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When Life Gets Stressful, Turn To Back-up Training Programs

You’re two weeks into a killer training program and everything is going well. Your nutrition plan is dialed in, you are getting eight hours of deep sleep every night, and you are focused and energetic at every workout. You love the feeling of being stronger at each workout and the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing every workout like a winner. The way things are going you have no doubt that you are on track to achieve your training goals for the year. Then all of a sudden something unexpected happens. The harsh realities of life hit you like a snowball in the face. All of a sudden you are only getting five hours of sleep per night and you are stopping by Starbucks so often that their quarterly earnings have doubled on your purchases alone. The training program with which you were making incredible progress is no longer realistic, so you decide to quit working out for a while until the storm of life quiets down. Unfortunately, that time does not arrive for several months. When you finally make it back to training, all of the gains that you had made are gone. Even worse, you are weaker than before you started the last program. If only you had had a back-up plan. 

Training, like anything else in life, requires a back-up plan. When you go on a road trip ideally you will not get any flat tires. However, life is rarely ideal. If and when a flat tire does occur, you want to have a spare so you are not standing on the side of the road with your thumb in the air. 

The problem is that many trainees approach working out with an all-or- nothing attitude. Either you are training with all guns blazing or not at all. Mottos such as “train heavy or go home” or “no pain, no gain” are ingrained in the psyches of many trainees. As a result, many trainees do not think that condensed workouts are not even worth doing. This is far from the truth. In this chapter I am going to use the well-known 5×5-training program as an example of an ideal program and provide some sample back-up options. 

5×5 Program For Strength And Size 

The classic 5×5 program really does not need much of an introduction. I have written about it many times and it is a well-known program for building strength and size. Put briefly, it calls for doing five sets of five repetitions for each exercise. When you can do five reps on all five sets, add five pounds. Here is a sample 5×5 program: 

Monday and Thursday (Upper Body Focus) 

A-1: Incline Dumbbell Press 5×5 

A-2: Barbell Bent-over Row 5×5 

Do A-1 and A-2 back-to-back. In other words, do a set of A-1, wait 90 seconds and then do a set of A-2 and wait 90 seconds. Continue until you have completed all of the sets. 

Tuesday and Saturday (Lower Body Focus) 

A-1 Barbell Back Squat 5×5 

A-2: Barbell Stiff-legged Deadlift 5×5 

Do A-1 and A-2 back-to-back. In other words, do a set of A-1, wait 90 seconds and then do a set of A-2 and wait 90 seconds. Continue until you have completed all of the sets. 

Hanging Leg Raise 3×5 (one-minute breaks between each set) 

While the above 5×5 program is not exactly a brutal program, it can be too much for many trainees when stress is high. Thus when your cortisol levels are surging, switch gears and apply the following: 

5×5: Back Up Program (Option A)

Monday and Thursday (upper body focus)

A-1: One-arm Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 l,r 

A-2: Renegade Dumbbell Row 2×5 

Do A-1 and A-2 back-to-back. In other words, do a set of A-1, wait 90 seconds and then do a set of A-2 and wait 90 seconds. Continue until you have completed all of the sets. 

Why did I pick the One-arm Dumbbell Bench Press and the Renegade Row? In addition to working all of the muscles in the upper body, both of these exercises activate the core tremendously. Thus, in addition to covering the pushing and pulling muscles your core is strengthened in a time-efficient manner. Translation: you do not have to do any additional abdominal work. 

Tuesday and Friday (Lower Body Focus) 

Barbell Deadlift 2×5 (three-minute breaks) 

Only one exercise! Are you crazy? No, but you are if you think that you can get away with training with high-intensity and high-volume when stress is high. Just because a program is very simple in terms of lack of complexity does not mean that it is not effective. In fact one of the main reasons why most trainees fail with programs is due to picking overly complex programs. Enough on that; let’s get back to the deadlift. The standard barbell deadlift is basically a mix of the squat and stiff legged deadlift. While it will not provide as complete a leg workout as doing squats and stiff legged deadlifts, it will get the job done and is the ultimate exercise for the trainee with limited time. In fact if you only have time for one exercise, the barbell deadlift is your weapon of choice. 

This 5×5 back up program can be used in many ways. If you are having a rough week you can replace the 5×5 program with the back-up program completely. If you have a moderate increase in stress, you can replace two of the workouts from the 5×5 program with two of the workouts from the back-up program. For example replace Thursday’s upper body workout with the back-up option and Friday’s leg workout with the deadlift workout from the back-up program. Finally, if you are having a rough day, just replace your scheduled workout with the corresponding workout from Back- up Program A. 

While Back-up Program A is sufficient for many trainees, it may not be enough for those under a higher level of stress. At that point it is time to 

reduce the program even further and become the ultimate minimalist. Check this out: 

5×5 Back-up Program B

Monday and Thursday

One-arm Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 l,r (three-minute breaks)

Barbell Deadlift 2×5 (three-minute breaks) 

Well, it does not get much more basic than this. The One-arm Dumbbell Bench Press takes care of the upper body and the Barbell Deadlift takes care of the lower body. What about a pulling exercise such as pull-ups or bent- over rows? In addition to being a great lower body exercise, the Barbell Deadlift is a pulling exercise as well. Yes this program is not perfect and would not be what I would pick when stress is low. However, worst-case scenario you will maintain strength with this program and more than likely you will make progress. It is much easier to do a bang-up job on a few things than it is with several things. 

Now what do you do if you cannot even find time to get the back-up program B program into play? It is time to find a new job or get a new life. There is no reason why you cannot find time to get two 10-15 minute workouts in per week. If your stress levels are so high that you cannot recover adequately from the above program then you need to re-evaluate your life. Regardless, if you fall in this category take the sets down to one per exercise. Where do you go after that? Check out Tony Little’s Gazelle machine as clearly strength training is not for you. 

Back-up Program For Kettlebell Training (Strength focus) 

Back-up Program A 

Monday and Thursday (upper body focus) 

A-1: One-arm Clean and Military Press 2×5 l,r A-2: Kettlebell Renegade Row 2×5 

Do A-1 and A-2 back-to-back. In other words, do a set of A-1, wait 90 seconds and then do a set of A-2 and wait 90 seconds. Continue until you have completed all of the sets. 

Tuesday and Friday (Lower Body Focus) 

B-1: Double Kettlebell Front Squat 2×5 

B-2: Double Kettlebell Swing 2×5 

Do B-1 and B-2 back-to-back. In other words, do a set of B-1, wait 90 seconds and then do a set of B-2 and wait 90 seconds. Continue until you have completed all of the sets. 

Back-up Program B

Monday and Thursday

Kettlebell Side Press 2×5 l,r (three-minute breaks) Double Kettlebell Swing 2×5 (three-minute breaks)

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