For the last 12 weeks I’ve been training with the free training template created by Brian Alsruhe, known as the Darkhorse program. His YouTube video explains the details and setup of the program. Alsruhe also explains the underlying concepts and why he programs how he programs. Lift Vault has done the spreadsheet work for m̶e̶ you and created a free Google Sheets copy of the program, with all the required formulas and data.
Since completing the program, I have been able to test out my one rep strength levels in the big four lifts and here is my overall rating and review of the program.
The program is a total of 12 weeks, with nine working weeks, split into three phases of three weeks. One week is a deload week and there is a two week testing phase. The program takes up four days a week. It is also a self-regulating program, which makes it great for trainees of any skill level.
In essence, the program is a powerlifting & strongman hybrid program based on conjugate periodization. Dark Horse also utilizes ‘giant sets’, which are in essence circuit training with weights. The focus isn’t primarily on building one rep max increase, rather building a big base level of general strength and conditioning program, which would serve well for a strongman competitor or almost any other athlete.
Check out my Training Vlog on YouTube, where I documented every day of my training and provide my thoughts about the Darkhorse program.
Final Review and Thoughts Video Below
Why Darkhorse Template?
In the recent years, my training has mainly consisted of powerlifting based programs and protocols which have all had the similar goal of driving up one rep strength in the squat, bench and deadlift. I have become less focused on that goal and have also wanted to take a break from that type of training and sought to find another type of workout to include in my training. Possibly as a form of ‘off season’, or a time to pivot to strongman style training.
Here are the main reasons why I selected the Darkhorse template:
- I wanted to improve my conditioning levels, whilst maintaining as much strength as possible.
- The Giant Sets sounded fun and challenging
- The format of the program, could potentially mean I save time in the gym and reduce my workouts from two hours to the 75 minute range
- I have a new interest in strongman style training and lifts
- I wanted incorporate a bit less powerlifting specific programming
Testing One Rep Max Strength
I would like to point out that this program isn’t a powerlifting specific program. Its main aims are not to increase your one rep max strength in the squat, bench, deadlift & overhead press. With that being said, we are still playing around with some heavy weights and the program does incorporate some heavy singles in the training.
The Darkhorse Program is not a powerlifting specific template
I still have an interest in developing my one rep max strength in the ‘big four’ movements and will generally be included in all of my metrics as to how successful a program is. I think it’s okay to include this data in my future program analysis, since I plan on always using this as a data point and I don’t tend to select programs where heavy singles aren’t included to some degree.
Following completion of the nine weeks, I took two weeks to test out the four lifts, breaking them up over the course of four days spread out over those two weeks. This mainly served as both a deload week and testing week, so that I could do minimal work and rest before the next training cycle begins.
You’ll notice from the above table that there is nothing spectacular about the changes in single rep strength. Since the program isn’t specifically designed to increase one rep max strength, the fact that my one rep strength increased for two lifts, is a great result. These are the two lifts that have stalled somewhat in recent months, so to see them both increase, is a great result.
I am disappointed that the bench and deadlift didn’t increase, but it is good that they didn’t decrease. What’s interesting, is that out of the four lifts, throughout the program I was predicting the complete opposite result. The bench and the deadlift both felt strong from a technical perspective and saw some good weights being pushed for almost all rep ranges. I thought that the bench and deadlift would both see significant gains in strength and the squat and overhead press would decrease.
I decided to include a test on both the squat with SS Yoke barbell and the Clean & Press, since I don’t currently have metrics for them and they were quite involved in the programming. I do need to do more technique work on the clean as a movement, as I think I could have push pressed more weight for the clean and (push) press, if I was able to clean the weight.
The somewhat less than stellar performance in my single rep strength, is only part of the picture with the program. I don’t think it would be fair to say the program is bad because of that. The program isn’t designed to max out PR’s on the big four, the fact that there wasn’t a decrease in any of the weights, and an increase in 2/4 of the lifts are a huge win, considering how much better the other aspects of program were.
Another factor to consider, and could probably be tested, is the effect on strength in different rep ranges, mainly, the three and five reps, since they are the other two rep ranges that the program’s max effort work is based off. But unfortunately, I only thought of that whilst writing this review and didn’t have a previous three & five rep max recorded.
The great thing with one rep max testing, is that it does give some sort of objective variable by which we can assess the outcomes of a program. Like always, there are some caveats, which is why this is only makes up part of the review of the program. I didn’t actively seek to change my body weight up or down, nor did I pay close attention to my nutritional habits (which is definitely a factor in long term performance). Throughout the program, my body weight stayed within the 205-210lb range, with a slight upward trend.
Easier to Walk
The only other subjective basis I have for the program, is the nature of physical conditioning. Extremely hard to quantify, the improvement in quality of life has been the best outcome of this training program. Partnered with the slight increases in strength, the most useful positive outcomes of the program has been its transfer over to the real world and my energy levels in everyday life. Daily activities outside of the gym, all seem to be easier on the breathe and heart rate. I have a mildly physical day job and my energy levels over the day feel like they’ve increased over the course of the program.
I don’t really have a basis by which to measure my felt increases in physical conditioning in a strength specific context, since I’ve never tested them before, nor do I have any frame of reference for exactly how to do this. This is why I have to go by ‘feel’ of physical conditioning. I am certain that my physical conditioning levels increased as a result of the program, as the program itself felt ever so slightly easier towards the last third, than the first third.
A day spent walking around the town, walking up stairs may seem like pretty minor things and silly things to think about when assessing such an intense workout program. But a by product of being able to keep up with the amount of work in the program has the spillover effect, of making mundane tasks less physically taxing.
Given the sheer amount of work load in the program and my lack of attention to nutrition is indicative of the fact that his program would make a great weight loss program whilst on calorie restrictions.
The Darkhorse Template is a 12 week program, broken down into three 3-week phases. Separated by a week deload and a week of testing.
- Phase 1 Week 1
- Phase 1 Week 2
- Phase 1 Week 3
- Phase 2 Week 1
- Phase 2 Week 2
- Phase 2 Week 3
- Phase 3 Week 1
- Phase 3 Week 2
- Phase 3 Week 3
I found the layout of the weeks quite useful and convenient. I was definitely not used to the volume/intensity of the workouts so having a rest period every four weeks was great and gave me a chance to refresh both mentally and physically. I took the option of not doing any strength training during the rest weeks and took them as full rest weeks. They are timed perfectly, as if almost on schedule, the last two workouts of the third week’s would start showing signs of stalling and accumulated fatigue.
The workout format is quite unique to Alsruhe and was developed to help with his own personal experiences. I highly recommend watching his video about dealing with his illness and how he worked through it all.
The Giant Set is the backbone of the program and is part of what makes Alsruhe’s programming unique. The giant set is a series of three to four movements performed one after the other, broken up with a rest period of 90-120 seconds. Then continuing this for the prescribed amount of sets. Every day follows the same structure of the maximum effort giant sets, followed by the volume effort giant sets and wrapping up with the dynamic effort section.
Alsruhe sets up most of his giant sets to include by starting off with an antagonist movement to the second main movement. Followed with an ab movement and then a conditioning style movement. For example, from day 1 as above: Romanian deadlifts, box squats, leg raises and kettlebell swings.
The day’s are broken up into an upper/lower body split, squat/deadlift & bench/overhead press. The priority lift for the day alternates between the two lifts, i.e., day one is the squat/deadlift day, with the priority on the squat and day three is the squat/deadlift day with the focus on the deadlift. Over the course of the week, you perform the squat and deadlift three times, and the bench and overhead press twice.
Most of the exercises can be performed in most commercial gyms and don’t require special machines. However, there are the inclusion of some machine work, such as a leg curl and leg press, GHR’s. If you’re in a garage gym or other machine free facility you’ll have to substitute in some similar movements. I didn’t find the exercise selection too restrictive and there were only a handful movements that I had to substitute. With that being said the program is quite flexible in nature, with regards to the movements. And no real strongman specific movement requirements.
I don’t think that substituting out too many of the exercises had a detrimental effect on my results from the program, my reasoning behind this is because I think the strength of the program doesn’t lie in exercise selection, rather from the giant set format as well as the blend of conjugate methodology. Obviously, there is a big focus on the main four compound movements, but if you want to change those up to focus on other lifts, then I feel that would be a reasonable thing to do.
The set-rep scheme is a combination of daily undulating periodization and the Heavy Light Medium format, where each day each set of movements will have a different set-rep scheme. Each set-rep scheme will also mean a different level of weight to be used, which also helps to mitigate stress over the course of the program. It is not prescribed or recommended that you do heavy singles every day of the program, even though that could be possible with the setup. This mixture of reps, sets & weights is done to build a more varied level of strength which can be displayed across different reps, rather than a strict focus on one rep max strength.
A spin on Conjugate Method
The other big influence of the program is the modern day conjugate style of training. Each day is broken up into three segments, max effort, volume work and dynamic effort. This methodology of training, was popularized by Westside Barbell. The main difference with Westside and this template, is that Westside wouldn’t necessarily do all three in one day. Rather separating them within the weeks to allow for more recovery to drive up single rep strength. Alsruhe plays off of this concept and makes you do all three everyday, in order to build ‘super hero strength’.
Combining the daily undulating periodization with conjugate style programming, creates a unique form of programming movements and sets/reps in order to illicit certain outcomes. This goes a step further, with Alsruhe throwing them into a conditioning blender, with back to back to back to back movements with only a 90-120 second rest between sets, (not movements). This isn’t a powerlifting program and would be more of a hybrid style training of powerbuilding and strongman style training. Building more of a general level of strength across different movements, reps and sets.
Although I don’t have a concrete way of measuring this aspect of my fitness, it definitely feels like I have a somewhat improved level of conditioning, the last few weeks of the program felt a lot better, breathwise, than the first few weeks
Just like I mentioned above, this has shown through in other aspects of life, just being a little bit less stiff over the course of the day, when compared with strict powerlifting style templates.
I think this would transfer through very well to sports outside of the gym. With most involving some sort of interval component, such as the low level jogging interspersed with high intensity tackling during an 80 minute game of rugby. The Darkhorse program could be used to leverage time in the gym, to build both strength and endurance and allow the athlete to focus on sport specific skill development.
There is so much variety in the program that I think it would be impossible to get bored. Each day presents the possibility of different set/rep scheme depending on your expectations for the day. You’re not forced to perform the same reps every day, you can choose whether you want to to 1,3,5 for max effort and this then changes how many sets/reps you do during volume work. You’re performing around 6 exercises each day and these exercises rotate every three weeks.
The program contains self regulating without relying on RPE. You can choose to do the 1,3,5 rep max for max effort work based on how you feel for the day. If you feel great do a 1RM, not so great to a 5RM. This choice subsequently effects the volume work for the rest of that day. You use 80% of your top set of ME and do that for a reps. The number of reps for volume is dependent on whether you did 1,3, or 5 RM in max effort. This play with weights & reps, helps to regulate fatigue during the program.
Movement Stress Mitigation
The template is able to mitigate overuse injuries in the big four movements by utilizing accessory lifts for the max effort & volume work. The competition style lifts were used for dynamic effort, where the weights used are far lighter than the heavy max effort work.
I personally found this useful for avoiding any overuse pains I usually get, mainly with regards to the squat & bench press. For the full nine weeks of the program, you’re constantly performing the big four lifts, in a dynamic effort method, using weights at 50-60% of your one rep max. This means that for the same movements, your body is getting less stress in the same movement pattern.
This is contrasted by the use of the revolving movements for the heavy work, which means the body is getting exposed to different movement patterns during heavy high stress movements. Which both combine to mitigate typical pain sensations I tend to develop with overdoing the big four movements over and over again.
The program is great at building your mental toughness, which is part and parcel of Alsruhe’s philosophy. This workout is brutal and intense and he says so in the video! Your ability to voluntarily endure the work of the program build up over the course of the nine weeks and if applied right, is something that will help in other aspects of your life.
This one is a double edged sword. With the condensed nature of each workout driving a lot of conditioning adaptations and testing mental fortitude. I couldn’t always complete a workout, as the sheer intensity of the program made it almost impossible to complete the day’s workout in the allotted time frame, which could be part of the explanation of the less than desirable results I experienced.
There are a lot of moving parts of the program. I forgot/left out some of the finer points of the program, especially when related to how to execute the program
Percentages to be used for DE are dependent on the lifer’s experience, but generally stay below 70%. If the speed of the lift starts to slow down because of too heavy of a weight being used, the explosive nature of the lift start to dissipate and the dynamic effort starts shifting towards volume work, with a lighter weight being used. Which makes it both ineffective at eliciting explosiveness or hypertophy. A trainee should be aware of the specific aims of each of the sections, so that they don’t reduce the effective of the program.
Not For Beginners
I don’t personally think this is a great program for absolute beginners. I would recommend at least having established a baseline habit of exercise as well as a familiarity with all the movements prescribed. This isn’t because you need to have ‘X’ level of strength, but rather the reason a beginner shouldn’t start with this program, is the inherent complexity of the program.
There is a certain level of a mental and technical knowledge that should be attained before completing this program, especially if you’re not in a group training or coaching situation. This comes down to several factors:
- Intensity of the workouts – if you haven’t already established a baseline habit of completing regular workouts, then this program will leave you absolutely exhausted at the end of it and could possibly result in the early exit from training.
- Conjugate Style Programming, involves selecting weights using percentages of one rep maxes. Due to the nature of the max effort, volume effort and dynamic effort, if the right weight choice isn’t made, each section won’t illicit the desired training response. For someone that doesn’t quite understand the difference between max effort and dynamic effort, the body’s expose to power vs speed training will be blunted.
- Technical Execution of Movement – Because of the fact that you’ll be quite fatigued while performing most of the workout. As fatigue increases, there is a tendency for form and technical prowess to decrease, which in turn could possibly decrease the positive outcomes of the program. This isn’t the program to use if you need to learn how to perform a squat for the first time.
- Exercise selection – There are also some more ‘advanced’ movements, that probably aren’t optimal for a beginner. I don’t think you should be performing a clean and jerk, if you have not yet mastered the strict overhead press.
This could be overcome with exercise substitutions, but that requires a coach to know which exercises to sub in and out.
This is the final con, because it is the smallest negative aspect. There are some machine exercises thrown in, which may be a problem for those with a garage gym or other gym which doesn’t have a leg press or GHR. For those at a commercial gym, the program there’ll generally be no subs.
The program includes dynamic effort movements everyday. This is best done with bands or chains, so that there is accommodating resistance. Dynamic Effort can always be performed without them, but won’t be optimal.
The reason this the ‘smallest con’, is that the exercises selection isn’t that important to the Darkhorse Template. The program’s strength lies in it’s structure, rather than exercise choice. For those that have been training for a while, should know which exercises work for them and which don’t, so this shouldn’t be a factor when presented with limited equipment choices.
Density of the workout
In terms of work performed in a given time frame, the Darkhorse program is able to pack in a lot of exercises into a given time frame. The Giant Set is the killer feature of the workout and has the ability to strike that balance between no rest and heavy weights. I’ve spent a couple months in the past training Crossfit and those workouts, aren’t necessarily about weight on the bar, rather than reps performed and speed. Whilst similar in structure, I think the Darkhorse gets the edge by focusing more on weight on the bar, which can help to drive up strength.
Extra Accessory Work
For some unknown reason, Alsruhe includes more exercises after the ‘main workout’. Yes folks, if you weren’t tired enough already from the day’s work, you have the option to do more. The reason I only mention it here, is because for the full nine weeks at no point did I complete the main session and think I would like some more of that.
The accessory work suggested is muscle specific movements, as well as strongman specific movements. The goals of which are to bring up your weak points, such as more focused quad or tricep development. Also a place to include any strongman workouts that you need to practice for your sport. These are optional, since they aren’t a requirement for positive outcomes.
If you’ve never really incorporated Conjugate style, Daily Undulating Periodization, Heavy-Light-Medium or Giant Sets, the Darkhorse program is a great way to expose yourself to these style of training. Since you’re not dedicating a complete 12 weeks to one type of training, this tasting plate of training styles can possibly point you in the direction of what you prefer, especially if you’ve only ever completed something like linear progression or percentage based training.
Should you do it?
I wouldn’t recommend this program for beginners, it’s a program that’s more suitable trainees with some experience under their belt. It’s also a great program for those that aren’t looking to develop a specific strength skill set and get a general base level of strength and conditioning.
This program lends itself very well for athletes in any competitive sport, I can definitely see it blending well with sport specific training. Applying to combat sports like BJJ, Mauy Thai, wrestling, boxing, contact sports like rugby, football, and almost any other sport. Due to it’s unique blend of strength and conditioning that also toughens the mindset, this is a great tool that can build a powerful athlete on & off the field/pitch/court. Any weekend warrior will find this program to be a great benefit to their training regiment.
If you’re a powerlifter, this may be a good off season program to plug in to bring up some conditioning & GPP. It also serves as a great way to get a break from the typical monotonous style of powerlifting training. The program pushes your accessory movements to the limits and still keps movement and technique in the competition lifts, by using lighter weights for explosive speed.
It’s a good progression into more strongman style training, where both strength and strength endurance are necessary to be successful at the sport. Even without the extra optional accessory work, the base program is able to drive up the base levels of strength & GPP.
I think the Darkhorse program is a fantastic program that I would recommend almost anybody should do. Given that it is a free template, there is really nothing to lose and you’ll come out of the 12 weeks either stronger , better conditioned or both. There is a lack of personalization, which can be solved by getting in touch with Alsruhe, who can create a custom program for your specific needs.
The program brings in a lot of different training concepts and compresses them down into a somewhat complex program, that I found to be very enjoyable, if not brutal and questioning my own mental capacity for doing something I didn’t want to do. At the end of the 12 weeks, I felt like I improved as an all around better athlete.
Alsruhe is a wealth of information and created this style of training, in part, to help with his own circumstances. The Darkhorse program is just one of his four free templates available which is quite a unique style that is very well adaptable to anybody’s situation.