Boring but Big is one of the most popular variations of Jim Wendler’s 531 – a strength training programme that has been around for over a decade. You can read more about my experiences with 5/3/1 here.
I’m no personal trainer. Just a regular Dad who is trying to improve physically as well as personally and spiritually.
It’s a struggle. If you’re a Dad and you’ve clicked on to this article, I think I know why…
Want to Build Muscle? Time to Change it Up
Here’s where I think you are: You’ve been training for a while now. You lift weights three to four times a week, do your cardio and conditioning and feel great. But there is one problem.
You want to be bigger.
You want more size across your shoulders, thighs and back. Using a strength based programme like Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 has brought modest gains in muscle, but you want to ramp it up.
The problem is you don’t have time to increase your exercise volume or gym time length. You struggle to fit in 45 minutes three times a week to hit the iron (The reason I know this is because this is me too…)
So here’s what you want: A workout programme that is going to build more muscle in the same amount of time as you currently spend in the gym. In other words, you need a near perfect muscle building lifting programme that is also super efficient…
Before and after photo: After three years of consistency, I’ve seen real gains and an improved physique.
Enter Jim Wendler’s ‘Boring but Big’
Boring but Big (BBB) isn’t a new programme. Instead it’s a variation on his extremely popular and classic training programme 5/3/1 (read about my experiences here).
Like the main protocol, it’s beauty is simplicity:
Do your basic lifts (squat, dead lift, bench press, OH press)
For each lift, drop the weight down and bang out 5 sets of 10 reps.
The weight for the 5 sets of 10 should be around 50% of your 1 Rep Max which is 90% of your actual max (get the book if you’re unsure – seriously, its like $10 or the cost of a week’s gym membership).
For example: You just finished your main lift on the bench. You did 3 x 3 (as you’re in the second week of the cycle). Your training max is 90kg so you rep out at 45kgs for 5 sets of 10.
This is a hard-ass way to train. Think about it: You did 2-3 warm up sets before you got to your heavy sets. You did them and now you’re going into 5 high volume sets. My maths ain’t great but that’s 10 sets of varying intensity.
I guarantee you will have a massive pump and be struggling on your final reps and sets.
Squat and dead lift days are particularly emotional.
Once you’ve finished your main lift sets, go on to your normal assistance. When doing Boring but Big, I like to super-set my assistance exercises as this further increases intensity.
How is this Better than a Traditional Volume Based Approach?
Good question young lifting Dad.
If you’ve read all of my training articles (of course you have), you’ll know that this is how I used to train – High volume, high reps.
I trained that way because that’s what I’d read in bodybuilding magazines: 20 to 30 sets per workout at high intensity with 8-12 reps per set.
6 times a week.
Which is great. If you are hyped out of your eyeballs on performance enhancing drugs.
For the rest of us, it’s just not sustainable. Especially when you factor in family life and actually having a job to go to.
I got pretty burned out and over trained with this approach which was one of the reasons why I switched to Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 in the first place.
When I started out with 5/3/1, I thought: I’m not that bothered about building muscle. I’ll just get as strong as possible and see what happens.
You can probably guess what happened – I did get strong. But I also built a fair bit of muscle too. About 15lbs over the last 20 months.
So why would you do ‘Boring but Big’ if you’re making muscle and strength gains anyway?
Also a good question. And my answer would be ‘Don’t’.
If your training programme is working – you’re making consistent strength and muscle gains, don’t stop. Keep going:
Ride that wave all the way to the beach.
Take that train all the way to the station.
Drive that freeway till you reach the coast.
Ok, so you get the idea.
So Why Would you Do Boring but Big?
As I said above, if your training is working, you don’t need to change it up.
But if you’re stagnating or even just a little bit bored, you need to try something new. I get bored pretty easily so this is like a ‘once every 3 to 6 months’ thing.
You’ll also hit plateaus with 5/3/1 pretty consistently – every 4-5 months in my experience.
So you need something to bust you out of those miry hollows you’re stuck in. Boring but Big is going to shock your body and your central nervous system into growth. It is hard. You’ll be sore.
But get your nutrition and rest right and you’ll grow.
What to Eat while doing Boring But Big: The Meal Plan
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here. Actually Jim Wendler has some pretty solid meal plans in his books.
There’s even a good one that you can get for free. Just be a bit sensible with the portion sizes. Wender’s a big dude. Eating 4 chicken breasts a day might not be the best idea if you are 5ft 4 and 160lbs.
I used to buy into the whole bulk and cut thing. I’d eat loads to try to gain ‘mass’. But it didn’t really work.
So instead I just eat what I would normally eat and maybe up my protein intake a little and snack a little more between meals with protein bars, shakes and beef jerky.
It’s better to increase calories gradually (like an extra 200 per week) to gauge the effect on your body and metabolism.
There are also mass-gaining meal plans in Jim Wendler’s book.
High protein, whole food meals are best for Boring But Big. Leave the designer MRPs at home.
Avoiding Burnout While on Boring But Big
Burnout is like a looming spectre for hard working Dads. If you’re not careful it will sneak up behind you and destroy weeks of your life.
The way to counter this is to not do too much more than normal. By all means increase your workouts to 4 times a week (but not more). Eat a little more. Sleep a little more, lift a little more weight.
If you feel yourself start to get tired or slow/lethargic, take a step back. Have a few days off. Rest, eat, sleep.
Then get back to it.
When I crashed hard, it was because I didn’t listen to my body. I felt awful and exhausted but pushed through regardless.
Don’t be like me.
Other Things to Avoid While Gaining Muscle
1. Getting Fat
If you do bulk and cut, you’ll get fat. (Unless you’re a 1%-er who only puts on lean muscle. In which case I hate you. And also what are you doing reading this article for normal Dads?)
Then you’ll have to spend weeks getting rid of all that blubber, when you could have just been patient. Instead you should have played the margins and made steady gains in muscle size over a consistent but longer period of time.
Keep your cardio and conditioning consistent too. This will ward off any fat gains from the modest increase in calories.
I like to do a mixture of military style training, circuits, sprints, intervals on the bike, longer runs – pretty much anything that isn’t going to lead to intense boredom.
2. Getting Injured
Ignore this at your peril. Serious injury could finish your gym time forever. Less serious injury is going to really spoil the fun. Plus a debilitating injury such as back or knees will adversely affect your family and sex life.
So be sensible. If something hurts – in a bad way – stop doing it. Just today I went out for a run. My ankle felt tight so I came back. I think it’s fine now but that was the sensible thing to do.
Remember that you don’t ‘have to do’ anything. Sometimes I’ll be all like ‘I MUST LIFT THIS WEIGHT OR THE UNIVERSE WILL END’. That’s pretty silly if it’s going to lead to injury.
Whether it’s other people or the little voice in your head, you don’t have to do anything:
You don’t have to dead lift if your back is tight
You don’t have to train intensely despite being exhausted from night feeds/waking
You don’t have to do a double cardio tyre flipping session in 30 degree heat cos your bro said you’re weak
When I do Boring but Big on the dead lift, I do 5 sets of 10 Sumo dead lifts. I don’t have to do conventional and Sumo is kinder for my back at higher reps.
Avoid injury, recover properly and grow.
3. Getting Impatient
GAIN 20LBS OF MUSCLE IN THREE MONTHS!!! Scream the muscle magazine headlines. Except you won’t if you’re over 30, have been training for a while and aren’t on HGH.
20lbs in a year would be astounding. 10lbs in a year would be a result. 5lbs is probably a better and more realistic target.
After all, you’re in this for the long run. And you probably don’t want to be HUGE, just big. Or bigger. And boring.
Getting impatient will lead you to getting fat (see above), injured (see above) and probably demotivated and burned out. Instead do Boring but Big for 4-8 weeks, then switch back to your normal 5/3/1 maintenance phase (or do the beach body version for that beach ready look – send me pics, no DMs though).
Final Thoughts on Boring but Big
I like simple. Simple is good. Easy to understand is good. Foolproof is good.
Boring but Big is all of these things. It is simple, effective and efficient – all of which is important for time pushed ‘Dads Who Lift’.
If you’ve read this and are now interested in Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme, by all means read the free stuff on this site and other places like T-Nation. But if you really want the understanding, buy the book.