Review of the Barbell Medicine 12 Week Strength Template

This is my review of the Barbell Medicine 12 Week Strength Training Template (12WST). Here are some caveats to my review:

  • I didn’t follow the program exactly as written, more details in my review
  • I’m a subscriber and follower of the Barbell Medicine (BBM) team.
  • I paid for the template (US$39.99)

12-week-strength-1This is the first time I’ve used a strength development specific program and also the first time I’ve paid for a program, that didn’t already come with a book/magazine. I don’t want to give out the entire program in the review, so the review may sound vague with regards to the details of the program.

 

The Results:

Realistically, this is the only factor that counts when evaluating a program, did my numbers go up? Yes they did. (you can stop reading now, I guess). Would they have gone up without the use of the program? Probably, however I was at a plateau.

I tested out my max singles for a garage gym competition on Instagram (#garagegymcompetition run by Gray Matter Lifting). Here are my results as of May 19, 2018. At a body weight of 186lb / 84kg. All at an RPE of 10 or 9.8.

Squat:         400lb / 181kg
Bench:        255lb / 115kg
Deadlift:     415lb / 188kg

Total:          1070lb / 484kg

There was about a month after the this testing and before the beginning the 12WST that I was doing my own programming.

Here are my last week of programming singles at an RPE 9 at a bodyweight of approximately 205lb / 93kg. These lifts were recorded between September 22 – October 2 2018.

Squat:         465lb / 210kg    [+65lb / 29kg]
Bench:        295lb / 133kg    [+40lb / 18kg]
Deadlift:     480lb / 217kg    [+65lb / 29kg]

Total:          1240lb / 562kg  [+170lb / 78kb]

The first instance of not following the program, was not undertaking the testing day and not testing out my max singles.

I definitely got stronger and gained some weight, my waist size increased from 34 to 36. To see an overall increase in all three lifts, totalling 170lb increase in approximately 12 weeks, is a great outcome.

The 12WST

The 12WST is a strength focused template, which uses a four day per week structure and a General Physical Preparedness (GPP) day, 1-2 times per week. Each strength training day took me anywhere from two to three hours. I wasn’t concerned too much with rest between breaks, nor was I too concerned with three hour workouts. There were days that I dropped the last assistance movement exercises listed if time didn’t allow. Or I would shorten the rest periods and only do the two main movements for the day. If my weekly schedule meant I had to drop one day, then I would drop the GPP day(s).

There is a deload week scheduled at Week 5, which was totally necessary. Almost any program that pushes your body hard will require a deload every few weeks. A personal scheduling issue I encountered whilst on 12WST, was that I had my one week honeymoon planned for Week 9, which meant I was not going to train for a full seven days. I came back and repeated the deload week and Week 8 before moving onto Week 9. Which seemed to be one solution I found when searching the forums, the other solution was to continue as usual. I took the repeat weeks option, so I could use the deload volumes/intensities to re acclimatize my body. I don’t think it had too much of a negative effect on my results, but just another factor that would have played a factor in my personal results from the program.

The time for the honeymoon was right around the time that my joints were starting to ache and I was feeling fatigued during workouts. I also wasn’t seeing week on week increases in intensities, like I was during the middle third of the program. My uneducated deduction is that I would prefer to do deloads every four weeks. Which is how I’ll be modifying my future programs.

Another self edit I made to the program was to cut the last week of the program and subsequent testing day. This was an arbitrary decision to move on to the 7 Week Hypertrophy template.

Rate of Perceived Exertion

Learning how to use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale also took some getting used to. I still haven’t completely mastered the art of RPE subjectivity just yet. But it is getting better every time I use it. This is a very good tool to have under your belt, as it allows you to adjust the days workload based on your recovery and day to day stress variations. The RPE must still be balanced with putting in hard work, is it a true RPE 8 or are you just being lazy that day? Only experience and self assessment will overcome this.

Handing over control

I have never lifted this much weight in my past training. To say that I am excited with the numbers is an understatement. One of the biggest factors behind this increase was handing over control of my programming to somebody else. One of the biggest problems with creating my own programs has been that I only have my own knowledge. So I would begin to create programs that were neither efficient nor effective. I was constraining my own actions with beliefs about my past training and abilities. It took me over a year of trying by myself to push into the 400lb range for squat and deadlift. But within three months, I am now looking at pushing into the 500lb range.

When we hand over the control and judgement to someone else, we can focus less on what to do and instead focus on taking action and putting in maximum effort. I squatted, benched, deadlifted & pressed multiple times a week, (this includes variants) which I had never done, because I thought that once a week was enough to ‘feel the burn’, not realizing how the stress, recovery, adaptation process contributed to gains in strength.

I did more volume than I had previously done, at weights I had never done. But the fact that I had a template created by coaches who knew more than me, triggered my brain to push my body in ways I never have. This training won’t kill me, because it has worked for countless others already. Subconsciously my brain accepted the fact that I could push past my previous limits on what ‘good training’ was. Here is an example of what one week’s competition squat training looked like:

squat 728

Not only would I have never thought to program this much volume or weight in one session. I would not have thought I was physically capable of pushing myself this far. Apart from the gains in weight lifted, one of the best lessons learnt from this program, was the fact that I am capable of doing a lot more work at a much higher frequency than I thought was possible. Having read a fair amount of theory about the SRA process, I previously thought I was putting my body through enough training stress. Having trained through a significantly higher volume, intensity & frequency, I now know that my body can recover from a lot more stress.

Time

One of the big drawbacks I can see for people who want to take on this program is the sheer amount of time each session actually takes. The website warns potential users that a session takes on average two hours. I think that if I was more efficient with warming up and paid more attention to my rest period in between sets, I could complete the day’s training in about this time, however I found that most sessions took on average 2.5 hours and occasionally 3 – 3.5 hour sessions.

This isn’t too bad a problem if you know this going in, and on days that you are crunched for time, it is easy to drop the rest periods for sacrifices in weights lifted or cutting out the third exercise for the session and sacrifice volume.

Equipment Needed

This template is very adaptable to those with only a simple garage gym setup. I was able to get by with a squat cage, barbell, flat bench, a Sling Shot (check out my review here), and a lot of weight. The biggest hurdle was having to purchase more 45lb plates during the template (not necessarily a bad thing). Otherwise, there was no necessary ‘special equipment’. They do include options in template for other exercises which require special equipment such as; leg press, SSB, chains, bands, belt squat machine.

Whether you train with a basic powerlifting setup or have access to a state of the art facility, this program can be tailored to suit whatever equipment you have access to.

Exercise Variability

I’m not the type of person that needs to do a bunch of different exercises each week in order to feel like I’m being productive. ‘Confusing the muscles’ is a myth that needs to stop in the training industry and it is actually counterproductive to specific strength development. You only get stronger in the squat, by squatting more. So each and every week, you will do the competition style lifts: squat, bench, deadlift & the overhead press. In addition to these lifts, you do accessory movements that are variants of the big four e.g., paused, tempo, overload, decreased/increased ROM. The only other movements that aren’t variations occer on (GPP) days, which include an upper back movement e.g., pullups/chinups, abs e.g., planks, situps and some form of cardio, e.g., rowing, running, cycling.

The four big competition lifts stay constant throughout the 12 weeks and the accessory movements vary in phases during the 12WST. This is great as it allows you to really develop each lift for a few weeks, before moving on to the next phase of development. I did not get bored of the lifts, since I was focusing on increasing the weight throughout each session. In fact, for some exercises I was wanting the phase to last longer (the Sling Shot bench) so I could keep doing them. The daily and weekly variability in the program comes in the form of changing weights and rep/set scheme.

The ultimate goal of the program is to improve the single rep output for powerlifting’s three lifts. This means that there are sacrifices made in the form of other movements, such as curls and 20 rep squat maxes. Because the program specifies these singles of the big four to be trained each and every week, you become more and more proficient in doing those movements. No matter how good a five rep max is, until you start to perform singles with heavy weights, your body won’t learn how to output maximal force in a single rep.

Managing Fatigue

The program does well with managing fatigue both within each session and accumulated fatigue across the program. It does this with a few tools, using the RPE scale, deload weeks, set/rep variability.

The RPE system is itself an auto-regulatory training tool that is is able to adjust the amount of weight used depending on how your life is going at that particular moment in time. The program isn’t strictly based on how much weight is loaded on the bar each session. There is still the primary goal of increasing the weight, however this is counter balanced by controlling stress (not just training stress, but life stress) via RPE adjustments. For example, your nutrition wasn’t perfect the preceding couple of days, your sleep was bad the previous night, or you have a particularly stressful work or personal situation occurring, all of these are factors that would affect performance under the bar.

Having a tool available by which to adjust the workouts is great. A couple of times this happened to me where my weekly lifts where at the correct RPE, but the ‘incorrect weight’ based on last week’s performance. However, because the stress was equivalent I was still experiencing a positive training effect. The alternative, would have been to either skip with workout until I was mentally ready, or to fail repeatedly on lifts and get frustrated.

The included deload week is another factor that helps mitigate accumulated stress. One key factor that I was mistaken on was reducing both volume and intensity. From my understanding now, it is better to look at reducing volume rather than intensity, with regard to recovery from the stress from heavy lifting. So the deload week included a slight decrease in prescribed weight coupled with a significant decrease in volume. A deload week doesn’t mean a ‘rest’ week, it is more accurately a lower stress working week. I was still pushing out 75% weights at lower volumes.

The other way this program manages fatigue is by playing with intensities & volumes. As each micro-cycle within the program is building towards the next one, some weeks require higher intensities and are offset with lower volumes and others are the opposite. Towards the end of the programming, like most strength training systems, the volume goes down as the intensities go up in order to drive that adaptation towards maximal strength output.

The only problem I came across with the latter end of the program, was the constant fatigue, some minor pain and stagnating weights. However, after a week off and a deload week, I was back on track. So I think it might be a wise idea to insert a secondary deload week before the last third of the program.

How does this compare to other programs?

I cannot truly compare this program with many others, since I have not paid for other programs. My only comparisons would be with novice linear progression, my own programming and the bodybuilding style splits. For me, the program showed great results and removed the guesswork from creating my own template. I would highly recommend this program. The updated v2.1 templates are a lot more user intuitive and the overall aesthetics of the interface has improved a lot.

Your own limited knowledge

How many people have you coached/trained? How many international level elite athletes have you spoken to? Let alone coached. How many research papers have you read regarding strength development? I’m guessing your answers to this question won’t be as good as the answers from a good coach.

Developing your own program is very fun and interesting as you can do anything you want. The downside, is that have a higher potential to program to your own strengths and limitations. The one thing I can say about the 12WST is that it pushed my work capacity more than I have ever worked out in the past, which I think helped me push past my own mental limitations.

It is for this reason that by shifting programming to another coach who can demonstrate effectiveness and research backed knowledge is powerful. Not only have they themselves been through the trenches, they have trained others who have surpassed their own achievements and have trained countless others who have improved.

Why would you want to limit your programming to your own knowledge, when you can leverage the time, experience and training of somebody else? You have a sample size of one, whereas a good coach has a sample size in the thousands. More data is (generally) better.

Because of this, you’re almost guessing about effective volume, intensity & frequency. Just like I was in the past, I would try and research different books, papers and programs and come up with some Franken-program that tried to do it all. The problem was I wasn’t getting better at anything in particular. I was spinning my wheels and exercising rather than training.

What about body composition?

Obviously, body composition wasn’t the main goal of this program, nor was there a nutrition section of the program provided. The BBM crew specifically states that this program is not for those trying to undergo rapid weight loss. So all that saying, I did not have a weight loss goal, in fact I didn’t have a physique goal. My only self set parameters during the program was to not lose weight and err on the side of weight gain. I wanted to eat more in order to not short change my results and I did not to have a significant increase in my waist circumference.

Before starting the strength program I weight roughly 185 lbs – 190 lbs and according to my cheap scale that uses an electrical current to measure body fat, I was hovering around 17-18%. Roughly four months later, I am currently at a body weight of 205 lbs – 210 lbs and my body fat hovers around 18-19%. So not a huge change in bodyfat percentage whilst seeing a substantial jump in overall weight.

Again, this program’s main concern is one rep max improvement, not physique. I’m sure if you watched your nutrition and ate with a bit more precision, your physique would surely improve.

Would I recommend?

I would recommend this program if you:

  • Want to increase your one rep max
  • Have anywhere from 10-16 hours a week to spend working out.
    • This breaks down to 4-5 days a week with 2.5-3 hour workouts.
  • Don’t have any physique goals
  • Don’t need information/assistance about nutrition
  • Are past the novice stage of lifting.
  • Know your own limits and training capabilities.

 

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