Break Through Plateaus with Jim Wendler’s 100 Rep Challenge
A few weeks ago my training was pretty flat. I’d had a period where my life had been disrupted and I hadn’t been able to train consistently. Added to that was a back injury I picked up – not deadlifting – but putting my son in the car. It was around this time that I discovered Jim Wendler’s 100 Rep Challenge.
If you’ve been reading my site for any length of time, you’ll know that I follow Wendler’s 531 protocol. This is a simple strength based system comprising 4 core lifts which get progressively heavier over a 4 week cycle. I’ve had great results with 531. It also fits a busy Dad lifestyle of snatched 30 minute exercise schedules.
Wendler’s statements about the workout being good for rehabbing after injury.
100 Rep Challenge – Simple. But Not Easy
One of the attractive qualities about Jim Wendler’s 531 (read my full review here) is the simplicity. No calculators or fancy apps are needed. I just print off a months worth of workouts using my template sheet (I give this away free in the review) and I’m set. Yes, the weights change every workout but if you have them pre-calculated, it’s easy.
I was laughing recently as I read reviews for the 531 E-Book. One kid had written something along the lines of: ‘This is way too complicated. I’m never going to use such a complex system.’
OK, great. You go back to the GET RIPPED IN 4 WEEKS workouts in the muscle mags while us men train our bodies. He was too limited in his understanding and motivation to Google ‘531 programme template spreadsheet’. 531 is nothing if not outrageously simple.
Even the assistance programmes in Wendler’s book are super simple: Boring but Big and the Triumvirate are easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to remember. But not to do.
The down side is that it can get quite repetitive, especially after 2 years. That’s how long I’ve been doing it.
Hopefully these results of that speak for themselves: All my lifts are up. I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and I haven’t had a single lifting-related injury other than a slight groin strain.
The 100 Rep Challenge is really just a variation on 531. You’ll do two your normal 531 workouts on Day 1 and Day 4. On day 2 and 5, you’ll do the 100 rep challenge workouts. Day 3 and 6 are for conditioning. Wendler advises doing Prowler work (the Prowler is a weighted sled that can be pushed or pulled). Day 7 is a rest day. You’ll need it…
This is where it gets tasty: Day 1 is a lower body 531 workout and Day 2 is a lower body 100 rep challenge workout. 4 & 5 are the same for upper body.
I’m going to let that sink in for a while…
That means the day after you squatted heavy for reps, you’ll be frying your legs again with 100 rep exercises. The same for upper body.
But not easy.
First Impressions of the 100 Rep Challenge
When I started the 100 Rep Challenge I was naive. I’ll admit it. I looked at the 100 rep workouts and thought ‘Pffffft – those won’t be difficult‘.
Oh, how wrong I was.
My first foray into the 100 Rep Challenge shattered my naivety and my pride. I could barely shift the recommended weights and had to rest multiple times to complete the monster sets. The end of the first week I was sore and on the Saturday evening I took a salt bath followed by a cold shower before crawling into bed a broken man.
The 100 rep sessions are sheer brutality. But I should have known that. This isn’t my first encounter with 100 rep workouts.
When I was training in Muay Thai, one of the coaches used to have a favourite ‘finisher’. He’d smile and casually say:
“Do 100 burpees.”
At the end of a 2 hour session when we were all soaked in each others’ sweat, this was like being tortured. I should have remembered: 100 reps of ANYTHING is going to be horrendous.
For simplicity and a bit of a challenge, I used the suggested assistance moves for the workouts. I stuck to 5 sets of 10 unless I was really pushed for time in which case I added in a giant or drop set at the end of the last exercise. This would replace the 5th set but still bring the intensity.
Coming Out the Other Side
Now reaching the end of the programme, I’ve noticed a big difference. My strength and endurance has improved. My mental capacity to push through pain to get the sets done has also been tested.
Like any muscle, your mental toughness needs training and improving. Wendler emphasizes this as being one of the key aims of the 100 rep challenge. It’s hard. You need to push through to complete the workouts.
I’ve also seen an increase in muscle size over the target areas and particularly in my shoulders and arms. I don’t do a lot of direct arm work so suddenly adding in 100 bicep curls once a week has been a shock to my body, triggering new growth.
I’ve also been able to pull some decent reps on the strength days. I’d purposefully dropped my training maxes by 10% to accommodate the increase in volume and to ensure my injury didn’t resurface.
A Word on Conditioning and Cardio
I’m planning to write a longer post on this subject and my approach to conditioning/cardio. Basically, I’ll do a mixture of high intensity and lower endurance work.
I like to go for longer runs, ride my bike and do hill sprints or circuits. Wendler suggests using a Prowler for the conditioning sessions which is great if you have access to one. If not, you’ll need to improvise.
It might be tempting to ditch the conditioning and rest instead. Don’t. It’s as much a part of the challenge as the other workouts. Imagine doing hill sprints on day three after 2 consecutive days of lower body training.
It’s going to hurt.
There is a myth among lifters and gym bros that if you do cardio, all your gains will disappear. This might be true for some, but it’s not the case for me. I can maintain muscle and do longer spells of cardio at the same time. It’s good for your fitness levels, mind and overall health.
The key point is this: don’t take everything you read on a bodybuilding forum as fact. Try things for yourself and see what works. If you want to run, run. If you want to cycle, ride a bike. It’s your body and you don’t have to train it in a certain way just because someone else thinks you should.
The same goes for 5/3/1. It’s not for everyone and I don’t believe EVERYONE should do this particular programme. I do however believe that most Dads would benefit from weight training and strength training in particular. There – I said it.
Nutrition and Supplementation during the Challenge
This is one of the questions I get asked most: What supplements should I be taking? My usual answer is this: none. No one needs supplements. In fact there are plenty of examples of people who have successfully trained their bodies without supplements.
Think about the ancient Greeks: Weight training and fitness has been around a lot longer than whey protein and pre-workout. Which is a good enough reason not to base your nutritional intake around powders that you mix with water and drink.
Nutrition around any training programme should be focused on whole foods. They’re more satisfying and can be easy to prepare if you plan a little and make smart choices.
My supplementation is pretty constant:
Breakfast: Fish oil, multi-vitamins
Post Training: Whey protein shake with water
During the day: Sip weak BCAAs solution
Pre Bed: Vitamin C and Zinc
I’ll also eat a protein bar if I’m traveling a lot with work and can’t store food so easily. Quest bars are my favourite but I’m not fussy.
I’ll buy an 80% whey protein as Isolates can be expensive and I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference when using them. I’m not a competitive physique athlete so counting the carbs and fat in a protein shake isn’t really a priority.
As far as nutrition and food intake, I made no changes to my diet while on the programme. This is inline with Wendler’s own thoughts on nutrition and bulk and cut diets:
“Cutting is for people that don’t have the discipline to eat right the majority of the time.”
My nutrition is based around 4 whole food meals and a pre-bed snack. I’ll cut out carbs for the last meal and always go for balance.
About a year ago I read the Zone Diet by Dr Barry Spears. Although there’s plenty of faddiness in the book, the general principle of eating balanced meals of equal proportions of carbs, fat and protein is a good one. And something I’ve tried to incorporate into my meals – without becoming obsessive.
Jim Wendler actually recommends the Zone Diet as a solid eating plan for his 5/3/1 programme. The Zone is a good balance of nutrients and makes sense over protein or fat-heavy meals. If you want to know more about my nutrition, I wrote about it here. I’ve also got a fat loss meal plan in my free Ebook for when you’ve got a bit extra to lose (link at the bottom of the page).
If you’re a busy Dad – lets face it, none of us are getting less busy – then you’ll want simplicity and ease. That’s what I follow with my diet. I try to make things as easy as possible – for meal prep, planning and supplementation. Less complicated is better when time and energy is limited.
Closing Thoughts and A Free Download
The last six weeks have been challenging. Which is ultimately what I wanted – something to shock me back into the ‘Land of Intensity’ where I train hard through the pain and see results for my efforts.
Although uncomfortable, the 100 rep challenge has been a lot of fun. If you need to shake things up or come back after an injury, it’s definitely worth a shot.
To help you with your own Jim Wendler 100 Rep Challenge, I’ve created a free downloadable training programme template.
Just enter the weights for each of your lifts in the boxes provided, add your assistance and weights for the 100 rep days and you’re good to go. You’ll need to use the power of memory to do the conditioning days as they aren’t marked!!
I like to print mine off so I can write notes about how things have gone for each session.