A Common Sense Approach To Programming by John Greaves III

image courtesy of TheStrengthDoc

image courtesy of TheStrengthDoc

I started training for powerlifting three years ago and competing in full meets last year.  But I’ve been lifting recreationally for twenty plus years.  In that time, I’ve noticed that lifters become ridiculously tribal about their training methodology.  I’m running 5/3/1, I run Westside or I’m doing Sheiko.  As a garage athlete you’re free from the need to follow along with whatever everyone else in the gym is doing. It’s your house, you set the status quo.

To help you out, here’s my completely unscientific breakdown of what I’ve observed as the phases of training:

Phase One: Rookie level.  Just pick a program from a magazine and follow it for a month. Next month, feel free to change the program. Yes, that seems like training ADHD but you’re a beginner. Whatever you do will work.

One day… I will…

A post shared by Garage Gym Life (@garage.gym.life) on

The benefit to the switching in my opinion is you get exposed to a wide variety of exercises and training volumes at the entry-level.  This isn’t something you should do for a long time but it’s not bad in the very beginning.  Look at it as a low-budget form of periodization. As Chad Wesley Smith pointed out in this article, Ilya Ilyin the great Russian Olympic lifter, said, …”when he began training at age six, he ran around the gym and did all of the exercises”.  Extreme variation in the beginning is great because it exposes you to a wide variety of movement patterns. I’d stay in this phase for about six months.

Phase Two: You know just enough to be dangerous to yourself and others.  Therefore you need some structure. You could skip straight to hiring a coach but it’s just as useful at this stage to pick a template, 5/3/1, Cube, Westside, Juggernaut, 5×5, Texas Method whatever and run it for a while. You can stay in this phase for a looong time and make serious progress as long as your food intake matches your output and goals.  This is not a diet article because I’m a wordsmith not a dietician.

Phase Three: This is where I am. You’ve run your templates for a while and you’re starting to hit plateaus in training.  You’re probably asking a lot of questions of other lifters in person, on Facebook or message boards.  Since you’re asking questions more often anyway, this is where you might want to find a coach. It can be online or in person, but if you want to get beyond the template phase, you need to break loose from your tribe and find a Jedi Master.  Not that you can’t compete without a coach; too many great lifters have competed without a coach for me to even dream of speaking that lie. Actually, competing is a great way to find a coach. Go to a few meets and look at the guys who are there to coach athletes.  If they’ll travel to coach those lifters, they’ll probably travel to coach you when the time comes.  Approach the ones whose style you like and ask questions.  If they’ll give you tips for free, they’ll probably be responsive to you when you’re actually paying them. It’s also a great way to see if your personalities mesh well together and if you can understand how they phrase things.  A good coach will equip you to move into the final phase.

Ready to program for yourself you are.

Ready to program for yourself you are.

Phase Four: You’re able to write your own programs because you’ve discovered what works for your body.  Yes, you could program for yourself before this, but if you wait until you hit this phase before you do it, you’ll have a much broader base of knowledge and experience to draw from.  After some time in this phase, you might even be ready to be a coach yourself which will bring the whole experience full circle. Now you’re the Jedi Master waiting for your Padawan.


Nothing I’ve said here is revolutionary. What’s different is I just paid attention to the patterns I’ve noticed from talking to great lifters and observing posts on the message boards I’ve frequented in the last twenty two years. To put it another way, I applied common sense to a frequent problem.

Train hard!

Enjoyed this post? Check out part two: A Common Sense Approach To Diet & Nutrition.

John Greaves III writes everywhere that will return his nagging emails. He is the founder of http://garagegymlife.net/ and has authored two fiction books involving powerlifting which 20160316_135252aren’t boring but are available on Amazon.com. John earned a Combat Action Ribbon the old-fashioned way in Operation Iraqi Freedom II and taught hundreds of motivated Devil Dogs how to punch, kick, stab and strangle as a Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor and flew home from the 2001 International Kickboxing Federation National Championships angry because he only got a silver medal.  Now he’s learning the way of squat, bench and deadlift as a competitor in the Masters Division on the Gogginsforce team. John is constantly seeking out interesting people who have rejected an average life in favor of building an extraordinary legacy. You can contact him at john@garagegymlife.net .

About the author

John Greaves III is a writer based in North Georgia with nearly two decades of experience in training at home. A former amateur kickboxing champion, John now competes recreationally in powerlifting. He takes a physical culture approach to training; believing that strength and health need not be mutually exclusive. In addition to his nonfiction work, John has written two fiction books, A Different Kind of Giant and A Little Lesson in Manners that are available on Amazon.com.