The Year One Challenge for Men: Workout Spreadsheet

Note: This page has been updated for BLS 2.1. The original 2.0 page is here.

If you have ever tried working out in the gym to get more muscular you have probably been bewildered and overwhelmed by the conflicting and contradictory information in magazines and books on bodybuilding. Popular magazines don't help either. They have models on their covers with perfectly chiseled bodies, but the advice inside is usually written by overweight journalists who are too busy to go to the gym.

So it was a refreshing change to find an audio book by Michael Matthews called "Bigger Leaner Stronger". He systematically debunks a whole load of bodybuilding BS, and explains that it really is possible to get bigger without getting fatter, and it is possible to get leaner without losing muscle. Three seemingly contradictory goals, but a means to achieve them.

Click here to go directly to the spreadsheet part

What's the Catch?

In a nutshell, you are going to have to put in a lot of effort and discipline. You can't just rush out and buy a few supplements and expect an overnight transformation. In my case it took over a year just to get strong enough to even think of starting the program. Why? Because I am 54 years old and have a much-less-than-average muscle strength. In fact not much muscle to speak of. I never have. I was an under-performer at school sports, and apart from managing to swim lengths in the gym pool, I haven't ever been able to manage any of the common sports, like running, cycling, soccer, cricket, etc. They have just been beyond me.

In August 2013 I joined my local gym and hired a personal trainer to help me once a week. My goal was to learn how to do the "Big 3" exercises: Squats, Bench Press, and Deadlift. Even the Hardgainer FAQ agrees on this point. Flippie van Schalkwyk was an experienced personal trainer, but he still battled to get a sporting klutz like me to do the exercises properly. It took over a year for me to get my muscles strong enough to do a passable version of each exercise. I was managing about 50% of my body weight, which is about average for a beginner.

Bench Press 70kg May 2015

Flippie stopped personal training in January 2015, and Kirk Wentworth took over. I also decided to train twice a week, supervised on Fridays and unsupervised on Mondays. This increased the volume of my training, and meant that I could make faster gains. My Bench Press got to 80% of my body weight, and Deadlift to 100% body weight. Squats lagged behind a bit at 75%, but still a big improvement over 4 months.

Deadlift 80kg April 2015

Watch What You Eat

Also, you are going to have to change your diet. I took the advice of various writers and reduced my sugar intake almost completely, and carbohydrate intake to around 20% of my daily meals. That means that I significantly increased my protein consumption. I feel much better for it: sugar and processed carbs make me tired and continuously hungry, and junk food in general is not neither healthy or nutritious. I can't remember the last time I had a coke or a big Mac. I shudder to think of all the damage I did to myself over the years by eating rubbish.

So I'm not advocating the Banting, LCHF or Paleo diets, but I you will need to eat "whole" food: if you can recognise what animal it came from, or you can see the shape of the vegetable, then its probably OK. Avoid processed foods of all kinds, including fizzy drinks, liquefied fruit drinks, and all "convenience" stuff that doesn't require refrigeration and comes in a plastic wrapper. You get the idea. If it contains carbohydrates then get the low-GI version, or skip it altogether. So I eat muesli, yoghurt, eggs, bacon, avocado, vegetables, meat, fish, chicken, cheese, and small amounts of milk in my morning decaf coffee. If I eat bread it is in small amounts, such as brown bread and no more than 2 slices. If I have a sandwich for lunch then I'll find one with at least the same amount of protein as carbs.

Michael Matthews thinks I'm crazy and says that I can eat a lot more carbs than I do, but he too says avoid processed forms of food, and eat whole food. He has published several recipe books with good eating ideas. But I don't live in the USA, so many of the recipes use ingredients I can't get or haven't ever heard of.

For the "bulking" phase (you have to start with this if you don't have much muscle to begin with) Mike recommends 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day (that's 2.2g of protein per kg per day). He also recommends 2g of carbs per pound, and 0.4g of fat per pound. But bear in mind those carbs aren't cheap junk food carbs, but derived from real food that hasn't been processed to death. Similarly, the protein comes from meat, fish, chicken and eggs, with only a small proportion from shakes or powders. He rightly points out that most bodybuilding supplements are a waste of time and money, but does suggest 5g Creatine Monohydrate daily, plus some protein powder. I also use Glutamine on my exercise days, because it reduces muscle soreness quite significantly for me.

When I started The Year One Challenge exercises I changed from 2 days a week to a 4 day-a-week program (done over 3 days), so that I end up doing a different day every Friday when I meet with Kirk, so he can supervise my exercises and point out mistakes or bad form. That's quite a jump, and represents about 5 hours per week in the gym. Quite a change from 1 hour, but it has been a gradual progression, not some heroic leap. Slow and steady is best when it comes to gym work. Two years later I am doing 3 days a week, on a Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, using the BLS 4Day program.

What Do You Need?

First and foremost you need access to a gym or exercise area with free weights and the racks needed for Bench Press, Incline Bench Press and so on. Secondly you need to buy and carefully read the book "Bigger Leaner Stronger" Second Edition. Also get "The Year One Challenge for Men", both by Mike Matthews. I bought mine from loot.co.za, but they are available on Amazon and many other book sites. I also recommend the audiobook from Audible.com, and the narrator is quite inspiring.

Bigger Leaner Stronger Second Edition

An optional extra: I bought some "fractional weights", namely four 1kg plates and two 0.5kg plates that fit an Olympic size barbell. This allows me the flexibility of choosing any desired weight, not just multiples of 5kg, which is what my local gym can offer. I use these small weights to progress in smaller increments where bigger increments simply aren't possible for me, or may cause injury. They are a bit of a schlep to carry around, so if you are going up in 5 kg increments, don't be a dumb hero: rather be cautious and stay injury free. The gym is already full of dumb heroes.

I also have some straps for Deadlifts (so I don't drop the bar) and some weightlifting gloves for lifting cold steel bars in cold weather.

My 1kg and 0.5kg Fractional Weights

If you have an Android smart phone, get WPS (Kingsoft) Office from the Play Store, or use any app that can display and edit Excel files, and DropBox. Then you can download my workout spreadsheet and use it to know what exercises to do and record your weight and reps. I found it was too clunky carrying the Year One Challenge book around.

A word about the one-rep maximum (1RM) calculation: I have used the well known Epley Formula that is explained in Wikipedia. I have tweaked it a bit, especially where the rep range deviates from 4-6 to the 10-12 rep range. I have done this to make the numbers a bit more realistic and practical.

Strength Week

In Bigger Leaner Stronger 2.1 Mike introduced the notion of a Strength Week:

As you know, one of your primary goals as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger, and particularly on the big compound movements.

That’s why the core of the Bigger Leaner Stronger program, as laid out earlier, is a hybrid between traditional strength training and traditional “bodybuilding” workouts.

The program combines the compound lifting found in strength programs that builds a foundation of strength and size and the isolation work found in bodybuilding workouts that helps develop smaller muscles that contribute to overall proportions and aesthetics.

Out of these two elements, however, the former (heavy compound lifting) is far more important than the latter (doing isolation work) for reaching your goals. The bottom line is the majority of your progress with your physique is going to come from your progress in your squatting, deadlifting, and bench and overhead pressing.

That’s why I recommend that you make every fourth training week on the program a “Strength Week.” That is, for every three weeks of “normal” workouts, you do one Strength Week.

In this week, you will follow a more traditional strength training layout, which has you perform the same exercises several times in the week but has you do fewer sets each workout.

The purpose of the Strength Week is to give you more practice doing the key exercises (the more you do them, the better you get) and help you get stronger faster.

There are two layouts for this week that you will alternate between:

STRENGTH WEEK A
DAY 1
Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

DAY 2
Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Flat Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

DAY 3
Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets


STRENGTH WEEK B
DAY 1
Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Flat Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

DAY 2 Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

DAY 3
Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Flat Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets
Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Those familiar with strength training will immediately recognize these as basic routines from the popular program Starting Strength.

Some points on how to do your Strength Weeks properly:
  • As you can see, Workout A emphasizes military pressing whereas Workout B emphasizes bench pressing. Alternate between these workouts for your Strength Weeks (A, B, A, B, etc.).
  • As mentioned earlier, make every fourth training week a Strength Week. I say fourth training week because this doesn’t include rest or deload weeks. Here’s how most people like to do it:
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    1 Rest/Deload week
    Repeat
    As you can see, this setup has you train for eight weeks, take a week to rest and recover, train for eight weeks, rest and recover, and so forth.
  • If you normally rest/deload every eight weeks but, for whatever reason, need to do it early--let’s say after six weeks of training--just start your next training cycle anew, like this:
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    2 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Rest/Deload week
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    1 Rest/Deload week
    And so on.
  • If you find that you generally need to rest/deload more frequently than every eight weeks, just follow the pattern of three normal weeks followed by one Strength Week.
    For example, if you need to rest/deload every six weeks, here’s how it would look: 3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    2 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Rest/Deload week
    1 week of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    1 Rest/Deload week
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    2 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Rest/Deload week
    And so on.
  • If you’re able to go longer than eight weeks before needing a rest/deload week, follow the 3:1 ratio between normal and Strength weeks until you need to take a break. Then start anew. Like this:
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (A)
    1 Rest/Deload week
    3 weeks of normal workouts
    1 Strength Week (B)
    And so forth.
    (Remember that regardless of your rest/deload schedule, you never do the same Strength Week twice in a row—you always alternate between A and B.)
  • I recommend that you rest at least one day in between your Strength Week workouts. Many people like to train on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
  • Your Strength Week working sets should be done with the same weight as your working sets in your normal workouts. For example, if, in your last back workout, you deadlifted 225 pounds for sets of 5, 4, and 4 reps, you use 225 pounds for your deadlifts on your Strength Week.
  • You progress in your strength workouts in the same way as your normal workouts–once you get six reps, add five to ten pounds to the bar and continue working with that weight.
  • Rest the normal three to four minutes in between sets.
  • You can continue doing cardio (or not) as usual.
That’s it for the Strength Week.
For the purposes of simplicity, the spreadsheets assume 3 weeks of normal workouts, followed in week 4 and week 8 by stength week, and then week 9 is the rest week.

Donn in July 2015

Using the BLS Spreadsheet

Example Spreadsheet Day 1

Download my free BLS Exercise Spreadsheet (See below) and put it on your phone using Dropbox. Each spreadsheet is a 9 week phase of the challenge. Don't waste your time by downloading it if you don't already have the books. You won't know how the program works, and so you'll be wasting your time.

Fill in the date of your workout (A), and once you have set up the equipment for the first warm up exercise, the time you started (B). Now do the first 4 warm-up sets, noting the weights you used (C) and the reps you did (D). When you do this the first time the Weight column (E) will be empty. Put the weight of your best effort with that exercise in the Used column (F) and Excel will use that as your 1RM and calculate the weights needed for the warm-up routines and the weight range (E) for your working sets.

In the screen shot shown my 1RM is 48kg, so my warm-ups should be 20, 30 and 35 kg, and my working set range is 38 to 41kg (or more). As you can see I managed 2 sets with 40kg, and then managed only 4 reps (with a spotter) on 40kg. Next time I will start at 40 and see how many reps I can manage. Once I can manage 3 sets of 6 reps, then I will try going up to 45kg for 4 or more reps. You can keep increasing the weights while you find your actual 1RM, and then progress more slowly at the limits of what you can do. With the fractional plates I can now start at 42 kg and go up in 2kg increments, progressing week by week as I can. Slow and steady, but no injuries.

If the warm-up sets take longer than planned, adjust the time to start your working set by adding a minute or two (H). Also, if you are moving from one exercise to another and are delayed, add in the delay time in minutes in column I in the green square.

The actual reps you do are recorded in (G) and the weights you used in (F). On some of the big compound exercises I increase the time between sets (I) from 4 to 5 minutes.

At the bottom of each page there is a progress chart for 2 of the "main" exercises for the day. For week 1 for Bench press I have recorded my best 1RM (J). Strength week results are shown in purple (K) and are done on a separate sheet in the spreadsheet.

While you are doing your workout you just need to focus on the time of the next set, the weight used and the reps performed. Once your workout is done, record the results in The Year One Challenge book, or print out the completed page. The spreadsheet isn't a database, so it can't keep a history of what you actually did. In a few months time you'll want to go back and look at how you progressed to where you are now.

Year One Challenge Workbook filled in

I have allowed 4 minutes between working sets. Mike says 3-4 minutes, so the balance of the 4 minutes is the time it takes to actually perform the set. If you stick to the times given then your workout will take just over an hour. I use the time on my wristwatch so I don't have to fiddle with my phone between sets. There is an Android app called ClockSync that will show you accurate time, which you can then use to make sure your wristwatch and phone are both giving accurate time.

Remember to do warm-down stretches when you are done. I also do some additional warm-up exercises, consisting mostly of treadmill, dynamic stretches and pushups. It takes about 15 minutes and it is worth the extra time, because I know I'm not going to try to use muscles that aren't warmed up to some extent. It's one of the hazards of getting old.

The spreadsheet is protected with a password so the only fields you can change are the date (A), time (B) and (D), and the Used, Reps and Comments columns. Some of the exercises are performed more than once per week. In that case the column to the right of the 1RM column has the other day's 1RM recorded. Your calculated target weights are based on the higher of the two 1RM figures: no point in going backwards.

The numbers I have used are all in kg, but the formulae work equally well with pounds, so if you go to a gym in the USA that uses lb weights, just use lbs where I have used kg. If you would prefer to use a copy of my current working spreadsheet (as opposed to an empty one) then you can find my current one here. This will change as I progress through each phase. Note: I am using the 4 day program, not the 5 day program, for scheduling reasons.

Once you return from the gym, record the numbers in The Year One Challenge training diary. It is good to keep a record of your progress. I do this by printing out the current page and inserting it into the workbook. You can go back later and see how far you have come when it feels like you are stuck in a rut. I wish I had started recording my exercises 4 years ago, but alas. It is also well worth the effort of getting a proper body fat percentage calculation done before and after each phase. Note all your body measurements in the training diary.

Spreadsheet Downloads

Here are the (2.1) spreadsheets for the six 9-week phases of the challenge, using the 5-day program:
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 1 (5 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 2 (5 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 3 (5 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 4 (5 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 5 (5 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 6 (5 day)
Remember to transfer your personal best 1RM into the new spreadsheet at the start of each new phase. You can also use your last recorded weight and reps to calculate it.

Here are the (2.1) spreadsheets for the six 9-week phases of the challenge, using the 4-day program:
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 1 (4 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 2 (4 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 3 (4 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 4 (4 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 5 (4 day)
Excel Spreadsheet fileBLS Phase 6 (4 day)
Note: Errors are entirely mine. Remember to transfer your personal best 1RM into the new spreadsheet at the start of each new phase. You can also use your last recorded weight and reps to calculate it.

Warning: When you change from Phase 1 to Phase 2 you do a lot of work using dumbbells instead of barbells. In my ignorance I assumed that if I had done 50kg Bench press using the barbell that I could do 25kg using dumbbells. Wrong! Dumbbells require a lot more stability from muscles that I didn't even know I had, and I ended up with a repetitive strain injury from overdoing it. Rather drop to a quarter of your barbell weight, not half, and proceed slowly. You don't want the hassles I had. Its not a problem with the program, just my inexperience that caused the injury. Recovery has been slow and painful.

Errors: If you notice any errors in these spreadsheets (I have found several) please leave a comment below so I can fix them. I will do so as soon as possible. Please don't report the errors to Michael Matthews because he will just have to pass them on to me anyway. He gets enough mail already, and he was generous enough to allow me to post these spreadsheets.

Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger

The progress doesn't stop after one year. I have been going to the gym with a personal trainer regularly for nearly 4 years, and only started the BLS challenge after 2 years. Before that I was learning the exercises and getting strong enough to actually do them correctly. The follow-on book to Bigger Leaner Stronger is naturally called Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger and contains some advanced tips for people who are already close to their maximum potential. How do you know what that is? Mike suggests the following minimum requirements: You should be able to do the following four exercises with a 4-6 rep maximum as follows:

  • Squats 175%
  • Deadlift 175%
  • Bench Press 135%
  • Seated Military Press 100% of body weight

For my current weight of 86kg that means I should be able to do a 150kg squat, i.e. 86kg x 1.75. Since I can only currently do 85kg, I have a long way to go. But the point is that I now have a long-term goal to work towards. Once I get closer to those goals, I will start looking at the advice in Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger again.


Another book to read is Muscle Myths: 50 Health & Fitness Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making, also by Michael Matthews. If you've read popular magazines about weight or fitness training, or listened to the "advice" of people at the gym, you need this book to separate the fact from the wishful thinking.

See Also

My Taking up the "Bigger Leaner Stronger" Year One Challenge blog article.

The Bigger Leaner Stronger book page on the Muscle For Life web site.

The Bigger Leaner Stronger audiobook on Audible.

The The Year One Challenge for Men book page on the Muscle For Life web site.

Mike's BLS Second Edition video on YouTube:

The Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger book page on the Muscle For Life web site.



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