My 40-Workout Challenge (“Easy Strength”) Experience

deadliftLast Saturday, I finished Dan John's 40-Workout Strength Challenge. Yes, I've written about "challenges" before (noting that they are often inappropriate, to put it nicely). But this one is more like a "program" than a "challenge."

It's based on concepts from the book Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline, an excellent book with a wide range of great information but more suited to trainers then people just looking to get fitter or stronger. My experience with it follows.

The term "easy" is relative, and mostly applies to people who do long, heavy workouts and often train to failure (being unable to complete another rep). In this program you never miss a rep, or even come close. There are no killer workouts; hence, "easy." But you still lift heavy and lift often.

You pick several lifts: push, pull, hinge, squat, and carries plus an anterior core stabilization exercise. You can use a deadlift as both a pull and hinge; I opted to do a pure pull in addition to the deadlift. For the first four weeks, my lifts were:

  • Overhead press
  • Weighted chins
  • Deadlift
  • Back squat
  • Farmer's carries
  • Wheel roll-outs

Workouts involve doing no more than 10 total reps at a work weight (the weight you use for the lifts). Most days are 2 sets of 5 (2x5), with a few 5-3-2 days, one 6x1 day (incrementally increasing the weight on each set), and a 1x10 day (a "tonic" after the 1x6 day). Although the workouts are not overly taxing in themselves, you lift 5 days a week so the total weekly volume is reasonably high.

abs roll-outUnless you're a gym rat, or have ready access to a lifting facility (or at home), this can be a grind. It's definitely not for everyone. But one nice thing about never going close to failure is you don't get sore, despite the weekly volume. And sub-maximal weights are particularly good for over-40 folks as they're less taxing on the joints, tendons, and ligaments. But it's still a lot of work!

I had good gains in the overhead press without trying too hard (or injuring my cranky shoulder). Deadlifts were my main goal and doing this much volume helped improve my technique. But I never hit a PR on the "easy" workouts. Squats were pretty much a disaster as I had a pre-existing knee problem, but that's not the program's fault.

After 4 weeks, I switched the overhead press to incline dumbbell bench press and weighted chins to hang cleans. This is what Pavel calls "same but different." The rest stayed the same.

On the last day, I went for a PR in the deadlift and added about 5% to my previous best and it didn't seem that hard. (Another StrongFast veteran did the program with me with slightly different lifts and had similar results.) Overall, it was a very successful program (except for the stupid squats). But again, not for everyone as it requires a strong commitment: one of the rules is to never miss a workout. That's what makes it a "challenge" I guess.

If you know what you're doing with weights and want to get stronger (though probably not bigger), this is worth trying. Just be prepared to stick with it and trust in the program.

If you're not confident in your lifts, consider getting a trainer to help with your form. (I hear StrongFast Fitness is pretty good.) This is a great program to "grease the groove" on your lifts and improve your technique, but a lot of volume doing crappy lifts will do more harm than good. Do it right.

Be seeing you

-gary

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