I am going to share with you the magic bullet. The best program that will take you from 98lb wuss to a walking sculpture of a muscle mosaic, capable of superhero level feats of strength. Here it is… are you ready for it? The best program for you is exactly, with 100% certainty, without a morsel of doubt, this precise answer:
All of them. You’re welcome.
Have you ever wondered why there are a trillion different strength programs out there? It is because at some point, somewhere, for someone, that exact program caused massive gains for the participants. Understandably, this makes choosing a program incredibly difficult. Then, once you pick one, implementing it is even harder especially if you don’t train with someone/a group already using the system. The implementation of a program becomes more difficult because we are literally inundated with all those other programs flying around. Check any Internet forum. Very few people are doing exactly the same program. Check back a month later. Only a small percentage of people are STILL doing that same program they were on. If you develop a program that gets you to all your goals in a month, I am honored to know that you are reading my crappy little article from your solid gold and platinum weight room from your newly colonized Martian Muscle Base. The biggest variable for success in any facet of life is consistency. The problem with strength training is (to steal a line from Dan John) everything works for a short time and nothing works forever.
With all that in mind, here are my qualifications for for choosing a program:
– Is this going to make me stronger?
– Can I change things up (variation) when training stalls?
– Most importantly, is this something that I can follow for 10 years straight?
Westside easily answered all three of these for me with a resounding and chalky “HELL YES!” To clarify early on, Westside is not just speed work (Dynamic Efforts, DE) and max singles (Max Efforts, ME). There is progression and there is periodization. So, before the comment section turns into a 500 page long pissing contest, this is just a beginner guide for anyone interested in the system, for those with a low training age, and for those without access to a bunch of speciality equipment (which you don’t really need starting out anyway). Also, this is EXTREMELY basic programming with several of my own suggestions added in that I wish I did differently when I started training this way. So, take this for exactly what it is, my interpreted version of how a relative beginner should use the Westside System. The following is in chronological order by how training should be organized:
Step 1: Do a Meet
I am being 100% serious when I say this:
Don’t even train for your first meet. Sign up for one, learn the rules, make sure you have all the needed equipment, practice the lifts a little bit, then go get a total on the books. Until you do a meet, your max lifts are 0lbs, 0lbs, and 0lbs for a whopping 0lb total. Gym lifts are like a skinny guy with abs. They don’t count. Plus, every percentage is based off of a competition max. Not a magical number that happened in the gym that no one actually saw you do.
This is technically an “off season.” Training is geared 100% towards developing weaknesses, recovering from the previous competition, and increasing your General Physical Preparedness (GPP). This block of training can continue forever and will encompass a large part of your total meso cycle (training from meet to meet). Variation in lifts is high, volume is very high, intensity is moderately high, and there should not be any need for any kind of deload during this time period. To break down the main training components of this block:
Max Efforts: One day a week dedicated to Max Effort Bench and one other day a week for Max Effort Sq/DL (switch between a squat and DL variation each week).
How do you pick them? Easy, choose three exercise variations for each lift that you suck at, and only use those. For me personally, my squat variations are a free safety squat bar squat, a straight bar pause squat, and a close stance box squat. For bench press, it’s incline at 30 degrees, close grip bench, and close grip floor press. For deadlift, it’s block pulls, snatch grip pulls, and sumo pulls. Why did I pick these? Because they are humbling due to how bad I suck at them. I think it was Jesus that said something to the extent of “You’re only as good as the worst lift you suck at.” Something like that. Rotate through your “suck” exercises establishing a 3 or 5 rep max on each one and constantly try to break those PR’s. Treat these sessions just like a meet. Warm-up, pick a first attempt, and then give yourself two more attempts to get a heavier weight. If you make the third attempt, shut it down. If you miss the third attempt, shut it down. Don’t fail a billion times before you decide to stop this insanity. Live to smash weights another day.
Dynamic Efforts: One day a week dedicated to Dynamic Effort Bench and one other day a week for Dynamic Effort Sq/DL.
Here, I am going to interject some personal feelings on the subject of Dynamic Efforts. Since this is literally the only aspect of the Westside System that is planned ahead of time, it needs to have a solid and logical progression leading up to the next competition. As I mentioned before, this block is geared towards GPP. What better way to raise GPP than to keep quantifiable track of amount of work done in a session and then try to beat that the following session (one week later). All you need is a series of painful kneecap injections and about $40,000 in expensive scientific equipment… actually, you just need a stopwatch and a deep seeded secret wanting to destroy yourself. I often suggest first time Westsiders try for 15 to 20 sets of DE work during this block. Keep track of time from week to week and try to beat that time from week to week. So, a three week wave for squats could look like this:
Week 1: 20 sets of 2 reps with 50% of a contest max in 17:30.
Week 2: 20 sets of 2 reps with 55% of a contest max in 17:00
Week 3: 18 sets of 2 with 60% of a contest max in 16:30
Each week, you now have a quantifiable improvement in work capacity. Also, you get a lot of practice with the competition lifts. If you think this sounds bad, I have gone through a couple of these workouts squatting over 400 pounds for 30 sets (60 total reps) in about 15 minutes. There is no color in the visible spectrum to describe what something like that does to your vomit. Anyway, week by week pendulum wave guidelines for DE work in this block:
Squats: Week 1 should be 15 to 20 sets of 2 reps with 50% of a contest max for time, week 2 with 55%, and week 3 with 60% with 2-3 less sets . Use a box. Or don’t use a box. Whatever you want. I would strongly suggest using a box and some light suit bottoms/briefs if you are beat up/have nagging injuries. Box squats are easier to recover from than free squats.
Bench: Week 1 should be 15 to 20 sets of 3 reps with 45% of a contest max for time, week 2 with 50%, and week 3 with 55% and 2-3 less sets. For the love of God, don’t bench out of your technique. Just because you are moving fast doesn’t mean you get to do 3/4 reps with noodle arms and protracted shoulder blades. STAY TIGHT!!!!!
Deadlift: The exact same recommendations as squats except only do singles instead of doubles. Deadlifts are hard on your body. Especially after doing 30 to 40 squats as fast as you possibly could.
Repeated Efforts: Assistance work done after the main exercises. Shoot for 50 to 60 total reps (just a guideline) for this block.
Here is where you can go nuts with your variations and where you can really hammer weaknesses. For this block, try to stay away from barbells and stick with very general exercises with moderate weights. Try to work everything involved in the competition lift, paying more time and attention on lagging muscle groups (i.e. the stuff that fails first on heavy lifts). Here is how I set my RE work based on my weaknesses:
Squat/DL (either ME or DE day): Once my main work is done, I will go straight to some posterior chain exercise. Usually, it’s a heavy reverse hyper. This can easily be done with banded good mornings, regular good mornings, 1 arm and/or 1 leg RDLs, SLDLs, any DLs, etc. Just anything that is pretty far off from a competition squat or DL. After that, I will do 50-60 reps of direct leg work (because my legs are weak). This is usually a 1 legged squat (so functional) followed by hamstring curls. Then I hit a shurg variation for 60+ reps, then ab work, then stretch.
Bench Press: Main work first. Then some high rep DB Pressing followed immediately by high rep direct tricep work (my arms are small and weak). Next comes some lat work (I only do Kroc rows, BB rows with different bars, or, rarely, a pull-up variation). I don’t spend much time on direct lat work. Mostly because I can do sets of 405 with pretty strict form. Although, it would be cool to bent over row 500lbs at some point, it is kind of stupid that I can row more than I can bench. Anyway, I then hammer my upper back (weak point) with face pulls, pull aparts, and anything else I can think of. Seated Power Cleans are excellent for bringing up a lagging upper back.
How do you figure out what your weaknesses are and how do you pick these exercises to develop them? First off, film everything you do in training. Then compare that to how people stronger than you do things. You will, no doubt, see some fundamental differences in technique and form. True, a lot of individual technique has to do with anthropomorphic differences in body size and shape. But, you can still draw some parallels and conclusions that are applicable to your own training. For example, when I compare my bench press videos to those stronger than me in my weight class, one glaring difference makes itself almost stupidly obvious. Their arms look like redwoods and mine look like pine needles. So, even from block to block and whatever my weight goals are for the next competition, I am always (feebly) working on my arm size.
This is the time when you start doing what most people consider a typical Westside Program. The goal here is pure strength and force development.
Use the same lifts for Max Efforts except only go for new 1 to 3 rep max’s. Bump all Dynamic Effort percentages up 10% and drop the sets to only 8 to 10. Keep the rest intervals to around a minute and don’t rush to get all the sets done. Now that you have built the GPP base in the previous block, your goal is to work on rate of force development. For Repeated Efforts:
-Drop the total reps to 30 to 40 and increase the weight used.
-Pick two sessions where you work up to a 6-10 rep max on a compound barbell movement immediately after your main work. For example, I like to keep my RE work at a high volume after ME main exercises (30 to 40 total reps with 4-5 assistance exercises) and then work the heavy assistance exercises (6-10rm) after DE main exercises. This is where board presses, chain presses, reverse band work, whatever else can be added for benching. For squats, box squats, front squats, pretty much anything you aren’t using as an ME movement for this block. For deadlifts, I love RDLs. They hit exactly where I suck when I deadlift and the higher my 6rm is, the higher my competition pull is.
This block is going to make you feel like hell. Deal with it. Learn everything you can about nutrition, recovery methods, get enough sleep, and limit your out of training stress… or, yea, just deal with it. This block should start anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks from a meet. I suggest 8 for a beginner just to see how you react to the added intensity. If you aren’t dead once you get through it, then try 10 weeks for the next competition.
Here is your “peaking” cycle. It is brief… and it is horrible. Also, this is very individual. So, it will take some tweaking and experimenting to get it dialed in exactly right for you. I will put up two examples, one for three weeks out and one for four weeks out (which, I prefer).
Three weeks out:
Week 3: Chose a deadlift variation for your ME Sq/DL main lift. Do whatever you want for ME bench day. For DE Squats, perform 5×2 with 60% of your competitions max, then work up to 90 to 95% of a one rep max for 2-3 singles. For DE Deadlifts, just stick with 50% and 8-10 singles. Odds are, you will want to shoot yourself at this point so take it easy on the pulls. DE Benching can stay around 50-60%. Work up to 90% for 2-3 singles if you don’t feel too beat up. RE work for this week should be cut down to only 2-3 exercises and the reps dropped to 20-30 total and go HEAVY.
Week 2: Squat variation for ME Sq/DL and don’t go for a new max. Just warm-up and hit a few heavy feeling (very scientific) singles. Whatever for ME bench. DE Squats should be the same as last week but just work up to 80-85% for 2-3 singles. Same as last week for DE Bench and DL as well. If you work up to some heavy singles on bench, don’t go over 80%. Keep RE work the same.
Week 1: Meet week. Just recover. Personally, I like to have 2 mock meets this week. The Sunday before (if competing on Saturday) I have a mock meet with 50% on squat, bench, and deadlift. I go for 5-10 singles and treat the last three like they are my attempts in the meet (mental imagery and visualization are a large part of my training, but that’s for another article). Then that Wednesday, I do the same thing again with 30%. RE work should be whatever you feel you need to do to recover for the meet. This doesn’t mean don’t do anything. This means do some blood flow work and go through the motions. Your assistance work is a big reason why you got stronger during all three blocks so don’t ditch it right before the meet.
Four Weeks out:
Week 4: Same as week 3 in the above plan.
Week 3: Same as week 2.
Week 2: Same as week 2 again except use 70-75% for your squat and bench singles. Also, do some DE pulls in the 70-75% range.
Week 1: Same as week 1.
I like the 4 week plan because the “Reverse Pendulum Wave” stretches out another week and gives you even more work with the competition lifts.
How do I train for my next meet?
You do exactly the same thing again. Only a little different. Since you went to the meet and completely destroyed all of your PR’s, you now have new competition max’s to work with. Which means all of your training weights will be higher. If you feel like you need to, replace one of your three ME exercise variations for each lift with something different. I am of the school of thought of “If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with your cycle of exercises.”
Hopefully this didn’t over complicate things too much. I tried to keep it as simple as possible and aim it at beginners. Again, I am sure this is not 100% what Westside does with new guys (mainly because they don’t have any “beginners” that train there), but it is still structured using the Westside Principles and will get you stronger.
Now go do it for 10 years.
Solum Per Exitum,
Mike Hedlesky, MS, CSCS, CF-L1, USAW, WBB