The Big 21 (Part 1)
by Steven M. Ledbetter
4 minute read
A few months ago one of the trainers in the gym where I play with barbells told me they never saw me work very hard. I would come in with very light warm up, little stretching, no drama, and perform 10 repetitions each of the front or overhead squat, the snatch, and the clean and jerk with about 50-70% of my max. Fifteen minutes after walking in, I would walk out and get on with my life. Once or twice a week I would spice it up with sort of heavy or sort of fast. This trainer was baffled, but it was just Even Easier Strength. She only saw me do 10 reps in 3 lifts. What she missed was that in 3 months, I had performed 600 reptitions of each of those lifts and that I had increased the weight 4 times. I had clearly gotten stronger (if your 5RM goes up, you’re stronger). I hadn’t missed a rep. I hadn’t gotten hurt. And most importantly for me, I had spent less than 90 minutes in the gym per week (I have grad school and a business to run here, people!).
But she was right; I had not worked hard. However, I warned her, “just wait until June.”
One Hard Month (Twice)
One of the key points to Even Easier Strength that a lot of people miss is that it’s not always supposed to be easy. It’s easy for 10 months a year, but twice a year (maybe 3 for beginners and teenagers) you pick a month to go hard for 10 or so workouts. And I mean HARD. When I looked at my calendar, I picked June. And the program I wanted to do was an old O lifting program from Olympic weightlifting coach Joe Mill. The program dates back the 1950’s and Mill recommended doing it twice a year. Dan John calls the program “The Big 21.” It’s 21 reps in 3 lifts. 3 times per week for 3 weeks for a total of 9 days. It’s meant for advanced lifters, which I certainly am not (I learned the O lifts in January), but I wanted to see what this kind of concentrated effort would yield. And more important to me, after 3 months of easy, I wanted HARD. But to pull a line from The Sandman, “the price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.”
Dan sent me the spreadsheet for the Big 21 and I plugged in my goal weights. I weigh a consistent 165lbs and I want to clean and jerk 1.5x my body weight and snatch my body weight by 2013. So I took the difference between that and my current max and divided it into two junks (I’ll be doing Big 21 again in September) to get my end-of-June goals.
Clean & Press: 165lbs
Clean & Jerk: 185lbs
Yes, these are pathetic. And Dan really did his best to hold back the laughter.
But the spreadsheet had no such pity. The total volume of weight I had moved in the 3 months leading to June was 219,000lbs. In the next 3 weeks I would move 64,125lbs. That’s 30% of my 3 month volume in 9 workouts. In roughly 9 total hours.
> > For 3 months I had held back and gone easier than I thought I should. Now I was about to go harder than I ever thought I could. > >
Put some plates on the bar. Squat clean it then press it overhead 5 times. Add 5lbs. Repeat. Add 5lbs. Repeat. Add 5lbs. Do a single. Add 5lbs. Do a single. Add 5lbs. Do a single. Add 5lbs. Do a single. Add 5lbs. Do a single. Add 5lbs. Do a single. That was 21 reps and there’s 45 more pounds on the bar that rep one. And never miss a rep.
Now do the same for the snatch and never miss a rep. Now do the same for the Clean and Jerk and never miss a rep.
That’s Day 1 on the Big 21. Two days later, you come back and add 5lbs to your previous starting weight and do the whole thing again.
On Day 9, there’s 45 more lbs on the bar for your starting weight. By the end of Day 9 there’s 90 more pounds on the bar than when you started. Oh, and never miss a rep.
Look for my experiences on the Big 21 next week!