Anthony Shaw is a strength and conditioning coach for athletes and the owner of Raw Strength Gym in Warrington, England, UK. Check out his website here for more info.
My thoughts on the 40 day program
At the end of December last year, I was feeling a bit ‘stuck’ with regards to my training. I’d been using the max effort method for 3 months and made great progress too with gains in strength and muscle size, but I knew something had to change.
My joints were aching, my muscles were tired and by the time Friday rolled around each week it was a struggle just to make it through the warm-up. They were not intense, motivated sessions by any means!
For Christmas I got a copy of Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline’s book EASY STRENGTH. Instantly I was absorbed by the concept that you can build strength simply by regularly lifting 80-85% of your max without straining or excessive psyching up. One of the methods proposed was that old classic ‘the 40 day program’.
This seems to be one of those programs that we’ve all heard of, but never done. It calls for 40 days of the exact same workout; 2 ‘easy’ sets of 5 in deadlift, bench press and pull-ups, then two more exercises, one explosive, one abs, for one set each of 20-50 reps and 5 reps respectively. You lift around 85% of your max and no more.
Believe me it took a HUGE mental effort to stop lifting max effort style and move to an ‘easy strength’ style program. Wouldn’t my muscles shrink and my strength quickly drop off?!
Dan John said this program requires faith, and the first week will test your faith to the max. I was convinced that leaving the gym feeling as fresh as I was wouldn’t increase my strength at all…how wrong I was!
I used the box squat, bench press and pull-ups as my strength exercises, with kettlebell swings and Turkish get-ups for my respective explosive and ab exercises.
In 40 days this happened:
Box Squat: from 150kg-155kg (5kg/11lb increase)
Bench Press: from 120kg for 1 rep to 120kg for 2 reps
Pull-ups: 25kg for one rep to 40kg for one rep (15kg/33lb increase) AND bodyweight rep max from 12 reps to 16 reps (I lost about 4kg/9lb in bodyfat during this period which obviously helped pull-up performance…but still impressive!)
In training I never lifted heavier than 130kg in the squat and 105kg in the bench press, for what amounted to quite an ‘easy’ set. These weights also happened to be my old 5RM’s for each lift. So I worked up to using 5RM weights for EASY sets of 5!
WHY THE PROGRAM WORKS – REASON #1
To keep my faith, I first had to understand that even though each workout seemed easy, the total weekly load was what really mattered.
Using max effort training I was lifting heavy for around 15-25 total lifts per week per exercise and STRAINING HARD!
So normally I would do one max effort day for the squat each week which looked something like this: 110kgx5, 115kgx5, 120kgx5, 125kgx5, 130kgx5. Total of 25 reps and an average weight of 120kg per week.
On the 40 day method I used 2 EASY sets of 5 every day, so a weeks loading for the squat looked something like this: 105kgx5, 115kgx5, 110kgx5, 120kgx5, 100kgx5, 110kgx5, 115kgx5, 125kgx5, 110kgx5, 120kgx5. Total of 50 reps with an average weight of around 115kg per week.
So I lifted slightly less average weight but made up for it by twice as many reps per week, per exercise.
Using max effort training I did use a dynamic day of around 16 reps and used a lot of bodybuilding style assistance work to make up the daily volume, but it seems nowhere near as effective for strength gains. On the 40 day program the weekly volume with a HEAVY but ‘EASY’ weight is what counts.
WHY THE PROGRAM WORKS – REASON #2
My workouts were shorter as I had less sets to do! So I used a lot of mobility and corrective exercises to fill out the workouts. The result? My joints got healthier and felt better.
I kind of stumbled upon this by accident. I had a little bit of hip pain when squatting, and my left shoulder was nagging a bit, no doubt I had beat myself up a bit for the last 3 months on the good old max effort method.
So in my rest periods I stretched out my hip flexors, glutes, did band pull-aparts and prone T’s, foam rolled my chest, shoulder and glutes and generally did whatever I felt like doing to feel better!
This extra mobility work made my lifts smoother and easier to complete, now not only was I getting more reps per week using easy strength sets, my joints were being taken care of too!
WHY THE PROGRAM WORKS – REASON #3
The program limits you to weights no heavier than 85% of max UNLESS you’re feeling super strong, then you can do 3 sets of 3, or 6 singles. You can also have lighter days if you’re feeling weak. This means that your body dictates the pace, aiding recovery thus increasing strength.
I think the above advice from the book EASY STRENGTH is genius, here’s why;
Remember how I said that occasionally during max effort workouts I felt tired and couldn’t be bothered to train? Well here is the remedy; when you feel weak, lift lighter…when you feel strong you are allowed to push the weights above that magic 85% barrier.
Believe me, you’ll know when you feel strong, some days on my warm-up sets it felt like the bar wasn’t even on my back or in my hands! So I pushed the weights up. I also found that on Mondays, the first day of my training week, I felt weak on everything, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I felt like a machine, so I adjusted the weights accordingly.
Having a program that involves percentages as a guideline AND self-regulation is a great idea and really makes you feel good cos you can have a heavy day once in a while!
The 40 day program gives you:
1. More total reps per week
2. More time to focus on joint health and recovery
3. More control over weight selection
If you feel like you need a good change or a break from heavy lifting, don’t just stop lifting heavy, you CAN build strength and health using short, daily workouts.
Whilst it may not be the best program for gains in hypertrophy or power, it definitely builds a great foundation of strength before shifting to a different focus, and you may change your opinions of what it takes to build strength too!