Tag Archive for: nick johnson

Building Pure Strength? A Review Of Wendler's 5/3/1

Here’s another great guest post from Halevy Life’s Director of Programming & Education Nick Johnson:

Does Wendler’s 5/3/1 Work?

I recently completed an 8-week training cycle using Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program (check it out here). Here is a quick review & my take-away.

Philosophy behind 5/3/1

1. 5/3/1 revolves around 4 basic multi-joint lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift, and standing overhead press). Makes sense to me, hits the 4 major movement patterns that are typically the fundamental movements in any strong man’s repertoire.

2. Don’t beat yourself up: start light and progress slowly. This principle is naturally the toughest one to follow for the average lifter/any guy. The goal is to always be pressing the envelope, stacking just a little bit more weight on the bar from the previous workout, but this doesn’t always work. We know what progressive overload is (gradual increase of stress placed on the body during training), but sometimes you need to take 1 step back to move 2 steps forward.

Before I get in to how the program worked for me let me briefly recap what my training was prior to starting this program. I was training 3-4 days/week, relatively high volume with the bench press and deadlift, relatively low volume with the squat and the only overhead pressing I was doing was during my clean and jerks. I had been on this regimen for close to 12 weeks, constantly increasing weight/volume (here’s that progressive overload thing again) to my bench and deadlift and slowly increasing with my squat. I had been going for 3 months with little to no de-loading periods and needed a program that would allow me ample recovery time (I started to plateau).

3 Reasons I love 5/3/1

1. It is a scientifically backed program. The general principles behind the 5/3/1 program should allow you to make slow, but continual progress. A very often-overlooked aspect of programming is rest. Yes, rest is just as important as work when you are looking to grow (strength or size). There is a built in de-loading week where you simply drop the volume and work the pattern, or as Andy Bolton would say “grease the groove.” You will not over-train, you will not burn out, but you will see progress.

2. You get to lift heavy stuff. This ties in with #1, because there is rest and you are only doing 3 sets of the primary or core lift, you are capable of moving heavy weight. This is an ego thing for most lifters, and most likely the reason Wendler stresses sticking to the weight scheme and rest protocols for the program.


3. It is SIMPLE!!! All the numbers are there for you, the calculations are easy, hell there is even an iPhone app to make the calculations even less painless. Plug your numbers in and go, it’s that simple. As you move from one 4 week training cycle to the next, simply add 5 lbs. to upper body exercises and 10 lbs. to lower body exercises for calculations. The assistance work is very simple as well, pick whatever you want to work the movement pattern of that day and go with it. Thinking is very minimal, which is great!

As far my numbers:

My deadlift increased by 40lbs. in total, from 420 to 460, a 9.5% increase.
My squat increased by 30lbs. in total, 350 to 380, 8.6% increase.
My overhead press increased by 15lbs. in total, from 205 to 220, a 7.4% increase.
My bench press did not increase but stayed at 335lbs.

Overall I would absolutely use this program if you are looking to switch your training protocol for a period of time but want to continue gaining strength. As for the lack of increase in my bench, my volume dropped significantly when starting the 5/3/1 program, which probably means I, like 90% of guys out there, was overtraining my bench in the first place.

If you want to use this program and have any questions about programming for the 5/3/1 hit me up on twitter at HL_Nick.

Baby Got Back, Man Got Front: Squat Like A Beast..Without Pain

Here’s another phenomenal guest post by Halevy Life Director of Programming and Education, Nick Johnson:

Why would/should anyone ever front squat? It’s so much harder, you definitely don’t look as tough because you can’t load the bar up and muscle through it, and it isn’t super comfortable at the bottom of the lift. So why utilize the front squat?

Look: Very tough. But the Front Squat may be a tad more confortable at the bottom portion of the lift ;)

Look: Very tough. But the Front Squat may be a tad more confortable at the bottom portion of the lift…

My goal is to make and support the argument for using front squats before you ever load up the barbell and put it on your back. Here are the 3 biggest reasons I choose the front squat over back squatting for beginners and/or those lacking core stability.

1. Performing a front squat is much easier on the posterior chain (especially lower back) than the back squat. Many of the clients I begin working with, regardless of their goals, almost always have problems with:
a. The ability to stabilize their core when in motion, and
b. Lower back pain.

The front squat addresses both issues. Because the load is placed in front of the body, the barbell is kept over the center of gravity without your back having to bend as much to keep it there. In other words, front squatting allows for much more knee flexion without decreasing the hip angle to the point where you are performing a lower back exercise. If you look at the angles outlined below, the front squat allows us to get much more knee flexion (6 degrees difference with this individual) without placing as much stress on the lower back (11 degrees difference in the hip angle). This is extremely important when working with anyone with low-back pain or issues activating their core.

Front Squat

Front Squat

Back Squat

Back Squat

2. The second reason: quadriceps activity. The front squat is a truly quad dominant exercise. When you back squat, the more acute hip angle created, due to the bar position relative to the center of gravity, causes you to use much more hamstring and glute activity at the bottom of the range of motion. We can in fact even get more work done with far less weight using a front squat. To solidify this notion just check out this study performed by a team at the University of Florida. The decreased resistance needed means there is much less compressive forces on the knees, minimizing the risk of cartilage, ligament and tendon injuries.
To further convince you that front squatting will build your quadriceps at a much higher rate, check out this article. You can see bye the EMG (Electromyography: a cool way to see electrical activity produced by skeletal muscle) data that the front squat produces higher muscle activation in the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris compared to the back squat, and there is little to no difference in muscle activation in the vastus medialis. These 3 muscles are the big 3 out of the 4 (this is what femoris stands for) that make up the quadriceps group of muscles.

quad muscle

3. The absolute best reason to use front squats over back squats, especially if you are just starting to squat in a new workout regimen: they are much safer! You cannot cheat; if you do so you drop the bar. The front squat essentially has a built in safety mechanism. This is why I love the front squat as an indicator of lower body strength over the back squat. You are forced to complete the exercise correctly, using your legs to keep the torso erect, not your lower back. Just to further drive the point home, this is a client I have worked with for 2 weeks. He didn’t do anything for a while prior to coming in to work with us, and this picture was taken the second time he front squatted in his program.

client front squat

The form is absolutely incredible for someone who is beginning a resistance training program for the first time. I can guarantee if I were to place the bar on his back he would come in the next day and we would be doing things to help loosen his lower back because it hurts so damn much.

So why doesn’t everyone use the front squat? You can’t lift as much weight, and it can be uncomfortable at first. Really? Uncomfortable? If you’re not willing to get out of your comfort zone to do things the right way go enroll in the golden oldies yoga class and water aerobics at your local YMCA. If you want to do things the correct way and push yourself to receive the best results, add the front squat to your workout and see your legs and midsection strengthen immediately. For any instructions on how to perform a front squat properly or for loading parameters hit me up on www.twitter.com/HL_Nick.

Why Your Exercise Routine Will Hurt You If It's An Exercise Routine

Here’s another great guest post by Halevy Life’s Director of Programming and Education, Nick Johnson:

I recently had something very foreign happen to me; my mother told me I was right.


She sent this via text message from an examination room at a hospital, immediately after receiving an MRI for her knee that had been bothering her for around a year and a half by this point. Coincidentally it was about a year and a half (+ 3 weeks) ago she decided to join a step class. At that point it was a great idea right? You can just step up and down, squat and lunge for an hour straight and melt the fat away. What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?


I had expressed my concerns with only doing step classes and not adding any variation to her routine. About 2 weeks in to the 3-day/week step class experience, my mother started devloping knee pain. She had never had knee problems before this, so naturally my first inclination was to blame the step classes. She stopped taking the classes a week later and the pain and discomfort somewhat subsided, but any time she would really exert herself, the pain would come back. Fast-forward a year and a half, and the text message reads “Dr. says it’s a meniscus tear, looks like it has been the problem all along.” It’s hard not to say “I told you so”, so naturally that is exactly what I did. Because she didn’t listen to my advice, she was in pain; it’s the wooden spoon story in reverse. So why isn’t it a good idea to do the same thing over and over again?


Before we further address this question I want to make it clear that this isn’t just a knock on step classes; any exercise routine where you do the same thing over and over again is not a good idea. Even running all the time without switching things up will cause problems.

According to Paul Chek, and many other individuals of much greater intelligence than the most of us, there are 7 different ways in which the human body can move. Every movement is a derivation of those 7 “primal movement patterns.”

These movement patterns are:

1. Gait: as humans we can walk, jog or sprint. Every time you take a step, pushing off of the ground in a forward motion, you are demonstrating what the nerds like to call “gait.”

2. Lunge: this is my roommate’s least favorite of the 7 (he doesn’t like gait much either, at least at a faster pace). Every time you take a step up or down a stair you are exhibiting the lunge pattern (we live in a 5th floor walk-up apartment).

3. Squat: think of how much you get up and down out of your chair every day, you are squatting each and every time.

4. Bend: Picking anything up from the ground usually involves some type of bending, and so does doing the dishes.

5. Push: pushing has a vertical and horizontal component to it, so pushing away from your desk at work to grab another coffee (horizontal), or lifting that serving tray you use once a year at thanksgiving back up to the super inconvenient cabinet space above the refrigerator are both pushing movements.

6. Pull: much like the push pattern, pulling also has a vertical and horizontal component to it. Whether it’s pulling yourself up to grab that tray above the fridge you put away last year or opening the car door, it’s a pull.

7. Twist: rotation across the transverse plane (divides the body into a top and a bottom at the hips) occurs so frequently in daily life, but seems to be a big problem when it comes to strength and stability. Placing the dishes in the drying rack after you washed them, reaching up high for something with one hand, pulling open anything heavy with one hand all involve a twisting motion.


The secret (not really a secret, the information has been out there for a long time) to a good exercise program is incorporating a good balance of each movement pattern. Overtraining any one of these could lead to structural problems such as a meniscus tear, or injuries due to an overdevelopment of a specific area and weakness in another. Once again, this isn’t specific to step classes. Running, spinning, or even strength training the same patterns over and over again will not only increase the chance of injury, but decrease the effectiveness of the program as well; a discussion better saved for another time.

If you want to know more about creating a balanced program hit me up on Twitter @HL_Nick.

Should you lift weights to be a better marathon runner?

With the ING New York City Marathon just weeks away (…after some of us fought hard for last year’s marathon cancellation due to Hurricane Sandy), I figured now is as good a time as any to revisit a misunderstood and often controversial topic about marathons: lifting weights as part of your training.

I figured there’s no one better to turn to for insight on this one other than Halevy Life’s own Director of Programming and Education…AND marathoner, Nick Johnson.

Lifting for the Long-Haul: Should Runners and Marathoners Lift Weights?

By Nick Johnson


I want to start off by saying I am by no means a “runner” nor do I particularly enjoy running, at least in the beginning. I have however “competed” (relative term) in a few races and have spent much of the last year training for them. Like many people attempting to tackle their first marathon, I assumed reading was the place to start as far as developing a training regimen and get in shape. I read every article and “free” program I could get my hands on, and with all reading said and done I came to the simple conclusion that I needed to run, and run, and run some more. So that is what I did. I completely ceased my training routine in the weight room and hit the road.

I started training on a regular basis for marathon one 6 months prior to the race date, slowly building up my miles with 1 long run a week. From everything I had read, this was the way to do it. As race day drew nearer (1 month away) I started to develop pain in my knee. Went to the doctors office and was told it was simply “runners knee.” I have had a history of leg injuries and figured if I took it down a notch I would be fine; From an endurance perspective I was in the best condition of my life. Finally race day came and I started off at a good pace. Then came the fun at 10 miles in, first with hamstring cramps, then eventually cramping all throughout my legs. I had a 3:30 pace going before this happened and was pumped, like I said, best shape of my life. I ended up finishing in just less than 4 hours, which wasn’t horrible by most standards, but definitely not up to my expectations.

After that terrible experience I swore I would never run another marathon. I didn’t run for a month or so, until I was approached by a co-worker and asked if I would run one with her. Naturally my response was “of course” (female, couldn’t say no). So 4 months from the race day I came up with a new plan. I would continue my strength training routine, just scale down the frequency and intensity, and do 2 shorter runs accompanied by 1 long run a week (down from 5 runs/week). My second marathon time was 3 hours 20 minutes, and I felt great afterwards, with some still left in the tank. I directly contribute this success to continuing with my strength-training program through the marathon training.

Here are the 3 reasons why you should lift when training for endurance races:

1. Prevent Overuse Injuries
​Too much of one thing is almost always a bad thing (i.e. food, as in diet and nutrition; a well balanced diet is necessary to meet the body’s nutritional demands). The key to success is variation. Yes, you need to be running if you are planning on competing in a running event, but those training for running events have a very high susceptibility to injury. A 2007 study done by Fredricson and Misra in the Journal of Sports Medicine showed that two thirds of runners will sustain an injury every year and 90% of those training for a marathon will suffer from an injury. This can be attributed to overuse and weakness. Most lower body injuries from running are caused from weakness in the hip muscles, especially the hip abductors. What could possibly be one way to counteract overuse and weakness? LIFT!


2. Improve Your Time
​One of the best ways to improve your time is to produce a powerful stride both quickly and efficiently. It makes sense right? The more power you can produce with each stride while using minimal amounts of energy, the faster you can run. You will not see increases in power from running long distance, therefore a supplementation of resistance exercises is essential. Let me take a second here to talk about what type of lifting you should do. Running a marathon is an endurance event right? That means we should train for muscular endurance, correct? Yes! But you do this when you run. Research has shown that rep ranges of 12-20 do not increase muscular endurance any more than a 6-8 rep range (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787090). The best way to work on running economy is lift to compliment your running, so get in the weight room and perform large muscle recruitment, heavy exercises (deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, etc.)


3. Make Running Easy
​Lifting will create neurological adaptations that you won’t get from simply running. Your body will be able to recruit more muscle fibers with each contraction, translating directly into better running economy. The August edition of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has a study in which participants were divided into 3 groups; no lifting, light lifting (2x/week, 3 sets of 10 at 70% max), and heavy lifting (2x/week, 4 sets of 3-4 reps at 85-90% max). After 6 weeks only the heavy lifting group showed improvements (6% running economy).

Whether you are looking to improve your running time and cut down on your chances of getting an injury I would highly suggest adding a balanced resistance training program of 2-3 days a week to your running routine. If you have any questions as to what I did or what I would suggest doing to improve your marathon time hit me up on twitter @HL_Nick.