Weight Training Log, Episode 5: Intermediate Build and Looking into RTS

Previously: One / Two / Three / Four

Last time, I had just finished my cut and was dipping my toes in a new program. In the time between then and now (6 months, no less!), I've not only gotten up to speed on that program, I've also ran a modified "arms specialization" variant block for 8 weeks, emphasized the training of muscles I hadn't really trained directly before, and modified the program further by integrating "Wenning warmups".

New Program

Since September, I've been runing the Stronger by Science Intermediate Build program. It's 5-spread (5 different workouts, each one per week). In concrete terms, here what was I was doing:


Upper Body Workout

Lower Body Workout 1

Push Workout

Pull Workout

Lower Body Workout 2

Notes:


Okay, so you might be thinking "that's a lot of stuff!". And indeed, it is.

I finished writing my thesis in early August, and between September and December (when started my new job), I had a lot of time available. This enabled me to effectively work out 5 times a week (sometimes 6, adding an extra session for abs and traps, more on that later) and for a solid 1:45-2:00.

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to maintain the rythm with a job, but with a few troubled periods (business travel, Christmas holidays), I was able to keep training mostly almost 5 times a week. The sessions did take a hit however, as I more often than not cut them slightly shorter.

So what do I think about the program?

In general, it's a pretty solid and well-rounded program. I mostly like the exercise selection. I also think it's too much volume: training 5 x 1.5 hours per week is just too much, and often it took me even longer. Of course I could modulate the weights and my effort to be done faster. Though, honestly, just counting the sets + prescribed rest times, it would be pretty difficult.

Since it's so well-rounded, it's hard to know what to drop, but there were a few obvious choices for me. First, the bulgarian split squat (in lower workout 1). Everybody hates this exercise, but it's also awkardly positionned right after the back squat. If the back squat is done seriously (all 4x8+ reps!), there is no way that doing the split squat straight after is going to be that productive. If anything, do it first with very light weights, as a warmup.

I also dropped the front squat. What can I say, I just don't like it. It's either super unstable or hard on the wrists depending on your grip. The rationale for doing it over a back squat is minimal (just a bit more variety). But similarly, this is on the same day as the deadlift. I don't think that it's a great idea to do some high-volume heavy deadlifting and some high-volume heavy squating on the same day. Maybe that's just me though, but doing those to the best of my ability is really taxing in a way that, for instance, the bench press isn't.

That does leave me squatting only once a week when I used to squat thrice a week (on every workout in StrongLifts!). Since I am making progress, I am fine with it though. And legs weren't particularly my priority during that period (or really, in general).

There is also a lot of calf exercises for not entirely clear reasons. It was quite fun to train my calves, as that was a wholly untrained muscle for me. But with more pressure on my time, I simply decide to do only one exercise per lower body session. Mostly I'm doing the seated weight raises and the leg presses. Might swap something else for the leg presses when I plateau there.

In a cinch, I'll also jettison the lying face pull (feels a bit gimmicky, and there is already a kneeling face pull in the pull workout). Banded push-ups often get das boot (and when I do it at the end of a well-filled push workout, they really don't feel that useful). I tend to replace the hammer curls (in the pull workout) with barbell curls (optionally making it a drag curl).

Other exercises are also sometimes dropped in favour of the Wenning warmups. But more on that later.

Discovering New Muscles

Since I had a lot of time at the start of that new program, I would sometimes extend my workouts (or schedule extra workouts) with extra ab, glutes, and later traps, lower back and forearms work.

Compared to my strength in the big compound lifts (in particular the squat and deadlift), my abs, glutes and (possibly) lower back had been criminally neglected. As for traps, they're not that important, but it actually felt good to train them — it reduces the strain on them (traps tense very easily for me). Forearm works mostly help with hanging exercises, and to stabilize the bench/dumbbell press.

As for the actual content of these workouts, I experimented with the ab workout as part of the intermediate build program, and this Athlean-X ab workout (video), ultimately converging on that. It's actually two ab workout in one: a beginner and an advanced version.

There are seemingly an infinite amount of ab exercises, and you can find already find a varied selection on the Athlean-X channel, but what's good about that one in particular is that it outlines the different muscles and movement patterns to hit to piece together a complete ab workout.

I progressed a good deal, to the point I'm now able to perform 15 relatively good form leg raises, though it's frankly not my favorite exercise, as while quite taxing for the abs, it's one of those exercise where you can really power through as the other muscles take over quite fast. Also just hanging for the duration is not so easy.

For the glutes, two exercises I recommand are the resistance band crab walk and the glute pull through (I've mostly run a variation where you essentially do a wide squat while holding the rope in a similar position, but the form presented in that video actually seems better).

For the traps, besides the traditional shrugs (and variants: monkey shrugs, overhead shrugs), you can sample from this video (I've personally used the cross-cable trap raise).

Regarding the lower back, the stories is more complicated. I always assumed it was quite strong as my very heavy deadlifts and squats tended to tax it quite a bit. Those were in poor form, and the theory was that the strong lower back took over, being not sufficiently assisted by e.g. glutes and abs. But this lower back pain (purely muscular in nature) could also have been a sign that the lower back was too weak. Hitting it directly with back extensions showed it certainly wasn't as strong there as I would have expected. In fact it seems it's pretty weak for most people.

I now train the lower back with back extensions and reverse hypers using an incline bench

For the forearms, I've mixed exercises form this Athlean-X video with exercises from this Build with Science video.

Unfortunately, working these auxiliary muscles muscles (especially the abs, traps and forearms) has a bit fallen by the wayside as I am more pressed for time these days. I just can't fit them in other workouts, so I end up sometimes doing a special abs/trap workout, though that of course lengthens the whole workout rotation. Glute and lower back work I integrated directly in the lower body workouts, now as Wenning warmups.

Arms Specialization

Part of the intermediate build program are a number of specialization phases where you put emphasis on a certain body part. I've only run one of those: the arms one, as that was a muscle group I really wanted to build up.

This post will end very long, so I'm going to describe the routine in precise terms. Let's suffice to say it did not alter the base workout fundamentally, but added a few more biceps/triceps exercises, including some supersets, as well as introducing narrow-grip bench presses. It makes place for this by cutting a few exercises (two or three on the whole workout rotation) and a few sets on others.

My execution was not incredible. The specialization is meant to last 8 weeks (I ended up doing 9) and overlapped a one-week business abroad, and a few days of sickness. Still, I felt good activation over the duration, and was consequently pretty satisfied with the experience.

I feel like my arms, and in particular the triceps on which I placed a particular emphasis during the specialization and afterwards, progressed nicely.

It's hard to tell however. Sure, the lifted weights are going up, and so is my body weight. But visually, it's hard to tell. I'm not taking physique pictures, nor measuring arms circumference. Maybe I should do these things. But it's even more time and energy invested in this.

I will have more to say about tracking training outcomes in the Results section below.

Wenning Warmups

Another change I made in my training (since mid-January) is that I started incorporating so-called Wenning warmups (lower body version): basically do three exercises for 4 sets of 25 each, with a fast tempo at the start of your workout. One exercise should mimic the movement pattern of the main lift of the day, while the other two are in general used to work on weak points (glute, hamstrings, lats, triceps, ...).

I tried it because it was so simple to try out, but I ended up loving it. Matt Wenning says this should take 12-15 minutes, but I hardly ever get it done under 20 (I probably could by lowering the weights, but I kinda like stretching it a bit to progress).

My lifts have been going up since I started implemented this, though to be honest it may have been some other factors at play. In any case, this kind of high-volume warmup will probably stay a fixture of my training in the future.

Results

Over the period, my bodyweight rose from 84kg in September to about 90kg now. I've been bulking using a 300 calories surplus daily surplus which is about 10% of my average calories intake (less on workout days, more on rest days). I've erred on the side of more, but I certainly haven't gone about 400 daily calories on average.

It's often said that intermediate lifter can take about 0.5lb of muscle (or at least, mass) per week, so about a kilogram per month. With 6kg taken, I'm right in the numbers. Indubitably, I've taken some fat as well, though I'm not sure how much. I think going into my next cut I want to track fat with tape measurements + the gym's impedance scale.

In terms of strength, it's hard to say what the results are. The main lifts have gone up from their initial "reset" value when I switched to higher-volume, lower-weight. The full data is in Annex 1 below, but in summary my bench went from 82.5 to 90kg (4x6), my squat from 90 to 110kg (3x80 + 1x90@90%) and my deadlift from 110 to 127.5kg (4x8).

These numbers do not tell a complete story though. The starting numbers were determined via a rep-max calculator, and then diminished significantly after experimentation. This made sense since the calculator only worked for one-set maxes. Still, it is possibly I could have started heavier. I also got much less training on the big lifts than I used to — only once a week (and more realistically, maybe only once every 8.5 days or so in recent days).

The progression was not linear either: most of these lifts were deloaded at least once. In fact, I didn't remember this, but apparently I deloaded all three main lifts right at the time when I started incorporating Wenning warmups into my routine (mid-January), and they've been growing since.

So did I gain strength? The only way to know for sure will be to retry lifting using my previous "settings" and see if the weights can go up. I probably want to start doing 1-rep-max testing from time to time, to assess progress. I fully expect I'll be able to reclaim my former level, but whether I will have gained much is a question that hangs up in the hair. I have definitely worked on some weak muscles and in general got a good amount of quality reps in, so I'm hopeful.

But at the same time, I only practiced the big lifts once a week. If I were focused on meaningful progress there, it should probably be ramped up to at least twice.

Physically speaking, I'm not very changed. If I was taking pictures I could perhaps notice small changes, but nothing that is going to be visible to an observer that saw me 6 months ago. This is somewhat disappointing, but it is life. I expect the best change I can do right now is becoming significantly leaner.

Thoughts

I've already given my thoughts on the Intermediate build program above. But aside from that, what have I learned from this period?

First, it was good to adopt a more well-rounded approach that includes more muscles and weaknesses. The flip side was training big lifts only once per week. This in turns means slower progress, but otherwise I was relatively fine with it. I'm at a point in the road where I have to choose priorities more clearly, and I think I will prioritize a more well-rounded bodybuilding-inspired type approach, as opposed to chasing number of the big lifts, powerlifting-style.

It was good in the sense of fixing underlying weaknesses and improving physique (while my physique progressed little in the past six month, the whole paradigm shift started with adopting Jeremy Ethier's full body workout a year ago and I certainly saw results from that). It's also good because I enjoy it. I enjoyed StrongLifts too, but I think that returning to it (or to other hyper-focused powerlifting programs) would leave me wanting for something else.

A problem that surfaces however, is that of time management. 5 workouts a week for 2 hours is simply too much. Even now that I'm somewhat cutting things to 1.5 hours most workouts, it's still a lot. And accessory works on abs and traps has fallen to the wayside. The Wenning warmups did not help with keeping the time down (but that was mostly compensated by more cuts).

It's not entirely clear to me what the solution is yet, but it will probably involve some kind of shifting focus. I've been reading up on "Reactive Training Systems" (aka RTS, more on that below) and it proposes to use training blocks (of individually-determined length, but typically 6-10 weeks) with shifting approaches, to see what works and what doesn't. This would also be a perfect opportunity to shift one's focus while some other area stay in maintenance mode.

I also need to run deload weeks from time to time. I've done it once or twice since last time, but I only do it when I really feel the need, which is probably too late and very far from optimal. Again, RTS may provide an answer here.

The Future

I've had a couple ideas for the future. First, I want to redo smaller sets with heavy weights, if only because I want to see what the last 6 months have gained me in terms of strength. Maybe double up the frequency of the big lifts in order to see some progress.

The other big thing to do is to cut again, and hopefully go under what I reached last time in terms of bodyfat percent.

I also want to change the way I approach my programming, using Reactive Training Systems (RTS) to program blocks and experiment. See the RTS section below. As such, training heavy compound lifts twice a week could be a dedicated block. The cut, on the other hand, would necessarily span multiple blocks. This is annoying, as one will necessarily not see the best results during a cut, but somewhat necessary.

All that is well and lofty, but for the time being we have to compose with the coronavirus which caused all the gyms to shut down for at least two weeks here in Belgium (and probably more). I'm of a mind to make the most of it and get all-in on home workout. I've ordered two sets of reconfigurable 2-24kg dumbells, but I plan to do mostly bodyweight work.

Actually, I experimented with bodyweight training once a few months ago — unwilling to drive to drive to a 24/7 gym, I cobbled up a push-up/chest workout. It was much rougher than I expected and my arms probably got the sorest they've ever been as a result. So naturally, I'm quite excited about getting to try similar things again!

In terms of particular muscle group, I think I need to keep training my lower back. I'm also starting to wonder whether I shouldn't do some quadriceps isolation. This is usually a strong muscle for most people, but it sure seems to be a bottleneck on the squat for me.

Other things I'm considering for the some future are doing full body weight training each day (mix upper and lower body during each session). This could be done as supersets and could help drive the workout time down. The trick would be to preserve or even increase volume under this new regime.

I also want to keep paying attention to the small things and in particular emphasize the eccentric part of my lifts.

Reactive Training Systems (RTS)

I learned about Reactive Training Systems through the [Stronger by Science] podcast, though the best introduction is probably this Powerlifting to Win review of the system as well as this article on autoregulation.

I've also started going through the articles on the official website to see what I could glean.

In this section I want to highlight a few neat ideas (probably the main ideas) from the system. These all relate to the key idea of autoregulation: instead of prescribing an absolute amount of sets/reps/weights, one should instead ensure a certain amount of effort is exerted. Effort can vary greatly from day to day, depending on rest, energy level, stress, ... By prescribing a set amount of effort rather than fixed volume, you will ensure you do enough work to make progress regardless of your condition.

RPE

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion and its a way to qualify the effort put into a set. Here is a handy chart:

Flowchart describing RPE values from 5.5 to 10

In practice, it's rare to use RPE values of under 8.

There are multiple ways to "use" RPE. A simple way is to find out how much weight you should put on the bar. You fix the number of sets and the rep count (or rep range) and then your goal is to lift the heaviest weight for which you can attain the given RPE.

Another way is to fix the weight but keep performing reps until you reach the desired RPE. Doing that with a RPE of 10 is the classic "repeat to failure" scheme.

Those are both example of autoregulation! Personally, I've tended to stick to much to a certain number of reps, when I could have done more, and I've also had the tendency to feel disappointed when I fell short, while at the same time feeling I'd put in a tremendous effort. In that light, the idea of RPE was helpful to me, and I've made good use of it (though to be honest, most often by simply going to failure on accessory lifts).

Yet, I have reservations about RPE. First, it's difficult to evaluate. RTS is mostly about powerlifting, and it's true it's easier to estimate RPE in heavy, compound movements (and interestingly for me, it's easier to tell on the bench press than on the squat and easier on the squat than on the deadlift). But even on those heavy movement, I can generaly tell when my last rep is (i.e. not attempt a rep that would be a failure) and maybe tell when I have one rep left in reserve (sometimes people use the acronym RIR for "rep in reserve"), but not more. I haven't really trained that capacity, but I'm dubious.

In fact, on some exercises, I can hardly tell if I'm doing reps in good form at all (this was my big frustration on the barbell Pendlay row that was part of StrongLifts.

On bodybuilding-type exercises (isolations etc) with higher rep counts (12-15... sometimes more) it's also hard to tell. There also typically is the issue of form degradation. It's usually okay for the last reps not to look academic, but how sloppy is too sloppy?

My big take away from RPE is: set in advance the effort you want to get (to failure? some reps in reserve? maybe first few sets with reps in reserve than to failure on last set?) and performs reps accordingly.

But RPE can also be used in other ways, which we'll talk about soon.

Fatigue

The concept of fatigue is another way to tackle autoregulation. Whereas RPE can be used to modulate the number of reps, fatigue is used (in conjunction with RPE) to modulate the number of sets.

Here's how it works: you set a fatigue amount in % (say 5%). Then you have two options.

  1. Load drops. You work your way to a top heavy set (usually your max for a given rep count & RPE). You then drop the fatigue percent, and keep performing sets with the same rep count until you reach the same rep count.

    Example:

     - 90kg   ×5 @7      (warmup)
     - 95kg   ×5 @8      (warmup)
     - 100kg  ×5 @9      (top set)
     - 95kg   ×5 @8      (drop 5%)
     - 95kg   ×5 @8.5
     - 95kg   ×5 @9      (fatigue reached)
  2. Repeats. Instead of working your way up to a top heavy set, you pick some fixed weight under your max. You then repeat sets using this weight until you reach some pre-determined RPE. To determine the fatigue accrued from working up from the starting RPE to the final RPE, you consult an RPE chart like the one below and subtract the initial effort % from the final effort %.

    One rep at RPE 10 is your one-rep max, and thus 100% effort. Other combinations have their effort expression as some percentage of that. Note that this is a "stock" version of the chart, but it could differ from person to person (some are better in certain rep ranges, or even on certain lifts), so Mike Tuscherer (RTS' creator) encourages you to customize your RPE chart.

    RPE chart: describe effort percent for RPE/number-of-reps pairs

Blocks

RTS structures training in "blocks" and encourages you to experience different things within a block.

You should closely monitor your first block to determine your "time to peak" — the number of weeks after which you're likely to max out your lifts compared to your starting weights. This is typically the same accross the big three powerlifting lifts, although Tuchscherer warns that it can sometimes be different. Progression being not always linear, your have to ensure you persist long enough in your first blocks in order not to call it quits right before the gains come in.

Once you know your time to peak, you can use it to schedule blocks of that duration, followed by a couple deload weeks (typically 1/3 of the time to peak).

I like the idea of time-boxed blocks, though once again you have to note that this is powerlifting approach. Doing each big lift only once a week, the progress is likely to be slow (or blocks will be very long). And of course, I'm a big fan of experimentation (while also believing you need to stick with something long enough to be able to see progress).

But the idea of blocks might also be to shift your focus. So maybe instead I can focus on improving my bench press, or the number of pullups I can do, and then I ramp up the frequency of these movements and determine the block time accordingly. This is not unlike the Build with Science "specialization phases", although with clearer metrics.

Each block should be followed by few weeks of deload, so that's an easy way to know when to schedule them.


Annex 1: Lift Progress

Here are my stats for each of the exercises in the Built with Science Intermediate Build program.

I've done exercises outside the program, and dropped some of these exercises (some I dropped earlier haven't even been reported). The goal here is not to be exhaustive, it is to provide an overview of my progress over the period.

For each exercise, I'm reporting:

Upper Body Workout

Lower Body Workout 1

Push Workout

Pull Workout

Lower Body Workout 2