The Big 21 (Part 2)
by Steven M. Ledbetter
8 minute read
For the month of June, I wanted to give the Big 21 an honest shot. So I didn’t care about weight gain or performance in any other area but O lifting. I ate whatever my body told me to eat (this is a fine distinction from eating what ever you want), slept as much as I could, and stopped doing pull ups and handstands when I walked past my pull up bar. I also kept a journal of my time on the Big 21, and as a sport psych guy, I was most interested in what would go through my head during the month of June. We call these “self-talk journals” in the biz. I took a lot of notes, but here are the highlights.
“This is easy. I should have made my goals higher.”
“I seriously think I should try for 225lb clean after this is over.”
“I’m not even that hungry.”
As you can see, the first week was pretty easy. I mean, I was feeling it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Dan had warned me I would think like this. But by the end of the first week, the biological side effects were starting to kick in. I was getting hungrier on my workout days. I was sleeping harder. And most telling for me, I was starting to feel pretty…frisky. I know that seems like a weird thing, but after doing this training thing for a few years, I have determined my biggest indicator that I have my life (training, diet, sleep, work, play) “dialed in” is the strength of my libido. I talked about this with Joe Lightfoot and he agreed with me that libido might be one of the truest indicators of health because it’s the first thing your body dials back when it needs to focus on other health issues. And by the end of workout three, I was very dialed in.
“I need to eat more.”
“I’m in PR country.”
“It’s just one.”
By Workout 5, I was starting to hit previously held personal records and the volume was starting to really add up. The place I noticed it most was on the last set of 5 in the clean and jerk. After performing these reps, I would put 5 more pounds on the bar and cheerfully exclaim, “I just have to do one rep!” This became my mantra in Weeks 2-3. It proved to be a powerful thought and it is pretty obvious to me that the workout is designed that way for a reason. After doing 3 sets of 5, doing six singles seems like cake. And even though it’s more weight, those little 2.5lbers are so small as to be adorable. “Of course you’ll make that lift!” The effect of all that volume was also starting to show on my body. I was looking downright beefy. I flew home to see my parents in Week 2 and they were stunned. It wasn’t new muscle yet, it was just “pump” from the increase in volume and load, but I was definitely way beefier. I was also even hungrier and even hornier. Mentally though, the workouts were beginning to fry me. I was listening to heavy music before the workout to get pumped up and focused. I even listened to the same song after every workout to bring me back down into reality. On Workout 6, I set 3 new PRs. All signs were good that I was going to hit my goals, but it took me nearly 6 hours to recover mentally from that workout. My head was in a serious fog and I was unable to do almost anything technical or difficult. I even had trouble driving.
“Crap. I missed.”
“Crap. I need to get some more recovery in.”
“Crap. I need to eat more than I want to.”
In Workout 7, I started to miss lifts in the snatch and clean and jerk. I didn’t go into a full on panic or anything, but it definitely got into my head. My newfound doubt was even more obvious because my confidence was still really high on the press. So my workouts started to divide into two parts: the presses that I would do without thinking, and the quicklifts that I would start to overanalyze. Thinking too much is the bane of a ballistic movement and by Workout 8, I was starting to think some really dark thoughts. I missed lifts I had made earlier in the program and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the increase in volume combined with the threat of failure was existential for me. I thought some really crazy things when I was resting. Mean things about people in the gym with me. Aggressive, hurtful things. Looking back I know that most of it was displaced fear. Fear of the bar, fear of missing again, fear that I’d wasted these weeks. But I was unable to channel this fear into performance like truly excellent athletes do. After Workout 8, I looked over my logs and decided that I had really neglected my recovery. I was just not eating enough. I was working out slightly dehydrated. I was short on sleep and the travel between Week 2-3 was taking a toll. My appetite was down (a terrible sign on a heavy program) and my libido had leveled off. So before Workout 9, I went into a small panic with a trip to the spa, way too many naps, way too much food and water, and way too much worrying. Obviously, none of it worked. I easily made my goal of a bodyweight press, but I melted down on the quicklifts. I didn’t even make the snatches I had made in Workout 6 and I missed my goal jerk after struggling for two attempts with the goal clean.
What I Learned
Dan John told me that the Big 21 was not a beginner’s program and after a bit less than 64,125lbs I learned that the hard way. My goals in the snatch and clean and jerk were far too ambitious. I was extremely happy making the bodyweight press, but of the three lifts I was performing, that was the simplest and the one with which I have the most experience. With only 3 months of experience in the quicklifts, I still have bar fear. I hoped the Big 21 would cure that, but the only cure for bar fear is more time under the bar, not more load on the bar.
I learned that my body really likes Olympic lifting. I have never felt better, happier, and more fulfilled on a training program that I did in Week 2 on the Big 21. My body likes heavy. My brain likes the focus on mastery. My life fits in well with this type of training.
I learned how much of your life you have to engineer around a heavy training program. And frankly, no one in my life had very much sympathy for my lack of energy after a workout or particularly cared about what I was doing. And why would they? My goals are completely arbitrary to them. I’m not saving babies; I’m picking up heavy things.
I also learned first-hand the impact of self-talk. My shortfalls on the Big 21 will help me relate to clients and athletes in a way that wasn’t possible before June. In the end, I think that these insights will be the most valuable to me personally. It’s a rare training program that makes you a better coach for others.
Back to Even Easier Strength. If you are seeing gains on 90 minutes of weekly training why would you stop! After my experience with the Big 21, I have adjusted the timeframe for my strength goals, but that is all. My goal now is to try the Big 21 again in the Fall and simply do it right: never miss a rep. I’ll know more about how to set the right goals in advance and hopefully I’ll have some better self-talk strategies. I’ll know more about diet and recovery and I’ll have another 12 weeks of greasing the groove on the movement patterns.
But If I’m going to take away one lesson from the Big 21, it’s the importance of inevitability. The Big 21 looks inevitable on paper. You just make the lifts, and then you PR. It feels inevitable in the gym because the weight nudges upward and after all, “it’s just one!” This structure is very valuable because it forces confidence amongst the chaos of training options. I’ll be writing a separate article on this concept in the future, but after months of lifting “how I feel,” it felt really nice to be told exactly what to do for 9 workouts.