The 30-Rep Program
A word of note before you read this article: This workout has nothing in common with my “30-Rep Workout” post from several months ago. That was more about a suggestive way to occasionally train. This is about an in-depth “program” meant to be used for the long haul.
Dan John’s “40 Day Program” has long enamored me. I have used it once “to the T”, and I have used slight variations of it at other times over the last two or three years. The reason that I haven’t used it more often—and the reason that I think most lifters don’t use it, even if they know about it—is because I (and they) find it, well, a bit boring on the one hand, and I think if done incorrectly it can lead to overtraining one’s movement pattern. In the first, it can be boring because you are doing the exact same exercises for the same number of total reps each and every time that you train. In the second, it can potentially overtrain your movement pattern if you choose exercises such as the deadlift, the flat barbell bench press, or the barbell curl—and these are some of the exercises that John recommends in his original article on the subject. (There are other exercises, however, such as squats, overhead presses, cleans, and snatches that can be performed very frequently for much longer than 40 days, but we’ll get around to that shortly.)
But is there possibly a “better” way to train while sticking to much of the same workout qualities that make the original program so damn good? A way of training that will allow you to perform the program for however long you wish to follow it, even if it’s for years? (Not that I think anyone would actually want to follow this program for that length of time, but you certainly could.) The answer, I think, is a resounding “yes” on both accounts.
Before we get around to the program I have in mind, you need to have at least a working understanding of John’s 40-Day Program. You can, of course, read the entire article—which I recommend—by following the link above. But I realize that many of you probably won’t do that, so here’s the “gist” of the entire workout from the original article:
A few years ago, Pavel Tsatsouline, noted kettlebell master and perhaps the keenest mind in strength I've ever met, gave me a simple program. Be wary, this program is so simple that you'll ignore its value.
1. For the next 40 workouts, do the exact same training program every day. (For the record, I find that most of my goals are reached by day 20 or 22, so you can also opt for a shorter period.)
2. Pick five exercises. I suggest you do a squatting movement like the goblet squat or overhead squat as part of the warm-up, as you don't want to ignore the movement, but it might be fun to focus on other aspects of your body.
3. Focus on these five movements:
• A large posterior chain movement (the deadlift is the right answer)
• Upper body push (bench press, incline bench press, military press)
• Upper body pull (pull-ups, rows, or, if you've ignored them like me, heavy bicep curls)
• A simple full-body explosive move (kettlebell swings or snatches)
• And something for what I call an "anterior chain" move (an abdominal exercise). I think the ab wheel is king here, but you can also do some movements best suited for lower reps.
4. Only do two sets of five reps per workout for the deadlift and push/pull exercises, and one set of 20 to 50 for the explosive move. Do a solid single set of five reps for the abs.
5. Never plan or worry about the weight or the load. Always stay within yourself and go heavy "naturally."
6. Don't eat chalk, scream, or pound on walls. Simply do each lift without any emotion or excitement and strive for perfect technique.
So, the workout might consist of these five movements:
Thick bar deadlift
Heavy biceps curls
For the record, this is exactly what I recently used in my workouts. I often did this five days a week, and found that my lifts naturally waved up and down throughout the week and the full 40 days. Sometimes, something like a 250-pound bench press would feel so light for both sets of five that I had to hold back on the excitement to do more sets and reps.
The secret to the program is that you get your volume from doing up to ten sets of a lift in a week and the load increases as you naturally feel like the weights are "easy." It is that simple.
The first time I tried this program under Pavel's direction, I added 15 pounds to my lifetime incline bench press during the twenty-first workout, approximately a month after starting the program. I did this max with no spotter and I got the lift for a double. It was a 15-pound improvement over my lifetime best with an extra rep as a parting gift without doing a single hard workout. Just two sets of five anytime I entered the gym.
You can certainly come up with your own variations, but try to stick with the basic five movements and don't stray far from two sets of five. You'll be amazed at how quickly your strength will improve after just a few weeks. Also, notice the element of randomness in this workout.
With a home gym, I can train this program daily, but I naturally find that I take days off here and there simply because of the nature of life. You could do all 40 (or 20) days in a row, but things will come up.
After finishing either all 40 days or when you feel your strength has come up to a level that more advanced training methods are appropriate, feel free to move along. The short time you invest in focusing on strength building will do wonders for your muscle mass as you begin to attack super sets or whatever you deem important.
The 30-Rep Program
The program that follows keeps the inherent qualities of John’s program that I love: the moderate volume, the high frequency of training, performing a few core, basic lifts. But it adds in two elements that allow you to perform the program as long as you feel like doing it: exercise variety and breaks.
With all of that being said, here is the “gist” of this program:
1. Pick 8 to 10 exercises that you want to get strong on—they should all be “bang for your buck” exercises. These are the only lifts you will do throughout the course of the program. My suggested list of exercises are the following:
- Bench presses
- Standing overhead presses
- Power cleans
- Barbell curls
- Deficit deadlifts
- Front squats
- Dumbbell rows
2. At every single workout, pick three of these exercises to train. For each exercise, you will only do a total of 10 reps. You can do 2 sets of 5, 5 sets of 2, 3 sets of 3 (yes, I realize it’s not 10 reps, but close enough), or 3 sets of 2, 3, and 5 reps. This will work out to a total of 30 reps per workout for your core lifts.
3. As a goal, train at least 5 days per week. And always train at least 2 days in a row before taking a day off. After a few weeks on the program, if you need 2 or 3 days off consecutively, then by all means, take the break.
4. Slowly increase the amount of weight you do at each workout. This should not be a “forced” thing. As Dan John says in his 40-Day Program, you should go heavy “naturally.”
5. Perform more squats, overhead work, snatches, and power cleans throughout the program than flat bench presses, deadlfits, barbell curls, or rows. The former movements are all “built” for frequent training.
6. When you are finished with the 3 exercises for the day, then add one “odd lift” movement as a finisher. Sandbag carries, sled drags, farmer’s walks are three excellent choices, for instance. None of these exercises should be done “all out.” Slowly build up on the amount of work you do on your odd lifts as you do on the barbell movements.
And, finally, as recommended in the 40-Day Program, do not get “psyched up” for any of the lifts. “Simply do each lift without any emotion or excitement and strive for perfect technique.”
Since I can already predict the number of emails I’ll be receiving, asking me to “lay out” the program in more simplistic terms, here’s a sample week of training to help you understand:
- Squats: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Bench presses: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Deadlifts: 3 sets of 3 reps
- Sandbag carries
- Front squats: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Overhead presses: 3 sets of 5, 3, and 2 reps
- Barbell curls: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Farmer’s walks
Day Three: off
- Squats: 3 sets of 3 reps
- Power cleans: 5 sets of 2 reps
- Overhead presses: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Sled drags
- Front squats: 3 sets of 5, 3, and 2 reps
- Snatches: 5 sets of 2 reps
- Dumbbell rows: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Sandbag carries
- Squats: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Bench Presses: 2 sets of 5 reps
- Power cleans: 3 sets of 3 reps
- Farmer’s walks
Day Seven: Off
That’s pretty much it. I could write more about why I think this kind of program is effective—especially for older lifters—but I’ll save that for another post.