Observations from the Last 6 Weeks of Lifting

What I did, how it went, and what I learned

On September 6th, I started a new training cycle, which will take me until the end of the year. My primary focus for this period is building strength. 

This means not prioritizing conditioning, hypertrophy (muscle growth) and endurance. 

At a high level, this is what the last 6 weeks have looked like: 

  • Lower repetition compound lifts (i.e sets of 5 or less on bench, squat, etc.)

  • Accessory work to support those

  • Lifting 4 times per week

  • Two rest days per week

  • Limiting cardio to two times per week

  • Eating more or less unrestricted

Now, I’m on the road, so while I’ll be able to get in some travel workouts, I’ll be keeping things light - using the week as a “deload” week. Or a period of reducing intensity to give the body a break. 

When I get back, I’ll continue focusing on strength building, but I intend to change things up based on what I’m learning and simply what I’m excited to do. 

Today I wanted to break down what I did, what I liked, and what I didn’t like about the last six weeks. 

What I did

I based this cycle of an intermediate lifting program described in Practical Programming for Strength Training by Lon Kilgore and Mark Rippetoe. It has an undulating pattern of intensity and volume across the major lifts. 

Below is how I planned out my weeks, including rest and minimum cardio. 

Week 1: 

  • Day 1 - Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps

  • Day 2 - Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps

  • Day 3 - Rest

  • Day 4 - Shoulder Press: 5 sets of 1 rep

    • 20-30 minutes of cardio before lifting  

  • Day 5 - Deadlift: Work up to 1 heavy single rep

    • Before deadlifting, I did 3 sets of 5 reps of squats at 90% of Day 1’s weight

  • Day 6 - Run

  • Day 7 - Rest

Week 2:

  • Day 1 - Bench Press: 5 sets of 3 reps

  • Day 2 - Squats: 5 sets of 3 reps

  • Day 3 - Rest

  • Day 4 - Shoulder Press: 5 sets of 3 reps

    • 20-30 minutes of cardio before lifting  

  • Day 5 - Deadlift: Work up to a heavy set of 5 reps

    • Before deadlifting, I did 3 sets of 5 reps of squats at 5 pounds more than last week’s Day 5 squats

  • Day 6 - Run

  • Day 7 - Rest 

Week 3:

  • Day 1 - Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps 

    • This should have been 5 sets of 1 rep per the program, but I changed it for reasons explained below. 

  • Day 2 - Squats: 5 sets of 1 rep 

  • Day 3 - Rest

  • Day 4 - Shoulder Press: 5 sets of 5 reps

    • 20-30 minutes of cardio before lifting  

  • Day 5 - Deadlift: Work up to a heavy set of 3 reps

    • Before deadlifting, I did 3 sets of 5 reps of squats at 5 pounds more than last week’s Day 5 squats

  • Day 6 - Run

  • Day 7 - Rest

Repeat the 3 weeks, adding weight.

How it went and what I learned

For squats, I added 5 pounds per week. For shoulder press and bench press, I added 2 pounds per week. Things did not go to plan for me on the deadlift… but had it worked out, I would have added 5 pounds per week. 

I did do one rep max (1RM) tests the week before starting this program so I knew roughly what weights to pick to start. For the sets of 5 reps, I started at 82% of my 1RM. For the sets of 3 reps, I started at 87%. For the sets of 1 rep, I started at 92%. 

However, I was unsure of a couple of things going into this cycle: 

  • How much accessory work should I add to a strength program? 

  • What intensity should I do the other lifts at? 

  • What should I do if I don’t hit the weight I should have hit? 

Most studies I’ve read suggest keeping total daily volume to 15-24 sets. A beginner can do less and an advanced lifter might do more, but likely split into multiple daily sessions. I kept my sessions to 18-22 total sets. 

There was one thing that was hard to accept, but I’m glad I did. I went into this cycle knowing I would lift 4 times per week. In the past, I have fallen into the more-is-better trap. This leads to burn out and subpar results. The entire strength building process requires stressing yourself an appropriate amount and then allowing your body to build back stronger. Rest is important. 

A few observations: 

  • I didn’t skip a day in 6 weeks. If I was trying to do 5 per week, I would have. 

  • As soon as the fatigue and soreness was building up, I got a rest day. 

  • Having at least 2 days between leg focused days was amazing for recovery.

For certain lifts this plan worked.

Shoulder Press: My progress in shoulder pressing is going to plan. I’ve made every lift and steadily increased my numbers across the rep ranges. I will continue with this undulating approach for this lift for the next cycle. 

Squats: My progress in squats was close to plan. There was a week when I failed to get all sets at the target weight, but I made the lift on the next session. I’ve come to accept that my squats don’t progress easily. I celebrate not just more weight on the bar, but better, smoother squats too. This is a major win for me.  

One thing that I didn’t understand (and still don’t), is how you are supposed to treat the second squat session on day 4 of lifting. In the book, it is meant to be a lighter, lower volume squat, however, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be increasing that every week or not. I did. 

I’m planning to switch things up and test out a 20-rep squat program when I’m back (mostly because I’m intrigued).

Deadlifts: I have struggled to find my rhythm on my deadlifts. I just couldn’t hit the numbers I should have been able to, but I’m not sure why.

I had two major lifting goals this year. One was a 200 pound back squat which I hit! One was a 300 pounds deadlift which is still out of reach. I, perhaps erroneously, felt I needed to choose one at one point so I dialed in the squat. I’ve struggled to work in deadlifts for some reason.

I’m open to suggestions for deadlift programs! I’ll continue to research.

Bench Press: I have, in the past, experienced some pain in my shoulder so I care deeply about bench press form. As such, I found that very low reps (sets of 1 or 3) don’t give me enough volume to work on form. Plus, given my utter lack of focus on the bench over the last 10 years, I am more of a newbie in this muscle group so I kept it to 5 x 5 reps for each week and will for the next cycle. 

Every session from the last six weeks is posted to Instagram, including full details on the accessory lifts I did.

Lastly, and this deserves its own essays, I decided not to weigh and measure my food during this cycle, nor did I set a caloric target. I wanted to give myself the freedom to eat when I was hungry. 

I have fallen into the trap of wanting to simultaneously get stronger, gain muscle and get leaner at the same time. This isn’t a productive approach for someone like me who is already lean and decently strong. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying in the past. This time though I decided not to sabotage my success with unneeded restrictions. This is mostly a mental battle.

The next two weeks are going to be flexible fitness. I’ll fit in what I can when I can on the road. Even though I love having a program and working towards it, I also enjoy the freedom of going off plan. I use my travel breaks to have fun and do workouts that I might not do as part of a dedicated strength cycle. 

When I’m back in The Pleasant Box HQ, I’ll kick off another cycle that will take me through the end of the year. I’ll share notes soon. 

👩‍⚕️ You should consult a medical professional before starting an exercise routine.

🙏 Thank you for reading. If you have questions, please ask. 

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