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.
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.
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.
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 5kg 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.
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.
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.For the purposes of simplicity, the spreadsheets assume 3 weeks of normal workouts, followed in week 4 by Strength Week A and week 8 by Strength Week B, and then week 9 is the rest week.
Using the BLS Spreadsheet
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 35kg, 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 42kg 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.
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 push ups. 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.
Right-click on the file name and "Save link as ..." to download the file. 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 5-day program:
Here are the (2.1) spreadsheets for the six 9-week phases of the challenge, using the 4-day program:
Here are the (2.1) spreadsheets for the six 9-week phases of the challenge, using the 3-day program:
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 or email me 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:
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.
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.