Thursday, January 06, 2011

5/3/1 for Parkour

Integrating an effective strength training program in to a Parkour schedule.

"The primary goal of your strength and conditioning program
is to make your athletes better football players
- 5/3/1 For Football.


Part 1 - Introduction

After taking a couple of 1 rep max tests this week I'm about to begin Jim Wendler's much acclaimed 5/3/1 program for building strength.

I've been weight training on a weekly basis for around seven or eight months now and although I'm still very much a beginner in the field, I'm noticing progress in both technique and strength and feel like I'm definitely moving forward and making worthwhile gains that carry across to my technical training.

Whether or not a Parkour practitioner should lift weights to supplement their other training has been an issue of some debate for as long as I can remember and although I was a long time advocate of doing bodyweight training and building strength in other ways, I admit that I was just worried and misinformed about the facts of lifting weights. Now I wholeheartedly believe that if done properly, weight lifting is not going to add useless bulk to one's frame and will in fact be of great benefit to both one's power and speed potential.

One of the more noticeable benefits that come from regular training of some of the big compound lifts such as the squat or deadlift is that I notice my body feels much more like one solid unit rather than a combination of different parts. My landings feel lighter and my legs more resistant to the impacts and drops when I move and it has definitely made my power training more productive, with gains coming quicker than they have for a long time.

Part 2 - Why 5/3/1 and how does it work?

Although I've come to thoroughly enjoy the process of lifting, my methodology has so far been quite basic with a traditional 5x5 approach being employed, that is 5 sets with a weight that I can lift for 5 repetitions, for 25 reps in total. The sessions are quite long and I find that I'm never sure how much weight to add or the best way to progress. So after reading a lot about different programs, I've decided that the 5/3/1 program is my best option for increasing strength whilst giving me plenty of time to train other things.

Here is a brief description of the program, note that each training cycle lasts four weeks:

-The first week you will do 3 sets of 5 reps.
-The second week you will do 3 sets of 3 reps.
-The third week you will do 1 set of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps and 1 set of 1 rep.
-The fourth week is an easy deload week and you will do 3 sets of 5 reps.

After the fourth week you go back to week 1 and continue from there.

The best part about this program is that since all of the percentages are worked out beforehand based on my 1 rep max, there is no more guess work involved and I know exactly how much I should lift before I begin the training. The sessions will also be quite short, leaving me more time to do other things.

Now this program will apparently work for any strength based exercise but I'm only going to be using it for the lifts that I currently do which are the squat, the overhead press and the deadlift. So, the first thing I had to do was workout my 1 rep max for each of these exercises, that is the maximum amount I could lift one time. There are a few ways to do this but since I'd never tried to lift as much as I could before, I decided that actually trying it would be the most fun way to do it.

There is another more sensible way to do it which relies on estimating your 1 rep max first then taking 85% of this and performing as many repetitions as possible. You then use the following formula to calculate your 1RM:

Weight x Reps x .0333 + Weight = Estimated 1RM.

So if your estimated 1RM for the squat was 100kg, you would take 85% of this, which is 85kg, and perform as many repetitions as possible. Supposing you managed eight, your formula would be:

85 x 8 x .0333 + 85 = 107.6

And this would mean your estimated 1RM for the squat would actually be 107.6kg.

Now obviously it's not ideal to just lift the most you can all of the time to progress as this would put an incredible amount of strain on your body and quickly lead to overtraining symptoms so this is where the 5/3/1 program comes in to take care of the percentages.

Jim Wendler, the author of the 5/3/1 program recommends taking 90% of your actual training max to start the program with so if we take our theoretical 107.6kg and multiply it by 0.9, you get 96.84kg, which would be your starting weight for the program.

Taking this 96.84kg, here are the percentages of that you would lift each week:

Week 1 (3x5)
Set 1 - 65% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (62.95kg x 5)
Set 2 - 75% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (72.63kg x 5)
Set 3 - 85% of 96.84kg x 5+ reps (82.31kg x 5+)

Week 2 (3x3)
Set 1 - 70% of 96.84kg x 3 reps (67.79kg x 3)
Set 2 - 80% of 96.84kg x 3 reps (77.47kg x 3)
Set 3 - 90% of 96.84kg x 3+ reps (87.16kg x 3+)

Week 3 (1x5, 1x3, 1x1)
Set 1 - 75% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (72.63kg x 5)
Set 2 - 85% of 96.84kg x 3 reps (82.31kg x 3)
Set 3 - 95% of 96.84kg x 1+ reps (91.99kg x 1+)

Week 4 (3x5)
Set 1 - 40% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (38.74kg x 5)
Set 2 - 50% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (48.42kg x 5)
Set 3 - 60% of 96.84kg x 5 reps (58.1kg x 5)

You will notice that the last sets of weeks 1, 2 and 3 are bold and have a + sign next to the rep requirement and this is important since this is where you will dig deep and give it everything you have. On this set, since it is your last of the day and last of the week for this exercise, you do as many repetitions as possible with good form at the prescribed weight. Note also that the last week, the deload week, does not have a set going to failure and this is important. This is your rest and recovery week so just do the prescribed reps and call it a day for that particular exercise.

And that is the first cycle complete.

On the subsequent cycle, so on the second month, this is where you begin to add a little weight and the 5/3/1 program recommends adding 2.5kgs for your upper body exercises and 5kgs for your lower body exercises. Why so little? Because it's a gradual increase and you have to be patient for this to work. By making small incremental increases you will continue to progress for a longer period of time and end up eventually lifting more weight, and therefore become stronger.

Note that it is a 2.5kg or 5kg increase to your theoretical max, from which you work out the new weights based on the above percentages.

So using our initial 96.84kg starting max for the squat (which was 90% of our actual 1RM in the example if you remember), we add just 5kg (or just 2.5 to an upper body exercise) to this and start our next cycle with 101.84kg, which is still less than our actual max and will allow plenty of time for adaptation and gradual progression.

Using this monthly plan you will add just 5kg to your squat per month which might seem laborious but can you imagine adding 60kg to your squat in a year? Sounds good to me.

Now there's no guarantee that it will lead to such gains and you will of course hit plateaus along the way, but at this point there is a very simple solution in the program that relies on simply taking 90% of your current 1RM and starting over again when you hit a wall.

Simple enough, right?

Part 3 - Assistance exercises and integrating 5/3/1 in to your training

Now here is the important part. How do we integrate such a program in to our current training and what assistance exercises should we use to be of most benefit to us as Parkour practitioners?

Jim Wendler also co-wrote 5/3/1 For Football with Bob Fitzgerald and that has helped me to write this article too since it is based around how to fit this strength training program in and around a sport. But unlike many sports, including football, life does not have an on-season and an off-season, and neither should Parkour. We should be able to move in all conditions, at any time of the year and be as capable as we can at all times. That's the whole point. So with that in mind I'm not going to have an off-season where I reduce my technical training and hibernate in the gym. Instead I need a more practical solution and a strength training program that integrates seamlessly in to my other training.

I also plan on splitting the three exercises up and doing them on separate days, which has a few advantages. The first is that it allows me to be fresh for the main lift of the day and get the most out of the session. The second is that the workout will be much shorter than if I were to do them on the same day and thirdly it is also going to keep me fresh and I shouldn't experience too much stiffness or soreness the day after these sessions.

Below is a general overview of how a typical week might be scheduled for me.

Monday - Power training for legs, technical training and mobility exercises.
Tuesday - Overhead Press 5/3/1 and assistance exercises.
Wednesday - Technical training and/or climbing.
Thursday - Deadlift 5/3/1 and assistance exercises.
Friday - Light technical training and mobility exercises.
Saturday - Squat 5/3/1 and assistance exercises
Sunday - Active Recovery.

The 5/3/1 days will be Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and those will be fixed, but the other training will be flexible and based around what I feel my weaknesses are at the time and what I feel like doing that day. I wanted to fill in the other days just to demonstrate how you might adapt your training to accommodate a strength program such as this.

Assistance Exercises
Now if you haven't guessed already, I really like to train. So lifting for 20 minutes, 3 times per week just isn't enough for me and I have a whole bunch of other stuff I want to do and get better at. I love my kettlebell, I love cleans and presses, I love dips, I love (AND HATE) glute-ham raises and I love muscle ups and heavy pullups. I love throwing rocks. I love carrying awkward shit. So where do these fit in? The answer is after the compound lifts.

I'm going to add these assistance exercises in a logical place and split them in to sections.

Since I'm doing three lifts (the squat, overhead press, and the deadlift) and each of these are quite different, I'm going to make a list of exercises that will assist those lifts and do three or four of them each time I lift.

Assistance exercises for the Squat
Here is a list of exercises that will benefit my squat and build more strength and endurance in my legs. On my squat day, which will be a Saturday, I will pick three or four of these to add on to the end of my lifting session and do what I please with them. Maybe I'll add weight to them, maybe I won't. It depends on how the main lift went and how I feel.

-Glute-ham raises
-Isometric holds (chair positions)
-Overhead Squats
-Front Squats
-Goblet Squats
-Bulgarian Split-Squats
-Kettlebell Swings
-Calf raises

Assistance exercises for the Overhead Press
Below is a list of assistance exercises that will benefit my Overhead Press training on a Tuesday. Even if they're not pushing exercises, it makes sense to do them on the same day as my main upper body training. Once again some of these I will add weight to, some of them I won't, some of them will be for endurance and some will be for max strength. It will depend on how I feel at the time or my other goals outside of 5/3/1.

-Handstand pressups
-Push presses
-Bench Press
-Cleans and Presses
-Muscle Ups
-Turkish Get Ups

Assistance exercises for the Deadlift
These will be quite similar to the assistance exercises for the squat and will once again be chosen three or four at a time to be done after my deadlift sessions on a Thursday as I please. Some will be weighted, some won't.

-Romanian deadlifts
-Hack squats
-Farmer's walk
-Fat Gripz pulling exercises
-Glute-ham raises
-Kettlebell swings

Now those lists are not complete and were just typed off the top of my head and there are of course countless exercises that I've missed that would be useful. But it will give you an idea of the kind of work I will be doing and where you could fit in certain exercises of your own around this program.

Part 4 - Conclusion

Strength training is a vital part of your development in Parkour and it will do more than improve your performance by strengthening your posterior chain. It will help to keep you safe and build a resistance to the drops and impacts found in our practice and help to ensure a long and injury free future. Most importantly it will help to maintain symmetry throughout your skeletal muscles to prevent imbalances.

The problem with a lot of strength programs is that they can demand a lot of your time and require significant periods of recovery between sessions, meaning less time to train technically to the best of our ability.

5/3/1 is the most effective system I have found for building strength using compound lifts such as the squat, the deadlift, the bench press and the overhead press. It requires little of your time, ensures a steady and gradual progression, eliminates the need for guess work when it comes to adding weight, and even includes a chance for you to go all out and dig deep with extra reps on the last set of each exercise.

You can read more about Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program here and you can buy the book here. I also highly recommend Mark Rippetoe's excellent book, Starting Strength, which you can buy here.

I will be posting my ongoing results with this program in the near future but in the meantime feel free to add your own thoughts on lifting weights for Parkour and the 5/3/1 program in the comments box and I wish you all a very happy new year.