you can use more tonnage at a higher intensity.
The fact is, it's necessary to subject the body to increasing amounts of stress at a level that challenges recovery ability so that the adaptations continue to occur. But since these are now higher-intensity efforts that more fully tax the system, they require longer periods of time to recover from.
If we design the program correctly, we can plan workouts that place optimum stress in the optimum pattern to continue the adaptive drive of the program for a long time: A high level of tonnage-stress early in the week, a lighter workout in the middle to aid in recovery — "active rest" it's sometimes called — and then a higher-intensity lower-volume workout at the end of the week.
Stresses of different types and adequate recovery from the stress are in balance if the program is to work for an extended period of time. We call the program The Texas Method, because we are in Texas and it's a Method — a very good one that has proven itself for years.
Enter The Texas Method
In its basic form, the workout consists of a volume day for the major lifts on Monday, a lighter recovery/variety day on Wednesday, and a high-intensity day on Friday for the major lifts. The days can obviously vary based on your schedule, but the pattern of rest days and work days is important.
Monday — Volume Day
A) Squats, 5 x 5 @ 90% of 5RM
B) Bench press or overhead press, 5 x 5 @ 90% 5RM
C) Deadlifts, 1 x 5 @ 90% 5RM
Volume 5: Sets of 5 reps across (the same weight repeated for the work sets) has proven to be the optimum combination of volume and intensity.
Higher reps require a weight that's simply too light, while lower reps with a heavier weight don't have optimum volume and cause too much structural stress. Many people have tweaked the sets and reps, and time after time they come back to 5 sets of 5 across as the best driver of long-term progress.
Load: The weight should be such that all five sets of all five reps can be finished without more than 8-10 minutes rest between sets. For most people, this works out to about 90% of 5RM.
For example, if your 5-rep max squat is 345, then 315 x 5 x 5 would be Monday's squat workout. The bench press and the overhead press respond this way also; alternate between one exercise and the other each Monday for 5 x 5 with about 90% of 5RM.
However, deadlifts are another story. There is no volume day for deadlifts, because deadlifts are too hard — you can't recover from them if you do more than one heavy set. (This is especially true if you're doing 5 x 5 squats, too.)
Experience with this has shown that it's best to do just one heavy set of five deadlifts on Monday, after squats and benches or overhead presses are finished. It won't be a "true" 5RM, since it follows all the squat work, but it should increase every week.
For those of you keeping score, this makes Monday a real bastard of a workout, and that's the point: it sets up the rest of the week for recovery and a focus on intensity in Friday's workout.
Assistance Work: If it were up to me, I'd limit any assistance exercises to some brief arm work on Monday. I'd also limit any excessive weekend frivolity that might affect the workout, like staying up all night Saturday chasing pussy with your wingman, Jim Beam.
Recovery: It should start right after the last set of the workout. At this level of training intensity, it's imperative that you eat and sleep with both sufficient quality and quantity — The Texas Method will overtrain your ass very quickly if you don't pay attention to recovery.
Remember: You don't get big and strong from lifting weights — you get big and strong from recovering from lifting weights. Don't fail to pay attention to this, or Monday's workout will murder the rest of the week and you'll get stuck.
Wednesday — Recovery Day
A) Squats, 2 x 5 @ 80% of Monday's work weight
B) Overhead press (if you bench pressed Monday), 3 x 5 at slightly lighter load than previous 5 x 5 OHP weight, or bench press (if OHP on Monday), 3 x 5 @ 90% previous 5 x 5 weight.
C) Chin ups, 3 x Bodyweight
D) Back extensions or glute-ham raise, 5 x 10
Recovery continues with Wednesday's workout. Squats are 80% of Monday's work weight for 2 sets of 5. Benches and overhead presses alternate: if you did overhead presses on Monday for 5 x 5, benches are done Wednesday with 3 sets of a little lighter weight than the last 5 x 5 bench press so that you can feel the load but not so much that it taps into recovery.
Recovery day overhead presses done on Wednesday are a little heavier, relative to 5RM, than the recovery-day benches, since their absolute load is lighter anyway. Finish the workout with chin-ups and back extensions; I like 3 sets to failure for chins, with five minutes between sets, and 5 sets of 10 back extensions or glute/ham raises.
Friday — Intensity Day
A) Squats, warm-up, then work up in singles or doubles to one single, new 5RM
B) Bench press, (if you bench pressed Monday) or overhead press (if OHP on Monday), warm-up, then work up in singles or doubles to one single, new 5RM
* C) Power clean, 5 x 3 reps or power snatch, 6 x 2 reps
Friday is intensity day. It focuses the tonnage from Monday into a new 5RM, or within 2% of it to allow for training-quality technique. Do most of your warm-up work light, first with the empty bar and then 135, and then take doubles or singles up to your one work set, the one that should give you a new 5RM.
Make sure that the load is higher than Monday but not so much that form breaks down on the last reps. If it does, you picked the wrong weight.
* Since deadlifts were done on Monday, Friday is power clean/power snatch day. The Olympic lifts are the best way to train explosiveness and athleticism under the bar, while allowing you to increase your power in a way that's incrementally programmable.
Dynamic Effort work has become popular as another way to do this, and using explosive deadlifts on Friday would be a way to incorporate DE into the Texas Method, but the Olympic weightlifting-derived power clean and power snatch represents a different level of neuromuscular activity.
Keep in mind that deadlifts are pulled fast because you want to pull them fast; power cleans are pulled fast because you have to pull them fast or they won't rack on the shoulders.
The explosive aspect of a clean is actually minimal since the explosion is inherent in the top of the movement. Cleans and snatches are both lighter and more powerful than deadlifts, and thus are perfect for the Friday workout.
If you want to call yourself a lifter, you need to know how to clean and snatch, even if you don't intend to compete in Olympic weightlifting. After your warm up, do power cleans for 5 sets of 3 reps across, or power snatches for 6 doubles.
• The Texas Method is still very simple in terms of the number of exercises. Actual progress in the weight room is based on an increase in the loading of the basic structural exercises, not in the number of different ways you can perform a triceps pressdown. Very few successful lifters or bodybuilders confuse complexity with effectiveness.
• The size and strength gains you'll see on the Texas Method will not be as dramatic as those seen in the novice progression outlined in the introduction because of the fact that the easy gains have already happened. We're further along on the curve here, or we wouldn't be using an intermediate-level program.
If five months of novice progression took you from a 95-pound squat at a bodyweight of 140 to a 315 x 5 squat at a bodyweight of 200, the Texas Method will take you to 405 x 5 squat at a bodyweight of 225 in a year. Not as dramatic by any stretch, but this is fine because you're older now and committed to the project.
A Rap Upside the Head
Your time spent in the gym can be either productive or wasted, and a few seconds spent thinking about this will yield the conclusion that any real progress is a quantifiable improvement in strength.
Strength gains are the basis of an increase in size; in effect, size is a side effect of strength, and an intelligently designed and applied program can drive strength. At any point in your training career, quantifiable progress must be your objective.
It's easy at first when you're a novice to the barbell. The Texas Method is a good way to carry you through the next step: maintaining the trend of handling increasingly heavy weight.
The Texas Method doesn't work forever — nothing does. But it does work well as your introduction to the more complicated programming necessary to continue strength and size gains into the more advanced stages of strength training.
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