Weightlifting for Nerds

“What you don’t measure, you can’t manage.”

– Peter Drucker

“What you can’t manage, does you no good in an Apocalyptic Age.”

– dpmonahan

The weightlifting program I follow is called 5/3/1, which builds off programming techniques high school football coaches have been teaching kids for decades. I did not learn those techniques back in high school because I was too busy with Drama Club, Aristotle’s Politics, and Spider-Man comic books.

The program works in monthly cycles that make you take two steps back for every three steps forward. If your maxes in the overhead press the first month are 100 in week one, 105 in week two, and 110 in week three (week four is always a rest), the next month’s weekly maximums will be 105, 110, and 115: three forward, two back. The number of repetitions are controlled as you warm up, but on the max set for each week you just knock out as many as you can. The repetitions for each week might look like 105 x 8, 110 x 7, 115 x 5.

I like the program because it is quick, flexible, and with a little knowledge of Excel you can figure out your goals a month in advance.Then just hit your preordained numbers and feel good about yourself.

What takes more strength, pressing 105 x 8 or 115 x 5? There is a little equation used in gyms across the world to answer the question:

105 x 8 x .0333 + 105 = 133

115 x 5 x .0333 + 115 = 134

The resulting number is called the estimated one rep max. 115 x 5 gives a slightly higher estimated number, so it requires more strength. The equation isn’t exact, but it is a useful and generally accepted rule of thumb.

Using this equation I can see how I have been advancing over the course of the program.

I started 5/3/1 in November after a few years of inconsistent exercise. My previous record in the press was three years ago, when one day in the gym I knocked out 115 x 5, and never managed to hit those numbers again.

In the first week of November I started pressing with a maximum weight of 85 lbs following the three forward, two back pattern of 5/3/1. (The weights are calculated by taking percentages of an estimated one rep max, which I am not going to get into.)

Over the weeks the prescribed max weights will increase like this:

The progression is not exact because I round to the nearest five, but you get the idea.

While week to week I might be lifting higher or lower weights, the number of repetitions varies depending on what I am able to do, so I need the estimated 1 rep max to check if I am actually getting stronger.

Here we see six weeks of slow progress followed a four week plateau, and then another four weeks of progress. It does not look like much but progressing from an estimated max of 113 to an estimated max of 142 is an increase of 25.6%. As of the third week of February my press was theoretically equal to my old record from three years ago, and as of last week I proved I was stronger than I was then by pressing 115 x 7.

Now, pressing 115 x 7 is not impressive; multiple reps of 150 would at least be respectable. A set of five reps of 150 lbs would give an estimated 1 rep max of 175, a 23% increase over my current estimated max. At the rate I am going I should be hitting that by September, right?

Wrong. The problem is that as one grows stronger, strength gains become harder to achieve. That is why I am on 5/3/1 in the first place: three years ago I went from pressing 65 lbs to pressing 115 by simply slapping five more pounds on the bar every time I went to the gym. Eventually I stopped making progress, and it became necessary to regularly step back and toil away with lesser weights.

The same will happen again. I will stop progressing and have to reset the weight to something smaller in order to make progress again. If I reset once, I might be making my goal of 150 x 5 (or, a 175lb 1RM) some time in December. If I reset twice, it might be next spring.

Now, if I am so convinced that we are living in Apocalyptic times, why am I worrying about what will happen a year from now? Because the Apocalypse is not just about the world coming crashing down, but also about a new world springing up: we can’t know what the new world will hold, but we can hope.

 

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