The Blog

Personal Trainer’s Adaptation of 5/3/1 Strength Cycle

I thought when I left the corporate world, as a former Manager, I would never have to do performance reviews again and I was not at all sad about that.

Turns out I was wrong. Very very wrong. On two counts.

I still do performance reviews of sorts only they are with my clients and not my team who report to me. With my clients, we set goals and talk about strategies and how to accomplish them. While performance reviews were stressful in my prior life, I quite enjoy them now.

One goal that has been common across most clients was to get stronger. (Not exactly surprising!)

I believe in having a method to training that progressively increases strength. I had been playing around with rep schemes with clients in terms of the sets, reps, pounds to name a few variables, to make each week different and challenging (and having deload weeks as well). But I wanted to progra more granular, methodical strength cycles. I wanted to have some equivalent of a barbell strength cycle of setting new PR’s (personal records) with dumbbells. I wanted my clients to have concrete and visually easy –to- interpret data that they could wrap their heads around. I wanted them to be able to straightforwardly recognize their gains.

As a Trainer who mostly works with clients outdoors at parks, that means I am bringing equipment with me. (Note: I do now also train at a gym FYI). I have an assortment of dumbbells which absolutely does get results, mind you. I do not however have a barbell with plates (as that logistically would not make a whole lot of sense).

Every strength cycle I have done myself for my own fitness has always been with a barbell. The advantage to a barbell is that there is far more liberty and variance in the amount of weight added to it.

Dumbbells pose a challenge to vary the weight used , unlike with a barbell. Which I viewed as a challenge and well, challenge accepted!

I checked out Wendler’s 5-3-1 Strength Cycle as a starting point to devise a dumbbell strength cycle, as I have done it as prescribed (with a barbell) myself numerous times for different lifts, including strict press, deadlifts, power cleans, overhead squats, back squats, and front squats. I almost always have increased my 1 Rep Max after each 8 week cycle. I decided this was a great proven cycle that I could manipulate to have it be effective with dumbbells.

Truth be told, this was a total experiment. Yes, I had confidence in the cycle as it existed and in my ability as a trainer to program smartly, but you never know if something will work until it is actually implemented.

I will spare you the exact details of how I took 5-3-1 and tweaked for my dumbbell version. (Unless of course you are interested in doing this yourself, then message me. We’ll talk!)

Know that 5-3-1 is based on a 1 Rep Max (RM), using 90% as a baseline and then each set is a percentage of that 90%. Confusing I know! At any rate, I took those prescribed percentages and equated them to weight in dumbbells.

So for example, for one client, if the cycle called for 65% of 90%, I took my best guess from already training my clients for what would make sense to use in dumbbells. (Note, I started this with my longest tenured client as a starting point). So 65% for example, may then be 5 pound dumbbells.

5-3-1 measures its success by retesting someone’s 1 RM after the 8 week cycle. So, for example, if I had a 205 pound back squat going into 5-3-1 and got 215 pounds after, that’s a 10% increase which is significant. (Someone ought to check my math on that one!)

I obviously could not have clients retest a 1 RM with dumbbells. Instead, I set up the first 3 weeks to become benchmarks for weeks 5-8 (weeks 4 and 8 are deload weeks, meaning they are lighter and giving the body recovery).  Like 5-3-1, the last set of weeks 1-3 are for max effort and so that is what I have been using as a benchmark.

Mind you, none of my clients that are currently on this have finished all 8 weeks and you could argue I am posting this prematurely. I just cannot help myself because as early as Week 5, my clients are already seeing gains! It is beyond exciting and empowering for them (and me!)

Ok so back to the benchmark. Suppose a client in Week 1 of Strict Press was going for 10 reps plus max effort with 10 pound dumbbells, that max effort is what they want to “beat “in Week 5. So if a client got 17 reps in Week 1, they got a +7 (17-10). In Week 5, that same client got 25 reps, that is a +15 and more than a 50% increase which I am not a mathematician but that is HUGE! They are lifting the same weight for twice as many reps than they were capable of just 4 weeks before.

Ok ok so enough on the behind the scenes of the Strength Cycle itself, and onto WHY I am thrilled to the gill about all of this. There are a few exhilarating reasons.

  1. It is teaching my clients that THEY are their own benchmarks. They are not benchmarking off of what someone else is doing. It is the literal definition of the common quote we see everywhere of “Be better than you were yesterday.”

As someone who lives in a White Board World of CrossFit where it is hard to NOT notice what other people are doing, I am very much guilty of fixating on other people’s numbers instead of my own. (I have improved in this for the record. I would be a shitty trainer if I was preoccupied with other people).

It became clear to me I want my clients, who to be honest, much like myself, are their own worst critics. I want them to have numbers to look at that they accomplished and feel fucking proud of themselves.

Which, they are! It is indescribable how accomplished they have been feeling through this albeit experimental Strength Cycle.

Carina working on all those squats

2.Learn to embrace the suck which leads to confidence gains.

When it comes to strength training, there is “Oh that was plenty hard. I am going to stop now.” And there is “That was fucking hard but I am not stopping.” The latter is when we really push ourselves past the point that we want to stop. That is where the magic happens. And my clients are experiencing that for the first time.

Our training is very different from what they have done before and it is riveting to see them get past what is comfortable and realizing their own strength and potential.

I asked one of my clients Amelie about this and here is what she had to say, “I’m surprising myself with how quickly – and imperceptibly – I’m gaining strength. I remember the first weighted squat set I did I was a shaking mess. Now each session I look forward to seeing how I can best myself and feel I can really focus on form and get through so many more reps a lot easier.”

Amelie getting after Strict Press!

3. It is not just helping my clients’ confidence.

It is helping mine too. A lot!

As I mentioned earlier, putting together the cycle was very much experimental. Had it gone south, I know there is always learnings in “failure” but I would be lying if I said it did not get me down.

Since so far it is quite the opposite and is going better than I had even imagined, it gives me a little extra bounce in my own step.

In some ways, I still consider myself to be new to the fitness world as a trainer. Which comes with a slew of insecurities I am working through. It is common that a prospect wants to see testimonials of other clients to show their success, which obviously, that comes with time.

Being able though to have data of sorts adds to my creditability for those prospects who want more tangibles in choosing a trainer.

It also gives me more confidence in my ability to program effectively. It is not to say my programming prior was not effective but to remphasize, as a newbie who came into this field with lower confidence than I truly care to admit, this a big win for me. It is data for myself that proves I am able to do this (and doin’ it well… Thanks LL!)

Side note: Truth be told, I love to program for my clients. I thoroughly understand my reasoning behind it and the science of it which helps me get the most out of my clients. After all, that is what they are paying me for. They know I will push them harder than they would on their own. No spoiler alert there! Also, side side note, I aspire to have a personal trainer myself once my business really takes off. I miss having someone pull the potential out of me.

I am truly proud of this strength cycle and the effort and gains my clients are experiencing. I am excited to keep doing more of this with more clients and different movements. It makes my heart truly happy seeing not just strength gains, but confidence gains. It is so much more than just that moment when a client has her own Personal Record (PR). It is that they carry that with them for days, weeks even. That feeling of pride sticks with them and they reflect positively on their journeys, bodies and minds.

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